The Road to Silver Bay

Do you remember your favorite summer? I’m talking about back in the days when summer was really summer. Three full months off from school! It was so much different then, before we began full-time careers. Nowadays, we’re lucky if we can arrange one or two weeks of vacation at a time.

My last full summer involved a temporary job, yet it was a glorious, unforgettable season of fun. From early June to mid-August 1979, I worked on the staff of the Silver Bay YMCA conference center on the shore of beautiful Lake George in upstate New York. I was one of about 300 Emps (shorthand for employees), the great majority of whom were college students or recently graduated from high school. As one of three “house boys,” I assisted with housekeeping chores: picking up bundles of dirty linens in the morning, helping the laundry staff as necessary (especially during a big conference), and then distributing clean linens back to the main inn and the outlying residence halls and cabins—some 600 beds in all. My chores were usually done by mid-afternoon, with free time for the rest of the day. The Emps had their own lakeside recreation center: a former steamboat landing with a big dock and a diving board. Whenever we weren’t swimming or lounging at the ERC, several of us were usually waterskiing or “Samurai Tubing” on Lake George.

That's me on the left, 20 years old in the summer of '79, playing a jazz gig on the lawn in front of the Inn

That’s me on the left, 20 years old in the summer of ’79, playing a jazz gig on the lawn in front of the Inn

I hauled my drum kit up to help out with the summer musical (a big production in the gorgeous old auditorium) and played a few gigs whenever the opportunity arose. I really came into my own that season, developing a sense of self-confidence that has never wavered.

I also developed numerous friendships, many of which have lasted all these years. I attended some great reunions for a few years, but alas, I never returned for another summer as an Emp. I finished my academics at Penn State in the summer of 1980, and then went to Aviation Officer Candidate School at Pensacola later that year to begin my naval aviation career.

Fast forward to late 2012. I concluded my Jack Kerouac tribute journey across America in October, a trip so satisfying that I immediately began to plan a similar (but shorter) journey for 2013. That morphed into a visit to New England, with a top priority being a return to Silver Bay. Knowing that guests and conference attendees are afforded a variety of daily activities in the arts and humanities, I contacted the program director to suggest a lecture. Luckily for me, Chip Devenger (who had been on the staff in ’79) approved the idea and provided two days/nights of room & board in the main inn.

Thirty-four years after my wonderful summer at Silver Bay, I made my way back. I first spent a few days with my family in Central Pennsylvania, then started a leisurely two-day drive to Silver Bay on Sunday, August 11. Rather than take a direct route, I headed into western New York to spend a little time in the Finger Lakes region, with a truly enjoyable drive north along Route 14, which parallels the shore of Seneca Lake from Watkins Glen to Geneva. I was surprised by the sheer number or wineries that have sprouted up there in recent years, and stopped for a great lunch at Veraisons, the restaurant at Glenora Wine Cellars. It was well worth the stop, not only for the food but the superb view of the vineyards and lake from the outside veranda. After an overnight stay in Syracuse, I followed two scenic secondary roads—Routes 8 and 28—through the Adirondack Mountains to Lake George. From there, the road along the western shore of the lake was familiar: Route 9N through Bolton Landing, over Tongue Mountain, and north to Silver Bay Road. The weather was perfect for top-down cruising the entire day.

What a great place for lunch--a veranda overlooking the Glenora Wine Cellar vineyards on Seneca Lake in New York

What a great place for lunch–a veranda overlooking the Glenora Wine Cellar vineyards on Seneca Lake in New York

A location that lives up to its name: Lake Pleasant, in the midst of the Adirondack Mountains on Route 8.

A location that lives up to its name: Lake Pleasant, in the midst of the Adirondack Mountains on Route 8.

Although 34 years of my life had flowed by since my last visit, the huge and lovely campus at Silver Bay had hardly changed. And to my great surprise, there were several people still on the staff who had been there in 1979. I no sooner parked my car than I saw Chuck Leonard, an Emp with me in ’79 and now on staff to direct the annual musical. Another familiar face was that of John McPherson, the creator of the popular Close to Home syndicated comic. Although we had not been Emps at the same time, I knew John from former reunions, and we had several friends in common. I spent hours at The Store, a turn-of-the-century ice cream parlor, hanging out with Chuck and John and several new friends.

