Tuesday, March 28, 2023

John Blackshoe sends Serendipity History: Road trip! What we take for granted, was once nearly impossible, or mostly impassible.


                                        Crossing Wyoming 1919                                                                                                                                  Source          

Hither, thither and yon were along the route of a recent trip, which unfortunately kept me from providing any scribbles for Sarge’s desperate needs. 

It was almost all on our amazing Interstate highway system.  Departing when I-80 across Wyoming had been closed for three days.  “How do they do that?” some flatland easterners might ask. 

Simple.  They simply close the gates and divert all traffic off the highway into the nearest town, and the road is closed until the weather improves.  Even when it takes several days.   Remember, out west, exits may be 20-50 miles apart.   Heck, you can go 75 miles on a “major” two lane road in Wyoming without a traffic light or stop sign, let alone gas station or fast food joint, and barely a ranch or three.   There are not really any “side roads” to get around if the interstate is closed, and it would be foolhardy to suicidal to venture off into the wilderness in a blizzard during 20-30 knot winds and temps rising only into the teens.   So, when the big road closes, commerce and other traffic stops until conditions improve.

But, weather reports looked safe, and I-80 was opened to traffic at our scheduled departure time.   “Traffic” being every truck stuck west of the Rockies for the last three days, and eager to get out on a still somewhat snowy road, along with all us amateur four wheelers who spice up the trucker’s life with our unprofessional antics.   Not a fun 500 mile day behind the wheel for anyone.

Despite a wretchedly slow first day, later days had steadily improving weather, actually pretty nice, with lots of miles, and stops for shopping,  rest stops, and occasional visits with friends along our route.   Business was done, more friends celebrated with, and finally we headed home.  More miles, more days, a bit more business, some cargo to be crammed into our vehicle. 

As Willie says “Back on the Road Again.”  A great song, despite the self medicating singer, and at least he’s not a creepy clown.

Approaching Wyoming from the east this time, we found it once again shut down for weather when we were still in the land of cornhuskers.   Drove past Sean’s place, waved, but no sign of man nor beast on what I thought was his land, but to be honest, I have never been exactly sure which parcels are his.   Everywhere else they were dropping calves in abundance, so plan on burgers and steak in a year or two if the militant vegans don’t become more revolting.

Weather moderated, Wyoming relented and opened the land of the kickin’ horse to traffic.   Westward across Wyoming, we saw the largest city, Cheyenne, population 64,000, and other also the 4th, 5th, 7th, 8th and 12th largest cities in the state, with populations dropping from 31,000 down to only 8,000, cows and coyotes not included.   Wyoming is still almost frontier territory, inhabited by hardy, hard working folks, not very tolerant of fools who might think they are too impatient or important to wait when roads are closed.  Got home safely, with almost 5K more miles on the odometer. 

Anyway, that was a lot of Interstate miles, mostly familiar to us.  

Building on the Past

Much of our route followed that of the U.S. Army “Transcontinental Motor Convoy” which set out from Washington on July 7, 1919 to cross the country along whatever roads existed.   Twenty eight year old Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower, was in charge, and some 62 days and 3,251 miles later they arrived in San Francisco on September 7th, 1919.   His convoy consisted of 81 vehicles, with 24 officers and 258 enlisted men.   Eisenhower later admired the German autobahn for its military usefulness, and the Highway Act of 1956 started work on the American counterpart, the Interstate and Defense Highway System.

The conditions in 1919 were mostly dirt tracks, a few roads with some improvements, but paving was scarce except in the densely settled eastern states, and surprisingly in California.  Breakdowns were frequent, but the troops persevered and proceeded mile after mile.  Along the way they were cheered, feted, fed and followed by the locals since this was about as exciting as life got in the post WW1 era, especially in rural America.  And, most of America was very rural indeed in those days.

Army Signal Corps film crews were part of the convoy and captured a lot of amazing footage of the expedition.   Here is a nice highlight reel only 2:16 minutes long, courtesy of the National Archives, but the three longer reels down below are well worth the time as well.

Detailed records were kept, and:

“[Eisenhower]…discovered that the nation’s roads, especially those west of Nebraska, were in rough condition. The soldiers faced mechanical breakdowns, quicksand, and in Utah and Nevada, rationed food and water. They traveled more than 10 hours daily at an average speed of about 5 miles per hour. On some days, they covered as little as three miles. . . .
In the Rockies of Wyoming and Utah and across Nevada, they went where few automobiles had gone before,”
The convoy log of the journey between Kimball and Cheyenne noted “The effect of altitudes exceeding 6000’ very noticeable in connection with the starting and operation of motors.” 

