This chapter in my COAL takes a bit of a break from focusing on a specific car and instead revisits something that I wrote about in the introductory chapter – journeys, and more broadly the transportation that enables them. Oh, there will still be cars, but many other forms of transport as well. In the end, regardless of how you get there, there’s the trip. This is about the trip.
Like many kids of my late 1970s generation, when the 1960s were still a fresh cultural memory, I felt compelled to undertake some kind transformative journey upon the completion of high school. Even if not consciously identified as “transformative”, an 18 year old’s journey beyond the comforts of home and community seemed de rigor. Of course not everyone was in a position to undertake something like this, but among the crowd that I grew up with the urge was strong. Nearly all of my friends loaded up their backpacks and headed out of town shortly after (and some before) high school graduation. Most headed to Europe for a summer of hitchhiking, hosteling, and using the ubiquitous Eurail Pass.
I not only didn’t have the resources to head to Europe, but had something different in mind. I wanted to see my own country before venturing overseas. So I aimed to drive the Fiat across the U.S.
To be clear, I had no particularly burning desire to go to California. Rather, my mission was to simply spend as long a time as I could swing driving and seeing the US at ground level. Zipping around DC and the suburbs in the Fiat had been fun, but what I really wanted was to see open road and what I imagined were vast expanses. I had the idea that being behind the wheel for days at a time would show me something about the country that I otherwise couldn’t experience. Then, as now I believe that travel has more impact when it takes place at a human scale – that can happen behind the wheel, at ground level.
At the same time, I had no desire to do this while walking…and hitchhiking, while exceedingly common for young people at that time, was absolutely not going to pass muster with my parents.
The idea for this trip was hatched at some point the summer before I graduated high school, therefore I had time to plan. That included convincing a pal to take the trip with me, charting a route, and working on acquiring my parents’ permission for the trip. After all, I would be taking their car. I had saved enough money to pay for most of what I expected the trip to cost…and somehow (I’m still not sure why) they had actually agreed to let me head out with my dad’s car for an anticipated two month trip. They probably expected that I’d bail before actually leaving, so sure, why not? Yeah, you can take the car.
Turns out they need not have worried because the trip as planned completely unraveled before the school year ended. Best laid plans and all that.
My traveling companion had to abandon the trip (that’s ok, 42 years later he’s still among my best friends…and over the years we’ve been on some great trips anyway) and my parents announced that they just didn’t feel good about my driving alone all the way to CA and back. I might have disagreed with them, but at the time my response was simply to re-design the trip. Once again, the whole point was simply to go somewhere. Exactly how and exactly where were really secondary concerns.
So rather than driving all the way, I adjusted the trip to take the train for a good part of the way and then rent a car (more about that in a moment) to drive around the middle of the continent and experience those vast open spaces. After that, I’d take a train on to California. Still needing to get back home to do some kind of paying work before college, I’d concede to save time by flying home. This had the added advantage of adding a cross-country plane flight to the adventure; because as much as I love driving, I’m a sucker as well for a long plane ride. (Go ahead, ask me what COVID has made me miss the most.)
Airline deregulation in 1978 was starting to have consumer pay-offs in terms of both lower fare prices and the advent of new low-cost airlines. The summer of 1979 offered budget air travel options the likes of which had not been seen before. Lucky me (or so I thought).
Thus, about 42 years and a week ago from my writing this now, I was dropped off at DC’s Union Station and got on Amtrak to Chicago. I was carrying an external frame backpack (just like the one in this video) full of camping gear, and a camera. I had done a considerable amount of backpacking and camping with friends in high school, so carrying all of that gear really didn’t concern me.
Rail fans here on CC may be distressed to find that despite my love of trains (as part of all things transportation) I have no detailed equipment pictures of and cannot tell you anything specifically about which Amtrak trains I took on this trip. In searching through my pictures from the trip, I find that most of the saved slides are of the inside of trains. Such as this picture of the dining car to Chicago. From when Amtrak still had waiters, table service, and silverware.
As is my habit on trains, I didn’t sleep at all…preferring instead to stay up all night in the dining or lounge cars and watching the dimly lit, mostly silent, platforms at the dozens of short stops at stations all night long.
My plan when not on the train was to stay at youth hostels or the (It’s fun to stay at the) YMCA. I was at the Y in Chicago for a few days doing the typical tourist stuff before boarding Amtrak again for Denver.
In Denver, I was ready for a more free-range form of transport than the train. So I rented a car.
It still amazes me that I was able to pull this off, given that I was barely over 18. But there was some kind of car-renting loophole that I was able to exploit that involved getting a travel agent-provided voucher for the car rental before I left home. I get how that would have helped pay for the thing (I had no credit card in 1979), but not how it would allay what should have been Avis’s concerns about putting a young driver behind the wheel of one of their cars. Nevertheless, I produced my voucher and was duly handed the keys at the rental counter somewhere near Denver’s Union Station.
