At 4:30 A.M. the alarm jangled. No need for it though. Win and I were up, and had been for nearly half an hour. This was July 9, 1922. Sunday. Take-off day for high adventure. Sign up time for thirteen months of “pre-college” courses on America.
American geography. A glance at all forty-eight states. For some of the states, a thorough study.
American economics. A work-our-way-for-a-year chance to find out what real labor conditions were all about—hunting for work and often not finding it, difficulties with bosses, threats of being fired.
American history. Personal “on-the-spot” visits to most of the greatest historical areas and landmarks which until now had been mainly just prosaic printed accounts in our study books.
American social studies. A rubbing of elbows, an intimate camaraderie, with men, women, rich, poor, black, white, good, and bad. Northerners, Southerners, Easterners, Westerners.
Our folks, in their Nash, were to give us a send-off lift of exactly one hundred miles. Leaving home at 6:00 A.M., we had a blowout half an hour later. Changing tires initiated us into what would follow regularly throughout our trip. On a dusty dirt road a few miles out of Battle Creek, Michigan we had our good-byes. Now we were on our own for a year.
A car approached on the road behind. As though we had been walking for miles Win and I started swinging down the highway, throwing frequent glances over our shoulders as the car approached. This was to inform the driver we wanted a ride.
“Give him a sweet one,” said Win. Just as the automobile passed, I delivered my most gracious smile. A swirl of dust was the reply.
“They’re forgiven,” I said, “they’re loaded down.” No self-respecting knight of the highway wishes to inconvenience folks by accepting rides which tax the capacity of a car. On our summer hike the previous year we had learned that sooner or later a good ride would come along. Cars with plenty of room, with drivers who wanted company. This was hitchhiking, although the term had not even been coined at the time. Perhaps we helped invent it.
We each had a cotton blanket and poncho wrapped in oil cloth which we carried in our hands. Our canvas backpacks were lettered in black, “Please—a Ride.” In the packs were small pans and dishes for cooking and eating, a two quart aluminum water pail, stationery, one safety razor for the two of us, and a tiny camera. We each had pencil, paper, and notebook, an address book for the two of us, a dozen two cent letter stamps, some penny postcards, and $20 each in cash and traveler’s checks. World War I uniforms served as clothing—the outfits we’d worn as corporals for high school military training. The broad brimmed army style hats provided good shade from the sun.
“Want a ride?” A Model T Ford slowed and slid to a stop. Spinning along toward Kalamazoo we visited with our first auto host, Mr. King. A journey of a thousand miles (or twenty-five thousand) starts with a single ride. Our “College on Wheels” had begun.
Late that afternoon we joined company with a fleet of Selden trucks being driven from the factory to delivery points in Wisconsin. It was long after dark when the forerunners of the fleet pounded into Michigan City, Indiana, and hauled up at the edge of town to wait for the stragglers. Some didn’t pull in. Win and I had been riding separately but soon found each other and went to the city’s tourist camp (see Chapter Three) with a dozen weary men. Sleep soon overtook us all—stretched out under the trucks, in the cabs, or where convenience suited.
It rained that first night out. For a time it was sufficient to crawl under the truck bodies and pull our blankets close around us. But the soft patter turned to a driving, soaking downpour. We huddled together in the cabs till morning.
The trucks traveled slowly and we soon waved them good-bye in order to find a place to cook our breakfast in leisure. “How’s this?” Win asked me, motioning toward a deserted factory lot outside of Valparaiso, Indiana. It was ideal, and the first meal of the trip was prepared. We’d lived pretty largely on Michigan cherries the day before, given us by friends we had stopped briefly to visit in Paw Paw.
It was not necessary to enter Chicago; we’d been there many times before. But the Chicago environs provided us with what was like a preview moving picture of what lay ahead on our 48 state trek.
The major railroads of America—like the spokes on the wheel of a giant twenty-mule-team borax wagon—converge on the windy city. Half a dozen times, while either walking or riding in some car, we had to wait, often for five or ten minutes, while long creaking steam-powered trains of freight cars wheezed across our road, intent on disgorging their mysterious loads into the Chicago markets. Trains of the New York Central, the Wabash, the Pennsylvania, the Illinois Central, the Rock Island, and many more.
As though they were the pages of some luminous Marco Polo travel journal, we devoured the markings on the freight cars as they passed—Soo Line, Santa Fe, Great Northern, Rio Grande Western, Southern Pacific, Monongahela, Union Pacific. They were like travel books in color—red cars, yellow cars, brown, and green, and orange. Large cars for furniture out of Grand Rapids, low black coal vans from West Virginia, ore cars from Minnesota, Pacific Fruit Express cars from Washington State and California. We tingled with excitement at the impact of the information which those cars imparted—told in language of color, origins, or size and shape.
These were not so much freight trains pounding over the road crossings as we waited; they were stirring pageants of the wonders of the USA. They were color previews of our trip.
