Road trip across the USA in February 1962

Don Lang in 1956 (a few years before this story)

The first part below was written as a continuous entry in a separate book.

Getting a visa to enter the United States was one thing and it seems the most difficult. There loomed another question. Just how, physically does one get several assorted knapsacks? Of personal effects from New Zealand to Philadelphia. The first two ships sailing went respectively to the West Coast and to England, touching at Miami. Why not see some of the country? Why not take a bus trip and consign all the luggage from the first port to its destination? Why indeed? Luggage gets separated and lost.

It was a New Zealander who had been to the United States who said “You would go by train or by bus, and the bus trip would make things more flexible but by far the cheapest and best thing would
be to buy yourself a car and drive yourself and your luggage across.” And so through the rounds of farewells whenever the question came up I mentioned that I was getting a ship to Los Angeles, buying a car and driving to Philadelphia, it always produced a double take. People whose questions had been couched in the form “ I suppose you are flying” were of course the most puzzled, but not alone.

Generally Americans themselves were against the idea automatically against the idea, but New Zealanders and Australians who had lived in America were in favour. From a distance there were a
lot of obstacles. High on the list were snow, mountains and left hand drive. Since weather must be disastrous in the news, New Zealanders have a rather overdrawn picture of an American Winter. Five years after leaving school one still remembers the salient fact that the Rocky Mountains reach to sixty thousand feet and that they are continuous with a chain stretched to the Andes. One is well aware that this does not mean one must drive to twenty thousand feet to cross, but coupled with driving at the end of January an impression of cold persists.

Driving a car on the right hand side of the road when used to driving on the left is obviously a difficult habit to acquire and this began to occupy more of my thoughts as the time approached when it would be required. From choice one would take a car away onto some deserted stretch of country lane and drive up and down until a few days had ingrained the habits needed; or much more important, destroyed the other habits so that driving would no longer be a matter of instance but of thought. I It kept coming unbidden to mind that if one bought a car in Los Angeles and if one got as far as an unfrequented bit of road then the conversion course would have proved unnecessary.

Hawaii is a beautiful state but it was also the first place I had visited with right hand driving and as a pedestrian it emphasized the problems to be tackled. A pedestrian used to traffic in Australia and New Zealand coming to an intersection automatically is listening to the traffic from his right. Traffic from the left does not register. Reaching the edge of the pavement, and aware that there is nothing within twenty yards coming from the right he steps down and glances right to see if he has time to reach the middle of the street before anything arrives. If so he will then turn his head left and check that the rest of the way is clear. By this stage he is normally half the width of a car into the roadway. Even reminding myself several times of this in Honolulu between each intersection I still had several close views of the coats of paint of cars which arrived from my left. Eventually and inevitably I found myself waiting until the whole street was clear before I crossed it.

Vancouver was the next port of call and I tried not to read too much significance into the cold wave just reaching the West Coast to meet us. A cold clear day, colder than any for five years, set off a snowfall on the day before we arrived. Vancouver and its surroundings were very beautiful, and my first purchase on the continent of North America was a pair of ear muffs.

At this stage also I completed the car load by the addition of two Australians both coming to Australia to study who I had first met on board and had later heard of me that I wanted company. Both answered to the name of Bill, and both were going to get off in San Francisco and stay a couple of days at a camp there before proceeding. We agreed to part on Monday and meet again on Friday
at Bakersfield. (inland and south of San Francisco and north of LA). By this stage, equipped with maps we had already seen that the passes were lower into the southern end of California and the weather bureau had sent the first snow for fifteen years to Los Angeles.

In Long Beach more practice as a pedestrian became mixed with first experience as a driver on this continent, trudging from used car lot to used car lot, searching for a station wagon which must be neither old nor expensive, in good condition in every way but showing no signs of having been prettied up for sale. Americans on the ship had told me I must on no account buy what the salesman quoted as a price and that the car to fear most was one which had been driven only two thousand miles in the last five years, by a little old lady who lived in Pasadena and who used to drive
twenty five miles  once a week, at thirty miles an hour. By the end of the day I had cards from ten yards, with some particular cards described briefly and of these I was considering about three. Used car shopping is not possible at night, so I went to see the ship sail without me, in defiance of an expressed intention never to take part in such a tedious business again, unless being on the ship I had no option.

Here I met a Los Angeles doctor who asked about my plans. From a man on the spot his immediate position was most disturbing. He spoke of snow, of freeway driving and of the impossibility of getting a licence. He mentioned the bus service I had considered earlier and when I spoke of buying a car for only about five hundred dollars he sounded as if the bottom had dropped out of his world. He said I could buy one for that but it would need several hundred more spent on it before it was worthy of the trust I would have to give it. Tyres were mentioned, antifreeze, and the first point which was really disturbing came when he mentioned that the radiator  would be old enough to dislike antifreeze and would never have met it. There could be trouble with the thermostat, and finally he suggested that I buy a paper from the east coast and compare prices to see how much more I could spend on my journey if I reserved purchase until I arrived in Philadelphia.

