As long has there have been road trips with children, there have been bored children, asking, “When do we get there?” They don’t understand that one of the best parts of a road trip is the time spent on the road. The destination is the end of the adventure, not necessarily the adventure itself. Invariably, after the ten time that those precious little ones ask that dreaded question, tempers begin to flare. These days, cars come with built in DVD players to occupy the kids on the road trip, but back when I was a kid, those things didn’t exist.
Somewhere along the way, someone…probably a frustrated parent…came up with the idea of allowing the kids to participate in the trip by giving them a steering wheel of their own, so they could help their parents drive. I do know that in January of 1955, a man named Jack Fletcher of West Covina, California installed a plastic windshield and three miniature steering wheels in the back seat of his car to entertain his children, Janie, Johnny and Ricky, who were 3 years, 21 months, and 21 months respectively. Apparently, it was a good idea, at least for those children, because, the idea has hung around ever since. In fact, for Christmas, we got our great granddaughter a version that can sit on the floor in front of her, or even on her highchair tray. Now she can “help” her daddy drive too. As children get older, I’m sure that the novelty of a steering wheel wore off, but if you got a year or so of peace in the car, it’s worth the effort.
Of course, when I was a kid, there were mo car seats, and it wasn’t illegal to drive with your child on your lap. Many a child, me and my sisters included, learned to steer the car while seated on our daddy’s lap. It was great fun, and a memory we will always have. I suppose that today’s drivers, police officers, and child safety advocates would cringe at the thought of a child on the lap of the driver, and maybe it wasn’t the safest way to do things, but I don’t recall hearing about dozens of children dying in that manner either, so maybe the parents of yesteryear weren’t so careless after all. All I know, is that we had a great time on those road trips.
I think that most of us have engaged in a wager or two…probably more in fact. For most of us gambling brings little or no gain, and instead, usually loss. That is what it would bring for Horatio Nelson Jackson, as he, to his own folly, accepted a $50.00 bar bet, back in 1903. At that time, there were roads for the cars that were coming out, but they were…well, rough, and that’s an understatement. Unpaved dirt roads are notoriously dusty, rutted, and muddy in the rain. Most people, at that time, considered the automobile a passing novelty, too unreliable to survive a trip across America, but Jackson argued that they were wrong. As often happens in these barroom discussions, someone called Jackson out on his theory. He bet Jackson that he could not drive a car from San Francisco, California to New York City, New York in 90 days. Jackson accepted the challenge.
Jackson asked Sewall Crocker to accompany him on the trip. Crocker was a 22 year old former bicycle racer and a gasoline engine mechanic. Jackson was a doctor who had given up his medical practice after a bout of tuberculosis. At this point, he was looking for adventure. Crocker suggested that the former physician purchase a used 20 horsepower Winton touring car for the treacherous journey, so Jackson did, and named it the “Vermont.” Then on May 23, 1903, the two men hopped in and headed east. They had packed sleeping bags, food, and other camping supplies. Previous cross country trips had all ended in failure, and it was likely that this one would suffer a similar fate, but this was to be the first successful cross country road trip.
Horatio Jackson had little driving experience, and no mechanical knowledge, but he had his wife’s inherited fortune, and apparently that was burning a hole in he pockets. The roads he was to be on had no road signs, there was no GPS, and more importantly, there were no gas stations…plus the fact that automobiles were prone to breakdowns. The Vermont was no different, the first pit stop was just 15 miles into the trip when they blew a tire. There would be many others. Nevertheless, Jackson would win his bar bet and the $50.00 when he rolled into New York City. The mud caked Vermont, crawled down Manhattan’s deserted Fifth Avenue at 4:30 am on Sunday, July 26. The approximately 4,500 mile journey had taken 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, amazing considering all the problems. So what then was the road trip folly? Just this…Jackson had won his wager with nearly a month to spare, but it cost him $8,000 in the process. I guess he could always say he made the trip.
There comes a time in the life of your kids, when they just have to spread their wings and fly for a while. Where they go often varies, but the reason is usually the same. They want to be more independent. Some kids, like my dad, Allen Spencer and his brother, Bill Spencer, were intent on making a living. They had decided to follow the harvest and make some good money for the family. They planned to, and did return home in time to help their mom, Anna Spencer with the haying. The main reason the boys set out at eighteen and sixteen was to make extra money, but I have to think they were also feeling like they wanted and needed a little road trip too. They were of an age to be able to go safely, and their mom was agreeable, so off they went. I can’t say that they sewed any wild oats, but it was an opportunity to go the places they wanted to go, and do the things they wanted to do. And it was an opportunity for them to really spread their wings and prove to themselves that they were grown up.
That whole “I’m grown up” idea hasn’t changed much, and it hasn’t gone away. This year I had two of my grandchildren graduate from high school. They have both started to venture out of the safe haven of home now. Chris Petersen went to watch his brother, Josh Petersen’s track meet toward the end of last year, and Shai Royce and her brother, Caalab Royce drove to Denver to visit their grandparents, and have a little fun too. They all had a good time on their road trips, and I’m sure that they felt a little more grown up. The funny thing about teenagers is that after they take a couple of those road trips, or even one, they realize that it’s not such a big deal after all.
After, Chris moved to Sheridan to go to college, that drive home quickly became kind of long and boring. Yes, he comes home, because he misses family, and we miss him, but he’s not so impressed with driving down and back alone…especially going back. I suppose that could be because he knows it will be a while before he sees his family again. When you are going somewhere to have fun and then you’ll be back the next week to stay. It just feels different than when you know it may be months before you see your family again. That feels lonely.
For me…well I’m still trying to get used to the fact that they all have a driver’s license and their own cars…and now they expect me to be ok with letting those little babies go on a trip alone!! Are they crazy? Or, maybe I just sound too much like their mom’s. There will be many more road trips to come in the future, so I might just as well get used to it. I just don’t think that’s possible. The other day, when my granddaughter, Shai called her mom, Amy, who works with me, and asked what there was to do in Deadwood, I started thinking…she doesn’t need to go to Deadwood at her age. Let her go to Thermopolis, if she wants to go somewhere. Shai was only asking the question for a guest at the hotel she works at. Wow…I really need to stress less!!