1968 was a big year for me. I turned 15 and I went on a date, my first, with a girl who would later–45 years later, become my late-life partner and constant companion, road trips included. But that is another story. Earlier in that big year I experienced my very first road trip adventure.
My uncle Bob had completed his medical school training and had been accepted for the next stage on his path towards becoming a practicing physician: an internship at Oakland Medical Center. In 1968, Oakland California was a long way from Minneapolis Minnesota. Yes, an expensive plane ride could get you there in three hours, but if you needed to bring more than a weight-limited suitcase, a three-day overland drive was required.
And Bob was fully ready for it, having recently acquired a 1968 model year Ford Mustang convertible, into which he packed the possessions that would support him for the next year in a remote setting. The car was symbolic, a vehicle to take him to that next phase of his career. It was freeing. With the top down, the wind in his hair evoked that sense of traveling to far off destinations holding unknown new experiences. It was a big year for him too.
A road trip to California in 1968 was considered a marathon. Hours upon hours of driving. The interstate highway system was nearing completion, and the directions to San Francisco were simplified to “drive to Des Moines and turn right”. The new divided highway was safer than the old two-lane roads it replaced, but still, the hazards of driving two thousand miles would be concerning to any mother, and Bob’s mother, my grandmother, was no different. She advocated for Bob to take on a passenger, to help him stay awake and focused at the wheel. Although at my pre-licensed age I couldn’t help with the driving, as oldest nephew and with school having ended for the summer, I was a prime candidate to accompany him on this cross-country trip.
I was eager to do so. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but the trip would take me to different states, different locales, including famous cities, and different landscapes. Once at the destination, mission accomplished, I would take a plane ride back home. The only person I knew who had actually flown somewhere was my dad, on a rare business trip.
I had acquired a high-quality camera and I would use it to record what I saw. I was quite excited as the various gatekeepers in my life gradually approved of the plan and concluded that it would be okay for me to take this trip.
I suspect that my uncle’s perspective may have been a bit different. He was now responsible for a 15-year-old kid on what might have otherwise been considered a personal and symbolic transition journey to a new life. If he was disappointed, he never let on. I wasn’t particularly good at keeping a conversation going, one of those items I was tasked with for preventing driving drowsiness. Instead, Bob gave me various pointers on how to make conversation.
Bob was also sensitive to my desires to take pictures of the passing scenery, of rugged terrain so different from my Minnesota home of lakes and trees. He pointed out the scenes forming along the roadside, of cattle gathering at water holes and grazing on prairie grass in the shadows of rocky bluffs, framed by blue skies that are not cloudy all day. I had a limited amount of film, but this was what it was for, and I took pictures of these iconic settings.
I too had a sense of scene and composition, but I was not secure enough to call it out. I took the occasional picture out the window of our speeding car when I saw something intriguing. By the time we were traversing Utah, I was completely amazed at the landscape. As we came through the Wasatch mountains toward Salt Lake City, Bob commented on how lush the land appeared to be. We were seeing forests and meadows and vegetation, not what one expects approaching a desert. He now understood how the Mormons, led by Brigham Young, could conclude “this is the place”.
We continued through Salt Lake City and then passed by the Great Salt Lake. I had heard about the salt flats surrounding it, and that the world automotive speed records had been set on them. I was immensely curious, and when the scenery surrounded us with white flat land everywhere, I mustered the courage to ask if we could stop for a picture. We were hoping to get to the Nevada town of Winnemucca by nightfall, but this was something I had never seen before. I wanted to capture it.
Bob, in his role as supporting uncle, obliged. He pulled over and I jumped out to get the commanding view of the salt flats. My first few steps took me over the shoulder of the road onto what appeared to be the white surface of a vast solid plane. But instead of a solid surface of salt, my foot sank to my shin in a wet mixture of oily gunk, and the forward momentum of my enthusiasm turned into a desperate attempt to keep from falling completely into the ooze. I managed to make a few more steps, regain my balance, and return to the safety of the roadbed.
After this embarrassing event, I was not immediately provided refuge. My legs were covered by an oily mix of clay and salt; it was unknown what damage it could present to a new car interior, and so Bob issued two instructions: “take your pants off before you get back in the car,” but first, “take a picture of those tracks.” I obliged.
We made it to Winnemucca, and the rest of the trip continued to provide me with new experiences. I rode a cable car and saw the Golden Gate bridge. I enjoyed first tastes of abalone and of swordfish. We visited cousins in Oakland, singing songs at the piano after dinner.
And I flew home on an airplane (after first losing my ticket). It was standby, but back in 1968, for an unaccompanied young teen, that resulted in a first-class seat with the flight attendants fawning over me for the duration. I’ve had a positive attitude toward flying ever since.
The world of a teenager is a sensitive place, subject to the smallest influences. This road trip was one of those events that contributed in subtle but profound ways to who I became as an adult. I am indebted to my uncle for this, and for his subsequent support over the years. I hope to pay that debt forward, to nephews, nieces and any others that need that moment of encouragement, accompanied of course, by the rules of the road.