It was the luggage and the people waiting in Philadelphia that decided the issue. One or other might not have. I did have an address to send a telegram to if things went wrong and I could arrange cartage but one dislikes admitting that ones nerves have failed one, and travellers tales about people who got separated from their luggage are just as numerous and painful as the warnings I had received. I went and bought the first station wagon I had been shown. After shopping around it still seemed the best.

The axe fell the next morning when I went to the Insurance Broker recommended to me. Insurance I know is a tricky business and liable to be costly. I was not prepared to be flatly refused. Neither I, nor any of the Jeremiahs had considered it. As I understood it the laws of the State of California forbid other than local firms to touch automobile insurance on local firms too insane for persons whose address is in another state. I got the impression that had I insured it in any portion of the United States before I would be covered. I felt sure that if time had permitted there was some way
round. As things stood they were just sorry but that was the way it was. I was advised that my employers in Philadelphia might be able to include me on their regular insurance if they already owned a vehicle and that it would be best to write to them immediately and ask them to do so. It meant that I would have the question mark for the rest of the trip as to whether I had been insured or not but it seemed the best way out, and that night in Beaconsfield I penned a letter which mentioned

“I have no intention of making a habit of of running down pedestrians but I do not think it to be beyond my capabilities to dispose of one and it seems better to have insurance and not need it than the reverse.”

My present particulars followed ending “single, sober, and otherwise prudent…..” I decided later it was pehaps a mistake to have posted the letter from Las Vegas.

By this stage however the tumult was over. Worry reached a crescendo shortly before this after I missed one turning onto a freeway in Los Angeles , when, following the instructions of one policeman I took another entrance , and was told by a bulldozer driver that if I met another policeman before I met traffic I would collect a large ticket.

The rest of the story is the story of any economical trip across America. We were delighted with the mountains and slightly bored with the plains. In return for bright lights and a floor show in Las Vegas we deposited fourteen cents, one by one, in poker machines. We observed the spirit of speed limits and the tracked dust of those who did not, and on one flat stretch in Texas found ourselves travelling parallel with and slowly dropping behind a freight train (Santa Fe, Rock Island), with about a hundred cars.

Everywhere there were people friendly to strangers. The hazards were in main forgotten early. The thermostat stuck once and there was a bad hour in the desert, due we believe, to a garage attendant who did not put the cap back on the radiator properly. Several snow drifts were considered a very moderate forfeit for the sight of the Grand Canyon and the freezing rain I met by myself much later seemed more of a distraction than dangerous.

It was not until settled at my desk in comfortably assured Pennsylvania that my putative pedestrian would have run risks to life and limb but not to bank balance for the latter parts of my journey.

The entries below were summarized from his diary, and sort of continue from the story above

Saturday Left for Las Vegas, and ran out of water, which took a while to set right. Had a meal and a round of the clubs and one show. Stayed at a motel a bit out of town.

Sunday Through Boulder City and reached Grand Canyon around 5.

Monday Watched sunrise at Grand Canyon, and saw the Painted desert around midday. Also the petrified forest which had not been on the agenda. Drove through to Albuquerque. The question of oil and insurance is still in the air.

Tuesday Left the Rockies and moved into the Great plains. That evening had the car greased and got a few things fixed. Hopefully one of these may turn out to be the oil loss. We were made very
welcome in Texas on account of our politeness.

Wednesday Excellent time for the first stage. Changed a tyre on the turnpike, and had trouble with the oil again. Difficulty getting into Kansas City. One of the Bills travelling with us left here. Slept in
Excelsior Springs.

Thursday Started early. Slow travelling until daylight, and stopped for breakfast.

After arrival in Desmoines they split, and Don went on to Iowa City. Met a couple of friends there and stayed with them.

Friday Up late after a late night talking. I had to get the AAA to start the car. Made good time to Madison with later freezing rain. Met the Wrights, which was as delightful as expected. Listened to
a lecture on Statics and dynamics of evolution and then sat up talking.

Saturday Rose late and after a late breakfast worked up an appetite for late lunch by putting in a new gasket. In the “afternoon” Ian and Margaret and I went to see the Slot tower, returning via the Capitol to dinner and talking.

Sunday After a shower and bath set out for Pennsylvania. From Madison it was easy until Chicago. Made one very bad turn in Chicago and another just off the turnpike in Indiana. Stopped in Elkhart
for the night.

Monday Sleepy. First stop to send a telegram to Mendenhall? A few miles further contemplated sending another to cancel that because the radiator suddenly boiled. Adding water fixed that. On the turnpike eventually changed oil and bought a case of it. Meditated going right on to Philadelphia when the forecast for tomorrow was icy conditions, but driving was not the best, and
after over 400 miles I had a rest. Stayed at Fort Littleton.

Tuesday Waitangi day. Left late, and arrived in Swarthmore after a couple of near misses. My digs are excellent in some features but obviously constitute a room – bathroom and a garage. Had an interesting chat with the landlady and her daughter (Holley and Nancy). They became very good friends indeed. (Jean met them much later).

Wednesday Rising early had a shower and a little chilly exercise changing spark plugs. Next there was trouble over doors and a little trouble over directions. When this was resolved unpacked most of the car, and space is obviously over occupied in the room at Bartol. Talked again to the Websters, Holley and Nancy. Met Dr Pomerantz and others and liked them. The remark about single, sober and prudent has been quoted.

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