A Run to the River 1925
My brother and I were probably born with itchy feet. The love for travel which we possessed no doubt came as a natural inheritance from our father. He had traveled by bicycle (New York to Chicago and return, among many other such trips), by foot (twice climbing Pikes Peak), by horse and buggy (in central Michigan), and by steam train (to Mexico and to Colorado). He had covered the country. He is the only person I’ve ever known, for example, who visited San Francisco before the earthquake and fire. Just as the automobile era was dawning, our father collaborated financially with an inventor-genius neighbor of ours who built for us the first horseless carriage in our part of the state. That literally is what it was, with large buggy wheels and a whip socket. That vehicle wasn’t able to make it beyond the village limits. It was some years later that our father bought a Buick Four, with which we sloshed through mud and sand and dust down to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, chewing up seven tires on the 2500 mile trip.
Although he had once lived in the Rockies, had visited Yellowstone Park and California, and had gone swimming in the Pacific Ocean, our father had never encountered the fifth one of those scenic wonders which had lured his two sons on their magic 48-state sojourn.
He had never seen the Grand Canyon, and yearned desperately to do so.
At the close of Winfield’s and my sophomore year at the University of Michigan, in 1925, it was decided that our entire family — with Win and me as guides — would make a western trip by automobile, with Grand Canyon as one of the principal goals.
For me, there was a goal of much greater importance. Since returning from that year-long hike to the 48 states, with its Grand Canyon visit, I had begun a regular correspondence with that 15year-old girl (who was now nearly 18) whose golden blond hair matched the color of the Pacific sands where I met her.
Helen Gibson had now moved, with her family, to Southern California. The Santa Fe mail train and the Michigan Central steamed on the week-long journey across the continent with letters between Ann Arbor, Michigan where I was in college, and Glendora, California where she was finishing high school. Airmail service was born during my sophomore year, which speeded up our letter exchange by two days.
An exchange of letters was fine, but I yearned to study her facial expressions as well as her penmanship. I wanted to see Helen again. My father wanted to see Grand Canyon. My mother wanted to see them both.
The day after Winfield’s and my sophomore year ended, the four of us — the entire Line family — piled into a brand new 1925 Nash and headed west. Seven weeks, and five thousand miles later, traveling by way of the Northwest, we wheeled into Glendora, California.
But during that seven weeks the Gibson family had moved once again. There was no way that Helen and I could communicate during our trip, but she had left word with a neighbor that she’d be spending the summer out near Riverside with her sister and brother-in-law. They were living in an upstairs apartment, the neighbor seemed to remember, in a place called Highland.
Highland, out near Riverside, had probably a dozen places with upstairs apartments. No Helen. “She’s 18 years old. She has beautiful blond hair. You couldn’t miss her,” I pleaded to the occupants of every upstairs apartment in town. No one had ever seen or heard of such a person. I was more than depressed; I was outraged. Next day, while the rest of the family saw some sights on foot and by bus, I went out to Highland and tried all the one-story apartments and houses. The blond hair still completely eluded me. Desperately I wondered if this long journey would end up as just a frustrating game of hide-and-seek. Helen’s straw-blond hair seemed harder to locate than a needle in a strawstack.
I was brought up on maps; had learned how to read one before I’d learned how to read. One of my greatest joys is to gather up a new set of maps and spend a Sunday afternoon surrounded by them as I peruse and study every nuance of their intricate cobwebbed beauty. After that second Highland fling failure I gathered together maps of California, Southern California, and Riverside County and began examining them with the intricacy that a sleuth uses in searching for clues on a ransom note.
First, on one map, a list of places starting with “H.” Harlem Springs, Hector, Helendale (that was intriguing), Hidden Hills, Hidden Springs, Highgrove, Highland, Highland Park, Highland Springs.
Within two minutes, it was easy to discern that, of all the “H’s” on my list, the closest to Riverside (Helen’s neighbor had told me that she was staying close to Riverside) was a place called Highgrove. Within two hours I was out in Highgrove. Blessings for its smallness; only one second story apartment. That was it! Helen’s sister Thelma, who’d been on that Pacific Ocean beach party, at once recognized me, and I recognized her. Helen had a summer job waiting table at the nearby famous Riverside Mission Inn. One hour later she was a waitress no longer. It was the nearest thing to a kidnapping escapade that she or I had ever experienced. We were on our way back to meet my folks.
They liked her, and she liked them. For the remainder of our stay in California she became a part of our family and we enjoyed all the sights together. Helen’s hair was just as blond as I had remembered it. Our interests (we’d explored these throughout dozens of letters) were unbelievably similar, with just enough variations to expand both of our horizons. Having to go back, for the next couple of years, to communicating solely by writing, would be hard. But now we were no longer visual strangers. We had explored each other’s personalities — in reality as well as in writing. It would be hard to say good-bye — except that we both somehow felt it wasn’t a final farewell. On a moon-filled, star-spangled night, at the foot of those steps leading to the Highgrove second story apartment, we parted for another two years. After 1 a.m. that night, in our auto court, I wrote her a letter — the first of several hundred before we would meet again.
A few days later, the Line family arrived at Grand Canyon. It pains me to write this (and I realize now that it was only partially true) but for the first and only time in my life the Grand Canyon, on this visit, was an anticlimax. My heart was somewhere else.
Only one thing, for certain, remains vividly in my memory. Win and I started out at 5 in the morning on a hot August day, ran all the way down Bright Angel Trail to the Colorado River, spent 45 minutes taking a swim and jumping the giant rocks, then ran back up to the South Rim. Time: six hours, round trip. Winfield lost 11 pounds in those six hours; I lost 12. The run also helped ease my feelings of loneliness. Next day, our leg muscles ached as though they had been pounded with mallets. The aching of my leg muscles lasted only two days. The pounding and aching around the muscles of my heart lasted for nearly two years, until Helen and I met again, a long, long ways in the future.
That — with her introduction to Grand Canyon — is her story to tell.