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The Chelan Travelers are back at Quartzsite, AZ. Our trip down from Washington was one long, cruise-controlled ride along Interstate 5 until we reached Southern California – not that I’m complaining. Love that cruise control!

We veered east just south of Bakersfield and took off across the Mojave to cross the Colorado River at Needles, paralleling legendary Route 66 much of the way. Route 66 has been largely supplanted by I-40 in this part of the world and while I-40 is undoubtedly a sleeker, faster way to get from Point A to Point B, it lacks in charm what it makes up in ease of travel.

My memory of Route 66 is chiefly comprised of scenes that I witnessed from the back seat of a 1957 Volkswagen Beetle as a 10-year-old boy in 1960, when our family traveled from New Jersey to Victorville, California. The eight members of my family were packed into two Volkswagens, each with several suitcases strapped to the roof. Dad, a captain in the Air Force, had just been reassigned from Spangdahlem AFB in Germany to George AFB in Victorville – hence the two Volkswagens.

Dad drove the blue Volkswagen and Mom drove the cream-colored one. Alf, Hans, and I rode with Dad. Lars, Kurt, and Ingrid rode with Mom. As Mary and I were speeding along I-40 the day before yesterday, craning our necks to catch glimpses of the decomposing asphalt of nearby Route 66, I wondered about what had been behind my parents’ selection of who rode with whom on that trip. My first thought was that it was a matter of equal weight distrtibution: the combined weights of Lars, Kurt, and Ingrid was about the same as Alf, Hans, and I. Mary suggested it was more likely a matter of conflict resolution: keeping Lars separated from Alf and Kurt separated from Hans helped to keep the backseat bickering to a minimum. Mary is probably right.

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Route 66 connected Chicago to Los Angeles and was, of course, entirely a two-lane affair. We probably connected with it in St. Louis, where we stopped to visit Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Dick. From Tucumcari, NM westward, I remember it as a narrow strip of asphalt that stretched to the horizon across the desert landscape like a throw rug unfurled. Little attempt was made in those days to flatten out the dips and rises of the desert. On those rare occasions when Dad coaxed the VW’s 1300 cc engine upwards of 60 mph, this could result in a near zero-gravity experience as we crested a rise and descended into the next dip. Oh how we loved those! “Do it again Dad!” we clamored.

VWs were slow but not as slow as large trucks in 1960. Passing trucks was an ever-present challenge. Once while tailing a truck Dad decided the time was right to make his move. Applying full throttle, he veered sharply to left to get around the truck. Instead of moving ahead of the truck, our hapless VW started losing ground. Dad had underestimated the force of a ferocious headwind. It was too much for our little VW. We meekly sought refuge once again in the lee of the truck.

That trip was my introduction to the Desert Southwest. I marveled at the sterility of desert landscape. Snakes were also much on my mind. Dad had mentioned a company named Gokey that sold snake-proof boots. Since I imagined rattlesnakes under every bush in the desert, I expected to find every schoolboy in Victorville wearing Gokey boots when we arrived. Once enrolled at Del Rey Elementary, I asked around. No one had every heard of snake-proof boots. In any event, I saw only an occasional snake so the Gokey idea soon died.

There was still an element of danger to crossing the desert in 1960 – a notion that roadside merchants fully exploited. Canvas water bags (to stave off death by dehydration) were a hot item hawked at every stop. These were hung on the car’s front bumper and the small amount of water that soaked through the canvas was supposed to keep the bag’s contents cool by way of evaporative cooling. I don’t remember the water being cool but I do remember a lot of dead bugs plastered to the canvas.

Traveling westward, a long, steep hill climbs out of Needles. I remember 50-gallon barrels every mile or so along that climb. They were filled with radiator water; radiators regularly boiled over in those days. Of course, VWs having air-cooled engines, couldn’t boil over, a fact my father proudly explained to us. That may have been true but, as I would later learn with my own VW, air-cooled engines simply destroy themselves when they overheat!

We relied on evaporative cooling to “air condition” the car’s interior as well. Dad bought a metal canister about the size and shape of an Electrolux vacuum cleaner which hung on the front-passenger-seat’s window. The forward motion of the car forced air through a water-soaked mesh inside the canister and the evaporating water cooled the air which then entered the car. It was marginally effective. My dad regretted buying the contraption but I enjoyed it chiefly because it looked like a jet engine which I fantasized was propelling us at supersonic speeds.

In those pre-interstate-highway times, travelers of necessity connected more with the land. The highway ran through the heart of each little town. Traffic slowed to twenty or thirty mph along the Main Streets. The faces of the town’s folk were recognizable as they walked to the drugstore or grocery. One could witness children playing in the town park, families sitting on their front porches watching the passing travelers watching them.

Remembering my parents piloting those overloaded VWs across the desert expanses, struggling to make headway against the desert wind, I have come to think of that trip as one of the more memorable journeys I have made in a life of memorable journeys.

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