As we continued our backroads’ journey along Highway 50 through Nevada on America’s Loneliest Road, we passed over Hickison Pass, dropped down into another valley, and arrived at our campground for the night: Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area. Peggy and I had stopped off here on another journey and been fascinated by both the rocks and petroglyphs.
The rocks are composed of volcanic tuff, ash that has been ejected from an erupting volcano and then solidified into rock. It erodes easily in comparison to harder rocks, which is what has created the interesting rock forms at Hickison. It is also easily carved into petroglyphs. Like the Grimes petroglyphs that I featured on last Thursday’s travel blog, these are ancient, dating back thousands of years. But, as you will see from the following photos, they represent a different style.
The campground lacks water and electricity but we found it quite scenic. When we arrived, large, colorful bugs that resembled giant grasshoppers or crickets occupied our campsite. They are common in sagebrush country and go by the name of Mormon crickets. Actually they are shield-backed katydids.
But back to the rocks.
As you read this, Peggy and I are off celebrating Thanksgiving and our Anniversary at a favorite campsite on the Oregon Coast. We will catch up on comments and blogs when we return next week. In the meantime, we hope you are having/had a great Thanksgiving.
NEXT BLOGS: Tuesday is Blog a Book day where I will introduce you to the cast of characters that decided to hike a hundred miles across the Sierras with me. On Thursday’s Travel Blog we will finish up our trip across Nevada on Highway 50 and on into Utah, where it is also lonely.
BLOG-A-BOOK TUESDAY: Join me on the first 100-mile backpack trek I ever organized. Leading 61 people aged 11-71 across the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, I was lucky to escape with my life and career in tact.
TRAVEL BLOG THURSDAY: Peggy and I continue our Back Roads of America Series by stopping off at another petroglyph site along The Loneliest Road in America: The Hickison Petroglyph Area. This time we will be featuring some out-of-this-world rocks and, uh, puberty rites.
Today marks the beginning of my Backroad Series where I will feature highways that Peggy and I traveled over this past summer on our 8,000 mile journey around the US in our small RV.
In 1986, Life Magazine declared that the section of Highway 50 that stretches across the Nevada desert was The Loneliest Road in America. It wasn’t meant as a compliment. It was more like, “Why would anyone in their right mind choose to drive this road?” But Nevadans saw it differently. They knew an opportunity when they saw it. After all, the state got its kick-start when silver and gold were discovered in abundance. And then it built Las Vegas.
Who wouldn’t want to drive The Loneliest Road in America, the folks in Carson City, Nevada’s capitol, reasoned?Adventuresome souls would immediately add it to their bucket list! Signs were made and publicity was cranked out. Maybe the road wouldn’t be so lonely…
It worked for me. I’ve driven the highway three times since. My last time was this past summer when Peggy and I went out in search of backroads across America. Highway 50 definitely qualifies— and it is still one of the loneliest roads in America. It wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time in the 60’s, that’s the 1860s, it served as the premier route for people making their way West. The Overland Stage Coach Company, the Pony Express, and the country’s first national telegraph all made use of it. In 1913 it became part of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental road.
I know a bit about the road. I was raised in the small town of Diamond Springs, which is located in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, three miles from Placerville, AKA Hangtown. If you walked out my front door and hiked a block east on Highway 49 past Fitzgerald’s house and the jungle-like graveyard that backed up to our property, you came to Missouri Flat Road. Turning left there took you to Highway 50, a mere mile away. My brother Marshall and I often made that hike in the summer when we were on our way to one of our favorite swimming holes, the 20-foot-deep Tub on Weber Creek.
I was vaguely aware at the time that if you climbed on the road and drove east for a long time, you could reach the Atlantic Ocean. I also knew about the Pony Express connection. The parents of one of my close friends in Diamond Springs owned a small café in a historic building that had once served as a Pony Express stop. That was about it except for the annual Wagon Train that made its way from Lake Tahoe to Placerville on Highway 50 to celebrate the ‘good old days.’ The town would close Main Street to traffic and everyone would party. As I remember, the men would grow beards for the event, have fast-draw contests, and get drunk. Luckily, their six shooters were filled with blanks.
Later, when I was in college, I had a laundry route in the summer that ran from Placerville up to South Lake Tahoe over Highway 50. The beautiful 120-mile round trip across the mountains paid for my college education. That section of Highway 50 was far from lonely, however. On Fridays and Saturdays, it could resemble a parking lot as people made their way up from the Bay Area and Sacramento to play at Lake Tahoe and gamble.
