In the summer of 1971, I decided to see the part of the U.S. that I had missed, which was most of it. I paid $125 for a 1961 Chevy station wagon. The floor had rusted through, but I pulled the seats out, squeezed a sheet of heavy-gauge steel roofing in through the tailgate, pounded it into shape with a mason’s hammer, then bolted the seats back in. They bounced a bit, but didn’t slide around.
With a ¾ mattress in the back and curtains all around, it seemed comfortable enough sleeping and changing clothes in a space slightly larger than a coffin; I was more elastic then than I am now. There wasn’t much room for luggage except on the floor behind the front seats, so I kept a couple of changes of clothes on one side, and some camping equipment and canned food on the other. Tucking my .45 under the head of the mattress, I drove away to see America.
In lieu of seeking an inspection sticker, I left in the middle of the night, so as to be out of New Hampshire by daylight. Most of a year passed before I returned.
The car ran well, although the gas tank fell off in Tacoma, Wash., and again on the bumpy, unpaved roads of Virginia's Wilderness battlefield. I did have occasional trouble with the shifting linkage, especially between first and second gear, and when it jammed I had to crawl under the car to snap the linkage levers back into neutral. That happened once on railroad tracks in the middle of Wheeling, W.V., but I was long gone before the train rolled by.
The wagon had that indestructible 235-cubic-inch six-cylinder engine, which never overheated in broiling Southern weather. It was just high enough to navigate a concrete ford over a creek when I visited an army buddy in the Ozarks, yet it was low enough and heavy enough to be impervious to the prairie winds that now buffet my van. It climbed the precipitous gravel switchbacks over 12,000-foot Loveland Pass without complaint.
In tumbleweed-strewn Cisco, Utah, I ate at the local diner and post office, where the waitress — in a white uniform — filled my gas tank from a pump by the front door. My fuel gauge didn't work, so I had to watch the odometer and guess. That nearly brought me to grief when I passed a "Last gas for 135 miles" sign without calculating poorer gas mileage on a long, slow increase in elevation.
For a couple of weeks I camped on the Eel River near Garberville, Calif., where an unusual number of people carried sidearms. One misty morning I woke up to see the Rogue River boiling out into the Pacific. Crossing northern Arizona and New Mexico, I picked up Navajo radio announcers chattering away in a breathy, indecipherable chant; the only words I recognized were "Piggly Wiggly."
When I stopped for a quart of oil in rural Arkansas, a bullet-headed station attendant glared at my long hair before drawling "Ha'n't got no oil" (which he pronounced "all"). I pointed to a shelf of 10W30 behind him and asked what that was. Without a blink, he said that was "DIS-play." Since then, I've come to understand exactly how he felt.
It remained a beautiful country, despite the beginnings of strip development and suburban sprawl. Abandoned farmland and deserted old houses hugging new sections of interstate betrayed the price of those corridors, but in the South and West it was comforting to also find innumerable dirt roads surrounded by undeveloped land. Breaks in the interstates brought more relief than frustration as those monotonous highways disgorged traffic back onto state and local roads, where country people still pursued the old life.
By the time this recollection winds up in print, I will have just returned from a shorter but similar jaunt. Things have changed considerably, but I'll save the details for later.
William Marvel lives in South Conway.