COAL #11: A Coast-to-Coast Comet

I’m of the firm belief that driving across the country should be on everyone’s bucket list. Not necessarily the way I did it for the first time – traveling solo on a fairly compressed time schedule and knowing that you need to quickly find a new place to live at your journey’s end – but that’s exactly what I did in the late summer of ’71, driving alone from Morristown, New Jersey to an unknown final destination in southern California, where I would officially enroll at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles in only a few short weeks.

I’ve previously written about the heady mix of freedom and personal mobility that comes with one’s first driver’s license, but even that pales compared to the almost-intoxicating feeling of loading up the car, taking the wheel, and taking off in a general westerly direction. Sure, I had consulted a Rand McNally Road Atlas beforehand, and took a well-thumbed copy with me, along with picking up a series of multi-state road maps along the way, but those converging and diverging red and blue lines convey little of the wonder and excitement that’s part of knowing and yet, not exactly knowing what’s around the next bend.

Roughly the same condition as the one I used. (Source: ebay)


I got an early start from home on my first day on the road. I was so exhilarated by the simple joy of beginning this asphalt adventure that at day’s end, I found that I had clocked 845 miles, much of it trying to block the afternoon sun through my bug-splattered windshield. Stopping only for fuel and a brief mid-day roadside fast-food snack, that night’s stopping point was a TraveLodge motel just over the Indiana border in Marshall, Illinois.

On the first day, I put New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in my rear-view mirror.


No idea why I selected that hospitality brand as my road-trip go-to; perhaps the friendly, comforting image of their smiling sleepy bear logo had some sort of subliminal effect. At any rate, by that evening I was glad to grab a light dinner, briefly consulting the atlas to peruse the next day’s route before retiring…

The second day of my westward excursion found me continuing southwesterly on I-44 through Illinois, just missing the southeast corner of Kansas and crossing into Oklahoma. Repeated sightings of numerous pumpjacks in the distance, as well as the odd herd of cattle visible from the Interstate, reminded me that I had surely left the East Coast far behind. Ending the day’s journey in Oklahoma City, I found that I had covered another 652 miles. Realizing that my sub-1,500-mile total so far was only about halfway to my final destination, I began to appreciate the continent’s vastness, briefly wondering whether I would in fact reach Los Angeles, or whether that city was merely a far-off mirage conjured by the entertainment industry (I’ll leave that for others to ponder).

My second day on the road left Illinois and Missouri behind.


Day Three brought a constantly-changing view out the windshield. The day’s light seemed to take on an ethereal quality, emphasized by the newly beige and brown landscape as I made my way further westward. Additionally, the ever-present Spanish-influenced southwest architecture, whether real or contrived, was more proof that I had truly traveled far from my accustomed surroundings. Yes, the U.S. West was different, I was beginning to realize, as I rolled onward, counting the I-40 West signs along the way. At this evening’s TraveLodge, I counted another 679 miles completed. Now, with nearly 2,200 miles completed, my eventual destination seemed within reach…

The third day was a straight shot through Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, and into New Mexico.


As I left Gallup, even though I knew instinctively that I was nearing the end point of my cross-country odyssey, the days on the road driving solo had begun to take a toll. Sharing the Comet’s interior with those worldly possessions of mine that wouldn’t fit in the trunk, I had even begun to feel a bit claustrophobic. Lowering the top now and then might have helped, except that I worried about the highway-speed security of my cargo under those conditions.

The Comet was performing faultlessly, stopping only for gasoline, mid-day roadside fast food, and the occasional rest stop. The temperature gauge never budged, and the 289’s oil consumption was zero. Reliability, always a good thing, would be even more important during the next, shorter legs of the trip west. Now I was pointed west/southwest from New Mexico, heading for the hamlet of Blythe, California.

Google now correctly shows I-17 as an Interstate. It certainly wasn’t back in 1971.


Though it was mid-September, I was unprepared for the late-summer dry heat of the southwest. Pivoting the vent windows and opening the driver’s-side under-dash vent did little except forcing more warm (ram) air into the passenger compartment, but at least the air was moving. Evenings brought an unexpected but appreciated drop in temperature, making the end of each day’s drive more pleasant.

After a somewhat later morning start, the fifth day on the road took me from Blythe, California to Needles. This stretch turned out to be one of the most desolate, least-populated segments of the entire trip. There were few structures of any kind visible from the then two-lane state highway. Noel Coward famously sang that only “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” and neither were in evidence on this leg of the journey. In fact, the road was essentially empty, except for a couple of vehicles passing in the other direction. Small elevation changes and the occasional sweeping curve provided the only respite from highway hypnosis. As there were no roadside services of any kind, I was glad to have had the presence of mind to buy some snacks and a full tank in Blythe.

The day’s driving totaled less than 100 miles, but they were the most enervating of the entire trip so far. I retired for the night hoping that the following day would end at my as-yet unsecured new living quarters in Los Angeles.

More desert driving until dropping down into greater Los Angeles.


From Needles, I continued west on I-40, then heading mostly southward along I-15, where the traffic volume began to build. As I got closer to the I-10 West, the traffic volume built steadily, and after merging onto the I-10, my average speed decreased dramatically, and I began to understand the incredibly car-intensive nature of SoCal personal travel. Briefly, I considered whether my hoped-for future as an automotive designer might unfortunately help to perpetuate this state of affairs. I quickly banished such thoughts from my mind though, as I needed to stay alert for the first lane-splitting motorcyclists, a phenomenon I’d never encountered back home.

Alert readers will see that the Google map posted above shows the city of Thousand Oaks as its terminus. That’s because I ended up there, driving west and keeping my eyes peeled for the “Los Angeles” exit off the I-10, which had by then merged into the 101. Exiting the Interstate for a fuel stop, I eventually figured out that I had overshot my destination, which was now to my east.

Just a slight detour after six days behind the wheel…


While it’s true that the Comet had proven itself a mostly worthy coast-to-coast companion during most of the trip, all had not gone completely smoothly, as I related in a September 18th letter home: “I registered in the Downtown Los Angeles TraveLodge and intended to make a trip to the college that afternoon, as well as to look for a place to live. But the car developed water pump trouble…a new water pump, antifreeze, and new drive belt was installed at a gas station down the street from the motel, for $50.64.”

To make an even longer story short, I soon found acceptable boarding-house accommodations not too far from the Art Center campus at 5353 West Third Street (the college did not then, and does not now, have its own student housing) and settled in to start my higher-education career…