July 6, 2016
By Michael A. Calvert
The green sign above I-70 pointed us toward Indianapolis. Our destination was much farther west. We were leaving Columbus, Ohio for California, the golden state with beaches, surfers and surfer music, snow-capped mountains, Los Angeles’ freeways and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It was 1965. I was 22. California was the future.
“California, here we come,” shouted Mike.
“Can’t wait to step into the Pacific surf,” I yelled.
“California or bust,” said Pete with raising his fist.
Mike Rodenfels, Pete LaValley and I had packed two tents, three sleeping bags, a Coleman stove, a cooler, and a few clothes in Mike’s new black Corvair, GM’s answer to the invasion of Volkswagen’s bug and other foreign compact cars. Gas milage was important; gas was up to 31 cents per gallon. Mike’s little car was cramped, but it got great mileage.
Pete and I were OSU students and worked together, first as part-time janitors in a department store and later as map coders in a city planning office. Mike worked at the GM plant and were friends from grade school. I introduced Pete and Mike a few months before we decided on a trip to California.
The highway knifed through Ohio’s fields of tasseled corn and brown hay. Mike twirled the radio dial for a proximate Top Forty station. Pete stretched his long legs across the small back seat, and I studied our Rand-McNally Atlas. The route for our first leg was clearly traced on the map with a thick green line representing I-70. A grid in the back of the atlas showed the distances from Columbus to Indianapolis, Kansas City, Topeka, and Denver.
We planned to drive through the night to Denver, about 1,200 miles. I announced that this 24-hour marathon would only get us halfway to the Pacific. Pete challenged me and I passed him the atlas open to the U. S. map. After studying it for a while, he said, “At least we’ll have the boring part of the country behind us when we get to Denver.
We passed Springfield, Ohio and entered Indiana at Terre Haute. Pete asked if we knew what the name meant. When we shrugged, he said it was French for high ground. Mike looked over and rolled his eyes. I shrugged, and told Pete that was good to know, and winked at Mike.
Pete drove through Illinois squinting and cursing the low sun. We crossed the Mississippi River after dark at Hannibal, Missouri. Pete and I had a long discussion about Mark Twain, Huck, Jim, and racism in the book my high school English teacher called the greatest American novel.
“I don’t know what you guys are talking about,” said Mike before he dozed off in the back seat. At midnight, we stopped for coffee, and I drove through the night. Mike talked and asked questions about OSU football and girls we knew to keep me awake. We agreed that only one of us would sleep at a time.
With the rising sun behind us, Pete ascended and descended the hills of Missouri and Kansas. I was surprised that Kansas was not board flat. Mike retold a story about how a guy survived eating roots and certain plants when lost for days in the north woods of Michigan. He had read about it in Field & Stream. Pete asked what existential questions went through his mind as he staggered out of the woods and returned to civilization.
“Hell, the guy was just glad to be alive,” said Mike.
I drove the last leg to Denver. For the longest time, we could see the Rocky Mountains rising on the horizon, but they didn’t seem to get any closer. Pete had a theory about the dry air at our elevation on the high plains.
“We can see the mountains because they’re damn big and damn high,” said Mike. Late in the afternoon, we turned into a cheap motel in Aurora outside Denver and crashed for 12 hours.
After a big breakfast at an IHOP, we saw an Army-Navy store. Pete insisted that we needed a shovel to dig trenches around our tents. Beneath a sign that said ”trenching tool” we found a short olive drab shovel with a folding handle. We also bought cowboy hats, mess kits, Tang and freeze-dried ice cream packages developed for astronauts. We were ready for the West.
By sunset, we made camp in Rocky Mountain National Park, just 45 miles west of Denver. Bedrolls were unfurled in Pete’s U. S. Army pup tent and the larger tent that Mike and I shared. Shallow trenches were ready to deflect water from our tents. The aroma of beans and wieners was overtook the rich pine scent in the air. As we opened our second beers, we extolled the fresh mountain air, the high canopy of Ponderosa pines, and the soft blanket of pine needles they dropped. After dinner, we lay on our backs, burped aloud, and stared up at the towering trees. We cleaned our mess kits, stowed our food in the car, and gathered twigs and dead branches in the woods for a proper fire. Sitting crosslegged around our fire, we were the cowhands in the TV shows we absorbed as boys, leaving civilization behind for the wilderness of the Old West.
Pete said he had read about songs cowboys wrote by the fire. Some of these survived in letters along with sketches in museums. Mike said it was more likely that they had a snort of whiskey and fell asleep after a long, hard day on the trail.
Flames retreated into embers, and the fire became an orange glow. Pete stood and stretched. “Smoky would tell us to put this fire out.” As he unzipped, he said, “You guys going to help? Only you can prevent forrest fires.” We jumped to our feet, and soon the fire hissed, smoked, and assaulted us with a sharp odor, but the embers were no longer a threat to the forest.
For two days, we hiked rocky trails to overlooks and waterfalls. We saw eagles circling and moose crashing through swamps. At Estes Park, we learned how exhausting a few steps can be at 12,000 feet. We tried several times to walk and ignore the thin air, but each time we stopped short, gulping for oxygen.
After our dinners, we took long walks and watched the soft light glaze the peaks in rosy alpine glow. Our appreciation was enhanced by the peach brandy that we passed back and forth. Pete declared that alcohol killed all germs.
