Stories from My Life, #8: California or Bust, 7,000 Miles in Ten Days

February 11, 2016 11:49 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Bixby Bridge_9Feb16


In my series, “Stories from My Life,” I have focused on incidents or experiences that are interesting, humorous, or make a philosophical point. This story hopefully falls into the first two categories.

In the summer of 1966, when I was 20 years old, a friend of mine, Neil Shirk, and I did something special: we drove from Pennsylvania to California and back. At the time we were students at Pennsylvania State University; I had just finished my junior year and, in fact, would graduate that December.

Our first step was to find a suitable vehicle to make the trip. To that end, we borrowed my mother’s Chevrolet Corvair (black, stick shift), a 1960 model I think. This vehicle was later referenced in Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, in which he derided Detroit’s penchant for emphasizing comfort over safety in vehicle design. The car had a few problems but, truth be told, was fun to drive. I especially enjoyed winter driving when the rear-engine design made it quite good in snow.

In planning our trip, special attention was paid to cost. We agreed to $100 each. So how, you ask, could we accomplish this mission on so little money? Especially since gasoline was a key expenditure. The Corvair got around 25 MPG. With gas running 32 cents (over 40 in the western mountains) per gallon, this meant that half of our cash went to gasoline. To keep our trip within budget, we decided to pitch a tent at night and eat canned food that we heated over an outdoor fire. We may have stayed in a hotel once or twice. I have no memories of eating in a restaurant, although we must have had occasionally, at least for lunch.

Seven thousand miles in 10 days meant 700 miles per day, which didn’t leave a lot of time for nondriving activities. We took the northern route out and the southern back. Noteworthy stops included the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, the Hoover dam, and the Grand Canyon. A special highlight for me was visiting Universal Studios in the Los Angeles area, where I saw the house used for the movie Psycho. Prior to that, I remember arriving in Monterey, California, and heading south on Route 1. The sign read something like “Curves, next 74 miles.” At the time neither of us appreciated that the views from this highway are among the most beautiful in the world. (Please see above photo of California coastline and iconic Bixby Bridge, some 15 miles south of Monterey.)

Outside of a trip to the emergency room for me, there weren’t any disasters. As I recall, I had woken up in my sleeping bag shivering terribly. Looking back, I think I had a case of hypothermia.

We arrived safely back in Pennsylvania, returning Mom’s car with four nearly bald tires. Little did I know at the time that some six years later I would be moving to the West Coast and working in Monterey.

Upcoming: Stories from my life, #9: The memory is old and faint–am I only imaging that I once stood in the audience of President John F. Kennedy?

Previous: Stories from my life, #7: I pay a price for ignoring my moral compass

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This post was written by paulmarktag