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!)