To avoid the possibility of the crowded highway this past summer, Peggy and I climbed on Interstate 80 in Sacramento and zoomed over the Sierras through Reno to the small town of Fernley, where we left the freeway behind and drove southeast to pick up 50 as it passed through Fallon, Nevada. That’s where lonely begins. (BTW: Had we gone north from Fernley for 60 miles, we would have ended up in the Black Rock Desert, the site where Burning Man takes place.)
I am going to do three posts on Highway 50 through Nevada. Later, I will do a couple of posts on 50 in West Virginia and Ohio as part of my backroad series. I took the photos in this post between Fallon and the Hickison Petroglyph Recreation Area in the center of the state.
About half way between Fallon and Austin, Nevada, we came upon a small, historical marker site that featured the Overland Stagecoach, the Pony Express and America’s first cross country telegraph. All three were inspired by the North’s need to maintain communication with the West during the Civil War. Both the Pony Express and the Overland Stage Company had stations here. Three illustrations (early photos?) at the site captured our attention.
Rumor is that a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock that showed silver and the rush was on. Whether this is true or not, the presence of silver led to a silver rush and suddenly the town of Fallon was born. Soon it boasted a population of over 10,000 and even had a castle! Now it is best described as sleepy and historic.
NEXT POST: On Tuesday, I will feature the second part of my introduction to the book I am blogging, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” I answer the question about why I would undertake a 700 mile plus backpacking journey down the PCT at 75. Will a plea of insanity work?
It was George Schuster’s turn to drive as the Thomas Flyer was loaded onto a freighter to be shipped to Valdez, Alaska. The race committee had envisioned the racers making their way from Valdez across Alaska following dog sled trails and frozen ice covered rivers to Nome where they would cross the frozen Bering Strait into Siberia. There was a slight problem. The race committee had made its decision while sitting in Paris without a clue about what driving across Alaska in March would entail! Or whether the Bering Strait would be frozen. None of them had ever been to the remote Territory that America had bought from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. All they knew was it looked good on a map. Who needs roads?
The Flyer had a substantial lead when it left San Francisco— the three remaining competitors were several states behind still making their way across America. Schuster intended to maintain that lead. He arrived in Valdez with the whole population out to greet him. The Flyer was the first car to make it to the town and most residents had never seen one.
George wasted little time basking in the glow of his new role as driver. He immediately borrowed a horse and sled to check out the beginning of the route. He found it was impossible and concluded that the only way the vehicles could get across Alaska would be if the cars were taken apart and shipped by dog sled. The Great Auto Race would have been turned into an early day Iditarod, which in itself, is an undertaking of massive proportions— even in modern times.
Once again the route was changed. Return to the lower 48, the race committee told Schuster, and ship to Japan on a freighter and then on another one to Vladivostok, Russia. Which he did. The next day, the Flyer team and Flyer were on a boat heading south from Alaska. His challenge when he arrived in Seattle was that the other three cars were now ahead of him on their way to Asia.
The Race Committee decided to award Schuster with an extra 15 days for his lost time in checking out Alaska. The Italian Zust and the French Dion would have to beat him to Paris by two weeks to win the race. The Protos would have to beat him by a month! Lieutenant Koeppen’s car had broken down in Utah and he had shipped it to the West Coast via rail and on to Vladivostok for repairs. Unlike Goddard, he had asked permission. And there was some confusion over the rules. Instead of disqualifying him, the race committee chose to penalize him an extra 15 days for the rail trip and for skipping Japan.
The four competitors met up in Vladivostok where they were confronted by Russian officials who advised them to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe. They would be “met on the road by Chinese brigands, Manchurian tigers, fever, plague, pestilence, famine—to say nothing of the mud after three months of rain, mosquitoes as big as locusts and other similar delights,” the Russians warned. It seems that the owners of the De Dion-Bouton company took them at their word. Or maybe the race appeared unwinnable or too expensive. Whatever the reason, the De Deon was withdrawn. Now there were three competitors: The American Thomas Flyer, the Italian Zust and the German Protos.
The racers apparently avoided the brigands, tigers, fever, plague, pestilence, and famine, but there was plenty of mud— they kept getting stuck. And, I imagine, encountered the locust-sized mosquitoes when they were digging out.
