The Road to Wellville

This month's great read, selected by our editors: Using his grandmother's journal as his guide, the author re-creates the cross-country drive his family made 77 years before.

From the December 2014/January 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

U.S. ROUTE 1 southbound from Washington, D.C., is a nightmare of suburban congestion at the moment. What once was a national artery connecting Maine with Key West, Florida, when my father and his parents drove it in 1936 is clogged with traffic and traffic lights. I wonder what my father, next to me in the passenger seat, thinks of the difference.

At least we have great music to listen to. I pull out a box of CDs I’ve assembled, recordings from 1936, with songs by Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong. I put in a disc and, feeling proud of my planning, say, “Pop, I’ve got enough music to get us across the country listening to just what you were hearing on the radio as you made your trip.”

“The car didn’t have a radio,” he says.

Right. No radio. No DVD player. No Nintendo DS. In fact none of the electronic distractions considered essential today for kids on a road trip. My father had only two toys on his cross-country journey, a Lionel electric train carefully packed in the trunk and a stuffed blue bunny. It’s a measure of how precious they were to little Les that he still has both. The train comes out each Christmas to circle my parents’ tree. The bunny, which hasn’t seen daylight for decades, is riding with us now, a sort of touchstone.

We’re retracing a journey that my father, Lester Felten, Jr., made with his parents, Lester and Lorrie, when he was six years old. They had sold just about everything they owned in New Jersey and loaded what little they could into a secondhand 1932 Chevrolet for a journey west. My grandparents, it turns out, were on the tail end of one of the nation’s great migrations, now largely forgotten. When most of us think of settlers heading west, we picture farmers or ranchers looking for land; we imagine gold-panning forty-niners searching for El Dorado. But an astonishing number of those who went west in the late 1800s and early 1900s weren’t hunting fortunes. They were seeking health.

At the time, medicine had no real treatment for tuberculosis, the infectious bacterial disease that was killing my grandmother as it had many others. The best that doctors could offer were tales about the bracingly clean air of the Rockies or the dry heat of the desert, which was said to restore enfeebled lungs. A 1913 survey found that more than half the residents in El Paso, Denver, Colorado Springs, Albuquerque, Tucson, and Pasadena traveled west because they, or someone in their family, had TB.

So my father and his parents began their odyssey on a well-worn path when they followed Route 1 from New Jersey south to Georgia, where they would connect with Route 80 for the drive west. In the 1930s, Route 80 was one of just three roads running from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. As the southernmost of the three—it was called the Dixie Overland Highway—80 was the best choice for travel in winter. A 1931 pamphlet put out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Public Roads bragged that nearly a third of the road’s 2,671 miles were “paved with brick, concrete or bituminous macadam.” The rest, my grandparents would discover, was gravel, clay, or “graded and drained earth,” otherwise known as dirt. This, more than the tire technology of the day, may have caused the many flats my grandfather had fixed along the way. The flats are detailed, along with much else, in a journal my grandmother kept. It now is our guide as we retrace their trip.

IT'S GOTTEN DARK, and Dad and I still have a few hours before we reach Southern Pines, North Carolina, where he and his folks spent the second night of their trip. (Their first was in Alexandria, Virginia, which we skipped.) We’re approaching the tobacco town of South Hill, Virginia, and though it’s still early in the evening, the sidewalks are already rolled up. That is, until Route 1 turns right to head out of town. It’s here that we have the first felicitous find of our journey cross-country—a vintage neon sign announcing the Horseshoe Restaurant. Inside we find a counter where, some 80 years ago, this former blacksmith shop first started serving food to the farmers bringing their tobacco to market. By the mid-1930s, the Horseshoe was doing boffo business with tourists traveling Route 1. It hasn’t changed much, except for an updated menu offering foodie diner options such as bison burgers and fried pickles. We order freshly battered onion rings, choose a dessert from a dozen pies, and find ourselves beaming at the thought that we may be eating dinner where my dad and his folks once ate theirs.

Harder to find will be the places where my father and his parents slept. One night they would have a “fine cabin,” according to my grandmother’s journal. The next might end with another flat tire. “Fixed the tire,” she writes, “then got in a miserable Tourist Court, but it was too late to do anything else.” Tourist courts, typically a clutch of cabins arrayed around a semicircular drive, were precursors to motor hotels, or motels—and only a few have made it into the 21st century. The few we’ll see on our trip have been abandoned or converted into sketchy weekly rentals, the sorts of places where stoves are more likely to be cooking meth than dinner.