I am sure they would have waved to Sean’s granddad, too.

Wyoming has a nice write up on the convoy, since this post focuses on travel in that state:

Indeed, the U.S. Department of Transportation even has Eisenhower’s VERY interesting final summary report (only 2-3 pages long) posted at:

For fellow history enthusiasts, the Signal Corps film crew’s full footage is available in three reels about 8 or 9 minutes each.  Silent- no talkies yet, so crank Willy up while you watch these public domain flicks from the National Archives:

Reel 1, Sec. of War Baker and Rep. Julius Kahn dedicate the Zero Milestone In Washington, D.C. Trucks leave Camp Meigs, Md.; cross the Juniata River at Chambersburg, Pa.; climb the Blue Ridge Mts.; pass through East Palestine, Ohio; and traverse the Lincoln Highway in Ill. and Ind. An overturned truck is righted near Fulton, Ill. The Mississippi is crossed at Clinton, Iowa. Trucks are pulled from mud in Nebraska.

Reel 2, trucks are winched from quicksand near North Platte, Neb. The Continental Divide Is crossed In Wyoming. Trucks pass through alkali dust in Wyo. A truck breaks through a wooden bridge and is extricated. The convoy departs from Fort Bridger, Wyo., and halts for a meal in Utah. Sagebrush is chopped and used to fill wheel ruts in the alkali road bed.

Reel 3, the Great Salt Lake Desert is entered at Granite Point, Utah. A meal is prepared in the trailmobile kitchen. Trucks are pulled through wet sand in Nevada, climb the Sierra Nevadas, stop in Kybury, Calif., for dinner, parade through Sacramento, and ride from Oakland to San Francisco on ferries. Mayor Rolph greets Army officials.

Why are road locations chosen?

Interstates usually follow old rail or canal lines.   Those mostly followed wagon tracks used by pioneers entering the wilderness, which lurked not far from the coastal settlements of the 1700s.   Those wagon trails quite often followed the paths used by fur traders and trappers who first explored the North American continent*, driven by economic motives, and a bit of coddiwomple since the 1500s.
* (Hat tip to Native Americans who already knew a lot of trails from their own migrations and hunting.)

Thus, the travel routes, as well as much of the cultural, economic and political history of our continent (not just country) were actually shaped by the relatively small number of men engaged in the fur trade long before areas were settled.   Eric Jay Dolin’s “Fur Fortune and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America” is most enjoyable and enlightening.  It is a great audio book as well, which you can listen to for several days as you motor along trails once trod by those fur traders.  Tons of copies on ABEbooks for under $10.00, so treat yourself to a dead tree version.

So, as we travel around our great country, think about history and how we got to where we are.   And, thank the truckers who bring us all the stuff we need or want. 

So, as westerners say:


  1. John - We take for granted the ability to relatively drive easily from one state to another. And even within states - it can be eye opening to someone from a more populated realm to realize that there places where exits and towns and even the ability to get fuel are 50-100 miles apart (looking at you, West Texas).

    Memory from the opening of I-80: The uncle of one of my best friends remembers the day that I-80 opened in their neck of the woods. He is in his 90's now; he has described standing on the side of the overpass looking down on the just finished I-80 as the first slug of traffic moved towards them. That would have been a thing to see (intellectual, of course. In practice, sounds like a great deal too much traffic for me).

  2. Really goof post John, lots of places to visit today. As for the truckers, go visit the old nfo blog today, that will open your eyes.

  3. Awesome stuff JB. I learned a lot of new information, and a new, and useful, word - coddiwomple. What a fine word!

    1. Similar to cattywampus! Which was the favorite of my dad's.

    2. 😁

      A word I've also used here at The Chant, my maternal grandmother was known to use that now and again.

  4. Great post JB- and wonderful that the Army had the vision to film those segments. This may be of interest. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/roman-chariots-influencing-train-tracks-how-history-karthik-nagesan

  5. I look forward to viewing your videos when my time permits Tuna man.

  6. Very nice. Lots, most people actually, don't understand what a mess and how slow travel was even just pre-WWII. Go back further to pre-Transcontinental Railroad and 10 miles a day was a good distance. And not unusual for deaths to happen on even 'short' 20-30 mile trips, as pre-motor transport was (and still is) quite deadly, that being horse, ox, mule, donkey and shank's mare. Horrible way to travel anywhere.

