The other day I spotted Nina perusing my photo album of the early 1970s. I had been doing some research before getting together with two friends I’ve known for 50-plus years. The reunion was at Disney World, which we had visited as 21 year olds. A year and a half later, we galloped across America on a whirlwind road trip.
Nina was trying to comprehend how the three women on the left were the same ones on the right. She doesn’t understand things like the passage of time and how people can change so much and still remain the same. Frankly, I told her, neither do I. So I told her the story of our cross-country trip on a horse I now call Corolla.
In 1973, we posed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, halfway through our cross-country road trip. I’m on the left, Mary is in the Middle, and Sue is on the right. In 2021, we headed to Disney World for a reunion. Mary is again in the middle with Sue this time on the left. We took more baggage for a three-day trip than a three-week one. Seriously.
A Horse Named Corolla
Six thousand miles, five visits, a four-speed Toyota Corolla, three weeks, two small bags apiece, and one argument. It was August 1973 when Sue, Mary, and I packed every square inch of Sue’s Corolla with carefully allotted square inches of clothes and provisions for a road trip across America. We were ready with everything from casual wear and cold weather gear to a spare tire and formal attire (for a show in Vegas, of course).
Born in 1950, we were boomers, true mid-century women who were destined to go places. We’d driven to Florida on spring break the year before, and, prior to that, Mary and I had been to Nantucket, Virginia Beach, and Europe. So this certainly wasn’t our first rodeo, but it was different. There was something epic about the clarion call to Go West.
We played off each other like cowgirls in a rodeo. Sue, the most practical, would be the tie-down roper whose horse sense demonstrated itself with a keen knowledge of her strengths, skills, equipment, logistics, and, of course, her ride. Mary, the self-reliant adventurer, would be the bull rider who could nimbly maintain balance astride a bucking brute with one elegant arm held aloft for balance. And I, the hippie, would be the bareback rider, practicing yoga while teetering between horse and sky, realism and idealism, mundane and spiritual.
Thus we saddled up, tied down, and drove off, eschewing hotels in favor of stays we had arranged with my brother in California and everywhere else with Sue’s wide-flung network of kith and kin.
“I’m just along for the ride,” Mary would quip when asked if we were visiting anyone she knew. Never needing an intermediary to have a good time, she was our ringleader, our touch point. She and I had met in college; she and Sue at work. Sue may have lived around the world growing up, but Mary had the initiative to get us there. She would start an adventure with, “Hey, let’s go to…” She’d fill in the blanks and we’d pack our bags.
So across Interstate 80, the 88-horsepower Corolla sprinted. Paralleling the historic Lincoln Highway, which was built in 1913 as the first coast-to-coast road, I-80 passes by or through Cleveland, South Bend, Chicago, Des Moines, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, Reno, and San Francisco. We did the same (though we skipped Cheyenne), switching drivers every two or three hours, usually while gassing up—we’d each contribute one dollar to fill the tank—or driving through a McDonald’s or Taco Bell—Mary loved meat, I shunned it, and Sue would eat anything Mexican.
We pushed our limits—especially those pertaining to speed—from Connecticut, the first state to enact a speed limit; to the plains, where maximums rose incrementally; and astonishingly into Nevada, where the official welcoming sign cautioned visitors to drive safely. No limits.
No air conditioning, either. Just fresh breezes that floated long hair out fully opened windows. Nor GPS. Just paper maps folded and refolded into hand-fans, if needed. And certainly no CDs, eight-tracks, or even FM options. Just an AM radio that for three weeks incessantly played, “Horse with No Name.”
Hit the road in the morning, “Horse with No Name.” Drive for four hours with no radio reception, and when it crackles into tune, “Horse with No Name.” Stop for gas and lunch at a truck stop and, if we were lucky, “Rocky Mountain High.” Or when we came upon a couple who hade veered off the road with belongings strewn everywhere, there may have been random chords of Neil Young’s, “Heart of Gold.” But when we’d pull in at night to a town with no name, it was “Horse with No Name.” And when we’d hit the road in the morning, you guessed it.
The chart-topper written by Dewey Bunnell and recorded by America clip-clopped its way into the soundtrack of our adventure, so I’ve had to give that danged horse a name. Corolla, Sue’s car. And on that horse thus named, our journey weirdly followed the lyrics of the song.
Like, on the first part of our journey, we really were looking at all the life. It teemed across the Ohio River Valley and the Midwest’s breadbasket. We were also looking at our lives. I had finished my first year teaching while Mary and Sue were climbing the corporate ladder at an upscale department store. I wanted to be a writer. Mary, a business executive. And Sue, we later learned, was quietly planning to marry CB.