What I got was a pretty amazing car … at least to me, an 18 year old who had only driven dowdy Cutlases or the altogether different Fiat 128. Again, I’m not sure what possessed the rental folks to hand over a nearly-Trans Am to me. But they did and so began what turns out to be my first truly memorable solo driving adventure.
In Colorado, Wyoming and a little Montana and Utah I found the vast expanses that I was seeking. Places where I could seemingly drive for hours (sometimes at close to triple digit speeds…definitely not something do-able in metro DC, at least not by me) and see just a few other cars and pretty much no development.
I put well over a 1000 miles on that car over the course of a week, camping at KOAs and a few state and National parks. The Tetons, Yellowstone, and (of course) Dinosaur National Monument were highlights.
There was also an obligatory visit to Hell’s Half Acre, WY. Obligatory because this had been the only destination identified by my original travel companion before he bailed.
He had picked it out of the Rand McNally Road Atlas by random one day when we were planning. California…whatever. We were going to see Hell’s Half Acre. Well, now I have. Impressive? You bet.
All things considered, I was lucky to have been able to do all of this in the Firebird versus the Fiat. There was – and is – something just right about gobbling up flat open roads as far as the eye can see in a car native to its surroundings. It wouldn’t have been the same in a Fiat 128, which was suited to a whole different driving experience. Although, with the Fiat I’d not have had to quell the constant voice in my head that told me I was wasting gas by driving with the air conditioning on. On the other hand, I had air conditioning. Yes, as Pontiac said…best year yet.
Vowing to find a way someday to do this all again, I returned the Firebird to Denver, reboarded Amtrak and headed to San Francisco. After a night or two at the Y, I was back on Amtrak again.
This time I headed up the coast to Seattle – via Portland and a few more days in a hostel — to the journey’s next mode of transport.
The Alaska Marine Highway ferry. In those days, the Alaska ferry started in Seattle (versus Bellingham now). I felt that since I was all the way out on the west coast, and this being a journey of discovery, why not discover something else? Alaska would be something else.
And of course, that’s the whole point of a trip like this. I had the time, expenses were low, so…let’s go.
Taking the Alaska ferry from Washington to even very southern Alaska is no minor jaunt. The first leg of the trip to Ketchikan, AK takes nearly 2 days and would probably be deadly boring if not for the absolutely stunning scenery along the entire trip via the so-called Inside Passage. In summer (I was doing this in early July) there’s the added benefit of over 19 hours of daylight per day. This was better than riding the train all night long. Then as now (so I see on their website), many passengers – particularly the young and adventurous – chose to camp on the deck for the trip from the lower 48. (It also now costs a relatively eye-watering $550 for the one way trip from Bellingham to Skagway. I’m guessing that the trip today attracts a somewhat older and wealthier crowd than it did in 1979.)
My objective on this part of the trip was to see just the Southeast Alaska panhandle. After the initial 38 hours or so from Seattle to Ketchikan, the trip makes stops at various Southeast ports (including Juneau) that are generally only accessible by water or air. At each stop on the way to the northernmost point on the trip (Skagway) the ferry does what ferries do – offloading and loading cargo, cars and travelers.
I did the same. At several points I got out for a couple of days to hike and camp in areas near the ferry stops.
Still, the best part was being on the ship, in the almost never-ending daylight.
Seeing things – and going places — that I’d never seen before.
After nearly 2 weeks of ferry travel, I wound up back down in Seattle as the clock began to run out on this trip. Once again, Amtrak took me down the coast, this time to Los Angeles where I was to catch a flight home to DC. That almost didn’t happen due to something I’d mentioned earlier – low cost airlines. In my case, I had purchased a ticket on something called “World Airlines”. Due to deregulation, World had just emerged as a scheduled carrier, and they had a fleet of DC-10s. That would be the same type of plane that the FAA had grounded nationwide earlier in the Summer of 1979 due to serious safety concerns.
Therefore, facing the last leg of my trip, I found myself holding a ticket on an airline that had no airplanes.
Here is where being a kid – one who wasn’t so proud as to refuse being bailed out by his parents – comes in. I hadn’t directly relied on my folks back home for anything on this trip – I think I may have only spoken to them once or twice over the course of the six weeks – but in the end, my dad managed to get me a ticket on some other airline (and eventually a refund on my worthless World ticket) and I got back to DC. I still had nearly half a summer to work as a construction laborer before heading to college.
It was a pretty full summer.
Life, adulthood, and all the rest has conspired to prevent another journey quite as varied and expansive as that from 1979. Still, give me a reason/permission to drive across country – or even (sorry, Amtrak) to take a train long distance – I’d do it in a heartbeat. The sense of independence and “just get up and go…somewhere” introduced by that first trip has stuck with me through the years, and I believe it’s something which would benefit anyone fortunate enough to have such an experience. For me, I like to think that it made it easier to transition to the next stage in my life where 8 to 10 hour road trips became a regular feature. That’s next week.
