The urge to travel coast to coast is an American constant, from Lewis and Clark to the self-driving car that completed a transcontinental trip just last month. Now the approach of summer vacation season awakens our annual instinct to pack up the car and head across the country — blogging and tweeting all the way.
Inspiration for recording our road trips can be found in three slim volumes written a century ago by three women who rode shore to shore in separate automobile adventures. Their travelogues read like Web posts — exclamation points included — and document a country on the cusp, experiencing both the beginning of the automotive era and the final remnants of the American frontier.
The intrepid women came from society’s upper crust. For Effie Price Gladding, who published “Across the Continent by the Lincoln Highway” in 1914, the west-to-east drive was the last leg of an around-the-world trip with her husband. A year later, Emily Post — who had not yet written her famous treatise on etiquette — made the journey in the opposite direction with her son as chauffeur and wrote “By Motor to the Golden Gate.” And Beatrice Larned Massey documented the trip she took with her husband and two friends a few years later in “It Might Have Been Worse: A Motor Trip from Coast to Coast.”
All three tried to whet their readers’ appetite to make similar journeys.
“You will get tired, and your bones will cry aloud for a rest cure; but I promise you one thing — you will never be bored,” Massey wrote. “No two days were the same, no two views were similar, no two cups of coffee tasted alike. . . . My advice to timid motorists is, ‘Go.’ ”
It was an era when cafeterias and ice cream cones were novelties, an out-of-state license plate caused a flurry of attention and cars sported pennants naming towns they had visited. “Whole clusters of pennants,” Gladding wrote, floated “gaily in the wind.”
The style of the three books is sometimes elitist and often quaint — Post included hand-drawn maps and a ledger of expenses — but the women’s observations are surprisingly contemporary. They fretted over the timing and taste of room-service coffee, the quality of hotel housekeeping and whether dinner merited the tab. All hoped to find the authentic American West.
It’s no surprise that Post, already an accomplished writer of newspaper and magazine articles as well as several novels, was the most aesthetically astute (and occasionally snarky) of the trio. Of her visit to a Cleveland hotel, she wrote: “The people didn’t match the background. Dining in a white-marble room quite faultlessly appointed, there was not a man in evening clothes and not a single woman smartly dressed or who even looked as though she had ever been! In a beautiful hotel like the Statler . . . they spoil the picture.”
Post rendered TripAdvisor-style assessments of accommodations. Hotel Seneca in Geneva, N.Y., had “an interior looking exactly like the illustrations in ‘Vogue’! White woodwork, French blue cut velvet, delicate spindly Adam furniture, a dining room all white with little square-paned mirror doors, too attractive!”
Arriving on the West Coast, she suggested that the brilliant sunshine had skewed Californians’ eyesight, so that they couldn’t recognize clashing colors. “All through Southern California, you see combinations of color that fairly set your teeth on edge,” she wrote. “Scarlet and magenta are put together everywhere; Prussian blue next to cobalt; vermilion next to old rose, olive green next to emerald. Not only in flowers, but in homes and in clothes.”
But the cosmopolitan Post was captivated by America’s wild beauty. Crossing the Painted Desert, she and her companions slept one night in their convertible, bundled in fur coats and steamer blankets.
“Overhead was the wide inverted bowl of purple blue made of an immensity of blues overlaid with blues . . . studded with its myriad blinking lamps lit suddenly all together, and so close I felt that I could almost reach them with my hand.”
The desert also seduced Gladding, who wrote, “The smell of the sagebrush, pungent and aromatic, is in my nostrils from day to day. I love it in its cleanness and spiciness . . . .”
And travel gave her a new appreciation for simple things.
A hotel room “was very clean, though very simply furnished. The floor was bare and our furniture consisted of a bed, a chair without a back, a tin washbasin resting upon the chair, a lamp, a pail of fresh water with a dipper,” she wrote. “We had two fresh towels and felt ourselves rich in comfort.”
As the couple departed a ranch where they had stopped for lunch in Utah, the rancher told them that if they encountered trouble, they “should start a fire and ‘make a smoke,’ [adding]: ‘I’ll see you with my glasses and drive to your rescue with gasoline and water.’ ”
As they left, Gladding wrote that the land was so flat and barren that “when we were 20 miles away, I could still see the ranch house, a tiny speck upon the horizon.”
Unlike the other two writers, Gladding made her journey from west to east, which had the effect of making her feel as though she were traveling back in time. In Pennsylvania and Virginia she recounted “clear traces of Colonial days,” including quaint names on gravestones, such as Parthenia, Edmonia and Johanah. She noted reminders of the “awfulness of the Civil War” on cemetery monuments.
To contemporary readers, the menu Gladding describes at a Pennsylvania inn also sounds like a page from history. At the Chalk Hill House near Uniontown, she was served fried chicken, fried ham, fried hasty pudding, huckleberries, strawberry preserves, real maple syrup, watermelon-rind pickles, cookies, cake, applesauce, flannel cakes and coffee.
Massey traveled west along a northern route, covering more than 4,100 miles over seven weeks. Her style of writing was reportorial. In Fergus Falls, Minn., she quoted a waitress describing a deadly tornado:
“Folks were blown down that street like old newspapers. Maw was cookin’, and she and the stove went off together. The piany [piano] in the schoolhouse was took up and planted in a street two blocks away not hurt a bit. It sounds just beautiful now [and] wire fences . . . just wound themselves up like yarn.’ ”
But Massey becomes almost flowery when she turns her eye to the agricultural panorama.