Across the Carolinas and into Georgia, much of Route 1 is a rural two-lane back road. It gives us a feel for the people, the land, and how the two interact. Speeding along the freeway, we may not have noticed the carpets of rust-colored needles under broad stands of pines. Or the tidy houses, even the most modest of which has an impeccable groomed lawn. Impeccable, except for what look like scraps of white paper. “That’s so odd,” my father says. Then we pass a tractor pulling a wheeled cage stuffed with freshly picked cotton.

On the highway we also would not have found the sort of lunch we stumble on in Georgetown, Georgia. It isn’t the trimmed boxwoods out front that catch our attention but the dirt parking lot packed with cars. Inside we find locals crowding up for the daily buffet, a smorgasbord of fried chicken, okra, black-eyed peas, collard greens, and corn pudding.

AT FIRST I'M NOT SATISFIED with Grandma Lorrie’s journal. Rare are the moments she lets the veil slip, exposing honest emotion. The dismay at seeing her treasured furniture carted off in a beer wagon is the closest she comes to an outburst. She not only refuses to complain or vent; she never once mentions the disease killing her. Yet over time I begin to appreciate her reticence, however prim it may seem in our age of (over)sharing.

I’m keeping my own journal of the trip, though after ten hours in the car, sitting back down to write notes proves a chore. Then I think of how tired Grandma Lorrie would have been after a day banging across 400 miles of indifferently paved road—a weariness that never showed in her penmanship. My notebook is a tangle of clumsy, impatient scribbles. My grandmother’s journal is written in the sort of elegant hand that once was typical of anyone with a grade-school diploma.

In one entry that intrigues me, she writes of how they paused for several days in Hazelhurst, Georgia, at her Uncle Herman’s farm. When the time came to leave, she notes, “We felt we must push on. We felt so uncertain about the future and wanted to get it settled.”

For all the uncertainty, my grandparents had the gumption to take a side trip south into Florida, to what was, in an era before Disney, one of the state’s top tourist attractions: Silver Springs Park (now Silver Springs State Park), north of Orlando, site of one of the biggest artesian-spring formations on Earth.

My father and I make it to Silver Springs on a very chilly day for Florida. The park is deserted, its pavilions, built in the 1960s, eerily empty of people. Two glass-bottomed boats float tethered to the dock; a captain waits with each.

Shaking hands with Captain Oscar Collins, my dad tells him, “I was here 77 years ago,” adding that he remembers riding in a glass-bottom boat and seeing fishes, turtles, and alligators in what was then a crystalline, spring-fed lagoon.

“Wow,” says Collins, “I’ve only been here 44.”

We buy our tickets for his cruise, and the boat wheezes out into the lagoon. About the only things we see in the water are algae and grass, though at one point a cormorant glides under our vessel looking fruitlessly for fish.

WE HAVE BETTER LUCK in Vicksburg, Mississippi, into which we barrel after a ten-hour drive northwest from Silver Springs. Site of a decisive Civil War battle in which Union forces first laid siege to, then defeated, Confederate forces, the town sits where old Route 80 meets the Mississippi River.

“We stayed next to the battlefield,” my father tells me, “at Abe Lincoln’s Tourist Court.” It is long gone.

“A very nice place,” my grandmother wrote of the quirky lodging. “The owner was dressed as Lincoln, even had a natural black beard and boots.”

My father and his parents drove around the nearby battlefield, studying the monuments—at least those they could make out. “It was too foggy to see much,” the journal states.

Dad and I have better visibility. After a rainy morning, the clouds have cleared, and Vicksburg National Military Park gleams, the sun brightening the marble and granite obelisks, memorial temples, and plinths. We climb the 47 steps of the Illinois Monument, topped by a small, domed pantheon in which even hushed voices reverberate. Dad startles me with an irreverent yawp, “to see how long the sound persists.” We spend hours at the park but see only a fraction of its statues and markers. The triumphant bronzes that populate the Northern lines where Union troops arrayed themselves—such as the Minnesota Memorial’s serene goddess of peace—give way to restrained memorials to Southern forces.