When they reached Europe, they were finally rewarded with a decent road system. The race became a down-to-the-wire sprint between the Americans and the Germans. The Italian Zust was still in Siberia, likely stuck in the mud, some 3,000 miles behind. ER Thomas sent Schuster a telegraph urging him to turn the driving over to Monty Roberts, the race car driver who had driven the Flyer from NYC to Wyoming. “This made me so mad I could have eaten nails,” Schuster would later write. His response at the time would have been more colorful. After everything that he had been through with the Flyer in Siberia, his tense no-thank-you reply to Thomas was that he would be driving the car across the finish line. Period. Which he did.
The Protos had arrived four days earlier. Given the 30 day penalty, it was still 26 days behind the Flyer, however— a fact that really irritated the Kaiser. The Americans rolled into Paris on the evening of July 30 to crowds shouting, “Vive le car Americain!” There was one last challenge. The lights on the Flyer had gone out and Schuster was driving after dark. A policeman stopped the car and threatened to arrest him on the spot. A quick-thinking Parisian threw his bicycle with a light onto the car. The policeman relented and Schuster drove on to the finish line. And fame. He’d even be invited to meet with Teddy Roosevelt on his return.
The win had a significant impact on America. For one, it showed that American automobiles could match the best coming out of Europe at the time. The successful drive across America also proved that the car could become a serious form of transportation, something other than a rich man’s toy. And finally, it created a demand for better roads in America. Asphalt was invented in 1910, and the Lincoln Highway, Americas first cross-country road, was started in 1912.
Schuster was promised a life-long job with the E.R. Thomas company for his role. Unfortunately, the company went out of business in 1912. (Schuster would live on to 99.) When the company went belly up, the Flyer was sold and more or less disappeared. It was granted a second life in 1963 when Bill Harrah of the gaming empire tracked it down for his classic car collection and returned it to its pre-race condition. He even brought Schuster out to verify that it was the Flyer that the won the race. (Schuster recognized some of the on-road repairs he had made.) The Flyer became part of the donation that the Harrah family made to the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. It was there that I found the vehicle and was inspired to do this series.
My posts are few and far between. Part of the reason is the times. There is just too much happening now between the pandemic, the fires, and the election. As noted before, these are scary times, more scary than any other time in my 77 years. The other is that I love research and the Great Race has me fascinated. Just when I think I have exhausted my resources I find another article or more photos. This time it was 350 photos of the race stored in the Henry Ford Museum, a virtual treasure trove. Most of the photos in today’s post are from the museum.
As the participants rolled out of Nebraska, they experienced their first real taste of the ‘Wild West.’ The unending farmlands of the Midwest gave way to the drier, open lands and vast vistas of Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The terrain also changed. The flat and rolling plains the automobilists had been driving through across the Great Plains turned to towering mountains and deserts. The Rockies, the Great Basin and Death Valley lay ahead. Towns and cities became farther apart. People fewer. The already poor roads the racers had been following became little more than tracks in the dirt.
The animals also got wilder and bigger. The Zust team claimed they were surrounded by a pack of 50 or so wolves that circled their car yipping with anticipation on a dark and stormy night in Wyoming. Blowing the horn and using the spotlight didn’t discourage the hungry predators. They kept circling closer. It was only when the team broke out their rifles and shot several that the wolves decided that they hadn’t been invited to dinner. Local townspeople gathered up the hides the next day and sold them for the bounty paid by the government. The wolves’ taste for an occasional cow would lead to their eventual eradication in the West.
Not everyone made it to the Rockies. Baron Godard, who had driven another car from Peking to Paris in 1907, met his match in Iowa. Between being bogged down in mud and snow, getting lost, and having serious car problems, he decided to ease his journey west by loading his Moto-Bloc onto a train and shipping it to the coast. “San Francisco, here I come!” It broke the rules.
A photographer caught the Baron loading the Moto-Bloc onto the rail car. “Quit the race, sell the car, and return home,” the manufacturer telegraphed him. The French, who had started with three entries, were down to one. The greater glory of France now depended on G. Bourcier de St. Chaffray driving the French De Dion-Bouton— which is quite a mouthful to say.
The Thomas Flyer team had other ideas about who would win the glory. When they reached Cheyenne, Wyoming, the Flyer was a week ahead of its nearest competitor, the Zust. The De Dion was in third. And the Protos fourth. Given the quality of the vehicle, Monty Robert’s driving ability, and George Schuster’s mechanical talent— not to mention sheer determination— the team had been ahead for most of the race. It was a position they had every intention of keeping. The car was about to lose its driver, however. Monty had other race commitments back east and in Europe. He hoped to rejoin the team when it entered Europe to drive over better roads and, I imagine, harvest the fame of crossing the finish line first. E. Linn Mathewson, a Thomson Flyer car dealer, took over the driving from Cheyenne to Ogden, Utah. Harold Brinker, an auto racer out of Denver, drove the car into San Francisco. Schuster would take over then.
