My father was the master of inexpensive travel. His methods were sometimes a bit raw and uncomplicated, but he provided my brother and me with opportunities to “see America up close”. I would never trade such adventures for the luxury accommodations with which I am now familiar. Dad worked six and half days most of the year and taught Sunday School on Sunday, but he took hiatus in the summer typically for three to four weeks. Our two most frequent destinations, Florida and “the west”, both offered plenty of Dad’s favorite targets, history and buried treasure.
The base tool for travel was a Volkswagon Van designed for camping. The first model was a red 1961 “Westphalia” that featured very little in the way of horsepower but a lot of clever interior design. Other important accessories were an ice cooler we would use to store most of our food. Vacations, like everyday life, rarely featured “eating out”. Milk for breakfast cereal, bologna for lunch sandwiches, and ground chuck for cooking dinner all fit into the plan. And that plan was good for any Monday, and any Tuesday, etc. Other essentials were Dad’s metal detector and handguns for everybody. You weren’t campin if you weren’t packin. Guided by AAA guidebooks that listed thousands of places that charged admission (and were therefore unlikely destinations) and AAA maps, we’d pack up sometime in June or July and we’d be off to parts far away.
After a two day journey to get to what he considered his first viable “stop”, we might arrive at a place such as Fort Clinch State Park in Florida. After securing a camping site from the park, we might go out with the detector seeking a place both discreet and promising. Once, a detector “hit” indicated an object deep in some sand off a backwater cove. My brother and I were the designated diggers and, right there in the state park, we dug a three-foot deep hole. We did find some iron bands that looked like they might have been from the top of a treasure chest. Needless to say, Dad was salivating. More digging at a frantic pace. After digging another foot, nothing else was found. The detector suggested we had nothing else to look for and the hole began to collapse and we gave up.
Another trip to Florida featured a journey into the “jungle” on the panhandle. Dad had read about Chocwatochee Bay in one of his “True” magazines and we were following up on the lead. This was my first encounter with those “interesting” little red bugs called “chiggers”. We dutifully dusted our boots with flowers of sulphur as a preventative recommended by local natives and moved out along flat sandy paths into an area that was as hot and humid as any I have experienced. Dad was busy with the detector and was essentially deaf to the surroundings while wearing its ear phones. I was nearly blind from the cascade of salty sweat draining into my eyes. My brother, facing the other direction, drew his aforementioned “piece” and fired it into the head of a wild hog that was charging me from behind. The beast fell but continued to slide forward as he gasped his last. Well, time for a bologna sandwich and a trip to the white sand of the nearby beach!
On a trip to the Gulf Coast of Texas, again following the siren song of “True” magazine, Dad sought gold in the form of wrecked ship that had broken up and washed ashore somewhere. In the little town of Palacios, we met a local character named John. John held Dad’s attention as he spun some tales about that ship. His credibility was enhanced by the fact that he, like Dad’s greatest literary hero Long John Silver, had one leg. Again, lots of insects, lots of sweat, and no treasure.
Lest you get the idea that these treasure hunts were all we did, let me balance the account. We also visited over twenty great National Parks. We actually spoke with folks along the way as we sought the local ice house in Augusta, Maine (block ice lasted so much longer and was worth pursuing) or filled the tank in Tiegan, Montana. We spent many good hours at many fine beaches – no cabanas, no other pesky visitors! I saw a Gemini launch. We walked up the Washington Monument where we were able to secure a view of the capitol building while my dad lured the rather large group of pushy adults away to the north-facing window by exclaiming, “Look, there’s Jackie Kennedy hanging out the wash!” We toured Monticello and Gettysburg. In the “Summer of Love” we mingled a while with some real first-generation hippies. I got altitude sickness climbing Mount Hood. I snorkeled off Key West. I had heat stroke swimming at Lake Meade.
I had neighbors and friends who went on more traditional vacations to Wildwood, New Jersey or the New York World’s Fair. All well and good. But when we visited New York City, Dad parked the VW Bus in the public parking lot near Battery Park, popped some quarters in the meter, and we slept there all night (no need to fear – we were packing!) before our morning trip out to the Statue of Liberty. I would not have traded places with any of them.