As early as I can remember, we drove to California at least once and usually twice a year.  It was almost always the same scenario.  Mom would wake us kids up at two in the morning and we would help dad finish loading the car.  Leaving at that time in the morning got us to the Mohave dessert in the early evening after it had started cooling down.  In the early years we had no air conditioning, so even late in the day it was still darned hot driving in the dessert.

Dad tried different ways to keep the car cooler.  One that I thought worked pretty well was a unit mounted in the window in which you loaded ice.  When the air flowed over the ice, cool air would flow into the car.  I guess that between the cost of gas and then adding ice to the cooler, it proved to be more expense than dad was willing or could afford to spend.  After all, gas was 32.9 cents a gallon.  So we ended up using the old 480 air conditioner; four windows down and 80 MPH.

Access to water during those trips was always a problem.  I guess Coleman wasn’t around or we just couldn’t afford a cooler.  We would beg dad for water as we drove along.  We always got the same answer.  “Get it out of the spigot in the back window”.  I don’t remember how old I was before I quit looking for that damned spigot.  Heck, I didn’t even know what a spigot was, but I sure looked for it anyway.

During one of one these trips, we kids noticed small canvas bags mounted on the front of some of the cars along the way.  We asked dad what they were and he told us they were water bags.  He explained that by mounting them in front of the radiator, evaporation would cool down the water and it would make a cool, refreshing drink.  I recall that dad did get one, but it only lasted for a trip or two.  It was probably stolen somewhere along the way, but they did work.  We went back to getting water when we stopped for gas or to eat.  We sure as heck didn't get it out of the spigot in the back window. 

Stopping for gas on our trips was always an adventure.  Back in those days, you would get full service when getting gas.  They would check the oil, wash the windows, check the battery, and check the air in your tires.  And yes, they would fill your tank up or put in an amount you asked for.  We always stopped at the same places for gas.  We made that trip so often that the servicemen knew us and our habits to a tee.  The prerequisite was that the station must have a restaurant, a rest room and a place to get a drink of water.  Dad had most stops down to a science.  Many times we would get everything done and back to the car just as the serviceman was pulling it forward. 

Mom and Dad were big time coffee drinkers.  They always stopped at the same places for coffee.  One coffee stop was always in Dalhart TX.  At least I think it was in Dalhart.  The café they stopped at had a tall Texan statue out front.  That statue is still there today, but the café is gone.  We kids would stay sleeping in the car during those coffee stops.  That would probably get them thrown in jail today or at least in big trouble. 

Meals always happened the same way as well.  We kids would get a hamburger and would share French fries, and the folks would order the special.  Then it was hightail it to the car.  My family was always known as fast eaters.  I can only imagine that our drill for stops was a lot of the reason for that. 

On occasion we would get a bottle of pop with our meal.  Looking back on those times I remember a funny thing that always happened when we ordered pop.  We would always order a coke and the waitress would always ask us “what kind”?  For me it was always a strawberry or if they had it, chocolate.  As many reading this can attest, that was just the way it was in those days.  As I got older I switched to colas and sometimes dad would let us buy peanuts and I would pour mine into my pop.  Now that was hog heaven and is still a favorite of mine.

On rare occasions, we would get to stop at a Dairy Queen.  You knew things were going well financially for dad whenever we could make our small cone, a dip cone.  I even remember one time in Gallup, New Mexico; we got milkshakes or malts, depending on our taste.  I also remember that one time being the last.  Joetta got car sick and threw up her strawberry shake, and it went everywhere.  It was ugly and thank goodness mom cleaned it up.

Our trips always took the same route.  Yes, we got our kicks on Route 66.  We would go to Meade and then take Highway 54 all the way to Tucumcari.  Then we took Route 66 until we headed north to Bakersfield CA.  From there we went a little further north and then headed west.  Most of the highways in those days were two-lane, but they were in the process of constructing Interstate 40 most of the years we made those trips.  I remember stopping for more than an hour at times in long construction lines.  I40 was cut through many different mountain ranges so we saw all methods of construction.  Some of the stops were for dynamite blasts, but normally, just for regular road work. 

The speed limit back then was 70 MPH, which was pushed to 80 MPH by most of the drivers, my dad included.  As such, it was a very dangerous drive.  I remember more than one time being routed into a ditch to get around a bad wreck.  When that happened, there were usually occupied gurneys, and some had blankets pulled up over the occupant’s head.

