Part III

This Is Western America

Chapter 13

Driving West

STRANGE HOW the first experience of any kind sticks in the memory more vividly than a dozen similar later events.


The first date. The first kiss. Succeeding for the first time in riding a bicycle.


In our 62 years of marriage Helen and I have crossed America by car—or at least from California to Michigan—probably a hundred or more times. But the first time we ever made such a trip together, 61 years ago, is still vivid in our memories.


Strange, too, what inconsequential trivia attach themselves to memory's cobwebby strands. Having packed our little Ford until it groaned in protest—I had even included our 50-volume Encyclopedia Britannica—we left Michigan, heading for Southern California. Three episodes stand out on that journey.


Number 1. Near a Midwest suburban town our nostrils scented the "come on" odor of potato chips. There, right by the side of the road, was an actual potato chip factory. We stopped, went in, and came out with the largest sack of those tantalizers that we could ever have dreamed of. They were fresh, they were cracklingly crisp, they were still hot. And by the time that day was ended, they were gone! One by one, or handful by handful, we exhausted the contents of that largest sack we had ever seen.


Number 2. In the Black Hills of South Dakota, an unseasonal blast of winter hit us. "Look," exclaimed Helen as we passed a small lake on the lonely dirt road we were traveling. "Look, that lake is covered with ice." So it was. A thin sparkling frozen coating spread across the surface. Then Helen committed an unladylike, daring act. "You used to tell me how you and your brother every spring swam out in Howell Lake to the layer of ice still there in the middle. Here's your chance to prove that story was true. I dare you to swim in this lake." I had no choice. Also, I had no bathing suit. But faced with a challenge like this, the mere absence of a bathing suit didn't matter; not a soul was within a dozen miles of us. I stripped. I went down to the water's edge. The way to tackle a challenge like that is not to go in slowly, feeling the freezing cold creeping up with each step. NO. Rushing in, breaking the thin ice with each plunge, I crashed into that frozen lake, took half a dozen strokes, then waded back to shore. I rested my case. Ever since, Helen has believed almost every boast I have made.


Number 3. Our little Ford groaned under the weight it was carrying, including that set of encyclopedias. At Jean, Nevada, 30 miles west of Las Vegas, our car apparently rebelled at the volume of knowledge it was transporting westward. With no warning, an axle gave way. THUD. On three wheels we skidded to a stop. Jean, Nevada had a one-man garage. That man was good enough to walk the short distance to our car and assess the damage. Yes, if he had the parts he could make the repairs. Las Vegas was 30 miles away. I was an expert at hitchhiking. Vegas in those days consisted of only one tiny unpaved dusty business street down by the railroad station. Luckily there was a garage; a two-man affair, owner and extra mechanic. Also, luckily, there were some partly dismantled Fords out behind. From one of those came the needed parts. I waited until a car came along willing to carry me and the parts back to Jean. California had been deprived of our presence by only half a day's delay.