Getting into the spirit of the West, George bought a Colt six-shooter pistol before leaving Cheyenne. Who knew what lurked out in the wilds of Wyoming? Wolves or outlaws, perhaps? Best to be prepared.
Peggy and I had followed the route of the race in Nebraska from Grand Island to North Platte where we spent the night at Buffalo Bill’s ranch as the Flyer had in 1908. We then continued to follow the route to Ogallala where we detoured to follow the Oregon Trail, which early pioneers had used in the 1840s, 50s and 60s. (Posts coming.) I was eager to check out the route that ancestors on both sides of my family had travelled looking for a better life— either by farming in the Northwest or striking it rich in California. So, we missed Cheyenne. We rejoined the race route for a brief time, however, between Rock Springs and Fort Bridger, Wyoming, when the Oregon Trail dipped south.
Ely, Nevada was the next point where our summer road trip crossed paths with the race route. We passed through the town on our way east when we were following Highway 50, the “Loneliest Road in America.” (Another post.) Ely feels like it is in the middle of nowhere. And it is. It would have felt much more so in 1908. The Flyer had made its way south from Wendover, Utah following what is now Highway 93 (more or less) to Ely and then continued southwest across the Nevada desert following today’s Highway 6 (more or less) to Tonopah.
Along the way, it passed by what would become Nevada’s Extraterrestrial Highway. Think UFOs. I’ve been interested in flying saucers ever since I saw one in 1969. The participants in the Great Race didn’t report seeing any, however. Darn. (As an aside, I found it interesting that both the Pentagon and Japan’s military have set up task forces in the past couple of months to track UFOs. A little Twilight Zone music might be appropriate here.) But back to the race.
It was in Tonopah and the town of Goldfield 27 miles to the south that we first learned of the Great Race. In fact, we’ve driven the route followed by the Flyer from Tonopah south through Goldfield, the now ghost town of Rhyolite, and across Death Valley many times. I’ve actually ridden my bicycle over most of the route the race followed through Death Valley and on to Bakersfield, California.
When the Flyer was late in arriving in Tonopah, several residents drove out the road to see if there was a problem. They found the Flyer broken down and Schuster sleeping in a bunkhouse. (Another version of the story has him walking toward Tonopah.) He was roused out, given a ride to town, borrowed parts from a Thomas Flyer owned by a local doctor, fixed the car, and arrived to a jubilant welcome. Pretty much the whole town greeted the team.
Cowboys and miners shooting their pistols into the air welcomed them to Goldfield. It was a cast of characters. There is still a cast of characters living there! (And a speed trap.) Crossing Death Valley, the Flyer had to put on balloon tires to get through the deep sand. Stovepipe Wells offered its only water.
The Thompson Flyer rolled into San Francisco on March 24th, the first car to travel across America in the winter. The team was given a hero’s welcome. Factories blew their whistles and cars honked their horns. Its nearest competitor, the Zust, was still 700 miles away. The first phase of the race was over for the Flyer. Schuster was now to become the driver. He was eager to get to Alaska for the next phase of the race.
NEXT POST: Schuster travels to Valdez, Alaska to check out the next section of the race and the route is once again changed. Cars will be shipped to Japan and then on to Vladivostok, Russia where their next challenge will be crossing Mongolia and Siberia.
I ended my first post on the 1908 Great Race from New York City to Paris with the six competitors zooming down Broadway on their way out of New York City as a crowd of 250,000 roared them on. Their original route had already been changed by the organizers. Instead of driving half way across the US and then up though Canada to the Bering Strait, they would work their way across the nation and then take a boat up to Valdez where they would continue the Alaska portion of the race over dog sled trails and ice-covered rivers.
But first they had to get across the US starting in winter, no small task considering no one had ever accomplished it. Roads would be rough to non-existent. There were no maps or gas stations, or asphalt— it had yet to be invented. In some areas the drivers would be forced to drive over railroad tracks, a guaranteed bumpy ride! Remember the ads when automobile manufacturers would show how good the shocks on their cars were by driving down railroad tracks with an egg balanced on a spoon? You would have to fast forward to the 60s and 70s for that level of suspension.