(Except for the picture of the Fiat 128, and the one of the Newbern, TN train station these are my photos from 1979. Thanks to CC for encouraging me to finally scan some of these old images for viewing without hauling out the slide projector!)
Wow, your photos from 1979 aged far better than anything I took around that time. But then you were probably shooting far superior equipment and 35mm – something I would not graduate to for a few years yet.
A trip that combines train, plane, car and ship is epic. I have combined two of those in one trip, but never 4, let alone 3.
Only once in my life did I ever get a really fun car rental, and I had reserved that one in advance (a Mustang convertible). To get the Firebird as a random car from the rental counter – well done!
Awesome trip. My high school graduation trip with two buddies the next year was a great experience but not nearly as ambitious as yours.
JPC, regarding the quality of his pictures after 42 years, Jeff said they were slides, so they were probably taken on Kodachrome, which was far more archival than other color films. Unlike other films where developing washes away the color dyes where the light has loosened them, Kodachrome was essentially black and white, and the dyes were added during developing; the light had made the film attract the dye. So on regular C41 film even tiny amounts of residual developer can fade the film over time, whereas on Kodachrome any residual developer can make the pictures brighter.
Kodachrome has a really distinct look that I love, but alas it is no longer made.
Craig, you are correct. I chose to shoot only Kodachrome on this trip, roughly a dozen rolls, which I used pre-paid mailers to send back to Kodak in Rochester from wherever I was on the road. The processed slides were then sent by the lab to home in Maryland. It’s funny to think about that in the modern context of digital. I took pictures and had no idea how they’d turned out until after I got home weeks later. I couldn’t wrap my head around that nowadays.
Everything was shot on a Konica TC.
Funny story…one of my kids now attends college in Rochester; a couple of years ago, I was driving around and decided to go see what the Kodak campus – and particularly the processing labs – currently looked like. It was a bulldozed clean slab. Huge. But a slab.
I wanted to say these looked like Kodachrome, but I am not used to seeing that used as late as 1979. I knew it was discontinued at some point, but wasn’t sure when. And I must have skimmed past the part where Jeff described these as slides.
My parents took a number of Kodachrome slides in the mid 60s that are simply gorgeous for their color.
They last made Kodachrome in 2009, and the last roll was processed in 2010, before the last lab able to do it shut down. Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodachrome
Thankfully, film aficionados still have Fuji Velvia 50, but the only was to even approximate Kodachrome these days is digitally. I’ve not yet purchased the color profiles from this project, but I hear the results are as close as one could reasonably expect on digital: https://www.fcvphotography.store/the-kodachrome-project
Please note I am not affiliated with the latter project, I just thought it might be of interest since the subject of Kodachrome came up.
I was sorry to see Kodachrome go away. All of the specialized equipment to process it no longer exists. I’ve got 3 or 4 rolls of Kodachrome 64 stashed away with some other ancient crapola.
You can still process Kodachrome as black and white. There’s just no way to to finish it as color.
Great story Jeff. It’s shocking how giant Kodak was reduced to… whatever it is today. They were set to receive a huge government loan in 2020 to launch themselves as manufacturers of pharmaceutical chemicals notably hydroxychloroquine (ahem). There was some news leakage which caused Kodak stock to jump up followed by an investigation for insider trading.
I really have no idea what the hell Kodak does any more. There is real need to re-establish American manufacturing of pharmaceuticals and their precursors. Fuck all of the “just-in-time” logistics knobs. Viral pandemics will fuck up all of the carefully balanced timetables.
Great article. I still have many good memories of train travel from Oklahoma to Chicago and back to visit the grand parents, both pre and post Amtrak.
Looks like two SDP40F locos on the point of your train.
Good stuff. I had no idea that people pitched their tents on the deck of the ferries to Alaska. Downside: carrying all that stuff around and finding places to store it, which all disappeared many decades ago.
Great memoir. As an avid early traveler (mostly hitchhiking) I can relate to the desire of exploring the country. Having lived in Maryland for some years (before I escaped) I was a bit shocked at how incredibly few folks there had ever been anywhere other than Ocean City. For their whole lives. It’s as if the rest of the country didn’t exist or interest them.
Good for you for taking this trip, and documenting it with high quality Kodachrome slides. That’s the one thing I didn’t do, but then I was totally on my own, and a camera and good film were beyond my means.
Thanks for taking the time to write this up so well here.
You’ve captured that sense in which early travels – and sometimes later ones in the right circumstances – have a vividness in the mind which does not dim. You also convey the way in which one travels quickly, even greedily when young, yet somehow not much is missed in the rush over distance. Or to put that another way, lest it sounded rude: when older, one travels and sees things more slowly, perhaps with more awareness – but whether that is seeing things more deeply or better is not a clear thing at all.
Anyway, great piece, Mr Sun.
Great trip, great tale!
The European equivalent is/was Interrailing, under which students and school leavers could buy international Europe wide rail passes for surprisingly good value numbers. MAny great tales are told…..