An adventurous writer recreates her grandparents’
epic 1929 journey across America.
While cleaning my attic recently, I stumbled across an unexpected treasure – a crumbling cardboard binder filled with journal entries chronicling a cross-country road trip from Wisconsin to California.
As I flipped through the fragile, mouse-nibbled pages, I was taken in by a tale of youthful curiosity, enthusiasm and perseverance. Who were these people who coaxed wooden wheels down washboard roads, changed endless flat tires in the desert sun and drank coffee from cracked cups in rough-and-tumble roadside cafes?
A closer reading and a careful look at the faded black-and-white photographs revealed John and Elizabeth Sleep, my maternal grandparents, along with a young male friend who joined them on the trip. My grandfather died when I was young, and I don’t remember my grandmother ever talking about this ambitious adventure. But as the grandchild who has inherited an interest in writing and an inclination toward wanderlust, their journal spoke to me.
Elizabeth Sleep poses with her 1927 Chandler Standard Six.
The West was calling us. For a long time, we had been planning to take a trip to the coast, and John informed me to get ready to leave on Saturday, the twenty-third.
My grandparents, John and Elizabeth, lived in southeastern Wisconsin. In their driveway sat a 1927 Chandler Standard Six, and they were about to embark on a new and uniquely American kind of journey – the road trip. My plan was to do the same, tracing my grandparents’ route and revisiting the sites my grandmother wrote about in the journal, in an effort to capture the essence of a road trip taken more than 80 years ago.
My husband, Scott, and I decided to set out for the adventure in our Subaru Forester in June of 2016. With casual clothes, modern highways and automobile amenities like air conditioning, cruise control and ergonomic seats, we could count on a comfortable journey. For my grandfather, who wore a three-piece suit, and my grandmother, who dressed in a drop-waist flapper frock with cloche hat, navigating mountainous terrain and suffering desert heat was a test of physical stamina.
The drive from Rockford to Dixon was lovely, the road following along the river with many bluffs and sharp rises.
The scenery was almost unchanged as we meandered along the Rock River in northern Illinois. In Byron, we spied a barn mural commemorating the legendary New York to San Francisco auto trail called the Lincoln Highway. We stopped in at the local historical museum, where a self-proclaimed old-timer answered questions about our route and pointed us to a restaurant serving coffee at a throwback price of five cents a cup. In nearby Dixon, President Ronald Reagan’s childhood home, small cafes in the historic downtown serve daily specials with side dishes of gossip about our 40th president. Chatting with locals, we learned that in the year of my grandparents’ trip, Reagan worked as a lifeguard at nearby Lowell Beach Park.
Sharecropper shacks near Greenwood, Mississippi.
Mississippi was a landscape of cotton as far as the eye could see. There were sharecropper shacks with pretty patchwork quilts draped over fences and ladder-back chairs with rush bottom seats on the porches.
Somewhere south of Decatur, Illinois, Midwestern accents softened and the terrain flattened into endless fields of beans and corn. Hours later, looking for lodging that evoked the history of the Mississippi Delta, we happened upon Tallahatchie Flats, a collection of sharecropper shacks near Greenwood, Mississippi. The shacks have been converted to tourist cabins and furnished to recreate the life of a tenant farmer. Distressed wood walls, an iron bed with patchwork quilt, repurposed kitchen utensils and mismatched dishes gave our shack the feeling of a living museum. A radio pre-tuned to WABG AM 960, a local community station that specializes in vintage blues and gospel music, was a special touch. Relaxing on the front porch at twilight while listening to the crackly recordings of Bessie Smith and other top blues artists of the 1920s, we felt the weight of history on our shoulders.
Had a dandy dinner and started to plow through the red Texas mud. The boys put the chains on, and it surely was a good thing as the road was like a plowed field, and we saw many cars in the ditch.
Our only encounter with red mud was in Marshall, Texas, home to a factory that produces terracotta garden pots. In Pecos, Texas, we were a week too late for the annual rodeo, but tapped into the town’s cowboy persona at the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame. One interesting exhibit told the story of beloved rodeo clown Quail Dobbs, who was inducted into the Hall in 2004.
The nearby West of the Pecos Museum, located in the historic Orient Hotel, has a saloon dating back to 1896 that bears the bullet holes of an Old West gunfight. The bartender, a talking mannequin whose voice is activated when a visitor steps into the saloon, narrates the story of the shootout. Its well-curated collection includes many 1920s photos of the town’s commercial district, and it was easy to imagine my grandparents mingling among the merchants and shoppers.
Coolidge Dam, near Globe, Arizona.
After rounding a series of curves, we came to Coolidge Dam. The grandeur of the huge dam in the canyon with the mountains rising from every side could never be truthfully pictured. It was completed 60 days before we arrived.
