“College on Wheels” Winter Session
The good points and bad points of the Los Angeles area were about equally divided, so far as we were concerned. Hollywood was less glamorous than expected. On the other hand, we grew to love Pasadena. Los Angeles’s library, for such a noted city, was mediocre, located in a “store front” sort of building down on one of the main business streets. Pasadena, again in contrast, had such a fine library building we spent days there reading and writing—catching up on our research of the region and on our diary and letters.
A dozen or so friends of ours had moved to Southern California from Michigan.
“Glendale is the finest place to live in the world,” boasted one of these.
“No, it just can’t hold a candle to my city,” argued another friend, who lived in Santa Ana.
On a Sunday afternoon our Glendale friends drove us out to Pomona, named after the goddess of orchards and gardens. The road was narrow and the automobiles, bumper to bumper, had to crawl along because of the heavy congestion.
But the days and nights were delightful. Finding open spaces and orchards to sleep in was never a problem. We absorbed the California sunshine and the bustling excitement of a growing corner of America.
Long Beach, pushed by the oil and tourist boom, was now a city of 90,000 people. It was equipped for tourist pleasure with tennis, croquet, and quoit courts provided in the center of town and a complete boardwalk along the beach. The place was also full of oil promoters who were trying to get Easterners to visit and buy their oil lands. After a night’s sleep on the beach sands we joined one of the excursions to the oil fields, for fun—not to buy. One had only to say “yes” to get a fifty mile ride, a good dinner, and good music, all free. We were taken through some of the richest oil fields in the land.
A letter to our high school friend Vera described one day’s activity: “We were lucky to arrive just in time for the annual Michigan picnic. You remember our high school teacher Marian Mutchler? She and her folks took us—in their fine new Cleveland car—to the picnic. We didn’t count them but there seemed to be thousands of former Michiganders there. We knew scads of them. Two or three insisted on arranging to take us on sight-seeing rides around this area.”
For some days past our attention had been focusing on the Mexican city of Tijuana (spelled Tia Juana in 1923), the Monte Carlo of America. One day, bright and early, we were southward bound. An American gambler picked us up in a Cole 8 and carried us to the Mexican border where we repeated our Canadian boundary experience, but instead of insufficient money it was our attire that barred us here. Two Mexican officers insisted we could not cross the border in our United States army uniforms. It took a lot of talking to finally convince a third official they were only harmless Boy Scout suits. He let us across.
With the American we continued on to Old Town. Upon leaving us he said he would return to the States at midnight, and advised that we go with him. After one look around we agreed it would be a wise thing to do.
A turn about the town resulted in finding a race track, a fort, a jail, and fifty-two saloons. California not only had no saloons in those days, it had no Las Vegas, Nevada to satisfy the lust for gambling. Tijuana had these accommodations by the dozens. We attempted to photograph the fort but the soldiers, seeing our uniforms and perhaps thinking we were spies, rushed out to stop us. Half an hour later we returned with our camera under Win’s hat and not only got a picture of the fort but another picture of the soldiers guarding it. We needed those pictures; this fort, so we thought, marked the farthest point from home that we reached on our trip. When the trip was over and we restudied the wall map at home we found that the Eureka area in northern California was actually the farthest we got from Howell.
Our journeyings in California, up and down and back and forth in the Golden State, took us over more than 3,000 miles of its highways and byways and led us to so many historical or unusual geographic spots that our letters home, and our diaries, overflowed with descriptions of never-ending wonderlands.
San Diego and San Juan Capistrano offered us opportunities to start exploring the California missions and in San Luis Obispo we visited another of these old adobe structures built by the Franciscan friars. It was our good fortune to see most of the twenty or so missions which form a chain, each about a walking day’s distance apart, from the Mexican border to Sonoma above San Francisco Bay.
One bright sunny day the pretty little steamer Avalon took us on the ocean trip to Catalina Island and return.
After spending two days slopping along muddy roads between San Diego and Riverside, we explored Riverside’s historic Mission Inn. Our favorite president, Teddy Roosevelt, had once slept there. To honor his memory, Win and I slept in a vacant lot not two blocks away.