This is the view from the expansive "rocking chair" porch of the historic Inn.  No wonder folks spend hours here.

This is the view from the expansive “rocking chair” porch of the historic Inn. No wonder folks spend hours here.

With its stone columns and shingle siding, the Auditorium at Silver Bay has hosted lectures, musicals, and variety shows for more than a hundred years.

With its lovely stone columns and shingle siding, the Auditorium at Silver Bay has hosted lectures, musicals, and talent shows for more than a hundred years.

The two-day stay was all too short. I enjoyed presenting “Sweet Chariot: The Worldwide Adventures of a Silver Bay Emp,” which seemed to be well-received. Overall it was such a fine visit, in fact, that I have vowed to make Silver Bay a regular part of my life again. Whether it’s periodic visits or perhaps even a whole summer, I will keep going back. The place has that effect on people, defying the old adage that you can’t turn back time. At Silver Bay, you can—or at least slow it down a little. There are no televisions on campus. Cell phone coverage is spotty. It’s a real throwback to another time, and a refreshing change from the hectic pace of our workaday lives.

Photographer Mark Hudak took this dazzling shot in front of the Inn as I departed Silver Bay. I'll be back!

Photographer Mark Hudak took this dazzling shot in front of the Inn as I departed Silver Bay. I’ll be back!

Silver Bay beckons, and there’s a very good chance that my favorite summer is yet to come.


Swashbucklers and Black Sheep

When I reached the outskirts of St. Louis on Monday, October 15, I stopped for about an hour to visit one of the last surviving members of the famed Black Sheep squadron. Of the original 49 pilots and two ground officers who served with Greg “Pappy” Boyington in World War II, only five are left. The Sweet Chariot tour provided me with an opportunity to visit four of the five; however, one individual has been reclusive for decades and his exact whereabouts are unknown, and another is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Call me selfish, but I decided not to attempt to meet with the latter, since I preferred to remember him the way I last saw him—as a vibrant, talkative gentleman rather than someone who would neither recognize me nor recall my visit.

I did stop to see Ed Harper in Lake St. Louis. Now 92 years young, Ed was badly wounded during the war. He’s been a friend since we first met in New Orleans, almost 20 years ago, and his wife Jane is one of my favorites. She’s also one of my biggest book proponents, helping to push dozens of sales whenever we’ve participated in events together. I still get Christmas cards from the Harpers, so it was great to visit with them again during my trip across the country.

Visiting with Ed Harper, one of Pappy Boyington’s original pilots, and Jane Harper at their home in Lake St. Louis, MO.

Earlier, during the outbound leg of the tour in mid-September, one of my scheduled events was an evening presentation at the Pritzker Military Library in downtown Chicago. I called up another Black Sheep survivor, Jim Hill, who had previously declined an invitation to join me at the presentation. Fortunately the weather was fine that Thursday night, and Jim was feeling pretty good, so he decided to attend the event at the library and even joined me onstage. We shared an interesting and informative exchange, with Jim providing first-hand accounts of flying the F4U Corsair during the Solomons campaign.

Another of Boyington’s originals, Jim Hill of Chicago, at the Pritzker Military Library on September 20, 2012. Also pictured are Jim’s son Jeff Hill (at left), along with staff members Ken Clarke (President and CEO), and Nancy Houghton (Program Director)

And in northern California, I had the similar privilege of presenting a program on the new book with the assistance of a former Swashbuckler, Drury “Mac” McCall. We gave our presentation to a small but enthusiastic audience of about 15 people on a Monday night at Copperfield’s Books in Napa. I had exchanged numerous letters and phone calls with Mac, but had never actually met him until about five minutes before our presentation began.

I’ve known Mac McCall, an original Swashbuckler of VMF-214, for about 15 years; but we had never met face-to-face until we gave a presentation at Copperfield’s bookstore in Napa, CA.

After visiting with the Harpers near St. Louis, I continued my journey east, generally following the path taken by Jack Kerouac in 1947. He rode a bus from Los Angeles as far as Pittsburgh before his money ran out, and then used his thumb to hitchhike the rest of the way home to New York City. I took a slightly different route from Pittsburgh in order to spend a few days with my mother in State College, PA. And, as luck would have it, the decision resulted in a serendipitous encounter with yet another of my high school classmates!