We got along well—still do. Though there was that one argument. Having spent the previous year as housemates sharing a bungalow on the shores of Candlewood Lake, we had learned to budget expenses, share chores, and, of course, entertain guests. When we got back, we would be renting a flat in Danbury.
For two days, we oohed and aahed at boundless raw spaces that confounded our senses at dawn, drenched our eyes at noon, and set our mood at night. Lavender and clover drifted through amber waves of grain in their promises of purple-mountained majesties.
At one point, the trusty AM radio announced that visibility was more than five miles. I looked around. In all directions. On the horizon, I saw a lone tree. Its sole purpose it seemed, was to punctuate the vastness of that 360-degree sphere within which were all the plants and birds and rocks and things that Bunnell wrote about.
Somewhere east of where the West begins, we ditched I-80 and reined Corolla toward Boulder, Colorado. As we drew closer, clouds along the horizon confused themselves with snowcapped mountain peaks.
We stayed with friends of Sue’s, who treated us to real Mexican food and a daytrip to a ghost town in the foothills. There the magic of mountains seized my sensibilities. Or maybe it was the ghosts. Or the lack of oxygen. I don’t know, but for the first time, and certainly not the last, I was mesmerized.
No matter how high you go in the mountains, no matter how many rocks you examine, no matter how many different ways you photograph every last peak, against blazingly clear or torturously steel-clad skies, you can never get close enough to touch a mountain. I tried, I really did, first when Sue’s friends toured us through the foothills and then when we crossed the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park a few days later. All the way across the Great Basin, northern California, the western and southwestern deserts I tried. But to no avail. Massive and mountable, they remain mysteriously intangible.
From the Rockies, we headed toward Utah on U.S. Highway 40, which historians have dubbed the Main Street of America. Somewhere between the arid sprawl of Dinosaur, Colorado, and Vernal, Utah, lies Dinosaur National Monument. Although fascinated by the fossils discovered in 1909, I’m a Main Street gal, so I looked for the people. Although not as old as the dinosaurs, they are rare and far between. It was hard to believe that indigenous people had lived in these remote reaches of dazzling bluffs for at least 12,000 years.
They also lived in what’s now Salt Lake City. Founded in 1847 by Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young, the city—in the early seventies anyway— maintained a Mormon ethos. That meant we could neither tour the Mormon Temple nor imbibe alcohol. But somehow, we finagled an invite to a private club for a few drinks during our one night there.
We hopped back on I-80, and rode past the Bonneville Salt Flats of the Great Salt Lake and across the Great Basin into Nevada, the state of no limits. In Reno, I won $12 in a slot machine—enough to pay for a Paul Revere and the Raiders show—or was it Mitch Rider and the Detroit Wheels?—then cantered to a stop in Sacramento to visit my brother Jim.
From his home base, Jim took us on a few day trips to see northern California. His car broke down on the Golden Gate Bridge, forcing us all—including my pregnant sister-in-law Nancy—to admire the view for an hour. Imagine such a travesty. Afterwards, we sampled chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, touched the redwoods of Muir Woods, and peeked at nude sunbathers on Stinson Beach.
Before commencing our loop toward home, I insisted on a detour to visit my boyfriend Krishna at Yogaville West. We were students of Swami Satchidananda, whose western ashram was tucked into the serpentine northern stretches of the Napa Valley. It was, after all, only about a hundred miles from Sacramento, and we were out to see America, right? Getting there, however, taunted our nerves and tested our friendship.
I don’t know how we found the place. For more than two hours, Sue clenched the steering wheel as she guided us up and down the tortuously steep grades, narrow roads, and twisty switchbacks—no changing drivers on this stretch. Mary, riding shotgun, grew queasier and queasier with each plummeting hairpin turn that scratched along chaparral-covered gorges that plunged into woodland, savanna, and grassland. I, on the other hand, careened between my friends’ growing angst; the breathtaking abysses; and longing for a little time with Krishna.
By the time we got to the ashram, Sue and Mary were apoplectic. While I basked in the glory of spirituality and love, they gawked at yogis silently tending to austere chambers and dusty gardens. After about an hour, my travel mates prodded me to leave—we needed to make it to Bakersfield by nightfall; Krishna prodded me to take his hiking boots—he would be hitchhiking home. They were an encumbrance for him and collateral for me. So I agreed, without consulting Sue. Thus ensued the argument.