Monterey, one of the state’s oldest cities, became our take-off point for visits to the Carmel Mission, to Pacific Grove and Del Monte, and fine hikes and rides along some of the most picturesque coastline we’d ever come across. The area had enough colorful scenes to fill a drugstore postcard rack.
Around Petaluma we saw some of the enormous flocks of chickens that made that city the egg center of the world. Chickens everywhere. The hillsides were speckled white with them. One man owned a hundred thousand.
In the mountains near Placerville we came to the center of gold dredging operations. Huge dredges, looking like mammoth battleships and capable of cutting a single swath scores of feet wide, were tearing up the land and leaving ruin behind them. Gold dredging was not being carried on with thought for the future. If good vineyard land was found to have sufficient pay dirt under it, the area was bought and dredged, leaving only piles of rock, forty feet high, on which little could grow again.
Ten feet of snow blocked all winter traffic through the passes to Lake Tahoe, so we contented ourselves with a hike through the hills over a rough mountain road to Coloma, where the first gold in California was discovered. Being ravenous for food, not gold, we entered the only place that looked as though it might be a store, and tried to do business with the Dutch proprietor. He kept nothing but tobacco but got us half a dozen eggs and potatoes from his house.
The moon was up before a grassy spot for camp was found on the banks of the American River. Our little fire lit up the night as we enjoyed our meal and talked of the days of the forty-niners.
We passed a night in Chico in the yards of the Diamond Match Company and saw the Chico Oak, largest of its kind in the world, with branches so wide they could provide shade for 7,000 people.
Win and I had crisscrossed, backtracked, retraced our routes, and meandered so extensively throughout California that somev parts of the state became more familiar to us than Michigan, our home. A number of times, on return trips to favorite areas, we would pick up rides with drivers who had carried us on previous visits. Often, on such return sojourns, the places that had served as our “bedroom” on the first visit would be our sleeping place for a second, or even a third, time.
One such deluxe “master bedroom” was a great sawdust pile near a lumber mill not far from Sacramento. On two occasions it had proven to be even more luxurious than a haystack. Naturally, on our third journey through that area, the sawdust pile became our end-of-the-day goal. Soft—even more pliable than a mattress. Form-fitting—it shaped itself to the body contours perfectly. Sweet slumber came fast.
Out of nowhere a sudden gale sprang up. The pile of sawdust sprang up with it. The stuff filled the air—and our eyes and our faces and our blankets. The swirling particles almost buried us. For two days we combed traces of ground wood out of our hair.
In times of strong winds, culverts were more satisfactory than either sawdust or haystacks. One gusty night our sleeping place was beside what we thought was a spur branch of the Southern Pacific. Our thinking was wrong. It was the S.P. ‘s main line, at the foot of a mountain grade. Before morning we knew what the famous Mallet Compound (I guess it is) engines were. They were all ten-wheelers, with a boiler length which scared a person. When they rumbled by it was like a California earthquake. Most trains had two engines but sometime in the night a train with a ten-wheeler on front, middle, and rear wheezed by. Rising from my bed I gazed and heard, and exclaimed, “Win, they’re moving Hell.”
Despite swirling sawdust and rumbling locomotives, California grew on us more and more as we explored nearly every nook and cranny while waiting for spring to come before heading east. This Western empire, so it seemed to us, was not so much a state, as a state of mind. One can get California fever, and we were catching it.
The courses we’d planned to pursue in our “College on Wheels” were history, geography, geology, economics, etc. In California, however, the curriculum was expanding. There had been the lessons in agriculture and horticulture from R.E. Skinner in the Sacramento Valley, augmented by extension courses in these subjects as we learned of more exotic California products throughout the state.
And, quite unexpectedly, there had been half a dozen impromptu seminars in theology. “We’re studying religions,” I wrote in a letter to Vera. “That is, a study of them is being forced upon us. While we were strolling out in the woods near Coloma we met and got to talking with a Seventh Day Adventist and for an hour he explained to us almost every aspect of their beliefs. Last Sunday we heard a Presbyterian evangelist. Up in the mountains we visited ‘Holy City’ and learned something about them. And with going to church many times and hearing about the Mormons in Salt Lake City, we are getting well filled spiritually. How’s your soul coming?”