Problems began immediately. The one-cylinder, small French Sizaire-Naudin dropped out of the race on the first day at mile 96 with a broken differential. The remaining five vehicles soon found themselves plowing through two feet or more of snow in a blizzard. Except in cities, no handy-dandy horse drawn snow plows were around to clear roads. George Schuster, the mechanic for the Thomas Flyer, walked ahead of his vehicle poking a stick into the snow to measure its depth. Or maybe he was looking for the road!
The slow progress came to a dead halt in Dismal Hollow outside of Auburn, New York. The name alone suggests a horror-story-level disaster. The cars became hopelessly bogged down as night approached. Fortunately, horses hired by the Italian Zust team came to the rescue of the automobilists, as they were known then, and pulled them out.
At first, the teams worked together, taking turns at leading. That didn’t last long. It was a race, after all. You can imagine how the Americans, or the Germans or the Italians reacted when the driver of the French de Dion, St. Chaffray, ordered them, “When you wish to go ahead to a city, you ask me.” Right.
The Europeans were soon complaining that the Americans had unfair advantages. When the Thomas Flyer had a problem, dozen of patriotic volunteers jumped in to eagerly help out for free. When the European cars hit a glitch, they had to pay. “They even charge us to sleep on the ground,” one of the drivers whined. A more legitimate complaint in terms of the race outcome was that the railroad and trolley companies favored the Flyer in allowing track usage. Out West, the Union Pacific even scheduled the Flyer to use its tracks like it would a train.
My sense is that the great advantage the Flyer had was George Schuster, however. For one, he had the ability to fix any problem the car had. Each night he would tune the engine and work on whatever else was needed to get the car ready for the next day. The competition complained to the race committee that Schuster had rebuilt the whole car. Possibly. But the complaint was rejected. One of the nightly chores that all of the car mechanics performed was draining the radiator so it wouldn’t freeze. Anti-freeze had been developed but it was used in making bombs, not protecting cars on cold nights
Schuster’s support in keeping the vehicle operating went far beyond his mechanical abilities, however. If someone had to walk 10 miles in a freezing weather to get gas or a part, he did it. If the car needed rescuing from a snow drift or was stuck in a gully, he figured out how to free it. He was dedicated to doing whatever it took to keep the Flyer running.
I suspect a fair amount of money exchanged hands when the racers reached Chicago. Many felt that the cars would be lucky to get out of New York and even E.R. Thomas, the manufacturer of the Flyer, never expected his vehicle would get beyond the Windy City. T. Walter Williams, the New York Times reporter assigned to the Thomas Flyer, bailed out when the cars arrived in Chicago. “It’s insanity” he proclaimed. And it was. But all five cars made it to Chicago and continued on. Snow continued to plague the drivers as they made their way across the Midwest. And when they finally got through the snow, they were faced with hub-deep mud. Lots of it. Tensions soared.
When the De Dion got stuck in a snowbank and Hans Hendricks Hansen, who claimed he had piloted a Viking Ship to the North Pole solo, couldn’t get it out, St. Chaffray exploded. The men decided a duel was in order and went scrambling to find their pistols. Fortunately, they were buried deep in the gear and St. Chaffray had time to decide that it would be better to fire Hansen than to kill him— or be killed by him. Hansen joined the Thomas Flyer, pledged allegiance to the American flag it flew, and swore that he could walk to Paris faster than St. Chaffray could drive there.
Our recent 8,000-mile journey around the US was bound to cross the route of the Great Race. It happened in Nebraska as we followed US 30 along the South Platte River. The racers had been following what would become Highway 30 through Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. We joined the highway in Kearny and followed it on to North Platte where we stayed at Buffalo Bill’s ranch. Signs along the road proudly proclaimed it had been part of the Oregon Trail and the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway. Before that, it had served as a major path for Native Americans and mountain men. When the route had passed through Omaha on entering Nebraska, the Flyer team met Buffalo Bill who had invited them to stay at his ranch on the North Platte.
Peggy and I are now back at home in Oregon after our ten week 8,000 mile road trip around the US in our small RV. It was weird out there in the Age of Coronavirus— but interesting. As much as possible, we stayed off of freeways and traveled by backroads, many of them significant to America’s history. One such road we followed was a portion of US 30 across Nebraska following the South Platte River. The route was once a path for Native Americans and mountain men. Later, it became a section of the Oregon Trail that pioneers and gold seekers followed in the mid-1800s on their way west in search of wealth or a new life. In 1913, it became part of America’s first transcontinental road, the Lincoln Highway.