She didn’t want the damned boots in the boot. A blight they were on an otherwise organized trunk. We traded glares and reached a silent truce in the serene shadows of Yogaville when I found a few crevices between our suitcases, provisions, and the furnishings she had bought in Boulder. Somebody else’s boots were my souvenir. Nothing more was said, but the unspoken detente tiptoed to the surface on every stop that required packing or repacking the trunk. Which was like every day.
Bakersfield was a six-hour haul. There we hydrated Corolla at dawn and filled lots of containers with water. Heading into the desert, we saw cars outfitted with water bags—a novel sight and an appendage we didn’t need. Slung across the hoods of cars, trucks, and farm vehicles, they kept water cool enough to drink while providing backup water for car radiators.
Just like the bad lyrics of our theme song, the heat really was hot (remember, no AC), the ground was dry (this was August), under a sky (in Nevada) with no clouds. By early afternoon, we pulled into Las Vegas in all its tacky glory.
Into our rationed trunk space we had packed formal attire for a night on the town. We gambled on and in our gowns, saw a show, and hit the road at daybreak. What happened in Vegas really did stay there—not one of us can remember anything else.
And then, hot damn, we headed to a dam called Hoover. Then the coolest of all cool stuff emerged from the sleepy town of Flagstaff, Arizona.
The. Grand. Canyon. Each word as supercharged as the other two. The sum of each syllable was amplified by the phrase in its totality. Just as mountains had blown my sensibilities, the erosive sway of water and the sculpting clout of wind stupefied my soul. We teetered on the edge of awesome as long as we could.
Then, tearing ourselves away, we clopped toward the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest, where our skin really did begin to turn red, like the song says. Only it was from eating lots of chili and hanging appendages out the wide-open windows.
After three days in the desert fun (or are the lyrics dessert sun?), we crossed a river bed—the Rio Grande—then galloped on I-40 through Gallup, Albuquerque, and Amarillo, and clear across Texas. Ignoring Dallas, we dove headlong into the Deep South and landed in Texarkana, Arkansas. Named by some railroad guy for its proximity to the intersection of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, the combined municipality is unique in name and idiosyncratic ambiance.
For in that quaint city tucked between the Cowhorn and Swampdoodle Creeks, dwelled Maw Maw and Paw Paw. Proper and genteel, they were lovely people who served us the tangiest taste of America of anywhere on our trip. And I’m not talking about the grits and greens at Bryce’s cafeteria. No, after a four-o’clock dinner there, we settled ourselves in for a nice evening in a lace-dollied parlor with Aunt Alice. From Dallas. She was on the loveseat (or was it a settee?) under the west-facing window framed with lace curtains. Maw Maw and Paw Paw sat to my left on either side of a Queen Anne table topped with a fringed lamp. Mary and I shared the sofa (or was it a divan?) across from Alice. Sue to the far right, closed the circle in a jacquard (or was it matelassé?) easy chair. I think we were drinking lemonade. Maybe iced tea. Certainly not mint juleps.
The family news that dominated the conversation was that cousin Herman was getting married. To a Catholic, or as Maw Maw said, “a Catlick.”
Maw Maw shook her bespectacled head slowly. It would be difficult enough accepting someone of a different religion into the family, but a Catick! Well, she just didn’t know.
“Maw Maw,” Aunt Alice slyly broke into the staid old woman’s lament. “You have two Catlicks sitting right here in your living room.” Despite her effort to maintain perfect composure, Maw Maw’s jaw dropped and her gaze settled on each of us in turn. “One’s I-talian,” Alice continued, “and the other’s Irish.” Mary and I exchanged sidelong glances and later pulled Sue aside to suggest we leave this stagecoach stop in the morning.
We did. Scrapping our original plan to swelter our way to New Orleans, we opted instead to swing north. Our first stop was Murray, Kentucky, where Sue was born. There we stayed a night with friends of Sue’s family, and then headed to KenTuck Lake on the Tennessee border for the vacation of our vacation.
Created by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1944, it is the largest artificial lake east of the Mississippi River. Surrounded by lush green trees and refreshing blue waters, we cooled off, water skied, and ate lots of good southern food—thanks again to the hospitality of Sue’s kith and kin. And in another eye-popping taste of the South, the maid laundered our dirty clothes before we swung on home.
Each time we packed the car anew, however, that one argument flickered in the trunk. “Damned boots,” Sue would swear under her breath. I should have left my souvenir behind, I smile now in retrospect, for I gave their wearer the boot a few years later.