In a contest between a 1970 Ford Maverick and an adult bull bison – Bet it all on the buffalo. I can tell you from the perspective of sitting inside that 1970 Ford Maverick that this is not a contest. They both weigh approximately 2000 pounds. The maverick stands about 53” tall (or 4 ½ feet). The Bull tops out between 72” to 78” (or 6 to 6 ½ feet tall). I would have said 8’ if you had asked me at the time but that was only because from a sitting position inside the car, the darn thing seemed as big as Godzilla. I’m pretty sure we all held our breath as he walked out into the road in front of our car. The giant swiveled his head and looked at the four of us with a gaze that seemed to say “I’ll move when I’m good and ready, don’t piss me off and I won’t smash your car into tin cans”. I was 10 years old and that buffalo was one of the coolest and scariest animals I’d ever seen.
It was one of many memorable moments from one of those grueling (but fun) family summer vacation car trips that my generation remembers so well. I don’t think many families take these kinds of vacations anymore, where the kids are packed into a car and you just set out to see America. Driving hundreds of miles between destinations with no apparent agenda (at least one Dad would ever tell us), cooking on a Coleman stove, camping in a tent, and eating Spam seem to be by-gone relics of family travel. But maybe this is where my affinity for agenda free travel was born.
In 1975, my Dad, my younger brother Ted, my older sister Kathy, and I set off from Columbus, Ohio on one of these types of trips. I was 10. We were taking my Dad’s 1970 hideous orange standard drive Ford Maverick. No air-conditioning. No FM radio. Black vinyl seats that became the temperature of molten lava after an afternoon in the sun. I don’t think my dad had any particular itinerary other than he wanted to drive into Canada and around Lake Superior and then go to Iowa to visit our Grandma Lois. Everything else was going to be the whim of the moment and a matter of what struck his fancy when looking at the map in the morning – and how far he and my sister could drive without tiring.
First up was about a 500 mile leg to Mackinac Island and crossing the amazing Mackinac Bridge. At the time it was one of the longest bridges in the world. We then found a campsite somewhere in Ontario past Sault St. Marie with its large system of locks (pictured below). These locks enable ship travel between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. The entire area is beautiful.
Driving such distances in a small car with kids ranging in age from 17 to 6 presents its own challenges, especially in an era before electronic games, music, and video – not even an FM radio. But we passed the time with reading, watching the countryside roll by, the famous “Yes and No” invisible ink game and quiz books, trying to keep track of license plates from the different States (parked cars don’t count), and “20 Questions”. Of course annoying your little brother is always a spectacular way to pass the time – at least until your dad blows his lid.
We next traveled around Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, Ontario where we visited Kakabeka Falls briefly and then went on into northern Minnesota to camp. I don’t remember exactly where that was, but that’s because the gigantic swarm of mosquitoes that descended upon us as we set up our tent made me forget everything but escape. It was like something out of the movie African Queen. There were not only millions of them, but they came after us relentlessly, like a clan of starved vampires. They drove us into the tent, without any dinner, where we remained until morning. The mosquitoes filled every screened window and door-flap and nearly drove us insane with the constant buzz. It was bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it since.
Off again! We were headed for a stay in Minneapolis to catch a baseball game. That was one of the other great things about those car road trip vacations. My dad loved baseball and would take us to a game if we were going to be near a stadium he had never visited and the team had a home stand. The Twins were at home so we went. I don’t remember who won or who the Twins played. That’s because I was too excited about getting a ball fouled off by the Hall of Famer Rod Carew who in 1975 was probably the best hitter in baseball. My brother was quite jealous. For years that ball was my most prized possession.
On to Iowa and grandmother’s house we go. A couple of the things I do remember during this extensive car trek was listening to Paul Harvey on the radio and his captivating “and now for the rest of the story” stories and the fact that Glen Campbell’s song “Rhinestone Cowboy” was a huge crossover hit that summer. It seemed like we must have heard that song 100 times over those few weeks. Good thing it was a pretty good song. I still know the lyrics.