We played many games to pass the time.  One was counting the crosses beside the roads in Arizona.  The state of Arizona, at least in those days, put little white wood crosses at the location of each fatality.  There were many to count.  Another game was counting VW Beatles.  Not how many, but how many of each color.  VW Beatles were probably the most noticeable of any single car in those days.  We would each count the ones we saw first and then after a while we would tally up to see who won.  Joetta was pretty tough to beat at that game.  Another game was trying to get all 48 state tags counted.  It was hard to do, but when Alaska and Hawaii became states, it became nearly impossible to get all 50 of the states counted, especially back in those days.  And no, there were not 57 states, if you know what I mean.

Those trips got long and fighting among us kids was not unusual.  But for the most part we had good times.  I will always remember two things that happened on our trips.  One was stopping at a drive-in to eat.  Back in those days of course, there were “car hops” that would come to the car and take our order and would bring the order out to us.  They were always cute, at least to a young boy like me, and I noticed one reaching into her shirt pocket counting her tips.  I made the comment, “look, she’s counting her tips”.  That was pretty innocent except everyone misunderstood what I actually said she was counting.

Another time, we were driving along and we passed a car being driven by what I assumed were two college girls.  Of course, once again, they were beautiful to me.  I remember looking out the window with a grin as we went by.  For many miles they would pass us grinning at me and dad would pass them back and I would grin at them.  They eventually turned off on a different route, but man, that was a cool deal to me.  I have recently seen a commercial on TV with the same scene reenacted just as it had happened to me.  I can see myself in that kid every time I see it.  What a grin he has on his face.

Sleeping was always an adventure.  Tom was so tall that he got the back seat.  Joetta was the smallest so she got to sleep in the back window well.  That left me the floor.  The floor was so hot that I could hardly stand it at times.  As I got taller, I would lie on my side, bend my legs up between mom and the door, and use the hump in the middle for a pillow.  When Joetta got too big for the back window we slept sitting up; Tom on one side, me on the other and Joetta in the middle.  We would lean from one side to the other depending on the curves dad was making, with Joetta groaning from our weight each time. 

Dad and mom took turns driving, at least until Tom and I got old enough to fill in some.  There is a story I tell that is pretty funny and Joetta and Tom saw it happen as well.  Tom is gone, but Joetta still remembers it the same as I do.  Dad was always a gotta-go-Joe type of guy.  At least once, and before we had cruise control, dad had mom switch places with him while we were moving.  He slid under her while holding the gas down and she grabbed the steering wheel and took his place behind the wheel.  I never had second thoughts about it until I got much older.  It was just the way it was. 

Dad could also drive while sleeping.  I remember times when the car would jerk and everyone would wake up and look at dad.  He would be looking straight ahead like nothing had happened.  Once, I figured out what was going on.  I stayed awake to see what was making the car jerk.  Dad would dose off and the car would head toward the ditch and make dad wake up.  After that we tried to make sure at least one of us was awake when dad drove.  My kids will tell you that I also had the same problem as dad by the way.

Route 66 was then and is now a very famous route.  We didn’t think much about how famous it was, but we did know there were lots of sites along the way.  We would always beg dad to take us to those sites but he rarely did so.  Now, when we went with mom, it was different as we did get to see quite a few of the sites along the way.  But for the most part, all we knew about them was what road went to them.  We would ride along and say “there’s the road to the Painted Dessert, there’s the road to the Petrified Forest, there’s the road to the Grand Canyon, and on and on.  Dad was hell-bent to get to Paso Robles in 24 hours or less, and stopping for what he considered to be tourist traps, was not going to happen very often.

The trips were always to Paso Robles (El Paso De Robles, The Pass of Oaks).  It is located 1350 or so miles to the west of Cimarron and about ½ way between LA and San Francisco on US highway 101.  Paso was a nice town; nice in the winter and so hot in the summer that at times it was almost unbearable.  But the beach was just a short drive and the homes had air conditioning, so it wasn’t so bad. 

My parents were drawn to Paso for simple reasons.  Dad had been based at Camp Roberts just north of Paso Robles during WWII, just before he shipped out to the Pacific War Theatre.  Also mom had many relatives that had left Kansas in the Dirty Thirties and settled in the Paso Robles Area.  We almost always stayed with my great uncle and aunt, Harry and Alice Spencer.  And yes, we are distant relatives of Princess Dianna.  Never have seen a check though, but I would take it if one ever comes my way.

We had lots of relation in CA.  Momma Ruth and Baumpa Jim had a ranch just to the east of Paso a few miles.  The ranch was a favorite place for us to visit.  I do recall staying there a few times.  They had horses we got to ride, a stream running just in back of the old house and hundreds of acres to roam.  There were other places with relatives all up and down the CA coast that we would visit as well.

