Armed with the spirit of adventure and a road map, five West Durham teen-agers 50 years ago set out in a ’34 Plymouth to satisfy there curiosity. It was “California or bust! Louis Cole, my grandfather (papa), one of those daredevils, recalls how it was to travel without air-conditioning and interstate highways, and sleeping under the stars while serenaded by coyotes.
Now retired from the Orange County Library, Cole spends a few hours a day at Farm and Garden Center on N.C. 86 to avoid idleness and to chat with old cronies.
He said that in the summer of 1937 he and a friend Elwin Autry had hitchhiked to and from Washington, D.C., where both acquired that gypsy roving fever.
“Elwin and I were in church one Sunday when we thought of saving our money and scouting other parts of the country with California as our main target,” Cole said.
“We knew it might be a lot tougher than our visit to the national capital, even though then we had little more than pocket change and learned to sleep on park benches. I remember there was a huge Boy Scout convention in Washington at the time and we heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the loudspeakers in a park. He made an enthusiastic, challenging talk to the Boy Scouts. In those days hitchhiking wasn’t so bad for a teen-ager.”
Three friends of Cole’s and Autry’s: James ”Toots” Rigsbee, Luther Whitaker, and Grover Bowen’s, quickly asked to be included in the westward-ho caper. Cole and Owens lived on Alabama Avenue, and the other three youths had homes on nearby Oakland Avenue. “We got busy and saved all the money we could. Elwin, who graduated from Durham High School in 1936, helped his father take school pictures. That’s how he got his black Plymouth sedan. I graduated from Durham High in 1938, and drove a delivery truck for C.E. Garrard’s Grocery store and was paid $12 a week,” Cole said. “We were all bosom buddies and all began to miser our money, including small change. I’d take our money and deposit it on Monday mornings at the old Fidelity Bank on Ninth Street. The trip was always on our minds and in our conversations.” Now wrapped up in his reminisces, Cole said: “It was on a Sunday morning in the middle of June in1938, that we were eager and ready to leave Durham and head west on Highway 70. The car was full of gas and oil and water, and there were four new tires. I think we paid 25 cents a gallon for gas and we learned later to buy a five-gallon can of oil at a time.” He said Clyde Eudy, a friend and well-wisher, had built and installed racks on the front and rear of the sedan. They held five canvas cots, blankets, pillows, and suitcases, and a bag with cooking utensils and food. “The most money any of us had was $105. Our parents were reluctant for us to go on such a long trip to strange parts of the country, but that only whetted our appetites to hit the road. They finally gave in when they realized that we had made up our minds for sure. “We had a map marked out for the routes we were going to take. The map made us understand that there were no handsome, wide interstate highways, and that we would have to go through hamlets, towns, cities, and through mountains and over plains and deserts. And we learned later to that the weather we would encounter would be unbelievably hot, cold, windy and wet and dry.” Cole said that they had planned to cook most of their meals, but after a couple of attempts and arguing over who would do the cooking and what would be cooked, they dumped this idea. Laughing, Cole said that the car did all right on gas under the circumstances, but it became an oil burner as they punished it with little rest. “We became impatient with all the slowdowns and stops through the little towns and crossroad settlements we encountered not long after we left home. On the first day as we neared Asheville we hit heavy mist. We stopped and spent the night in cheap tourist cabins.” Next morning they tried cooking a breakfast of eggs and canned sausage. That night, this side of Nashville, Tenn., they used their cots for the first time, bedding down in an open place off the road. Cole said the third night was spent in Hot Springs, Ark., where they lucked up on a little café operated and owned by several women who filled up there plates with home-cooked food that cost them only a quarter for a meal. “They were probably glad to see us leave because we ate like somebody starved. And that wasn’t far wrong.” They traveled through Texarkana and then Fort Worth and Dallas. “We spent that night too, on cots in a wide open space. We ate lots of candy bars and cinnamon buns called ‘hobo buns’ which weighed about a pound and only cost a nickel. And we downed a lot of water and soft drinks.” Then on to El-Paso where they ventured into Juarez, Mexico. The next stop was N.M., and then on to the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. “We went on to Los Angeles. It was such a nice place then and with not much traffic. We saw our first orange groves. There was no talk about crime, pollution or drugs. We stayed a couple of days at a little motel in Long Beach. And of course, we’d eat in the cheapest places we could find and enjoy a lot of fresh fruit,” Cole said. “We went on to San Francisco, A beautiful city. We shared the driving, and in the Rocky Mountains we kept moving, driving all night. That was a real adventure.” On the plains, Cole said, the stars were so big that they felt as if they could reach up and touch them. “But it was cold at night in those areas and one blanket wasn’t enough, we had to crowd back into the car.” Cole said it was cold and windy that summer in Sans-Francisco, and the hills in the city were a challenge. They moved on to Lake Tahoe, which straddles in the California and Nevada line, where for the first time on the trip they saw snow. From Tahoe they drove to Salt Lake City, Utah. Then it was Yellowstone Park in Wyoming where a bear, possibly attracted by the scent of bagged sugar on the cars rear back, got their attention. “The bear reached and started tearing the bag. Elwin got in the car and slowly started driving. The bear popped off, never getting got what he was after,” Cole said. The youths drove on through Cody, Wyo., named for William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, then went through Nebraska and finally to Chicago, where they met their first car trouble. “The universal joint had burnt out. At a garage they bought a new one for about $20. After stopping a couple of days in a dumpy Chicago hotel, and doing a lot of eyeballing, we headed for home,” Cole said. Their last night and their last stop before Durham was in Mount Airy, where the torrential rain forced them to stop at a small motel. “The next morning we headed again for Durham and when we reached home we had been gone for six weeks and were ready for a little rest. Everybody had a little change left, I had exactly $1.35. It was about 2 p.m. when we rolled through West Durham and then to our homes. Our families were happy to see us and our mothers got busy and prepared us big suppers. It was like a picnic,” Cole said. The youths had traveled 7,000 miles, had no punctures or blowouts, and their pillows were all black. “it was an experience and adventure we would never forget,” he said. Cole joined the National Guard here in 1939 and was a member of old Company D, a machinegun unit. Most of his fellow guardsmen were called into federal service in 1940. He went first to Fort Jackson, S.C., and then on to the European Theater of Operations in World War II. All five of the travelers served in some branch of the American Army. After returning home in 1945 after the war, Cole married Mary Myrtle Williams of Durham, who was a long distance telephone operator for Southern Bell throughout World War II. The Cole’s have two children, Ralph, of Hillsborough, and Mrs. Cathy Cole Cookson of Suffolk, Va. The Cole’s have three grandchildren, Robin Cole of Mebane, Neil Cole, of Conway, S.C., and Christee Ann Lawrence, of Morehead, N.C. They also have three great-grandchildren, Krystal Lynn Cole, Ashley Taylor Cole, and Andrew RobertLawrence. Luther Whitaker died in 1965, and James “Toots” Rigsbee died in 1979. This article was printed in the Monday, September 19, 1988 edition of The Durham Morning Herald. The late George Lougee wrote the column. Papa and grandma now reside in Durham at Kennedy Towers retirement center and are in excellent health.