My drive to State College, after an overnight stop near Cincinnati, was a fairly long push of more than 7 hours. I was low on gas by the time I got to Happy Valley, and out of laziness I decided to drive a few miles out of my way to the village of Boalsburg, where a Quik Mart gas station provides full service. (At the end of a long day, it’s a luxury to let someone else pump gas rather than unload my wheelchair from the car at a self-serve station.)

The attendant commented on the Mustang and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Florida, but had grown up there in Boalsburg. “Really,” he said. “Me, too—I’m a Gingrich.”

I hadn’t looked at him very closely before he said that, but suddenly everything clicked. I somehow even knew his first name, more than 35 years after high school.

“Are you Ira?”

“Yep,” he said.

It was a real OMG moment, especially considering that we had barely known each other back then, among a graduating class of more than 600 students. I was struck by the vast differences in our two lives. I’ve traveled extensively and was just finishing a coast-to-coast road trip; he has rarely, if ever, been out of central Pennsylvania.

After a few pleasantries, I pulled out of the station and headed for my mom’s place. I looked forward to visiting with my extended family for a couple of days before heading home to Florida. No, I didn’t plan to finish the Kerouac tribute by driving to New York City, although I was only four hours away. I felt extremely fortunate to have gotten the Mustang into Manhattan at the beginning of the trip without damage—and that was enough.

Besides, I still faced a two-day drive to Florida. I had another thousand miles to go, and would be at the wheel for more than nine hours each day—plenty of time to contemplate how odd life can be.

If Ira Gingrich watched me pull out of the gas station, I’m sure he saw me scratching my head.

MO Showed Me


Earlier this month, while heading east to trace the second half of Jack Kerouac’s route across the United States, I had the privilege of touring Route 66 for two days. Kerouac had purchased a bus ticket in Los Angeles in October 1947, and followed the famous highway from Flagstaff to Tucumcari. His bus then veered north to go make scheduled stops in the Midwest, including Wichita and Kansas City, before reaching St. Louis.

It was fascinating to see the impact of the interstate system on Route 66, but I still faced a journey of more than 2,600 miles before reaching my home in Florida. I planned to cover the Midwest in three days, and anticipated a rather dull ride in comparison to the rugged yet dazzling landscapes of Arizona and New Mexico.

Happily, I was wrong.

The first day of the “Midwest Passage” was unremarkable, to be sure. From Tucumcari, I followed US-64, which is mostly two lanes and virtually flat as it passes through Dalhart, Texas on its way to Wichita. The only features dotting the landscape are the numerous grain elevators that tower above the highway and adjacent rail lines. And, the closer one gets to Kansas and beef country, the more feedlots one passes. The sight of thousands of cattle jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in huge pens, waiting their fate in slaughter houses, was almost enough to turn me into a vegan.

I overnighted in Dodge City. Although it wasn’t exactly on Kerouac’s route, I’m a fan of Western history and movies, so I spent the night there “just because.” But the decision was also favorable in that it put me back on US 50. With great memories of my drive across Nevada on that highway a couple of weeks earlier, I felt like I’d been reacquainted with an old friend. There were no surprises—but no “wow” moments, either—during the drive across Kansas to Olathe, a suburb of Kansas City. However, the scenery improved the next day, October 15, as I continued east on US 50 to Jefferson City, Missouri. There, the highway takes a big southern dip. I wanted to approach St. Louis from due west because I had a brief side trip planned, so I consulted my atlas and made a spontaneous decision to take Route 94. My decision was motivated by efficiency, but instead it slowed me down—and was infinitely more rewarding.

At first, Rt. 94 merely looked like a more direct way to get where I was going

A state highway, Route 94 runs along the rich bottom lands of the Missouri River. I had no foreknowledge of this road, but have subsequently learned that it’s considered one of the most scenic in the state, especially when fall colors are at their peak. Woo-hoo! Was it just coincidence that I happened upon this road on a beautiful day? Route 94 might be heavily traveled on fall weekends, but there were only a few vehicles driven by local residents that Monday afternoon; otherwise the highway was all mine to enjoy.

I soon discovered that Rt. 94 offers all sorts of visual treats, such as this old railroad bridge on the Katy Trail, a popular rails-to-trails reclamation project.

The road suddenly became hilly, and I found my head on a constant swivel as I drove through miles of forest ablaze with fall color.