I was excited to learn that it was also a section of route that the 1908 Great Automobile Race from New York City to Paris followed through Nebraska. I had first developed an interest in the race when I learned about it in the remote Nevada towns of Tonopah and Goldfield where it had been the biggest thing to happen to them since the discovery of gold. My interest was peaked considerably last summer when I found America’s original entry, the Thomas Flyer, in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. Since then I have read several articles on the race and discovered a treasure trove of photos from the Library of Congress. It’s a story that has been told many times but is worth retelling, which I will do over my next 3-4 posts. I figure it will serve as a kick-off for my posts on our road trip!
It was cold and windy in New York City on Lincoln’s Birthday, February 12, 1908. The quarter of a million people lined up along Broadway were bundled up in their warmest clothes as they waited anxiously for the starter’s gun that would kick off a 22,000-mile (35,405 kilometer) race over land and sea from New York to Paris. It was a challenge involving men and autos that had never been undertaken before— and still goes unmatched.
The route, as planned, would take drivers across the US, through Canada into Alaska, across the Bering Strait, over Siberia and then through Russia and Europe to Paris. By starting in February, the organizers hoped that the rivers and dog sled trails in Alaska as well as the Bering Strait would still be frozen so the racers could use them as roads.
The New York Times and the Paris newspaper Le Matin were sponsoring the race. The winner was to receive a 1400-pound trophy (not quite something for your mantle), and undying fame. Thirteen cars had been entered but only six made it to the starting line: three from France, one from Germany, one from Italy and one from the US. The US had come close to not having an entry at all. The pioneers of America’s nascent automobile industry didn’t think the race was doable. Or possibly they didn’t want to compete against the better-known European car makers and risk defeat. I suspect the latter.
The ER Thomas Motor company out of Buffalo, NY came to the rescue a week before the event. It diverted a deluxe $4,000 Thomas Flyer that was meant to be sold in Boston. It was a stock, 60-horsepower touring car. Modifications were minimal. Three extra gas tanks were added to give the Flyer a capacity of 125 gallons. There would be no convenient gas stations along the way. You went to a hardware store, filled a bucket up from a metal barrel and poured it into your tank— if you could find gas.
Holes were cut in the floorboards to allow heat from the engine to provide some warmth. Long boards were attached to the side to aid in getting the car out of snow and mud. A covered wagon-like top had been jury-rigged to fit over the top and provide protection from snow, hail and rain. It was soon abandoned— full speed ahead and damn the weather! The Flyer, like all of the other vehicles was loaded down with chains, ropes, spare parts and tools. Each vehicle would travel with its own mechanic.
Thomas called his lead mechanic and road tester, George Schuster, the day before the race and asked him to go along. George knew how to handle adversity. He had been raised in a family with 21 kids. More to the point, he could fix almost anything on the spot, an early day Macgyver. Still, it’s hard to fathom being asked to participate in such an epic event less than 24-hours before it starts. It takes me that long to prepare for a weekend get-a-way!
Here’s how I imagine the phone call going:
“Um, Hi George, this is ER, can you spare a moment?”
“Sure Boss, what’s up?”
“I know this is short notice but could you show up in New York City tomorrow morning and go along on this 22,000-mile automobile race between New York and Paris? It shouldn’t take much more than six months but it’s going to be a tough trip. No one has ever driven across the US in winter. Heck, only 12 people have driven across it in summer. Who knows what the conditions will be like in Alaska and Siberia? You might want to carry a gun. One thing is for sure, there aren’t many paved roads and, in some areas, there won’t be any roads at all— or maps. You may have to drive down the railroad tracks or follow pioneer trails. I expect there will be lots of breakdowns for you to fix. We’ve even scheduled from eight p.m. to midnight each night for you to work on the Flyer and get it ready for the next day. It starts at five. Oh, and one more thing, I’ve asked Monty Roberts to drive. You know Monty, he’s something of a media hound and will take all of the credit but I am sure he will appreciate your ability to keep the car running. My love to your wife and kids. See you tomorrow.”
The European entries included a De Dion, Moto-Bloc, and Sizaire-Naudin from France. Germany was represented by a Protos and Italy by a Zust. If these names sound unfamiliar to you, it’s because none of them are around today, nor have they been for decades. Their builders had only been in the automobile business for a few years and horses were still considered a more reliable means of travel. The cars were assembled the old-fashioned way, by hand, piece by piece. Henry Ford had yet to invent the assembly line.
