Road Trip

After graduating from Staples in June, 400 seniors scattered.

Some stayed in Westport, to work and/or play.  Some got jobs at camps, or internships in New York.  Others went on vacations with their families.

As far as I know, none took a cross-country road trip with a friend.

When I graduated from Staples — back in the day — Bob Powers and I did exactly that.

Me, in my cross-country trip days.

We bought a van for $1,000, and named it “Van.”  We thought we were exceedingly clever.

After a shakedown cruise to the Cape with a crew of friends, Bob and I headed out — by ourselves — for California.  We had no set itinerary, no plan or timetable.  Just ourselves, “Van,” and the open road.

Our very 1st day, in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the water pump blew.  It took a day to get a replacement.

Walking through that tiny town, we made idle conversation with a couple of old ladies.  That night — in our van — we heard a fierce pounding.  It was the women’s husbands.

The old ladies had told them about us.  The men found us — and invited us to their homes for shoo-fly pie and ring bologna.

We slept wherever we could.  In St. Louis we asked around for a cheap spot.  Someone suggested the roof of a dorm at St. Louis University.  Sure enough, we found mattresses there.

The following morning we were awakened by the fierce pealing of bells — directly in our ears.  No one told us it was a Catholic school.  It was Sunday morning, and the bells we had slept next to were calling everyone to church.

Salt Lake City brought a trip to the minor league ballpark.  Bobby Valentine was playing — he had not yet been brought up to the Dodgers — and because he had starred a few years earlier at Stamford’s Rippowam High School, we yelled to him that we were from Fairfield County too.  He came over, chatted with us, and made us feel special.

Las Vegas was eye-opening.  We found a couple of college kids to help us split a motel room 4 ways.  Those were the days before Indians ran casinos — before Atlantic City legalized gambling, even — so we were thrilled to do something truly exotic.  Free alcohol at the slots was an added bonus.

The next day we hiked down the Grand Canyon.  Suddenly, coming up the path toward us, we spotted Staples chemistry teacher Charlie Lawrence.  We stared at him; he stared back.

“Hi, boys!” he said in recognition– and kept up his brisk pace, right past us.

Our van was blue, but you get the idea.

We crossed the desert in the middle of the summer — at midday.  “Van,” of course, had no air conditioning.  We opened the windows — and back door — as wide as we could.  And lived to tell the tale.

We spent plenty of time in California (with a side trip, of course, to Tijuana).  We drove the magnificent Pacific Coast Highway.  Even losing our cameras when “Van” was broken into in San Francisco did not diminish our Golden State experience.

Finally, we sold our van — for a bit more than we’d paid for it.  We used the proceeds to fly home.

When I relate those experiences to current high school students, they don’t even know how to react.  Road trips are an almost unheard-of concept.  The idea of traveling so far, at that age — without cell phones, GPS, bottled water when crossing the desert, and especially without adults — seems incomprehensible.

Invariably, they ask:  “Your parents let you do that?  What were they thinking?”

Bob and I didn’t think about what they were thinking.  We were newly minted high school graduates; we had something we wanted to do, we told them how we wanted to do it, and we did it.

Maybe they were thinking we were ready to explore the world.  Maybe they were thinking we were good kids who had proven ourselves in school, and had earned their trust.  Maybe they thought it would be better for us than staying home to work at Chubby Lane’s or Dairy Queen.

So off we went.  We promised to call every so often.

We did — maybe once a week.

Hey, pay phones were expensive.

And besides, we were on our own.

22 responses to “Road Trip

  1. Ah, yes – the post high school road trip – I have a similar tale to share.

    In 1976, our bicentennial summer, I had just graduated from Staples and had delayed enlisted into the Air Force. I was dating a young gal (Danielle), and had essentially moved into her parents home on Crooked Mile. One day in June, shortly after graduating, she announced to her parents that she wanted to go cross-country with me.