I had not anticipated such an array of bright colors when I started down the highway–thus the surprise was all the more pleasant.

Even the geography held surprises, such as this bluff rising dramatically from the bottom land near Marthasville, Missouri.

The unofficial nickname of Missouri (postal code MO), is the “Show Me State,” for reasons that only Missourians can readily identify with. Having driven through spectacular scenery in California and the desert Southwest, I thought my journey through the Midwest would be boring. But the fall colors of central Missouri provided a wonderful display, and reminded me that beauty can be found in virtually every state of this great county.

I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend.

Route 66: The Desert in Decay

After a spectacular top-down cruise through the red sandstone mountains of northern Arizona on October 10, I thought I might have shot my bolt. You see, the problem with spectacular top-down cruises is not merely that they end; there’s an almost addictive desire to do something even better the next day. And that’s simply not realistic—at least not in any sustainable way. So as I headed down Interstate 40 from Flagstaff to Winslow, where I would spend a 27th consecutive night in a motel room, I wondered whether I would encounter another day as thoroughly enjoyable.

It didn’t help that the last sixty miles of the day were flat and utterly boring, but a diversion presented itself at the halfway point. About 30 miles east of Flagstaff, I took a brief detour to check out a famous Arizona landmark: the impact crater caused by a piece of an asteroid that smashed into the desert some 50,000 years ago. The tourist attraction used to be free, but now a commercial enterprise charges $16 for the privilege of gazing at the gigantic crater. The visitor center was about to close for the afternoon, so I headed back to the interstate after viewing the crater’s outer rim from the parking lot.

Needing gas the next morning, I headed into Winslow in the gray light of dawn for a tour of the town. Highway signs indicated the historic portion of Route 66, and I hoped to also find some references to the stanza from the classic hit “Take It Easy”:

Well, I’m a-standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my lord
In a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me

(The Eagles, 1972)

The song is catchy and fun, but the ride into the center of town on October 11 was depressing. Winslow is a city in decay. Until a half-century ago, Route 66 was the main two-lane artery between Chicago and Los Angeles, but its days were numbered. President Dwight Eisenhower, having seen the tremendous mobilization capabilities of the autobahn in Germany during World War II, had initiated a construction plan for extensive superhighways that would crisscross the United States. In time, hundreds of small towns were bypassed by the Interstate Highway System, their once-flourishing business districts left to rot because commerce followed the new interstates. Winslow was no exception. Where I-40 loops to the north there are new hotels, gas stations, and fast-food franchises that manage to turn a profit; but the center of town appears forsaken, with weed-choked vacant lots, decrepit buildings, and grimy gas stations. The cars on the street look beat, as Jack Kerouac would say, as do most of the people driving them. I managed to find the street corner, commemorated on one side with a bronze statue and mural, and on the other by a store trying to capitalize on the tune’s fame.

East of Winslow, between Joseph City and Holbrook, I stopped at the Geronimo Trading Post to get souvenirs for my family back home. It was fun browsing through selections of Navajo pottery, turquois jewelry, and pieces of highly-polished petrified wood; but I had an agenda and was soon back on the road. Navigating through Holbrook, I got on US-180 for a few miles to the entrance of Petrified Forest National Park. This was a much-anticipated visit, for I had clear memories of visiting the site as a mere 8-year-old in the summer of 1967—the same year my Mustang rolled off the assembly line!

You can buy almost anything of regional interest at the trading post, including tepees, old chuck wagons, and huge pieces of petrified wood.

I would have to look through my father’s old Kodachrome slides for confirmation, but I’m certain there were significantly more petrified trees in the park 45 years ago. Apparently, during the past decades, much the wood has been removed by entrepreneurs (see my photo of the trading post), hence the strongly-worded warnings to visitors by the NPS not to pilfer even the tiniest bit of petrified wood within park boundaries. The few fallen trees that remain have been cut into forlorn-looking sections. Still, the petrified wood itself is not the real highlight; that distinction goes to the winding blacktop that connects the southern entrance of the park to the Painted Desert visitor’s center, more than twenty miles distant near Interstate 40. At first, cloudy skies muted many of the colors across this fascinating landscape, but by late morning the sun began to illuminate the outcroppings in all their glory.