    Weird fact: The small size of counties in the state of Georgia is due to a state law saying that the county seat can only be a day's ride from anywhere in the county. Voting rights and such, dontcha know, due to much of the rural areas around the county seats not having any real population back when county lines were drawn up.

    Even on good roads pre-Interstate, travel was measured in days for many distances. The book "Blue Highways" by William Trogdon/William Least Heat-Moon is about a guy, a van, and travelling not on interstates or big state roads, but on the old highways and byways. Where he took days to go the same distances as one day on the interstates.

    Good post, John B. Kids these days don't know how good they have it.

    1. There is a thoughtful page in the introduction of Herbad's "The Bozeman Trail" about the old Oregon Trail. It was the longest single road in history. 1979 miles from Independence MO to Vancouver WA. In 1842, all that was in between were four fur trading posts.

  7. Very interesting Mr Blackshoe!!
    The other one that is interesting to watch are the films about the Alaskan transcontinental highway, about how and why it was built (to stave off the Japs from invading Alaska) and about how the US Army asked for forgiveness as permission was taking waaay to long to come through channels. So they went up North into Canada and began plowing/cutting out a highway (roadway) across Canada into Alaska. Another roadway with long intervals between gas stations. Lots of neat wildlife to look at along the way though.


  8. In 1959 my Uncle, who knew he was dying but said not a word, asked me to drive them to Kansas to visit his sister. I only had my license for less than 6 months but off we went in July. No A/C at that time and two lane roads the entire way and if you saw a town you filled up. Made it there and back in 3 weeks. What trust he placed in a 16 year old and never once made one comment on my driving. Wonderful man and I still miss him.

    Best Christmas present was a Dale Evans outfit. I'm not sure I took it off for weeks. I did wear it out.

  9. What a great commentary - interesting and informative - with musical interludes! What more could one ask for.

  10. I'm not Anonymous - sorry I did not update my profile.

  11. When they put I-27 in from LBB to AMA, I remember folks commenting on how strong they were making the road. The foundation / base prep was impressive. I think the concrete was close to 12 inches thick and the rebar was thick and dense. Dad mentioned they were military roads, not civilian per se. I learned a lot from him about that.

    The drive west from Del Rio on Hwy 90 is one of those miles and miles without services. If you didn't judge it right, going through Sanderson after 5pm meant a nail biter to make Marathon for me. I always had work that kept me late in Del Rio. I'd get impatient then burn towards El Paso, forgetting to fill up. I got close to shoe leather only twice. It's remote enough to lose AM radio station coverage. I always had HF, food, water and survival supplies heading out there.

    1. My family made the trip from Amarillo to Odessa and back via Lubbock many times as I was growing up. It was a really big deal when the highway was upgraded to I-27.

  12. Nebraska rest stops have TVs in the main area tuned to weather. VERY important out on the plains.

  13. What a great post! Thanks JB. So informative and fun. I wish all the snowflakes out there could see some of those old movies. That’s why I keep trying to get the grands to watch Laurel and Hardy. They think that they are too sophisticated for such plebeian entertainment.
    Growing up on the West Coast, we made the trek from either SEA, SFO or LAX areas to Marshall Texas and Shreveport LA. every two years. 66 all the way mostly, til AMA. Then SE. We always got two cases of beer for my grandpa in some “wet” county, and I got to start on Fritos and Dr.Pepper. Yaaaay!

  14. Thanks Brother Blackshoe! I-80 is a big part of our travel life, though we try to avoid it as much as we can. We've explored all of the alternatives.
    Boat Guy

  15. thanks to the compleation of the interstate highway system, you can now drive coast to coast and not see a damn thing.

    1. I'm guessing you haven't actually done that. I have, there's a lot to see.

  16. The "Zero Milestone" in Washington, D.C: Starting point for the 1919 expedition is on the Ellipse just beyond the "front-yard" of the White House. "Zero Milestone" location is marked by what cartographers might call a "benchmark". Though never implemented, "Zero Milestone" was intended to serve as the starting point of measurement of all road distances from Washington, D.C.

  17. Great post! I remember driving down to Florida every August to visit relatives. Before I77 and I71 were built. It took days to travel in a car with no A/C, and no seat belts. Three kids in the backseat. My brother preferred to lie down in the rear window bay. We two oldest kids got carsick, and threw up down the side of the mountains along the Blue Ridge Trail. Memories!!

  18. I'm not Anonymous!
    Mary F.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.