    The look on her fathers face was priceless, but in a day he asked if I was up for it. Within 72 hours, he helped purchase a car (a ’73 Vega), lent me $1,000 and we were out of there.

    We traveled to Boston and stayed with family and saw Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops play the 1812 overture with live cannons in Boston for the 4th of July. Went to Niagria and saw Peter Frampton playing on his wa-wa days later. Crossed over to Canada and back into the US via International Falls, Minnesota, Rt 2. and back roads all the way to Washington, down the entire west coast via Rt. 1 & 101 and visited virtually every National Park in the SW.

    We soon made a game of picking up hitchhikers with no bags, as we would take them to wherever they were going, regaling them of our travels, and asking if they knew of a good place to pitch our tent. 9 times out of 10 they would offer a bed to stay for a day or two.

    Some nights when it was raining, we wouldn’t even bother trying to pitch the tent, but would fold the seats foward, fill the foot wells with this and that, and settle in for a restless night in the back of the car – oh, to be young and flexible!

    13 weeks, 30+ states and numerous encounters later, we arrived back in Westport, and I entered the Air Force a couple of weeks later. But the memories of seeing America as a pair of wide-eyed kids, free to go North, West, South and then East are some of my most treasured memories.

  2. And, oh, BTW Dan – we were neighbors (sort of). We lived at the end of High Point Road (69). Our backyard was used by many as a passage to Staples track and field area to get to and from school.

    • THANKS, Chris. I look forward to many other “06880” readers chiming in with similar stories. I know there are many.

      As for the cut-through to Staples from High Point: they no longer exist. Homeowners have erected all kinds of barriers — besides, everyone has cars, and now drives the long way to school.

  3. Great story, Dan!

    Which Bob Powers? I know of two: one whose mother came from Australia and has a brother named Tim. The other lives in Fairfield with his wife Jennifer and is about five years older than you.

    • This is a 3rd Bob Powers — a Staples classmate of mine, now a physician and medical professor. A great guy (as I’m sure his doppelgangers are as well).

  4. Thanks for the memory trigger, Dan. I did my road trip with my thumb, hitching around Europe for 10 months, without a single call home…but it was the 70’s after all,and letters at the AmEx were the only communication.
    But my son just did a similar, albeit shorter trip and it was the highlight of his life.

  5. During the summer between junior and senior year (1977), I got a one-month bus pass and did my college visits all around the country. I went to Charleston SC, Atlanta GA, a loooong ride to Los Angeles, then San Fran, then Ellensburg WA, through to Chicago, and then back home. Mostly stayed with friends and met some interesting characters along the way.
    When I arrived in LA after 72 hours on the bus, I really needed a shower and a nap, so I went to the hotel across from the bus station and asked if I could get a room for a few hours. They looked at me strangely, and said that they did not have hourly rates… A few days later, someone explained it to me.

    Woog: while I agree that the wild and crazy road trips have mostly disappeared along with hitchhiking, I know a lot of kids today who go off on some pretty good adventures.

    • THANKS, Laz — I love your story!

      I agree that plenty of young people do go off on adventures. Most of them, however, wait until at least a year in college now — and many of them do it around the world (South America and Asia are particularly popular). Cross-country travel seems less intriguing to them today, for some reason. Any thoughts, anyone?

  6. And I can attest to the fact that you and Bob took the time to send postcards during your trip. You sent me a postcard of downtown Lompoc, California (which I remember because we all loved W.C. Fields, and I got a big kick when I received it),

  7. Dennis Jackson

    So cool! We did this in a VW bus in the Summer of ’74. Never exceeded 50 MPH so as not to stress the engine by using more than 37 HP. Got under it about once a week and adjusted the valves just in case, because lunching the exhaust valve on cylinder #3 was all-too-common. Made it home with only one on-the-road repair (distributor timing advance got stuck.) Almost thumbed a diesel down, but was able to fix it myself.