With fast rides, including one in a luxury Packard Twin Six, we sped westward, through Chicago Heights, Aurora, Joliet. Nearly every ride was bringing something of interest. Outside of Rochelle, Illinois a fellow sprang a hard luck story on us.
“It’s this way,” he said, after he had picked us up. “A family hired me to drive them from Des Moines back east but when I had done the job they refused to pay me. And here I am, returning, almost broke.”
Of course we sympathized. “Tell you what,” he said. “You pay half my expenses to Des Moines and I’ll drive you through.”
Whether or not the story was true the man did appear in hard circumstances. But we had been traveling much faster than our plans called for and were in no hurry to reach Des Moines. Time for diaries and sight-seeing was needed. “Tell you what,” countered Win. “We only want to go to Dixon (Illinois) right now. Got some business there. How will a dollar do?”
It did all right. Just before dusk Win and I bid our friend good luck and headed for the tourist camp in Dixon. At 8:00 P M. after cooking supper we were catching up our diaries.
As we wrote, a girl about fifteen and quite attractive, (almost any girl, we soon discovered, was attractive to us on this trip) wandered over near our campfire. She was a Darling. Literally. That was her name. Eleanor Darling.
“I didn’t get through high school,” she told us. “Mother was sick so much I had to stay home most of the time. Then we moved from place to place so often. I changed schools nearly every year.”
“Eleanor, Eleanor.” A woman’s shrill voice came from a tent off in the semidarkness.
“Oh, she’s seen me,” and the girl rushed away. Later, when everything was still and dark except for the dying campfires of the tourists, Win went over to the watering place for a drink. A girl came up to him, sobbing. It was Eleanor.
“My mother won’t let me talk to you. She says it’s flirting. ” The girl looked up. “I didn’t mean anything. She won’t let me have any boy friends. Do you think I was doing wrong?” Win had no answers for her.
It rained that night, too—a steady downpour—and as there was no shelter we had to take a soaking. Only the ponchos and oilcloth from our skimpy bedrolls provided protection.
The next day brought bright sunshine and a temporary end to the rain. And it brought us our most interesting encounter so far with our travel hosts. For 150 miles, and through parts of two days, we rode with a fellow who had spent much of his life in jail, who was a “hardened criminal,” whatever that means, and yet a man whose opposite characteristics reminded us of a chestnut burr. The burrs on the horse chestnut trees back home had outer jackets as tough as leather but their inner linings were soft as down.
This fellow was dark, surly, yet handsome, with jet black hair. About thirty years old. Starting life as an orphan, it had not taken him long to land in jail, where he had served ten years. He had spent the rest of his life about equally divided at hunting, trapping, soldiering, carpentry. And more jails. He was headed for Wyoming where he was engaged in moonshining. (In 1922, the United States, under prohibition laws, was “dry. “)
All this was one side of his life. But it was not what he talked about most. He told us his ideals concerning marriage and described the girl he hoped to wed. For hours he talked of her and pictured the cozy home they would have.
With our whiskey-runner friend we crossed the Mississippi River at Clinton, Iowa. Win and I were wide-eyed. The last time we’d paid homage to the Father of Waters was at St. Louis, on our train trip to Texas, when I was five and Win was six. I couldn’t even remember that crossing. This was different. We’d studied about the Mississippi in school. Its importance in history. In commerce. In folklore. Realizing that this was the Mississippi gave me goose bumps. But actually it was a bit anticlimactic. From high up on the bridge the river didn’t look all that important in the history of our nation or in the make-up of American economics. Of course what we saw here at Clinton was just a small drop in an enormous flowing bucket.
We would later penetrate nearly to the river’s source, especially to the source of its greatest tributary, the Missouri, in Lewis and Clark country. We would experience its surly grandeur at New Orleans, and at other strategic spots along its mighty course. Years later we would even thrill to the voice of Paul Robeson, in person, singing “Old Man River.” The Mississippi would grow on us.
Out of Clinton we headed into some of the best agricultural sections of Iowa. From the high spots we could see for five miles in all directions. Four things were in view. The first was the road, penciled in a delicate line of gray against the colored floor of the hills and valleys. The other three were the crops. Hay, corn, oats. Oats, corn, hay. For miles around, just those three.
We left the pavement at DeWitt, Iowa and had miles of horrible detour. It had rained all day and the gumbo was fierce. Our traveling friend needed to rest so there was a three hour stop for dinner and a nap in the middle of the afternoon. Then it was on to Cedar Rapids where we pulled into camp at 9:00 P.M. There our trail and that of the whiskey-runner parted, for we would turn north toward Minneapolis.
Three times during the day we had passed or were passed by Eleanor Darling and her family. The second time we stopped for a visit. At first the mother was cool but even she warmed up and, at our third passing, both she and Eleanor gave us friendly waves.
The very next day brought an encounter with another girl, under quite different circumstances. A nineteen-year-old young woman picked us up. She said she was married but had had a spat with her husband. Giving us a ride, then telling him about it, so she felt, would make him jealous. We didn’t wait to find out. We always enjoyed the company of nineteen-year-old girls, but preferred them less conniving.