Road Trip Journal: 1972 Dodge Polara – Grand Canyon and Pumice-Crete Revisited

(first posted 1/30/2018)         Memories are deeply bound up in smells, sights, touch, and for us at this website, cars. All those senses—and more—were deeply stimulated on a perfect crisp late fall day in 1976 when I drove a ’72 Dodge Polara like this on a memorable first trip to the Grand Canyon after a night in a pumice-crete house. So when I spotted this one sitting beside the highway in a little village in Nevada, it jolted a flood of memories, and I had to stop and refresh them a bit more, as if that was necessary.

My then-girlfriend, her mom Elinor and I all had recently transplanted to San Diego in the summer of 1976. That fall we decided to visit the grandparents, Lester and Rebecca, who lived in Chino Valley, Arizona, a couple hours south of the Grand Canyon. Lester had been an engineer with Anaconda Mining Co. When he retired in the early 1960s, they bought a few acres of scrub desert in Chino Valley, moved in a used trailer and lived in it while Lester designed their future house, which the two of them built totally themselves.

It was built out of pumice-crete, which uses crushed pumice as the aggregate and results in a much lighter product and has four times the insulation value of regular concrete. The Romans were using it 2000 years ago,; the huge dome of the Pantheon would have never been possible for them to build except for the lightness and strength of pumice concrete.

A railroad gondola car full of pumice was ordered from New Mexico, to as close to the site as possible and then it was trucked to their property. The house Lester designed was a one story flat-roofed structure.

not their actual house

They built the wall forms from wood, and Rebecca, well in her 60s, climbed up with a ladder to pour bucketfuls of the mixture made up in a small gas-powered batch mixer. No concrete truck, no pumper, no nothing. Just two retirees doing it all from scratch. It took them a couple of years.

Once the forms are pulled off, pumice-crete looks like this, although the color varies depending on the pumice used. And the lighter the pumice, the greater the insulation value. Pumice-crete houses have become fairly common in the Southwest, due to their many advantages and longevity.

The unique characterizations of pumice-crete stuck with me, and when I added a lover level to one of my moved houses, I went a step further and used large blocks of Rastra Blocks, which are hollow lightweight blocks made of recycled foam pellets and cement. The hollow chambers in the center get rebar and concrete; placed by a pumper, thank you.

The flat roof of Lester’s house was different then typical; it was made from a number of pre-cast wide T-beams of the same material, spanning across the walls, and butted up to each other. They formed and poured these themselves on the ground, and then Lester used a front end bucket on an old tractor to lower them into place, while Rebecca was up there on the ladder guiding them into position. And so forth.

They showed me pictures of the process, including one of Rebecca up on the ladder with a bucket of concrete mix, so for me this is a vivid visual memory. I was hoping to show them to you as well as the finished house. I’m still in touch with my former GF, and she looked for them, but couldn’t find them among what’s left of her mom’s stuff. Too bad. It was a wonderful house to be in; the pumice concrete ceiling had a nice brown nubby texture, as did the outside walls. It was also very comfortable and didn’t cool off in the chill of the high desert fall night. A really well designed and built house. How many retirees today would do such a thing?

The next morning we all set off for the Grand Canyon, in Lester and Rebecca’s base-trim 1972 Dodge Polara, blue and white two-tone, just like this one I found on the web. It looked just like a cop car. Lester was not in the best of health by this time, so someone suggested I drive. Maybe it was me? Always happy to oblige.

I slid in behind the wheel. It felt familiar to me, as it had the same dimensions and feel as Elinor’s 1969 Plymouth Fury, which I had driven on my first high speed dash across the heartland just a couple of years earlier.

The dash was…well, it was a long way (downhill) from what a Polara dash had been in the mid sixties. Dull and cheap.

But who was going to ever look at a dash on a beautiful crisp fall morning out on the Arizona high country? There is nowhere I’d rather drive briskly than across the high deserts of the West. I’m still doing it. And sometime paying for the consequences. But given my passengers and the fact that there was only a 318 under the hood, it was one of the slower drives in that setting. But the newness of the terrain more than made up for that. I was falling in love, deeper and deeper by the mile.

As we got closer, the trees started getting taller. And the sky bluer, as if that were possible.

Back then, one just drove right up to the South Rim; there weren’t more than a couple of dozen cars parked there on this weekday in November. Quite different than nowadays. Needless to say, my first view into that abyss was mind-blowing. It’s a bit like an inverse mountain range; that’s the first words that come to me in a quick way to describe it. I’ll leave it to others with more eloquent words. But one never forgets that first look over the South Rim.

We drove down along the rim a little ways and pulled over at a picnic table.

I got the picnic basket out of that grand canyon of a trunk. Rebecca, in the ways of a woman who had gotten up early every day of her life,  had made and packed it while we were still sleeping in that snug house. And we sat there eating ham sandwiches and pickles, gazing into the Technicolor folds of that ultimate geological layer cake. And we washed it down with coffee from the Aladdin thermos.

We pulled up to their house by late afternoon, and the Dodge crackled a bit as its engine cooled off. The next morning we piled back into Elinor’s little Corolla, which would make some equally indelible memories on a trip to Death Valley just a few weeks later. She had traded her Fury in on it back in Iowa, after horse-trailer duties were no longer required. But the blue and white Polara would soon enough find its way to San Diego too, as Lester’s failing health resulted in them moving in with Elinor. He passed away not too long after. But Rebecca lived to be high into her nineties, and drove the Polara until pretty late in her life. And even after she passed, it sat in Elinor’s driveway, its blue paint fading steadily. It hardly ever got used.

I almost asked her for it, and I’m sure she would have given it to me. But I had no place to keep it in Santa Monica; I was struggling to find places to park my Peugeot 404s. It eventually got hauled to the junkyard in some kind of program California had to incentivize the scrapping of old dirty gas guzzlers. Or something like that.

I haven’t seen a ’72 Polara since. That is, until our recent road trip through the high deserts of Western Nevada and California. Do these big old Mopars have some kind of affinity for that kind of country? They were certainly well suited for it; big, wide cars for big, wide-open spaces. And giant holes in the ground.