WHAT? DRIVE TO COLORADO and back over the weekend? It used to take us that long just to get to Denver or Colorado Springs. If you reached there in three days, you were considered a good driver -- and lucky with dry weather, dry roads and no tire troubles. And every year it was a new adventure to drive it.
Our first car and our first trip overland to Colorado came all in the same year. The black Chevrolet, four-door touring car, was purchased over fifty years ago from W. O. Hamilton, who had been former coach and athletic director of K. U. It was the show car at the Automobile Show in Kansas City and it was the model called the "Baby Grand". Fritz Meyn, one of K. U.'s star football players, worked for Mr. Hamilton and he taught us to drive it. The day the car was delivered, we drove the nine miles to Eudora and back. We would stop now and then and practice shifting gears and backing. When we got back to Lawrence, we dropped Fritz off at the garage and were on our own to get home. Our knees shook all the way, but we made it. That night after supper, we took the folks for a drive out in the country. (23rd Street) .
There was a rule in our house that you didn't buy anything unless you had the money to pay cash for it. And that was the way the car was purchased.
Our car was different from any other one in Lawrence. It was truly the forerunner of the closed sedan that came out a year or two later. It had two demountable tops. In summer, you had the canvas top that you could put up or down, with side curtains to be snapped on when a rain storm came up. Other car owners used the side curtains in winter to keep out the cold. But for winter, we had a hard top that was put on in place of the canvas one. It had glass windows all around. It was quite something to sit comfortably on the black leather cushions and let the weather be what it may. Whichever top was not in use, was stored at the Chevrolet garage. As this glassed-in top was an innovation, Father was up for much ribbing from some of his friends, who called the car his "hearse".
Tools for the car were kept under the front seat -- the spare tire was attached on the outside in the back -- no trunk for luggage. Luggage space was provided by collapsible racks fastened on the running boards. No windshield wipers. The windshield was split in the middle so that you could open each part out, and get more breeze that way. In summer, you fought June bugs at night and grasshoppers in the day. There were no heaters. In winter, when we would drive to some friends in the country, or were going to Kansas City, we heated a rectangular piece of soapstone that belonged to our fireless cooker, wrapped many layers of newspapers around it and then placed it on the floor inside an automobile robe. We only had two of these, so Mother would heat two irons and wrap them the same way. Sometimes they got a little too hot, and you would smell the scorched paper and also the robe, and you worried that you might find a hole in the robe when you got to your destination.
The cruising speed overland was around twenty to twenty-five miles an hour. If you went thirty, you were really "flying". Town speed was ten to fifteen miles per hour.
When we took our first overland trip to Colorado that summer, we had been practicing overland driving by making frequent Sunday excursions to Kansas City. That took almost three hours driving each way.
We decided to take the Golden Belt route to Denver. There were other routes -- the Santa Fe Trail; Rock Island Highway; Union Pacific Highway; and the Lincoln Highway. There were no road maps in those days, at least not in Lawrence We were equipped with a Blue Book -- official name: "The Automobile Official Blue Book". It was the motorist's "Bible". It was about the size of a desk dictionary and almost as thick. It was bound in leather and sold for $2.50 a volume. A friend loaned us his. There were four volumes published We used Volume 4 -- The Middle West. The entire trip to Denver was spelled out by mileage. For instance you started "O.O", Lawrence, left-hand road immediately after crossing bridge; straight ahead passing
depot on right, and so on. As you drove along, landmarks would be pointed out, such as "windmill on left, red barn, jog right, cross bridge", etc.
There were few road markers in those days, no highway signs -- The Sunflower Trail, running north and south boasted, "marked with an 18-inch yellow band painted around the telephone poles".
You would drive for miles on the hot, dusty, dirt roads, and the only guide was the person holding the Blue Book on his lap and reading out loud from it. If you came to a crossroads on the prairies, your Blue Book might say, "4-corners; turn right. Go straight ahead, avoiding all cross-roads, passing depot (on right -- 32.7) to center of town", you were approaching.
Gasoline filling stations were unheard of. You picked out the best looking or sometimes the only garage in the town and they filled the car from five-gallon cans. All roads took you through the main street of every town. Whenever you stopped, someone of the party would walk around the car and check the tires for nails. Roads ahead and weather conditions were always discussed, and how far to the next good-size town that had a good hotel to stay over night.
That early morning in July, on our first trip, the skies looked cloudy. When we got to Manhattan, we left the main Golden Belt route to go to Clayton, Kansas, due to wheat harvesting at a ranch. The Blue Book cautioned: "This is an optional route to the Golden Belt, but is not recommended". No wiser words of caution were ever written. Ten miles out of Manhattan, a heavy rain and thunder storm blew up. We had to keep going as there was no place to stop and the road was getting slicker and the ruts deeper. We managed to slide into Riley, Kansas without chains -- total population probably around 300. We were greeted by other tourists who had made it in ahead of us. The main street of Riley looked like Matt Dillon's main street of Dodge City in Gunsmoke, with not as long a main street. All structures were wooden, and a wooden roof covered the walk. The "hotel" was in the center of the block. That night, cars fared better than their drivers. They were stored in the only modern building in the town -- a large garage with a cement floor.
Our room held an iron bed, the usual wash bowl, pitcher, and jar, and a towel apiece. There were no keys for the doors and the proprietor was astounded and insulted to think he was asked for one. We braced our door with a chair against the knob. Young as we were, it was pretty hard to go to sleep that night [ .... ] seemed to feel things crawling on you.
