Cross Country Ramblings

(copyright 1996 M. Park Hunter. This article was first published in Classic Auto Restorer)

If you want to cross the country, take an interstate. If you want to see the country, take a two-lane road. But if you want to meet the country, drive an old car.

In 1995, I had the opportunity to drive from Indiana to California in a 1960 Rambler Cross Country station wagon. I did some turnpike cruising, but mostly I took old US 54 from Illinois to New Mexico and US 60 into Arizona. These are generally great two-lane roads, less sterile than the interstates and lined with interesting people and places.

Especially in Missouri, US 54 treats you to some of the lushest scenery on God’s green earth. The road twists and humps smoothly through the Ozarks, marking a path through the deep woods. Swooping through the hills, the driving experience is almost like flying. Small towns and old red pole barns punctuate the trip. I drove part of the distance at night and spent the next morning picking huge bugs out of the Rambler’s radiator.

When you drive an old auto, people frequently come right up and talk to you. At one gas station, a guy driving a rusty Ford van stopped to admire the Rambler. He remembered having one just like it until he went over a railroad track too fast and tore the front suspension from under it.

There was also the highway worker holding the stop sign in rural Kansas. Road construction constricted traffic to one lane for seven miles along one remote stretch of road, so while I waited my turn to drive through I chatted with him. Surprisingly, he’d never heard of Ramblers but thought the car looked pretty cool. We talked about cars for nearly fifteen minutes, and he told me he’s saving a ‘70s Dodge truck with a slant six for his sons to drive when they get older.

He was a welcome bit of companionship in the sparseness that constitutes Kansas. Farm fields stretched off in every direction, unbroken except for the occasional grain elevator which would rise on the horizon, scroll past the windshield and disappear behind me. I amused myself by hunting for old cars in the small towns surrounding each elevator.

Kansas is the edge of the west, that fabled utopia of rust free sheetmetal. Fords and Chevys of the ‘40s and ‘50s started to crop up, and I spotted a good looking Hudson Wasp near the Oklahoma line.

US 54 cuts through the Oklahoma panhandle and a corner of Texas before entering New Mexico. The landscape down there takes on a parched, dusty look. What the countryside lacks in water, the locals make up for in character. Hooker, Oklahoma, is a small community with a big billboard boasting, “Home of the Horny Toads.”

“Why don’t you come back and see us some time?” adds the sign at the edge of town.

I stopped at an old Route 66 diner near Santa Rosa, New Mexico one evening for dinner. Across the room, an old guy with a Jimmy Durante voice was raving to the waitress about the green chili.

“Gimme a bowl of dat green chili,” he said. “You know, dis is da best green chili. I have dreams about dis stuff. We make da trip to California twice a year, and I don’t care if it’s midnight, morning, when it is. I gotta stop and have some of dis green chili.”

I ordered the green chili special with warm tortillas for dipping. It was, as the man said, good stuff. While I was eating, the cook came out to tell me his brother had a ’64 Rambler. It was a great car, he said, but it wasn’t running right now.

New Mexico truly is a haven for old car lovers. In Vaughn, where highways 54 and 60 intersect, I discovered a vast junkyard of cars mostly from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Not too many windows or hubcaps left, but loads of good sheetmetal. I asked the owner, a Mr. Allen, about buying some Rambler parts, but he’d retired and was only interested in selling whole cars now.

Further west on US 60 I was surprised to find the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, with its collection of giant white antenna dishes mounted on railroad tracks and spread out over 30 miles of desert. You can walk right up to them, and the scale is impressively huge. This is the sort of thing you never see along the interstate.

Finally in Arizona I was forced to get back on the slab and take I-10 into California. It was a really hot afternoon and in deference to the Rambler’s age and burden of luggage I tooled along at 50 mph. At least, until the policeman pulled me ever.

“Sir, do you know how fast you were going?” he asked.

I thought it was about 50 mph, but my speedometer may have been off so I asked him how fast I’d really been travelling.

“Sir, you were travelling about 50 mph. Sir, why were you going so slow?”

I replied that the Rambler didn’t like the heat and would probably boil over if I went much faster. He then told me the air patrol had been following my progress for about an hour and was concerned that I’d get hit by a semi truck.

“Sir, can you turn on your flashers?”

“Uh, they hadn’t invented those yet when they built this car,” I said.

The policeman shrugged his shoulders in disgust. After warning me to be careful, he ushered me on my way.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. Climbing the California mountains amidst high heat and heavy traffic wasn’t much fun for me or the Rambler, so we ducked off I-10 at Beaumont and took the back roads to Lake Elsinore, a sleepy little resort town tucked at the base of the Elsinore and Santa Ana mountains.

The next morning, I climbed out of Lake Elsinore on twisty Route 74, driving through the Cleveland National Forest and descending on San Juan Capistrano of “when the swallows come back” fame. A few more miles and I could see the Pacific Ocean.

Finishing my journey, I felt a more intimate knowledge of the American West, shorn of the plastic and glitter that line the interstates. There’s a grandeur in the desolation, a warmth in the stoic, thinly-spread population. Driving the Rambler shifted my focus from getting there as soon as possible to experiencing the countryside and enjoying the trip.