Few fallen trees remain in the desolate landscape of the Petrified Forest National Park.

In the badlands just a few miles north of the Petrified Forest, portions of the Painted Desert yield an amazing contrast of colors.

By early afternoon I was back on I-40, heading east, though I soon took another detour to pass directly through Gallup, New Mexico, one of ten towns (besides Chicago and Los Angeles) named in the lyrics of the hip, timeless “Route 66.” About twice the size of Winslow, Gallup seems to have been more successful weathering the I-40 impact, although it’s obvious from cruising the main drag that many of the motels and restaurants are struggling. After spending the night in Moriarty, NM, I continued to follow Kerouac’s trail on Route 66 as far east as Tucumcari. There, according to a sketch in the author’s journal, his bus turned north and passed through Dalhart, TX on its way to the Midwest.

Thus, while making my last Route 66 detour into Tucumcari, I was compelled to dial my iPod to another great song about life on the road:

I’ve been from Tuscon to Tucumcari,
Tehachapi to Tonapah,
Driven every kind of rig that’s ever been made.
Driven the back roads so I wouldn’t get weighed.
And if you give me: weed, whites, and wine
And you show me a sign,
I’ll be willin’, to be movin’

(“Willin’,” Little Feat, 1970)

Tucumcari’s main drag shows the same state of decline that the interstate had brought to Winslow, Gallup, and all the other bypassed towns. Some of the old motels and restaurants are literally falling apart, and most of the others are on virtual life support. I was also glad to see that several enterprising businesses have turned a few small motels and garages into quasi museums, but the real commerce is south of town along the interstate. It’s apparent—especially considering the current economic downturn—that the few struggling businesses along the famous route will eventually go the way of the dinosaurs.

The “Old School Garage” in Tucumcari displays several vehicles from the storied history of Route 66, including these cab-over trucks. Jack Kerouac’s hitchhiking adventures included several rides with truckers.

Motel or museum? One of the old businesses still in existence in Tucumcari, the Blue Swallow Motel, still has its original sign that advertises “100% Refrigerated Air.”

All that’s left, if you’ll excuse my homage to another great Eagles song, are some Sad Cafés.

Desert Skies

One of the highlights of my cross-country trip was an unbroken week of sunny days in California. The temperature reached the 90s in northern California during the first days of October, but conditions turned more pleasant—perfect for top-down driving—by the end of the week. I spent the morning of Sunday, October 7 signing books at the Commemorative Air Force museum in Camarillo, then fired up the Mustang at about noon to start the eastward journey back across the country. Aside from one more scheduled event, I had no specific plans other than to continue to trace Jack Kerouac’s route, at least in general terms. Exactly 65 years ago, in October 1947, he rode by bus from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh, PA.

I had initially hoped to follow Route 66 out of California, but Kerouac’s bus went straight east on what is now Interstate 10, passing through remote desert towns such as Indio and Blythe. I took a deliberate detour to feed my lifelong interest in all things nautical by paying a quick visit to Long Beach, where I enjoyed a close-up view of the RMS Queen Mary. I did not have time for a full tour—that will have to wait for another trip—but I was glad to spend a few minutes soaking in the beauty of the legendary  passenger ship.

The elegant lady could use a cosmetic freshening, but she’s still beautiful at the age of 76!

After spending the night in Palm Desert, about halfway across California, I continued east on Monday for another 265 miles to Scottsdale, AZ. I took nearly a full day to catch up on paperwork and some blogging, then met my friend and fellow author Barrett Tillman for lunch on Tuesday. We toured Barrett’s “home museum,” the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force museum in Mesa, followed by a tag-team presentation and book signing event that evening at The Poisoned Pen, an independent bookstore in Scottsdale.

I privately felt some relief that the event with Barrett was the last scheduled program of the Sweet Chariot tour. For the rest of the journey, I could concentrate on seeing this great country without worrying about a specific timetable. Appropriately, the next day resulted in one of the most enjoyable and visually entertaining cruises of the entire trip. From Phoenix, I headed up Interstate17 for about 60 miles, and then took Arizona Rt. 69 into the Prescott National Forest. Slightly north of Prescott, I cut back to the east on Rt. 89A, which twists and climbs dramatically into the Verde Valley. The town of Jerome is perched at 5,000 feet, with the surrounding slopes so precipitous that it almost appears to be a community of cliff dwellers.