“You have never seen our country until you have traveled through this great grain belt,” she wrote as she traveled. “There were beautiful fields of alfalfa, a mass of bloom with its bluish purple flower as sweet as honey.” She swooned at the verdant northern landscape with “lakes on every side, as blue as great sapphires, sparkling in the sun, the road lined with the wild sunflowers, often forming a golden hedge on either side for miles.”
All was not pretty, however. In Montana, Massey “met hundreds of families driving out in old prairie schooners, with all their household furniture and their cattle. They had tried to raise crops, and were literally driven out. The children looked pinched and starved. The women and men were the color of leather. They had lost everything. Their faces were pathos personified. It wrung your heart to see them.”
Her experience in the desert was less romantic than Post’s. “I can conceive of nothing more utterly desolate and God-forsaken than the desert,” Massey wrote. “There is a silence of deathlike stillness that gets on the nerves, and the sameness is wearisome.”
When a blinding sandstorm obliterated the road in Nevada, she and her husband staggered into a cafe, their eyes and ears full of sand, and arranged for themselves and their car to get by rail to California, where they resumed the road trip.
In the end, all three women felt that their cross-country journeys had changed their lives.
“I feel as though I had acquired from the great open West a more direct outlook, a simpler, less-encumbered view of life,” Post wrote. “You can’t come in contact with people anywhere, without unconsciously absorbing a few of their habits. You find you have sloughed off the skin of Eastern hidebound dependence upon ease and luxury and once-necessary things become unimportant.”
Powers is a freelance writer and editor in Detroit. Her Web site is RebeccaPowers.com.
Road-trip wisdom from early 1900s motorists Effie Gladding, Emily Post and Beatrice Larned Massey
• Keep fruit in the car. Oranges and pears quench the thirst better than water.
• Get off the main road.
• After driving day after day, there’s no bed too soft and no bathroom too luxurious. Economize in other ways, not on good food and comfortable lodgings.
• Carry a picnic basket/hamper stocke.d with such basics as “pepper, mustard, sweet-and-sour pickles, or a relish, orange marmalade, or a fruit jam.” (Massey)
• Bring favorite snacks from home. “Neither [low-calorie] brittle bread nor [low-carb] Proto Puffs had ever been heard of west of New York. Nothing but good, rich, fat-producing bread and butter to be had, to say nothing of chocolate. Our waistbands getting tighter every day.” (Post)
• Avoid following a strict schedule.
• Expect problems — and remember: “It is your. . .misadventures that afterwards become your most treasured memories.” (Post)
• Don’t travel after sunset. You won’t see the landscape.
• Wear khaki breeches and ship petticoats ahead to your destination. (Massey)
• Stop on a whim. If you see an intriguing café, go in.
• Pause to take in the view.
• Eat local. “Never have we tasted such a watermelon [it] has just come from the field, and is fresh and delicious.” (Gladding)
• Avoid making snap judgments. “Unless you can stay in a city long enough to know some of its people, to learn something about its atmosphere and personality, your opinion of it is as valueless as your opinion of a play would be, after seeing only the posters on the outside of the theater.” (Post)
Several hotels and inns mentioned by the motoring mavens still offer hospitality today; the list below is in chronological order by opening date.
Buxton Inn, Granville, Ohio
313 E. Broadway
The Mission Inn [now Mission Inn Hotel & Spa], Riverside, Calif.
3649 Mission Inn Ave.
Rough Riders Hotel, Medora, N.D
301 Third Ave.
Built: 1884. (The original eight hotel rooms remain, with 68 new.)
The Olive Hotel [now Historic Olive Hotel], Miles City, Mont.
501 Main St.
Built: 1889. National Register of Historic Places.
In 1919, the hotel manager had a to-go lunch packed for his departing guests ($2.50 for three). It included: “Three juicy melons, a whole broiled chicken for each, thin bread and butter, a jar of potato salad, fresh tomatoes, three jars of marmalade, eggs, crisp lettuce, pickles, and the best chocolate cake I ever tasted, besides peaches, pears, and hot coffee — the banner lunch of the trip.” (Massey)
Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Built: 1903-04 of local logs and stone. National Historic Landmark.
St. Francis [now Westin St. Francis], San Francisco
335 Powell St.
Opened: 1904. (Reopened: 1907, post-earthquake.)
St. Paul Hotel, St. Paul, Minn.
350 Market St.
Blackstone [now Renaissance Blackstone Chicago Hotel], Chicago
636 S. Michigan Ave.
An exterior like “a huge tower of chocolate cake covered with confectioner’s icing” and a cerise- and cream-colored dining room, “the most beautiful room that I have ever seen anywhere, not excepting Paris.” (Post)
Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo.
Built: 1911. (One original wing remains in the current 1936-built structure.)
Plains Hotel [now Historic Plains Hotel], Cheyenne, Wyo.
1600 Central Ave.
Built: 1911. National Historic Landmark Hotel.
The Virginian Hotel, Medicine Bow, Wyo.
404 U.S. 30
Opened: 1911. National Register of Historic Places.
“Here, the wool men come to trade and to export their wool; here the sheep men bring their sheep for the annual shearing.” (Gladding)
Hotel Utica, Utica, N.Y
102 Lafayette St.
“We noticed that the clerk at the desk, instead of showing the blank indifference typical of hotels on Fifth Avenue and Madison Avenue, greeted all arriving guests with a hearty “How do you do?” They also gave us souvenirs. A little gilt powder pencil, a leather change purse and a gilt-stamped leather card case. We felt as though we had been to a children’s party.” (Post)
William Penn Hotel [now Omni William Penn Hotel], Pittsburgh
530 William Penn Pl.