Well the visit to my Grandma was fairly typical of any family gathering, although I did manage to hit a financial bonanza for a 10 year old. One night we drove to some tiny little town in South Dakota for Bingo. My grandmother was a Bingo fanatic. She would play 15-20 cards at a time – chain smoking away the whole time. Nobody cared about smoking around kids in the 70’s. She bought each of us 4 cards to play and wouldn’t you know it I won the “Blackout” game where you have to be the first to get every number on your card. I was so excited I yelled “Blackout” instead of Bingo. The winnings were $150. For a 10 year old in 1975 that might as well have been a million bucks. I thought my brother was going to collapse in jealousy. First the baseball, now a fortune. Life seemed very unfair to him. Well, he need not have worried too much – my dad only let me keep $20 and made me put the rest in the bank. Funny thing is I still have an account at that local Farmers State Bank in Hawarden, Iowa – started with that Bingo money. There’s not much in it today and I’m not sure why I keep it – nostalgia I guess. The other nights in Iowa were normally filled with playing cards – Fan tan (a betting game we played with my grandma’s jars of pennies) and Mary Widow were family favorites. Back before cable TV and video games families seemed to play interactive games with one another. I loved it, although we got NO mercy from Grandma when it came to betting games. She had no reservations about taking pennies from her grand-kids!
After several days in Hawarden we took to the road once again. It seems we just had to go to the internationally known Wall Drug – the famous store in Wall, South Dakota. Anyone who has travelled by car anywhere west of the Mississippi has probably come across the Wall Drug signs on the side of the road stating how far it is to the store. The signs are everywhere. But frankly the store itself, while enormous, is a bit disappointing. A huge tourist trap. But it’s like a train wreck – you just have to go/watch.
One other event of note happened in South Dakota on the way to the Badlands. My brother and I had made “forts” in the back seat by stringing up blankets. At some point we needed some gas and a restroom break so we stopped at a service station along a fairly isolated stretch of highway. My dad preferred the smaller highways – the scenic routes. It was one of those stations where you had to get the restroom key from an attendant as the toilets were out on the side of the building and usually smelled like they hadn’t been cleaned in a decade. I went and did my business and returned the key only to find the car (and my brother, Dad, and sister) GONE! I wasn’t sure what to think and alternated between worry and anger, but after 20-25 minutes I began to get scared. They really had left me! Little did I know they had thought I was back under my “fort” in the backseat and took off down the road. It wasn’t until my brother went to hit me (as brothers do) that they discovered my absence. Well they turned around and found me by the side of the road and when I saw them laughing, I was certain in my 10 year old head they had done it on purpose! What a**holes! I gave the all-mighty silent treatment as long as I could to show my displeasure – which meant I probably pouted for an hour or so. My brother and sister still laugh at my expense at that memory. I do too – NOW.
The Badlands was our next destination and they are amazing. They look like they are the landscape of another planet. In my youthful ignorance I foolishly went and kicked the side of one formation thinking it was sand. It’s not! Although my sore foot was better than my brother’s whole body – He jumped on the side of the one I was kicking. I couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly live in those barren hills, but it looked like the perfect hideaway for outlaws or renegades to my 10 year old brain. It was very exciting. On the way out of the Badlands National Park is when we across the extraordinarily large Bull Bison I mentioned at the start of this article. We still laugh about how damn huge that thing was. I can’t imagine what a herd of a million of these magnificent beasts must have looked like. One of the largest recorded herds was from 1871. The recorded account described a herd of over 4 million buffalo that was 50 miles long and 25 miles wide!
We made our next stop at the Mount Rushmore monument with the carved faces of President’s Lincoln, Roosevelt, Washington, and Jefferson. While I thought it was inspiring and the history of how it was made was interesting, I was much more interested in getting to the nearby Custer Battlefield as it was called then (now more appropriately called the Little Bighorn Battlefield).
Since I loved the history of the plains Indians, especially the Sioux Indians, I found that part of the trip very memorable. What 10 year old wouldn’t be excited by a great Indian battle? We walked along the exact fields where Custer and his command were wiped out by the Sioux and Cheyenne led by the great Sioux leader Crazy Horse. Today the Sioux nation is carving a monument many times the size of Mount Rushmore as tribute to Crazy Horse which will be the world’s largest monument if and when it is completed. I remain fascinated by this man to this day and have read several biographies about him. But back in 1975 it was the best part of the trip for me to be walking on such famous ground.
It started a true love affair for me with the western United States. The sky seems endless. The beauty and grandeur is stunning. The history is fascinating.
All in all that summer the four of us traveled almost 5000 miles in that small Ford – each day picking out some place within a few hundred miles that we could go see and camp nearby. I loved seeing new places as a child. I love going to new places still today. Some of the most amazing things can be found right in your own home country. World travel is wonderful, but local and regional travel can be adventures just as satisfying. I would recommend to anyone wanting to see western United States to take a car trip (although maybe one with a better radio and some air-conditioning) and let your imagination and curiosity lead you in finding your own wonders. Leave the electronics at home.