Looking beyond an outcropping into the Verde Valley, some 5,000 feet below, near Jerome, AZ

After descending back down into the valley, I followed 89A to Red Rock State Park and took a side trip through the fantastic outcroppings of red sandstone near Sedona. The sight was incredible, even though I arrived at high noon (lower sun angles, in the morning and evening, yield more dramatic reddish hues). I had no particular plans for lunch that day, but while driving through Sedona I spied the funky Red Planet Diner, and felt compelled to stop. Glad I did! The inside is pure kitsch, with chrome and stainless steel furniture, a very cool 3-D spaceship mural on the ceiling (complete with lots of ETs), and tabletop collages of old sci-fi movies and TV shows. The service and the food were outstanding.

Cathedral Rock, one of the most photographed outcroppings in Arizona.

Back outside, I dropped the top and motored up 89A from Sedona to Flagstaff. That winding, 30-mile stretch of two-lane was the most satisfying cruise of the trip, with an azure sky overhead and the temperature as ideal as I’ve ever experienced. The sun felt pleasantly warm while sitting at idle, yet the breeze was perfectly balmy out on the highway. With the exception of another top-down cruiser—a new Mini Cooper in front of me—there was virtually no traffic along the picturesque route. I was almost sorry to reach Flagstaff, where I put the top back up for the 60-mile run to Winslow on Interstate 40 (I don’t care to jockey among semis moving at 75 mph with the top down).

One of the most enjoyable cruises of the tour was a 30-mile run north on this picturesque two-lane: Arizona 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff.

On the flip side, I realized that Interstate 40 followed what had once been Route 66. For the next two days, I would be cruising THE road—far and away the most representative cross-country trip in American highway lore. Please join me as we examine what remains of it.

Until then: Roll On!

Samaritans to the Rescue

Call it luck, call it fate, call it the Grace of God, or call it coincidence, I recently experienced another amazing occurrence of serendipity.

Only 18 hours after completing my two-day run across Utah and Nevada on The Loneliest Road in America, the Mustang suffered an unusual breakdown. I departed Reno early on Saturday, September 29 to visit my aunt and a couple of cousins—a detour from the Kerouac tribute—in Ashland, OR. The drive was estimated to take about four hours. I planned to stop at a casino along the way and watch some college football, since the early games start at 9 AM in the Pacific time zone. I reached Diamond Mountain Casino in Susanville, CA, had a big country breakfast, and watched Penn State (my alma mater) trounce Illinois. All in all, a good start to the day.

I’m lucky that I stopped at this little casino, the perfect place to watch college football on a Saturday morning

But when I went back outside to my car, there was no start at all. The key turned in the ignition, but nothing happened. After a few minutes of fiddling with the ignition switch, located in the dash in early Mustangs, I discovered that something quite bizarre had happened: the ignition cylinder had fallen apart! When I parked at Diamond Mountain that morning and shut off the engine, something in the spring-loaded outer cylinder had popped loose. I discovered this by removing the ash tray adjacent to the switch, which enabled me to reach my hand behind the dash and feel the loose parts. Worse, as I shifted the parts, I heard the snapping sound of a short—never a good sign. I knew I needed to disconnect the battery before something serious shorted out or a fuse blew; unfortunately, my car was parked almost bumper-to-bumper with a car in the facing row.

Soon a couple of local guys pulled up in a pickup. I asked for their help in pushing my car back a few feet, which they gladly provided. I raised the hood and disconnected the battery, and then got to work pulling the ignition cylinder out of the dash. I removed three or four pieces, but could not figure out how to disconnect the terminal end from the wiring harness.

I had the sickening sensation that I was going to be stranded for days. Susanville is a small town, and the chances that a parts store would stock an ignition cylinder for a 67 Mustang were very slim. And of course it was a Saturday, so if any parts needed to be shipped in from Reno, the earliest I could expect to receive them would be late Monday or even Tuesday! Nevertheless, I used my Garmin to phone a couple of nearby auto parts stores. As expected, nobody stocked a complete ignition switch.

This is what the switch is supposed to look like. Mine popped apart in Susanville, CA on a Saturday morning.