  8. Dan , I can’t add a similar story… but really enjoyed yours and all the others.

  9. I traveled around Europe with my high school roommate for close to 2 weeks immedately after our junior year in boarding school in Rome, Italy, in 1972. We both had just turned 17. First we went to Dubrovnik to get a tan and swim in the Adriatic. We met a college-age girlfriend of mine and her roommate who came from Boston and we four stayed in the private home of the pre-war port commander of Dubrovnik ($5 a night each/double room-breakfast included) and then just my roommate and I went to London , where we stayed in a hotel (not a hostel)that jammed young people like us 6 to a room for $5 a night each(English breakfast included). A well-born British pal of mine named Pip took us out every night to swanky clubs and by day we made sure we saw everything there was to see,traveling by bus or tube.We also bought necessary items like jeans from the South Sea Bubble Company, which we proudly wore one afternoon to a tea Pip invited us to accompany him to on Sloane Square. It was June but the women there were wearing frilly blouses and long velvet skirts. They were outraged at our attire, which became apparent when the hostess introduced us around as “Pip’s American friends, Thing and Thing.” It still makes me crack up thinking of it. I met my parents in New York, as arranged by mail correspondence before our departure. My cheap airline ticket was covered by my father’s employer, the USG and I had a spending budget of $250.I landed in New York with some money still in my pocket, great experiences and even some new clothes.

  10. Toby Watson sent this along:

    Hi Dan,

    Enjoyed reading “Road Trip” on your blog. It brought back memories from long ago. A couple of years after graduation a high school buddy and I drove cross country in my 1953 Ford I had just purchased from my aunt for $100. I was going to San Francisco, dropping him off in Seattle. Seattle is on the way, right?

    We had a fun trip with experiences similar to those you described, often sleeping in the car.

    In San Francisco I got a job for a couple of months selling used cars at Daly City Cheverolet and learned why used car salesmen get such a bad rap.

    I drove back to Connecticut alone, but, again it was a great experience. Stayed in Tucson for a few days working at a service station while my transmission was being repaired.
    Somewhere in Oklahoma I stopped at a diner one evening and got to talking with the owner. He said I could sleep on a bench of one of his booths after he locked up. The next morning he gave me breakfast before I continued. Has something happened to the concept of trust?

    I stopped for gas in Yellville Arkansas and was chatting with the owner of the station. He was sort of a stereotypical guy of the Ozarks. he said he could modify my flathead V-8 if I had a couple of days. I told him I just barely had a enough money to get home on. He showed me his Hudson Hornet (quite the car in its day) and said he had modified it for speed and so it wouldn’t roll on sharp turns. He then asked if I wanted to make a few dollars. I said sure, thinking I could pump gas for a couple of hours. He said he had to make a delivery just across the state line in Missouri, I forget the name of the town. He could not fit everything in his car and if I would put a few things in my car and follow him he would give me the gas plus $20. In 1961 that seemed like a lot. Being either naïve or stupid (maybe both) I quickly said yes and we loaded 4 fairly large boxes into my trunk. I heard what sounded like bottles clinking together, but never asked what was in the boxes. He gave me the address of the gas station we were going to in case we got separated.

    We traveled mostly on winding gravel roads and he had to stop a few times for me to catch up. One time he said that if I noticed he was pulled over with a cop to just keep going and meet him at the gas station. We arrived in Missouri without incident and he gave me the $20 (enough for at least three tanks of gas) and I was on my way. As I was leaving he said that if I was ever down this way again, to let him know. Looking back, I think I know what I was transporting.

    I guess the moral of this is that everyone should drive across the country at least once. I have done it several times. It gives one a sense of the breadth of the country, the quality of its people and how to be self-reliant. And, one never knows what is going to turn up. That’s what makes it fun.