We had supper that first night at the hotel as it was the only place in town to eat. After seating ourselves, we were facing the wide open doorway where the guests entered. We were startled to see the local patrons walk up to a stand with a wash bowl on
it, pour water in the bowl from a large pitcher, and proceed to wash hands and face, use a community towel, comb their hair with a community comb hanging from a chain fastened to a post that supported the roof and from which hung a small mirror, and then sit down to be served. This ritual took place before every meal.
As the rain continued the rest of that first day, by evening it was an accepted fact, if the weather did clear in the night, we still would not be able to leave Riley, even with chains until, sometime late the next day. But it rained all that night too, and no car, truck, or wagon came into the town from any direction.
We were unhappy, reluctant guests for two nights, and by noon the third day, all the travelers were desperate. We were restless and bored -- no radios, no papers, no magazines. We were completely isolated. To our knowledge, no one had come into the town from any direction. We spent the daytime walking over to the garage and eyeing with envy the clean surroundings for our cars, and threatening to sleep in them if we didn't get out of town soon. Then we would stand around the corner where all traffic had to pass, hoping to see someone drive into town so we could ask about the roads. Finally, around ten o'clock the third day, a truck plowed into town and the driver told us he thought we might make it if our chains would hold us in the deep ruts, and if we didn't have to pass anyone coming towards us. We started out in a sort of parade -- there were three cars going west, and fortunately we were not the lead car. However, a few miles out the roads improved.
Two days later found us in Colby, Kansas and we were introduced to the rope fire escape. The stone hotel where we stayed, was built like a fortress. Our rooms were on the second floor. We asked about the huge, thick rope that was fastened to a large iron ring driven in the wall by the window. We were told that was our fire escape and in case of fire, to throw the rope out the window and slide down the rope. Fortunately, no fire broke out.
Our Blue Book for the Colby to Denver route, via Limon, Colorado, told us: "Leaving Colby we proceed westward, following the line of the railroad through a country that has for a great many years been devoted largely to the raising of cattle. It is necessary to stop the machine a number of times in order to open fences which are kept closed on account of the grazing cattle. Prairie dog towns are a common sight along the way, a small specie of owl living in the same holes with the prairie dogs." And out of Stratton, Colorado, "Wire gate straight ahead" -- "4-corners -- road ahead grass grown".
Our meals enroute were picnic style at noon, and a good hot dinner at night. The meals at night were usually excellent and home cooked tasting. At noons we would either stop at a grocery
store if the local cafe didn't look too inviting, or clean, and buy crackers, bread, cheese or sausage, fruit, and make sandwiches and eat in the town park or under a shady tree in the country. The farther west you went, the trees became more scarce and so a park in town was chosen. It was cooler and water was available. Farther west on the prairies, after an upset stomach, we learned to ask if their water was alkali. If so, we would squeeze lemon juice in the glass of water, if we just had to have a drink at that town. We often stopped at school houses for our picnic lunch and to use their facilities for comfort, if the towns were too far away. Most of the towns then were about fifteen miles apart, and we would watch for the water towers -- sometimes we could see them for ten or fifteen miles.
Many a storm cloud was watched anxiously as we rode along those hot, sandy prairie roads, particularly in eastern Colorado. One afternoon, the black, swirling, churning clouds caused us to get out and snap on the side curtains and then it looked so bad, we decided to sit in a ditch and wait for the worst. The storm veered north and all we got was hail, wind and some rain. With the side curtains on, it would get pretty steamy and hot inside.
It was no uncommon sight to see jack rabbits and coyotes all through western Kansas and eastern Colorado. Grasshoppers were plentiful and big. In some sections, the roads were literally covered with them. Winding, wooded roads through Kansas, seeing all sorts of wild birds, sometimes snakes, many wild flowers, gave each traveler a lesson in natural history. When the prairies were in bloom, the memory of the coloring still stays with us. Windmills were plentiful. There were few fences in eastern Colorado. Many black- eyed Susans took away the bleakness of the prairies with their bright yellow blossoms. You met few travelers. If someone did pass you along the route, you most likely would meet them again in the next town at the drug store getting a soda.
After we had driven across the state about 400 miles, we began to notice the car didn't pick up very well. It seemed to lose power, and it didn't take the hills as fast. We stopped at the next town to have the car checked, only to be told the car was all right, but that we were climbing to higher altitude.
We never drove after dark unless we had read our Blue Book wrong. Lights on the cars were not very bright, the roads were not marked and you couldn't see to read your directions. If you were unlucky enough to have to drive after dark, your only guide to a town was to watch for the glow against the dark sky.
After two glorious weeks in the mountains, we had hopes of an uneventful trip home. Not so. We left Denver around noon. About ten miles east of the city, we came upon the aftermath of a cloudburst and flash flood. A flash flood lake confronted us. The Union Pacific railroad tracks bordered the highway -- they were built up high above the road. We were told
the only way to get past the lake of water was to climb up that incline and drive down the track -- and we did just that. The men helped each other lift each car over one rail -- the women drove, and we straddled it and bumped over each tie to dry land. Not only that, but the cars had to be braced going up and coming down the incline. From then on, it was clear "sailing" home.
Despite the many unpredictable crises and delays, we were ready to start out the next summer for another adventure.
Lawrence Journal-World, August 22, 1966