As we climbed through the canyon outside of Globe, Arizona, I wondered about my grandparents’ reaction to this arid and unfamiliar terrain. Unlike the oaks and maples whose gentle outstretched arms welcome visitors to the Midwest, the cacti and stubby pincushions here seemed utterly foreboding. Off the tourist track, the area surrounding Coolidge Dam was eerily quiet. We drove across the immense dome-shaped structure built to harness the energy of the Gila River and looked out over the San Carlos Reservoir. We also paused to remember my grandfather, whose steely nerves held the wheel steady on the hairpin turns and steep incline here and in nearby Salt River and Devil’s Canyons.
Our drive led through the Santa Cruz Mountains. The redwoods overhung the road, at times shutting out the light, so it was damp and wild. This was the loveliest drive of the trip.
While we found only a few man-made structures remaining from my grandparents’ trip, the natural landmarks have endured. It was beneath the towering saguaros of the Southwest and the ancient redwoods of the California coast that I most felt the passage of time and the presence of their adventurous spirits. Perhaps it is because, like families, branches grow in different directions, but their roots remain as one. At Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz, we posed for photos beneath the Father of the Forest, the same tree that wrapped its woody arms around my grandmother’s tiny frame back in 1929. It was a fitting finale.
After returning home, I have often imagined my grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, typing up her notes on a sticky-keyed typewriter and carefully arranging the photos. I’m grateful she did. Her journal gave my trip a purpose and led to the discovery of mutual interests – a curiosity about unknown places, an awe of natural landscapes and a love of automobile travel.
Even with a well-planned itinerary, it’s easy to be seduced by an inviting side road or an intriguing road sign – such is the serendipity of road travel. While we tried to be as faithful as possible to my grandparents’ route, our trip included plenty of detours and unplanned stops. Here are a few of our favorites.
Get the Blues
Gateway to the Blues Museum
Nothing evokes the sentiment of a region or an era more than its music. With blues on the rise in the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s, my grandparents might have heard the characteristic bass lines coming from back roads juke joints. With only a basic knowledge of this musical genre, we stepped into the Gateway to the Blues Museum. Soon, we were in a recording studio the size of a phone booth, where my husband jotted down lyrics for a blues composition on a whiteboard. We’d just learned that most blues lyrics follow the traditional A – A – B sentence pattern of field calls used by plantation workers, conveying a blend of love and heartbreak.
Go Back in Time
Our destination for the day was Marshall, Texas, but since we arrived early, we decided to continue up the road to nearby Jefferson, a small community that exudes history from its pores. We’d been disappointed to find that most of the hotels my grandparents stayed in on their journey were gone, the victims of time, so we were excited to find a selection of retro-lodging in Jefferson including the Excelsior House Hotel, which has been in operation since the late 1850s. There are also a half dozen historic bed-and-breakfast inns, including the Delta Street Inn, where we stayed. Another can’t-miss stop in Jefferson is the Jefferson General Store, which has an old-fashioned soda fountain and is chockablock with antiques and oddities.
Take to the Trail
Saguaro National Park
Think of a road trip West and national parks come to mind. While it can sometimes be tempting to zoom by rather than get off the highway and lace up your hiking boots, the effort to do so is always repaid immeasurably. Such was the case with our visit to Saguaro National Park (Eastern District) outside of Tucson, Arizona. With monsoon rains threatening, we considered bypassing the park. Thank goodness we didn’t. Cloudy skies moderated temperatures and rain in the desert made for a unique outdoor experience. It also gave us a personal connection to what my grandmother described as the “prickly” landscape of the Rincon Mountain range.
See the Seals
Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery
San Simeon, California
San Simeon is often associated with the opulent hilltop Hearst Castle. But 5 miles north on California’s iconic State Route 1, nature enthusiasts will find an equally alluring sight. At the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery, we witnessed hundreds of seals sunbathing on the shore. A volunteer naturalist explained that we were seeing adult and juvenile male seals that had come ashore to molt. The northern elephant seal gets its name from its enormous size and the male’s long nose. Route 1 was built in stages during the 1920s and 1930s, so my grandparents didn’t have the opportunity to drive this spectacular coast-hugging highway.
Stroll the Boardwalk
Santa Cruz, California
My grandparents went to Santa Cruz to visit an aunt, but lost no time in hitting the beach. “We immediately drove down to the wharf, saw the fish markets, went into the casino and looked over the shops along the boardwalk,” my grandmother wrote in her journal. What’s remarkable is how little this scene has changed. Today’s boardwalk includes an arcade and amusement park with a number of vintage attractions that include the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster dating back to 1924. The beach is now lined with volleyball courts and, just up the road, you can watch surfers tackle the waves at a spot known as Steamer Lane.