Our stays in Paso were usually pretty short, but we had great times and I have great memories from those stays.  We had cousins our age and that made the stays even more enjoyable. In later years we moved to Paso for a year and a half while dad ran one of his bars he had later purchased. 

The trip home was just a reverse of the trip coming out.  We left at a different time of day but for the same reason; missing the heat of the dessert.  Dad was not always able to time our trips to miss the heat, but he always did his best, which was always his way of doing things.

Many of my muses are meant to leave my memories for my children and grandchildren.  This is one of those muses, but also it’s for many friends that made some of those trips with us, as well as those that knew my folks and how they interacted together.  I hope you have enjoyed it.  Also, I usually like to have a little moral for my muses.  For this muse, the moral is simple.  Be damned glad most all of us have air conditioning in our homes and cars.  The 1950’s and 60’s were simpler times, but man, could those summer days get long and hot.

Pete Thomas

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If you cannot reach me by clicking on the "COMMENTS" link, please email me at pjthomas@ucom.net with "DRIVING TO CALIFORNIA" in the subject line.

Another standing ovation to you Pete, I am still smiling from reading this weeks' muse, how I loved your parents and can just "feel and re-live" the moments of your vacations. Even the hot car and sleeping on the floor, I think this is one of my more favorite muses you have written so far. Thank you so very much for sharing these "treasures of stories" with all of us. loved your family, Janie Wehkamp Athurs.

You always act so tough to the guys on Facebook.  You are really just a softie.  Thanks for the note, it is my favorite muse so far.  I remember those trips so clearly that it took little time to make my first draft.  Thanks again, Pete.


Well Sneaky Pete, I must say I really enjoyed this muse as much as any I have read.  My mom has told me the stories about the Roads to the Painted Desert, Grand Canyon, etc. as passed on by your mother to her.  Your family traveled much like mine did and Bob Taylor was a"Gotta go Joe" as well, only we ate out of a cooler, had our own lunch meat and bread in the car.  When dad stopped for gas you had better take the opportunity to pee cause he wasn't stopping again.  You brought back many memories of our own family car vacations, including Brad throwing up a chocolate milkshake.  Seems that we all traveled about the same way, fast and cheap.
Thanks Pete for sharing, your children and grandchildren will treasure these stories.  BTW, momma has written her memories of my daddy in the form of a book, that is for our family, you might want to read it sometime as I think you would really enjoy Ethel's writing, and would bring back many memories from our Cimarron Days.
Thanks Pete, I really appreciate our continued family friendships, the Thomas family treated the Taylor's very well as newcomers to Cimarron in 1961, and the friendship continues.  Thanks Buddy!!!!!
As always,
The Copenhagen Angel,
Becki Jo

Well, you are pretty sentimental for another tough girl.  And those were great memories for me as well, sharing many good times with your family.  I would love to read Ethel's book by the way.  Thanks for the note. 


Well I finally got one of these read. Sure did bring back memories of our family trips which were always to Colorado. Most of the time mother would sit in the back with the boys and I would be up front with Dad. He taught me how to read the map because we would always try out different places throughout the state. Our sleeping was a lot like yours. We had a black Nash several years and then a Rambler station wagon others. It would get so cold at night we would all cuddle together with the back seat laid down. I didn't want to go the summer before my senior year but did anyway. Would  love to go on those trips again because they were really fun.
I think I remember my dad going out to help your dad fix up a bar one time. He liked to farm but he truly loved to do carpenter work. 
Thanks for the memories!  Donna (Benton) Reed

I remember your cars really well; our families got together a lot in those days.  The trips to CO sound really fun.  It is funny how my trips with my kids always seemed to go to Co or ended up coming back through CO any time we went west for our summer trips.  I will have a follow-up to this muse about my travels as a dad.  I swore I would do it differently than my dad and for the most part I did.  Thanks for the note.  Pete.

Hi Pete

I was laughing so hard reading this one Pete. It reminded me of our trips to Dallas to see my Uncle Jr & family. Before the station wagon Darrell & I were the ones that got the floor then Danny in the back window & Debbie in back seat with Grandma, & Mom, Dad &Grandpa in the front & we had the same 480 air conditioner.LOL Loved some of those stops at the gas stations that had a little show for tourists but turned out to be just snakes & wild animals caught. I usually hit the dirt running when I seen the snakes. LOL When the adults got tired of answering "Are we there yet?" Grandma would have us looking for the Indians in the hills of Oklahoma, I swear I saw some Indians behind those bushes & rocks. LOL

Thank you for sharing with us Pete,

Cindy Salem Daniel.