Considerable national pride was involved in the race. For example, 600 workers had been pulled together to work on the German Protos under the encouragement of Kaiser Wilhelm II. There was nothing stock about the vehicle. The Kaiser wanted to win for the greater glory of Germany and to promote German industry. I read in one account that Teddy Roosevelt, who was President at the time, also pressured American automobile manufacturers to participate. It’s hard to imagine a race starting in New York and crossing the country without US participation. Given Roosevelt’s personality, he probably would have been ‘biting at the bit’ to drive had he not been President.
As you might imagine, an international cast of characters and adventurers had assembled to drive and maintain the vehicles. I’ve already introduced Roberts who was in it for the fame. But he was also one of the few Americans who had actually trained for the 13-year-old sport of auto racing. The driver of the French Moto-Bloc, Charles Godard, had participated in the similar but considerably shorter Peking to Paris race the year before. It had been the first time he had ever driven a car. The driver of the German Protos seemed a bit more prosaic to me. Hans Koeppen was an aristocratic lieutenant in the German Army who hoped his participation would bag him a promotion to captain.
Antonio Scarfoglio, a 21-year-old Italian poet and journalist, was part of the Zust team. His father, a prominent Italian newspaper editor, had refused to let him go until Antonio had threatened to take a motorboat across the Atlantic, a much more dangerous adventure. The driver of the French De Dion, G. Bourcier de St. Chaffray, knew a bit about just how dangerous. He had once organized a motorboat race from Marseille to Algiers where every boat sank. The captain of his team, the Norwegian Hans Hendrick, had been more successful at sea. His claim to fame was having piloted a Viking boat to the North Pole. Solo.
The drivers were lined up and eager to go at 11:00 AM. George B. McClellan Jr., son of the prominent Civil War general and then mayor of NYC had been given the honor of starting the race. But he was late. The Mayor was rarely on time. At 11:15, Colgate Hoyt, a railroad financier, grabbed the gold-plated gun and shot it into the air. The race was on!
Peggy and I are wrapping up our travels around the US. This post features the hazards of our road trip and Massacre Rocks State Park along the Oregon Trail in Idaho.
Peggy and I have been on numerous road trips over the years, a quarter of million miles worth according to the odometers on our two small RVs. But nothing can match how strange this summer has been. Let me start by noting our 8,000 mile journey has taken us through 18 states (plus the Navajo Nation) that have had the not-so-coveted designation of being Covid-19 hot spots. I start each morning by feeling my forehead and breathing a sigh of relief when it is cool. If I were you, I wouldn’t come within 600 feet of us. Or 6 miles. Screw the 6-foot rule. When we get home we are going to self-quarantine for 6 months. Or at least 6 days.
There were some potential Covid-19 hotspots we have avoided, however. Peggy and I crossed off South Dakota even though we wanted to visit the Bad Lands and I would have found the motorcycle rally in Sturgis interesting. It’s kind of a Biker’s Burning Man. Hanging out with 250,000 Harley fanatics who were reluctant to wear masks and liked to party in crowded bars didn’t seem particularly wise, however.
But Covid-19 has been only one of several potential disasters out here on the road this summer. For example, it’s 108° F outside now. That’s miserable, and it can be dangerous. But what if we were in Death Valley? It’s a go-to place for Peggy and me. We’ve been there many times. Earlier this week, it saw a whopping 130 degrees F (54.5 C)! It was the hottest place on earth at the time and was recorded as one of the four top temperatures ever documented. I put on my Death Valley hat in honor of the occasion. Why whine about 108?
Lightning storms and forest fires come with the excessive heat and are once again devastating the West. Two years ago I was dodging fires as I backpacked 750 miles down the PCT. They’re back with a vengeance now, roaring through Northern California and causing deadly fire tornadoes. I’m ever so glad I am not out on the trail. Fires are much easier to dodge in Quivera the Van than on foot. And we have air-conditioning.
But how about dodging hurricanes? In mid-July, our kids rented a lovely house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina to celebrate Peggy’s 70th Birthday. It was the primary reason for our road trip and a fun way to bring our families together and make up for the family trip on the Rhine River Peggy had planned. Europe won’t let us near the continent.
Our grandkids were a little surprised, however, to see their 77 year old grandfather and 70 year old grandmother risking their necks out body surfing and riding boogie boards with them. “Older” people aren’t supposed to behave that way. It was the crowded beach that worried me, however. That and the dark clouds that hung on the horizon. A week later the Outer Banks had to be evacuated due to the threat from Hurricane Isaias. We dodged the bullet by a week.
