An American road trip in a real tin lizzie

That was some trip that Horatio Nelson Jackson took from San Francisco to New York City back in 1903. He was the first to make it across the country by automobile, an almost forgotten journey that Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan have brought to the attention of the public in a recent PBS special. Mr. Burns depicts the achievement in this way in an interview with CNN'S Wolf Blitzer:

"He sets off on the greatest journey of his life, takes along a 22-year-old mechanic, later buys a dog named Bud. All three wear goggles on this windshieldless, topless car, and make their way, grope their way across a country that has 2.3 million miles of road, but only 150 miles are paved, and all of those are in cities. So he's on cow paths, two tracks, railroad right-of-ways, and it is a hilarious scene."

So I doff my hat to Jackson. And I'm not taking anything away from him when I relate that in 1919 I was part of a trip in a Model T Ford (1915 vintage) that my family made from Cody, Wyo., to Los Angeles, and then (after a two-week stopover) back east to Illinois. Jackson's record-setting pace was well within the three months he had wagered he could do it in. Ours - a shorter trip but a most difficult one with so much of it in the mountainous West - took us three months, from late September to late December.

Jackson was out to win a $50 bet - which, somehow, he never bothered to collect. Obviously he was motivated mainly by the challenge.

I can only say now, as I look back, that my father, a pioneering civil engineer who had run primary, state-line-setting surveys through the jagged mountains between Idaho and Oregon in the early 1900s, was always ready for an adventure. He "sold" the car trip to my mother as a "fun" way to visit relatives in South Pasadena, Calif., and then return the family to its old Midwest home in Urbana, Ill.

The commentator on the PBS show said Jackson's trip resulted in paved roads being built all over the country, rather than just in cities.

No doubt this is true. But I can factually state that we never found any hard roads until we got to the outskirts of Los Angeles. And it wasn't until we got outside Salt Lake City that we came upon a new concrete road being built.

Besides Dad and Mom, my two teenage sisters and a sheepdog called Laddie accompanied me (a 4-year-old) in a tin lizzie - a secondhand car that Dad had bought for $50 and was just learning to drive on this trip.

Incidentally, Jackson, who had married the daughter of the wealthiest man in Vermont, had purchased a $3,000, 20-horsepower touring car for his journey. He had the money, too, to wire for help again and again. And he had a mechanic on board.

Dad, on the other hand, was always under the car, as I recall, fixing something or other. Usually he was putting a cold patch on an inner tube for a tire.

My older sister, age 17, begged Dad to let her learn to drive when we got onto the hard road outside Salt Lake City. But within a mile or so, she got off the pavement onto a very soft shoulder and our car turned over on its back in a ditch. We had landed in front of a hospital and within a few minutes a bunch of white-uniformed men came pouring out of the building and to our rescue. So very soon we were back on our wheels again. We were fine - except for some scratches from Laddie walking on our faces.

We had a two-week delay in Salt Lake City to have our canvas top repaired. And then we were on our way.

Jackson's party had to ford many streams because there were no bridges. Sixteen years later, we also had to ford streams. I can recall the water sometimes coming up to the bottom of our doors and wetting our feet.

We turned over on our side three times. These mishaps came about when we arrived in Missouri in early December and the roads had turned into a black, greasy muck. Three times we slid into a ditch and over onto the car's side.

No one was hurt. And we somehow crawled out. Then, after long stands in the rain when we had gotten very wet and cold, a farmer would come along with his team of horses and pull us out. His charge would always be $5. To a father who didn't have the deep pockets of Jackson, this was a lot of money.

Oh, yes, how did we sleep? We had a tent; so we usually slept by our car - certainly when we were in mountains. When we got to the Midwest, we would find farmers who would put us up for the night. The charge: $1 for us all.

How did a 4-year-old remember all this? All I can say is that on a trip filled with so many exciting things to see and with so many big difficulties to overcome, the details fixed in my mind.

That mud in Missouri was so sticky that our car seemed hardly to move. If we made 100 miles a day, with Dad's foot down constantly on the low-gear pedal, he would say we had a "good day."

Sometimes, on our long trip, Dad would find a patch of hard, dry road where he would get the car up to 20 miles an hour (maybe going down a hill) and Mom would call out, "Dad, you're going too fast!"

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