I phoned Aunt Barbara and told her about my situation, saying that it looked almost impossible that I’d get to visit Ashland. We were all disappointed, especially as two of my cousins and their extended families had joined her for a visit.

Meanwhile, the Mustang attracted plenty attention, especially with the hood raised. Several people graciously offered to help, and one group set off for an independent parts store. The further I got into inspecting the cylinder, the more I realized that the casing—a combination of metal and plastic parts that snap together—had simply separated. This gave me some hope, yet I was still frustrated that I could not disconnect the back of the cylinder from the wiring harness.

At that opportune moment, another helpful individual walked up to my disabled car. He introduced himself as “T,” and said he knew a little about ignition switches. I was sprawled across the driver’s seat, still trying to get that harness free, so I deferred to his experience and let him have a try. Within a few moments, Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, a heavy machinery mechanic for Cal Tran, figured out how to loosen a small nut from the back of the cylinder, which disconnected the wiring harness.

Now that the whole cylinder was out, we confirmed that nothing was broken. As suspected, the two casing halves had merely separated.  It was easy enough to fit the various pieces back together, including a compressed spring inside the switch, but it was obvious that the casing had not been securely fastened during factory production. “T” mentioned that he and his wife lived just a few minutes away, where he had a workshop; so while he held the switch tightly in his hand to keep the pieces together, his wife drove the two of them home. A few minutes later they were back, and “T” proudly showed the rebuilt switch, its outer casing pieces securely crimped together. He reattached the switch to the wiring harness and installed it in the dash. At first he had trouble inserting the key cylinder, but I recalled the procedure for using a paper clip to properly clock the cylinder, and it slid right in.

We connected the battery, and the car cranked immediately with the turn of the key. What a sweet sound—and what a relief! We then pulled the battery cable again so that I could reinstall the ashtray and lighter, as I needed the receptacle for my GPS device. Once everything was back together, the battery connection was tightened down. Just three hours after the breakdown, the Mustang was as good as new.

Big hearts live in small towns. Attilio (“T”) Aguirre, at right, knew exactly how to rebuild a vintage ignition switch, and saved my day. Gerald Mack, left, offered moral support for the better part of three hours.

During the past few days, I’ve contemplated the razor-thin line between disaster and setback. Certainly the Mustang has had some delays caused by mechanical issues—a loose brake caliper in Denver that could have been calamitous, and a separated ignition switch that might have broken a day earlier while I was in the middle of the Nevada desert—but thanks to the help of Good Samaritans, the worst scenarios were averted.

It’s all part of the adventure of taking a 45-year-old car on a cross-country odyssey. The tour is not an “everyday” excursion by any means—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Western Originals

As the Sweet Chariot Tour rolls toward the California coast, I am constantly awed by the great open spaces of the American West.  I have not visited this part of the country in about 30 years. Living in the East my whole life, I had quite simply forgotten the scale and majesty of the Western landscape.

Repairs to the Mustang’s disc brakes were completed on Monday, September 24 in Denver. I had hoped to explore the downtown area and visit Central City, where Jack Kerouac experienced a few adventures during his layover in 1947; but the brake issue with the Mustang interfered with my timetable, as I had to be in Salt Lake City by Wednesday for a book event. I left Denver on Tuesday morning hoping to follow the old roads that Kerouac covered by bus (after borrowing money from a relative for a ticket to San Francisco), but the route has disappeared under the concrete of Interstate 80. I did enjoy a scenic climb through the Rockies on US 287 to Laramie, Wyoming, where I had to join the heavy trucks that rumble along I-80. Fortunately traffic was light, and I was able to soak in the sights of the high desert landscape, often aiming my Canon camera through the windshield or out the driver’s window. Dark clouds threatened, but the rain fell on the mountain slopes rather than in the valley. One impressive sight, after miles of unpopulated land, was the big oil refinery in Sinclair, WY. I had mistakenly thought the company was defunct, because the brand disappeared from the east years ago; but there are quite a few Sinclair stations in the Midwest and Far West. That afternoon I made a brief side trip at Rawlins to see the sinister-looking Wyoming Frontier Prison. I did not go inside: a few photos of the imposing exterior were enough for me.