On the road again, north to Cheyenne, Wyoming, a name that evoked John Wayne riding on a dusty Main Street, lined with swinging doors leading to dark saloons. In 1965, we were greeted by Motel Six, several flashing EAT signs, and Howard Johnson’s orange tile roof. Our interest in this storied town evaporated, and we rushed to find the highway to Yellowstone National Park.
After making camp, we found our way to the Old Faithful geyser near the Grand Lodge. Steam seeped from cracks in the rocks, as we awaited the appointed hour. Old Faithful was on time and more impressive than the pictures in guidebooks. Photographs could not capture the power and motion of the column of heated water and billowing steam erupting from the cauldron beneath us.
At the nearby lodge, we sat in the oversized armchairs near the massive fireplace and marveled at the huge logs forming the walls and serving as pillars for the high roof.
“Looks like Lincoln logs,” said Mike.
“Oh, you’re right,” I said feigning surprise although I too was remembering the notched logs I enjoyed as a boy.
When we saw a few buffalo near the road, we stayed in the car and did not linger. The shaggy beasts towered over our Corvair. They snorted and pawed the ground. I was sure they could stomp our car flat like a tin can.
We hiked the gorge of the Yellowstone River and climbed to some rocky peaks above the timber line. Pete related Teddy Roosevelt’s role in creating Yosemite National Park after he and John Muir camped alone for three days in the Sierra. I suspected that Mike had no idea who John Muir was, so I asked Pete if Muir was the founder of the Sierra Club. We all agreed that the national park system is an American treasure.
Next on our itinerary was Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons. The main street in Jackson Hole had raised plank sidewalks crowded with booted men in Stetsons carrying shotguns, the barrel and the stock opened at an angle. Some wore chaps and spurs. They loaded packs and bedrolls on horses and mules in the road. Mike informed us that these hunters would be in the mountains for two weeks or more in Western Wyoming and Idaho. “They’ll be looking for trophies like big horn sheep, mountain goats, antelopes, and moose,” Mike said wistfully. It’s a vast wilderness to the west of here. The atlas confirmed this, showing only a few squiggly roads and no towns.
Pete noted that Hemingway’s home was in Ketchum, Idaho and launched into Papa’s hunting stories. Mike and I exchanged frowns as Pete went on about the psychology Francis Macomber.
We emerged from woods onto a soft meadow sprinkled with yellow flowers and a small log chapel topped with a cross. The jagged peaks of the rugged Grand Tetons rose to a porcelain blue sky.
“The Tetons look like the mountains we drew in grade school, pointy triangles, and snow on top,” I said.
“The horny French trappers that named them had something else in mind,” said Pete with a hearty laugh. Mike and I stared with our mouths open. “Yep,” he continued, “What do you think is the English translation of Tetons?”
We traveled west to Laramie and were not surprised by the garish neon signs competing for our attention along the road. We drove out of Laramie and on toward a green spot I had noticed on the atlas, Craters of the Moon National Monument. We stopped and briefly clambered over black igneous rocks that could be a set for Flash Gordon and other intrepid space travelers. The visitor center explained the volcanic forces that created this moonscape. Interesting, but soon we plunged into the Idaho wilderness on a two-lane highway of tight switchbacks that rose to great heights and descended before rising again.
No lunch places, no campgrounds. The sun was low and dusk was becoming night when we drove into the town of Idaho Falls on the Snake River, hungry and tired. On one side of the road was a restaurant with a huge banner: “All You Can Eat!.” Across the road was the town park. An instant consensus: have dinner, then set up camp in the park. We ate like famine victims and staggered to the back of the park. No tents, just bedrolls that night. “Sleeping under the stars,” Mike announced. In minutes, he was snoring like a chain saw. No one bothered us. After breakfast at the restaurant where we stuffed ourselves for continuing our journey through the wilderness, we followed the Snake River toward the Pacific.
Mike said we were following the path taken by Lewis and Clark and retold the story of Sacagawea guiding the explorers on their journey to the Pacific. Pete said her presence protected them because war parties never included women and signaled peaceful intentions. I wondered aloud what it was like to be with Lewis and Clark and be among the first to see the Rocky Mountains. Pete reminded me the Shoshone had lived here for centuries.
Mike said we should go to Bend, Oregon to see a volcano. Pete and I were skeptical, but it was on the way to Crater Lake National Park and California. We followed signs near Bend to the volcano and drove a corkscrew road to the top of the modest hill and read a plaque about the cinder volcano. Pete and I kidded about “making a mountain of a molehill” at Mike as we drove on to Crater Lake.
We found a campsite near the rim of the brilliant blue water contained by a rocky circular shoreline fringed with pine trees. A conical island protruded from the water, a remnant of the collapsed crater of a much larger prehistoric volcano. Mike spotted a bald eagle on a branch, and I captured it with a picture before it noisily flapped away.
The next day we saw a billboard, “Welcome to California” emblazoned with a flag of California. Mike whooped, Pete and I cheered. We stopped and took pictures of each other in front of the California Bear on the flag.
“I’ll bet there are fewer and fewer bears with thousands of people streaming into this state every day,” said Pete stroking his chin.
“I should take that bet and relieve you of some cash,” said Mike. “You’re wrong. I just read in National Geographic that bear population is increasing due to California’s huge game preserves. Sorry, but you’re wrong, Pete.”
“On to the Pacific,” I said. “I want to step into the California surf before we celebrate.”
“To the Pacific!” echoed Mike and Pete as we squeezed back into the Corvair and drove west, peering ahead for our first glimpse of the Pacific.