What’s the best summer you ever had?
Mine was exactly 40 years ago, when two friends and I spent three months driving around the United States and Canada. Although in 1971 we were four years removed from the Summer of Love, the spirit of that phenomenon was still in the air. But rather than converge on a single location like Haight-Ashbury, we decided to take the countercultural pulse of the entire country by circumotoring it.
Although we intended to travel frugally, the trip would take a chunk of change. To that end, I got a second-shift job at Whirlpool a month before spring semester of my sophomore year in college ended, and those workman’s wages were enough to fund my share of a 1951 Ford Taystee bread truck, which Steve Eckstrom, Pete Bergeson and I turned into a poor man’s Winnebago. When school was out, we headed north to Canada, then east to the Atlantic, south to Florida, west to Arizona and California, north to Washington, and then east again, arriving back in St. Paul 12 weeks and 11,000 miles later.
Along the way, we eschewed freeways, campgrounds, tourist attractions and restaurants—though we were not above freeloading off the occasional relative: Steve’s aunt and uncle in Sacramento, Pete’s parents in Seattle, my grandmother in Emery, South Dakota.
We slept in the truck, which we had outfitted with a fold-down couch in the front and a bunk bed in back. We parked in out-of-the-way spots wherever we found ourselves at day’s end. We cooked our meals on a Coleman stove, heavy on oatmeal and baked beans.
Macroscopically, our route was a giant circle. Microscopically, a particular day’s journey was dictated by whim: We followed our noses. Although we were anti-freeway, we were not averse to big cities, and we checked out Montreal, Washington, D.C., New York City, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
In Montreal, someone broke into the truck while we were walking around downtown and unaccountably made off with our (well-used) camp stove. Replacing it constituted our second-biggest single expense of the summer, topped only by a tire we had to buy later in Crescent City, Calif.
We were afraid to drive in New York but equally fearful of navigating the subway system, so we bused into the city and walked for hours to reach fabled Greenwich Village. In Central Park we heard steel drums, our first exposure to that musical form, and attended a rally billed as being for workers and students. After a few minutes Pete asked, “Where are the workers?”
With the movie Easy Rider much on our minds, we drove pretty much straight through the South, sleeping in shifts and stopping only to get gas, fearful that three longhairs would attract the attention of roving bands of rednecks. In Phoenix, we spent our first night parked near a gas station with a large time-and-temperature sign. When we finally drifted off to sleep around midnight, the sign read 99°. When we awoke at 6 a.m., things had cooled to 97°.
Though a bread truck is capable of highway speeds, it’s better suited for a slower pace, and we rarely drove more than 50. With no deeds to do and no promises to keep, we moseyed along beneath the blue true summer sky, happy as the grass was green. If something in a particular town looked interesting, we stopped and checked it out. If not, we shook the dust from our tires and kept cruising.
Our journey took us along a ribbon of highway from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters, from sea to shining sea, and we drove the last leg with the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’ ” echoing in our minds:
Sometimes the light’s all shinin’ on me.
Other times I can barely see.
Lately it occurs to me
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
In 1971, gas was 35 cents a gallon and burning it was a guiltless pleasure. That entire summer—food, transportation, lodging, entertainment—cost me less than $300. I’ve never lived as cheaply since, nor as expansively.
My life is no longer governed by the rhythms of the school year; summer vacation is mostly a state of mind. But what a state it is, and what a collection of states I live in. And what I wouldn’t give to spend another summer touring those states in a 1951 bread truck.
Dave Healy is a freelance writer and editor. He was the editor of the Park Bugle for 10 years, retiring in 2010.