After overnighting in Rock Springs, WY, I continued to Salt Lake City on Wednesday. Just past Green River, I saw a long train down in a valley below the highway. Pulled by five big Southern Pacific locomotives and climbing slowly around a curve, the train looked for all the world like a toy because of the dimensions of the nearby mountains. The highlight of the day’s run was a stop at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site in the small town that shares its name–an interesting and nicely maintained site well worth visiting. The weather cleared up by mid-afternoon as I drove through spectacular mountain passes on I-80, including Cottonwood Canyon between Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. I had a most enjoyable book-signing event that night at the Barnes & Noble in Sugarhouse, where I was joined by my nephew, Cedric, a member of the Park City ski patrol in the winter months.

The main museum at Ft. Bridger, in the old commissary building.

As terrific as the scenery had been in Wyoming, I was in for even more visual treats while driving from Salt Lake to the coast. On the Road reveals only that Kerouac’s bus passed through Reno, NV, making the exact route from Salt Lake City a tossup. I decided to get off the interstate and follow US 6 again, that old companion of a highway that my friend Al and I had started on some three weeks earlier. In eastern Utah, south of Salt Lake City, both US 6 and US 50 share the same pavement. In the desert valleys, the two-lane blacktop runs as straight as an arrow for miles on end, with nothing taller than telephone poles in the foreground and craggy mountain ranges in the distacnce. The road then snakes through narrow—and spectacular—mountain divides with mystical names, such as Skull Rock Pass.

One of the many mountain passes on US 50.

During a stop at the Nevada state line, near Garrison, Utah, I encountered one of the most interesting people I’ve met during the trip. While I fueled up the Mustang, a short-bodied school bus pulled alongside a nearby pump. The driver, a slim woman in classic western attire, expressed her admiration for the convertible, which started up a friendly conversation. For the past 20 years, Ruth Eldridge has driven a bus for the White Pine County school district in Nevada, making a round trip of 260 miles every school day. Now that’s driving—and it’s not her only job. She and her husband have a ranch where they raise livestock and grow their own vegetables in a large garden. To me, Ruth is the personification of a rugged Westerner.

Ruth Eldridge drives her bus 260 miles every day that school’s in session.

About sixty miles into Nevada, US 6 turns south at Ely (pronounced Elee). Route 50 continues west, roughly following the path of the historic Pony Express, most appropriate for a Mustang cruise. It’s well worth noting that the section in Nevada has been officially named The Loneliest Road in America—and there was nary a structure beyond Ely for 80 miles. I knew my decision to take a 45-year-old car across that stretch was a calculated risk, but the Mustang ran like a mail pony at the 70 mph posted speed limit. Mile after mile of extraordinary scenery was our reward for choosing the path less taken.

It’s an understatement to call this an empty stretch on the Loneliest Road in America.

I stopped for the night in Eureka, which boasts a nicely appointed Best Western. The next morning, while I headed down Main St. for gas, a bright yellow Corvette of mid-70s vintage approached from the opposite direction. I could hear the loud rumble and loping cam of a racing setup, and the driver and I mutually waved as we passed. A few minutes later, the same Corvette pulled into the gas station. My jaw must have dropped as a police officer climbed out wearing a classic two-tone brown uniform. He stuck out his hand and introduced himself as Ken Jones, the Eureka County Sheriff. I had just met The Most Interesting Man of my journey thus far. Ken’s real passion is hotrods. He organizes an annual car show and drag races in Eureka, and his yellow Corvette has the goods, with a race-built engine putting out some 450 horsepower. After posing for a photo with me, Ken fired up the ‘Vette and lit up the rear tires in a half-donut while pulling out onto Main St. He headed up a steep side street, but was soon back at the gas station, this time driving his “government vehicle,” an Impala cruiser that looked every bit as bad-ass as the Vette. “I’m 70 years old and I still haven’t grown up,” Ken admitted. He sincerely wished me a safe trip, and we bid farewell.

Sheriff Ken Jones and his hot-rodded Corvette in Eureka, NV

The day’s trip across Nevada measured about 240 miles. There was only one tiny town, Austin (population 192), between Eureka and Fallon. It was a lonely highway indeed, and I saw exactly one car going my direction along that stretch. It was almost strange, afterward, to enter a thriving metropolitan area as I drove through Sparks into Reno.

They call US 50 the Loneliest Road, but between the fascinating folks and the unparalleled scenery, I would rate my trip across Utah and Nevada as one of the best drives I’ve ever experienced.