  11. Amazing- a great short story.

  12. Here is a pre-high school road trip. In the summer of ’71, between 8th and 9th grade, Phil Kiester and I took a 5-day bike trip from Westport to Wellfleet on Cape Cod. We were 15 years old, so obviously a car road trip was out. If 5 days on a bike was bad enough, we had just got the bikes the week before, so we did not have time before the trip to build up the calluses on our…well, we were saddle-sore the first day. The first day I had 4 flats and a bent rim, but there was no turning back, since both my parents and Phil’s had already left for the Cape, where both families spent part of the summer. And, like previous stories here, no phones, no cells, no contact with the parents, etc. We camped out along the way with canvas tents we borrowed from the Boy Scouts – not exactly packing light! We got run off the road in RI, had to hitch-hike over the Newport Bridge WITH our bikes, some guy tried to sell us drugs as we were barrelling down a hill in New London, got to ride a 27-speed 3-wheel bicycle at one of our stops, and we made such good time going across MA that we got in a day early. After 39 years, I unfortunately have forgotten some of the stories.

    Yes, people asked my parents “why did you let them do that?”, but to this day I really appreciated the trust they put in us to allow us to do this adventure. The next summer, I was 16 and got a job, then came school, jobs, marriage, etc. and the opportunity to do something like that again was not to be.

    A few years later my brothers John and Rick did one of the month-bus-pass-cross-country trips, and they were even younger than I was when we did our trip! What were my parents thinking?????

  13. Linda Gramatky Smith

    Loved these stories, and I think the kids today whose parents wouldn’t let them go because it is too “dangerous” out there (and it may be) are missing part of Life. I went with two “girls” (17 and 19) in 1963 to Europe, and we didn’t have an itinerary, just a Eurailpass, and we kept expenses really low and had a ball. I remember we would eagerly go to each American Express office in towns to get letters from home (what happened to the letters that went to places we never got to??), our only way of communicating and letting our folks know we were okay.

    Our son and daughter-in-law just returned from ten days in Paris and the surrounding counryside, and when he discussed seeing Chambord cathedral at night lit up by thousands of candles, the enthusiasm in his voice reminded me of some of our special moments 47 years ago. The people we met, the food we ate, the experiences we had, I echo your delight, Dan.

  14. Alec, Justin, Kyle, Bradley

    Hi Dan,
    Just letting you know that the road trip is not unheard-of at Staples. We are about 3 weeks into to our own trip. We’ve gone about 5000 miles so far though Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Chicago, Toronto, Niagara Falls, among other places. We camped though all the national parks and are staying with friends. Once in a lifetime trip. The road-trip is not dead in westport… Thought you might want an update.

    • Awesome news. If you guys are having half the time Bob and I had, you will soar with the eagles I hope you are seeing.

  15. My “road trips” were either by thumb or Greyhound bus. I made it to Denver from Saugatuck by thumb in three rides once. One ride was a van of kids who invited me camping along the way.

  16. I don’t have a good road trip experience to share but I was among the group of friends that made the pre-trip to the Cape with you and Bob in “Van” and I remember it very fondly. Lots of fun memories… piling into Van for a drive-in movie, the trip to Boston… all good stuff, Dan.
    But your trip after was a much better story. Enjoyed it.

  17. Wendy Crowther

    Though not nearly as exciting as some of the road trips described, my best Staples friend, Hilary Dustin (Dusty) and I took two, post graduation, mini-road trips in the summer of 72. We borrowed Dusty’s parent’s station wagon and took one trek up through MA & VT, and crossed the Canadian border (just to set foot in Canada – no passport required). The 2nd trip was up to Acadia, ME via a side trek to Cape Cod. We’d pull into campgrounds along the way and slept in our sleeping bags in the back of the station wagon. We even rigged up little curtains over the windows so that the morning light wouldn’t wake us too early, and so we wouldn’t feel too “exposed.”

    We took these trips in-between working at our summer jobs (cleaning houses – imagine!). These trips were my first trials at “camping.” It set the stage for the amazing camping trips that would follow over the course of my lifetime.

    Dusty and I now live a country apart. She’s in CA and I’m still here. We haven’t seen one another in over 20 years, but we still keep in touch, and remember the Summer of 72.