That was minor in comparison to the derecho that roared across Iowa. On August 8th, Peggy and I had driven across the state, laughing about how corn was the scenery. I’d stopped taking photos after 20 pictures. We were camping just across the border that night when a thunderstorm came through that rocked our van and lit up the night sky. We thought of it as entertainment without a clue about the massive storm that was brewing. When we pulled out in the morning, clear skies graced our road west. On the 10th, we were at Buffalo Bill’s Ranch enjoying a beautiful day on the North Platte when the derecho ripped across Iowa and wiped out 40% of the state’s corn crop.
While dodging all of these potentials disasters, why visit a place known as Massacre Rocks? The answer is simple. How could we not? Peggy and I had been following the Oregon Trail since we left Nebraska and Massacre Rocks State Park on the Snake River in Idaho is a noted location along the way. As the name suggest, it is symbolic of one of the challenges faced by the pioneers, attacks by hostile natives. I suspect we would be hostile too if a stranger rode into town and wanted to steal our property.
The name is something of a misnomer, since the attacks on wagon trains took place a few miles away. The pioneers were not happy with all of the large rocks in the area, however. They provided an ideal place to organize and ambush or to shoot arrows from behind. Peggy and I, on the other hand, were not worried about anyone shooting arrows at us and found the rocks and the river quite beautiful. I think you will agree…
While Peggy stayed in camp captured by a book she was reading, I went for a hike the next morning. Following are several photos I took.
That evening Peggy joined me as I repeated the walk I had done in the morning.
NEXT POST: The Great 1908 Auto Race from New York to Paris.
Beneath Scotts Bluff, Nebraska: We are camped at the base of a towering bluff that once stood as a major landmark to pioneers traveling west in wagon trains. My great, great grandmother would have passed this way and stared up at it in awe with the welcome knowledge that she had left the Great Plains behind. And, indeed, we too are breathing a huge sigh of relief, glad to be back in our much loved west. The bluff was named after an employee of a fur trading company who had the misfortune to die not far from where we are camped. He likely would have been glad to live on and leave the bluff with someone else’s name. I, for one, prefer the Native American name, Me-a-pa-te, which translates ‘hill that is hard to go around.’
It has been an interesting couple of weeks as we have made our way west from Virginia. This past week we kept ahead of a major storm that whipped through the Midwest with winds up to 100 MPH. We also avoided numerous motorcyclists— most with a similar look and without helmets— as they dashed around us on their way to Sturgis, South Dakota and whatever fate awaited them.
Yesterday was particularly interesting. We started our day at Buffalo Bill’s historic ranch camped out on the North Platte River and then hopped on one of America’s most historic backroads, US 30, otherwise know as the Lincoln Highway. It was America’s first cross-country road. But that’s only a small part of its history. For thousands of years it served as a major route for Native Americans. In the 1850s it was part of the Oregon Trail. Pony Express riders used it on their two year ride to glory and the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was built beside it. In 1908 it became part of the greatest road trip/road race ever, the New York to Paris Road Race, which will be the subject of my next blog.
But today, it’s time to say goodby to Arches National Park.
NEXT POST: What better place to start posts from our present journey around the US than what I consider to be one of the greatest road trip/races of all-time: The 1908 race around the world from New York to Paris. I’ve been meaning to do this blog ever since I came across the winner of the race at the National Auto Museum this time last summer. It’s epic!
“But where are the arches?” my brother-in-law John asked Peggy about my series on Arches National Park. “There is more to Arches than arches,” Peggy had responded. John readily agreed but there was still a plaintive ‘where are the arches’ tone to his voice. This post is for you, John— and for all of our other followers who have been wondering about how anyone could do a series on Arches National Park without arches.
They aren’t hard to find. There are over 2000 in the park, the highest concentration of any place in the world. Of course you would need a month to find them all plus put in a lot of miles hiking. We only had a day and the 100 degree F heat (37.7 C) discouraged much roaming in the time we had. Not to worry. The road plus a little walking took us to some of the most famous in the Park. So without further ado, I’ll start with the arch I featured at the top of the post, Turret Arch, named for its resemblance to turrets on castles.
A walk up to the Turret Arch easily includes two of the Park’s other Arches, North and South Windows.
No trip to Arches is complete without a trip to see the Delicate Arch, which many consider to be the National Park’s most scenic arch. Rather than make the gentle three mile round trip at 3 P.M. when we were both hot and tired, we took an alternative one mile trip straight up a steep slope for an overlook. Hmmm.
NEXT POST: As we drove out of Arches, I took several photos from our van that will serve as a closure to this series.
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