Route 66, 1967 Style

When I graduated from Officer Candidate School at Fort Sill in July 1967, I was on orders to Train up with an Artillery Battalion and Deploy to Vietnam in early 1968.   After a couple of weeks’ vacation at home in Wichita, I drove out to Fort Irwin, California.  I struck out early in a 1963 Volvo that was a great road car. I left on a Saturday to arrive near Barstow, California late Sunday night.  The drive started west out of Wichita on US Highway 54.  That just happens to be pretty much a truck route and the old asphalt roadbed had at least one inch ruts where the truck tires melted in, in the summer.

The beloved Volvo after Dad wrecked it. in 1968

I decided to take US 54 as it travels mostly west until you get out by Dodge City and then heads down towards Liberal. It then swoops southwest to Tucumcari New Mexico. By late July, the wheat harvest was complete and here isn’t a lot going on that time of the year.  Lots of trucks headed out to the packing plants near Liberal and a few tourists.  Most of the people headed west are going to Colorado up on the new I-70 so like I said lots of trucks. 

I looked at my maps and saw that the old US 66 and I-40 were on a parallel route and in some places Interstate had replaced the old “66”.  I decided that at Tucumcari, NM I would take as much of the old highway as possible.  I was on I-40 most of the way to Albuquerque and there I had to take the old highway through the south edge of the city.   I did spend the night somewhere there but looking back, I don’t have a clue where.  The next morning I started out early and because most of the way across the rest of the ways was desert, I bought one of those stupid water bags that hung on the front bumper. God did I look like a tourist.

Once I was west of Albuquerque, there was a lot of the old 66 to drive.  It was a funny red colored asphalt from the red rocks used to give the highway some durability.  It was also just a paved cow path in places and you could tell they just paved and repaved it in a lot of places without trying to improve the road bed.  Somewhere that landscape also tuned to desert with lots of foreign plants most of them with sticky places.  Another feature of the route was unlike Kansas there was scenery everywhere.  Being a boy from Kansas and having to look at the clouds to see much, all along the route was mountains that were multicolored reds and greens. 

I am not sure how I managed to see so much and stay on the road.  I guess I just multitasked the driving and viewing.  There were places where you could see the new I-40 being built and places where the old route went off in the valleys along the river and the new road stayed straight and was cut through empty places in a direct route.  I remember one stretch of brand new road on the Old 66 that had just been finished.  I thought to myself at the time that by next year that will be the nicest road to nowhere.

Not sure where, but pretty soon I started going through small towns even if the Interstate was there, they would kick you off and you had to drive through the places that were inhabited by only Indians.  Being a kid from the Heartland it was all new to me and I just had to gawk as I drove through those little wide spots in the road.  Gallup, Grants and more little towns were driven through along the way.  Lots of gas stations and “Trading Posts” were features at both ends of most towns.  Then I hit the edge of Arizona.

There were a couple of places that were kind of neat in Arizona but I don’t remember much from that trip.  What I do remember is just short of California I found a stranded traveler long side of the road.  When I pulled up, I saw a fairly new Chevy Station wagon with the hood up.  I noticed an Air Force Sticker on the bumper and figured that it was probably a young officer, like me going to a new assignment.  The first sound I heard was a baby crying.  It was late in the afternoon in July and hot as hell.  My Volvo had a little air conditioner but it kept me somewhat cool even if it did drip water inside the car from time to time.  The driver got out and told me that he could go about five miles and the car would overheat.  He was really worried about the baby being too hot and didn’t have a clue how to limp the car into needles.

My solution as to put his wife and the baby in my car and for him to just tough it out. He wasn’t too thrilled about that idea but when we put all the water from the bottom of my water cooler and bumper bag in his radiator there was still a lot of steam.  We put his wife in the front seat of my car where the air conditioner could blow on the baby and struck out for Needles.  The first breeze of cool air and that baby went to sleep. The only thing that probably saved his engine was the new “Check-in Station” they were building along the highway.  There was a lot of brick laying going on and someone had put three or four 55 gallon barrels of water there to make mortar. We not only filled his radiator with all it would hold, he had a 20 gallon cooler that was filled to the brim.  He wanted his wife to ride with him the short distance to the cut off to Needles and off we went.

At Needles, I waived him good bye and kept on trucking west.  Most of the route by then was interstate and called I-40 but there was one thing that really troubled me.  In Kansas the little 2 lane highways were set for 70 MPH and in the middle of nowhere the Interstates in California was only 65 MPH.  A lot of people drove faster but I also saw four of five Troopers with people pulled over and writing tickets.

It was evening when I got near Barstow California and I was one tired and sunburned guy.  I knew that I should just drive out to Fort Irwin but was just too tired to do that. I thought that the lights of Barstow made it look like a jewel and inviting.  I found a motel along the main drag and checked in.  The room had been left with the air conditioner turned off and the bank sign said 110 degrees at 10 PM.  I don’t have any idea how hot the room was but leaving the door open felt good until the cooler started to finally cool down the room. I took a shower and just laid on the sheets with the air blowing over my body.  Somewhere in the early AM the room finally good coo enough that I needed to pull a sheet up over me.

When I go up and ready to roll north to Fort Irwin, I drove the main drag through Barstow.  Was I ever wrong about it being a jewel.  If the Good lord was ever going to give the earth an enema, I knew where ground zero or the insertion point was going to be.  Somewhere later in my life I’ll tell you about the early days at Fort Irwin.

Pvt Petty In 1966


COL (Ret)

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