Ken Burns’ multi-part PBS documentary on America’s parks contains a long section about Yellowstone Park in 1968. It’s my favorite part and I could watch it again and again.
A line of American cars—many of them wood-sided station wagons towing pop-up campers—wound through the park. Brown bears clawed at car windows while the future Baby Boomers quickly rolled up crank windows, both in fear and delight.
Car trips for families used to be the middle class birthright. Families “saw the USA in their Chevrolet” and this old footage could easily have pictured my family on one of our summer trips.
My father was a science guy but also enjoyed American history. My mother, also a teacher, did not work outside the home after I disrupted the two-paycheck family.
An agriculture teacher, dad worked year-round and his only respite was to leave town. Every summer we packed up the Family Truckster and headed someplace we had never been before.
When my brother and I visit today, we often talk about these trips during the years 1961 to 1984. Our first family trip wasn’t really a vacation. My dad received a National Science Foundation grant to study at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, so we spent weekends at the Wisconsin Dells while living in River Falls.
Our last family vacation was two months before I was married. We met in New Orleans for the strangest long weekend of my life; it's just odd to walk down Bourbon Street past the nudie bars and voodoo shops with your parents, even as a young adult. I flew from Florida, my brother from Oklahoma, and my parents from Indiana.
In between were the truly memorable trips. Both my brother and I are grateful to our parents for figuring how to take two children all over the United States on a one-income teacher’s salary.
In the early 1970s we took a trip west. Dad gave each of us kids $50, a vast fortune, as spending money for the two-week driving trip. I had my spent by the time we crossed the Mississippi at the Gateway Arch, while my brother came home with most of his intact and interest earned on the money he loaned me.
We also stopped at the Agriculture Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas, as we did on every western trip. This was not a featured highlight for me. All was not happy with the Princess of Dorkytown.
First the Agriculture Hall of Fame for the third time, and then Dad refused to go to Hoover Dam. I got it in my head that I really wanted to see Hoover Dam. I became obsessed and begged Dad to stop and see the wonder of 1930s American ingenuity.
We had already been to Denver and Las Vegas, a quick stop at the latter to visit the child-friendly Circus Circus in Sin City.
Mom and Dad were in a hurry to get to California, and Dad said to my relentless pleas, “Absolutely not. We are not going to Hoover Dam.”
I was almost a teenager and I still pitched a huge fit. This fit lasted all the way to Barstow, and did not amuse my parents at all. They were mostly concerned with the Chevvy overheating, which it did not. My father decided that it did not overheat in the hundred plus dry temperature because we did not have air conditioning. He pointed to all the poor schmucks along the side of the desert road with their hoods popped and radiators boiling over. We triumphed because we didn't have a/c in our car.
To this day, I have been relentless teased about my desire to go to Hoover Dam. This is a well-known tale among friends and family who have been tormenting me with my not-so-secret desire for the last four-and-a-half decades.
So I have a collection of Hoover Dam paraphernalia. I have a Hoover Dam plastic placemat. I have a 1965 Hoover Dam flyer (courtesy of a friend who found it in an antique shop.) Just today I received a new sky-view picture of the Dam, which included the new bridge. (More salt to rub into my dam wound.)
My brother, who can be playfully spiteful, likes to go to Vegas, and has gone to Hoover Dam at least twice just to have his picture taken. He doesn’t give a rat’s behind about the most amazing architectural wonder in the States. He just wants to annoy me.
Of course I own a first edition hardback cover of "Colossus: Hoover Dam and the Making of the American Century" by Michael Hiltzik. I mean, c'mon, who doesn't?
My husband and I were having dinner with good friends at their home about a year ago, and somehow Hoover Dam came up in the conversation. Chuck, who is a retired labor executive, rose from the table and said, “I’ll be back, and I have something special to show you."
He came back wearing a hard hat that said something like “Property of Hoover Dam.” Turns out he had visited the famous site on a VIP union tour, and got to keep the hat. Well, la dee dah!
That 1970 trip wasn’t entirely disappointing though we did not get to see Hoover Dam.
We did see Disneyland where a tour guide who looked like a British nanny jumped lines for the “E” rides and got us into Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted House very quickly.
At Universal Studios, we saw the set of “Here’s Lucy” and the yellow house Lucy lived in near the set when she was on the property.
We drove up historic highway 1 and visited San Francisco, staying in the Holiday Inn near Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember it was $43 a night which seemed like a huge amount of money.
We headed east to Salt Lake City where we heard the Choir at the Tabernacle and ate a $4 steak the size of the state in Broadus, Montana.
We visited where Custer made his fatal mistakes, and topped off the trip with a visit to Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, the Black Hills, and the Corn Palace.
It wasn’t a total loss, but there are nights when I can’t sleep and I dream of Hoover Dam rising out of the canyon.
I think about the gleaming new bridge, and I hope and I believe.