The Coloma encounter was on the banks of the American River, not a hundred feet from where gold was first discovered.
A man—it turned out he was the local school teacher—had met us by the riverbank and for over an hour introduced us to his beliefs. It was an interesting evening. He pleaded with us to take a book on the subject which he wanted to give us, but our packs just wouldn’t carry any more weight.
In Los Angeles, we were told that Aimee Semple MacPherson’s Angeles Temple had just been completed. We looked up the building and attended a service there.
At one of the California missions we found ourselves, by accident, in a Catholic service, which taught us far more about that form of worship than it had ever been our privilege to know before.
Then there was the one hour “lecture” from the steps of the Pasadena library, conducted by a strange character who resembled a Southern colonel. His “seminar” had a few religious aspects but, of most importance, this man claimed to be an authority on autosuggestion. Win and I had heard a lot about the famous Frenchman, Emil Coue and his equally famous formula: “Every day, and in every way, I am becoming better and better. ” Could this be Coue? We knew he had been giving a series of lectures around the United States.
But no, this library-steps philosopher was a Mr. Berry. “Autosuggestion,” he told us, “is of two kinds, that which is beneficial and that which is harmful. The working of the first is known as an act of God; that of the latter is just the opposite.”
Mr. Berry said that suggestion either through thought or word has the power to affect others but that autosuggestion is the most powerful of all. “Just as you can benefit yourself by autosuggestion so you can, by its power, erect for yourself a mental shield against the thoughts of others. ” He told his library-steps audience that the best time to practice autosuggestion is just before retiring.
Another of Mr. Berry’s theories was that language was for the concealment of thought. Because of this, he sprinkled his lecture with slang.
Californians were bent on introducing us to their varied religions. But there were other Californians—dozens of them—who simply introduced us to the fact that the state was filled with kindhearted people.
Take deputy state forester Williams and his wife as examples. For parts of two days they carried us in their shiny Buick. When at last our paths parted Mrs. Williams went into a hotel and came out with a parting present—a large juicy apple pie. We bumped into Mr. Williams again on the grounds of the capitol building in Sacramento. “Boys, you are in luck,” he said upon greeting us. “The legislature is in session. I can get you seats. You should see our California lawmakers in action.”
First he took us up to the capitol dome for a view of the entire city, then we spent two hours absorbed in legislative debates.
Another example of kindness came from Hal Ayres, vice president and general manager of Acme Ice Cream Company. On a chilly night in the central valley he and his five-year-old son picked us up. The little boy was cold. I sat in front and, swathing him in a blanket, held the little fellow in my arms.
Mr. Ayres was insistent that he put us up in a hotel. “You can’t sleep out on a night like this,” he admonished. Our refusal was polite, yet firm. “All right then. At least I’m going to pay you for taking care of my little boy.” He proceeded to do so, handsomely.
One of our letters to Vera elaborated on this generosity which we were encountering. “We never knew people could be so kind as they are to us on the trip. So many people do kind things for us that it’s impossible to pay them all back, but we are getting the spirit and hope to have a chance to pass some of the kindness on. Tonight a man living alone saw us passing by and asked us in to get warm and have something to eat. Everybody seems kind and interested in each other.”
Spring was approaching. It was time to start thinking about turning eastward. Between bites of an early supper on the roadside out of Chico I voiced my thoughts to Win. “Those deserts out toward Needles and in Arizona are going to get scorching pretty soon. We better head across them before it’s too hot for comfort.”
Win agreed. “You’re right. Let’s just keep on north to Red Bluff, then head south and strike for Arizona.” Packing up the dishes, we started walking. Less than half an hour later, a large Hupmobile braked to a stop beside us. the night in Red Bluff but would then head north to Seattle.
“Boys, if you are on the highway in the morning I’d sure like to have you ride with me up to Washington State.”
“We’d like to,” was Win’s answer, “but I guess we better not.”