We come into Minden, Louisiana, on U.S. Route 80, which wants to bring us to the center of Main Street. But vendor tents block the way. We catch the strains of an oompah band competing with the calliope racket of a carnival midway, and decide to park. Minden was settled by German immigrants, and we’ve stumbled onto what looks like a Fasching festival. However, this being Louisiana, it also celebrates Mardi Gras. We spot a local Mardi Gras krewe decked out—women and men—in studded, sequined tailcoats. It doesn’t take long for my father to chat up the Duchess of Prosperity, regaling her with tales about our journey. Then we stuff ourselves with bratwurst and sauerkraut from the local boosters at the Civitan trailer, marveling at Minden’s cultural mash-up.

I’m lucky to see my parents twice a year, usually at their home in Phoenix, where I was raised, or Washington, D.C., where I live. The visits tend to be hectic, filled with activities and not geared to leisurely conversations. But out here, on the road, the talk flows as Dad shares stories from his life: How as a boy he got in trouble for eating canned beans with hobos camped by a creek. How, during World War II, German prisoners of war from Camp Papago Park would march past his Phoenix home on their way to work in nearby fields. How the hedge in front of the old post office in downtown Phoenix was planted by my grandfather.

When my father and grandparents made it to Dallas, they had trouble finding even a basic tourist court: The town was full with people visiting the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition. Crowds still flock to the Centennial fairgrounds for the annual Texas State Fair, but when we stop in on a quiet Sunday, there is hardly a soul to be seen. We stroll by dry fountains and take in the audacious art deco architecture of the park, with its machine age statuary and moderne murals depicting heroic strides in art, science, and society. The commotion of the 1936 exposition tired my grandmother, but she rallied to stand in line so that they could put their names in the massive visitors’ tome, The Golden Book of Texas, on page 5,154, column 5, line 95.

Heading west out of Dallas, what is left of U.S. Route 80 becomes strips and snippets of access roads running parallel to Interstate 20. We give in and join the interstate traffic, crowded by semitrailer trucks that are piled high with oil-rig piping. After a little while, we decide to escape to the narrow rural roads of West Texas. Tumbleweeds spill from the vast Chihuahuan Desert, an expanse empty except for the many workers who are tending the tireless oil derricks of the present-day petroleum boom.

South of Pecos, we put the dust of oil fields behind us and climb into the Davis mountains. Stands of gold-leaved cotton-woods frame craggy bluffs. Pulling into historic Fort Davis, an Old West crossroad, we find what for thousands of miles has eluded us—an honest-to-goodness tourist court, the Stone Village Tourist Camp. My father and I are giddy to be standing in front of this missing piece of our journey. The compound, built in 1935 with rocks, adobe, and logs, includes nine rooms in cabins, separated by old carports that have been converted into screened “camp rooms.” We take a cabin, which is what my grandparents would have chosen, now restored to its original charm with hardwood floors and a cedar ceiling. Owners Randall and Belinda Kinzie have done much of the restoration work. My father has to duck his head not to hit our cabin’s low doorway.

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“I didn’t have to worry about that last time, when I was six,” he says, laughing.

The next morning we’re up early and off to El Paso, where, my grandmother notes, the family took a jaunt across the border to Juárez. “Very disappointing,” she writes of what at the time was a thriving tourist trap.

Dad decides we should press on to Phoenix, our end point, cruising the six hours across New Mexico. As the landscape of buttes and basins unfolds, I think how alien this drive through the desert Southwest must have seemed to my New Jersey grandparents. Now that same terrain, so familiar to me, is the sign we’re almost home. Phoenix is where my grandfather would find work playing the trombone.

“By good luck,” Grandma Lorrie says in her journal, “we met Clyde Lockwood of the Riverside Ballroom. Lester got a job in his orchestra.”

They found a house in the desert, one of the well-ventilated half-canvas affairs recommended for “lungers,” the unkind term coined for tuberculosis refugees. With their cross-country odyssey ended, and with grandmother’s health failing, her journal gradually trails off. The dry Arizona desert proved to be no cure: Lorrie lived only 20 more months.

I turn and look at my father as we roll toward Phoenix. To reach the city, he and his parents, in the family Chevy, had to billy-goat their way along a mountain road outside the mining town of Globe.

“I confess to some nervousness,” my grandmother penned of the harrowing route. “Little Les cried all the way up.”

The road has long since been replaced by a modern highway—and as we hurtle down into the valley, my dad is smiling.

Eric Felten leads the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra, which performs songs from the 1930s and ’40s; he plays trombone, taught to him by his grandfather Lester. Contributing photographer Aaron Huey walked across America in 2002.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @aaronhuey.

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