We’ve all had road trips that didn’t go as planned, and one that comes to mind for us is our honeymoon. We were married June 7, 1969 at the First Christian Church in Ottumwa, IA, a church without air conditioning, on a day that set weather records of 102 degrees in the shade.
Our bags were packed and in the car when we left the church at approximately 5:00 P.M. beneath a barrage of rice that stuck to my hair like glue, because my hair was held in place with a can of super strength hairspray to survive the heat and humidity. The black ’64 Plymouth Valiant we were driving didn’t have air-conditioning, but with the windows down, the oppressive heat didn’t seem so bad.
While we had our route high-lighted on a road map, we didn’t know a lot about available resources in Nebraska, and wound up stopping at a truck stop for a supper of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, when most of the towns after Omaha seemed like one-horse stops in the road.
For no other reason, than it was our wedding night, and the name of the town sounded romantic, we stopped at a motel in Valentine, NE. Valentine wasn’t much to brag about in 1969, but the motel was clean, cool, and private. At least there was a shower stall with some tepid water in it so I could shampoo the hairspray and rice out of my hair.
The following day, our destination was Pine Ridge, NE, where my husband’s brother was going to school, and we had planned to look him up on our way to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. We first located a motel in Chadron, NE, unloaded our vehicle at the motel, and drove to Pine Ridge to have supper there with Paul. Since he had been expecting us, our arrival wasn’t a surprise to him, but his greeting was a surprise to us.
The previous day, one of the teen-age boys attending the school there had been found dead, his head in a bucket of gasoline. Apparently, he had been inhaling the fumes to get high. It was a shocking dash of reality in the midst of a holiday we had dreamed would be magically enchanting.
Still, we had a good evening catching up with Paul, and headed back to the motel, enjoying the balmy breeze wafting through the car windows. So we were a little shocked, when we returned to the motel, to be met by the manager, with an armful of blankets and a story about a cold front coming in over night. He was sorry to inform us the furnace was in the process of being replaced since it was the second week in June, and they had been anticipating warm enough weather it wouldn’t be a problem.
It turned out to be a problem. Overnight, the temperature dropped to below freezing, and by morning, Mike and I flipped a coin to see who would crawl out from under the comforters to run a steamy bath in the closed bathroom so we could thaw out long enough to get some clothes on, clothes we had packed for a summer vacation. Mike lost the coin flip, I suspect on purpose, so he could do the gentlemanly thing and man up. He ran the bathwater, which we gladly shared, and since we didn’t have warm clothes, we dressed in layers.
Imagine how stunned we were to go outside in our shorts and short sleeves to find snow on the ground.
We stopped at a dinky little mall long enough to buy a pair of pants and a long-sleeved shirt, each. Since we had packed sweatshirts for the trip, we figured we were ready for the next neck of our journey.
As the sun rose higher in the June sky, it burned brightly in an azure blue sky, eventually thawing the couple of inches of snow on the ground. “Hard to believe that two days ago it was 102 degrees in Ottumwa, IA, isn’t it?” I laughingly asked my new husband.
He just rolled his eyes in his head, and shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, who would have believed it?” The interesting thing about Mount Rushmore was, you could see it for miles and miles before you were actually close enough to reach the actual park entrance.
Visiting the national monument turned out to be a pleasant experience, the weather warming up enough to make it enjoyable. We were duly impressed with the mammoth size of the rock cliff, and the vision and years of effort it took to immortalize the faces of these former presidents in such an ostentatious manner.
By late afternoon we were on our way to Wisconsin, where we planned to spend a couple of days visiting my mother’s sister, Mary, and her family. There were other things we could have done, but the lure of burning up highway miles in a vehicle was fast losing its attraction.
While some details of the trip back across the northern part of the United States elude me now, I do recall pulling an over-nighter to reach Wisconsin. Mike and I took turns driving. We mostly grabbed fast food meals at drive-thru restaurants. A couple of times that night, I remember waking up long enough to hear Mike complaining about the horrible fog were we were driving through in first Minnesota and then, Wisconsin.
I mumbled words of sympathy each time, and lay back down to doze off again until a flashlight shined through the back seat window. I heard Mike asking, “Is there anything I can do to help, officer? I’ve had some First Aid training through the American Red Cross.”
“Thanks, but this is a clean-up mission at the point,” the response came through the window.
I was ready to get up to see what was going on when Mike warned me, “Lay back down. You don’t want to see this.”
“Why,” I croaked in a gravelly, sleepy voice?
“There’s been a car wreck. Two cars full of kids were playing chicken in the fog. They hit head-on.”
The highway patrolmen were flushing the highway off with fire extinguishers, and it occurred to both of us at the same time that we were in a certain amount of jeopardy ourselves, sitting there along the side of the highway in fog so dense you could barely see beyond the beam of the highway patrolman’s flashlight.
I did lay back down, but I didn’t go back to sleep, and in a few minutes, when I was sure we were clear of the scene of the accident, I climbed over the back of the front seat to help Mike keep a watchful eye out for oncoming traffic. Mike was 21 years old, and I was 20 years old at the time. There was something sobering about being at the scene of an accident where teen-agers close to our age had just died in a horrific head-on collision.
Before the night was over, we heard a report on the radio saying there were four teen-agers in each vehicle and all 8 of them had died at the scene. These events were beyond our control, but they definitely put a pall on our trip.
By the time we reached my aunt’s house in Tomah, Wisconsin, it was almost a relief to be welcomed into the loving embrace of family, to have what felt like the warmth, love and comfort of home waiting for us.
We spent several days with family in Tomah, barbecuing, sight-seeing, boating, rock climbing. We spent a day in Wisconsin Dells. It was a pleasant end to a grueling beginning of our road trip. We returned to Burlington, IA at the end of the week, hungry, exhausted, flat broke, and glad a pay check was waiting for us when we arrived home.
That evening, we went grocery shopping together for the first time. I remember buying enough groceries to last a week for $25.00. That night, I made my first fried chicken via a long-distance telephone call to my mother for advice. It was delicious. I even made pan gravy and mashed potatoes to go with it. What I wouldn’t give to buy a week’s worth of groceries for $25.00 now. What a comfort it was to be home, safe and sound, ready to embark on a normal, happy married life together.