22 vintage photos show Americans embarking on cross-country road trips in the 1960s
With the cross-country interstate materializing, automobiles on the rise, a booming economy, and a growing travel bug, families loaded up their station wagons and hit the road in the mid-20th century.
Road tripping in the ’60s and ’70s was popular and affordable, and for most, these cross-country vacations were the first time families were experiencing life outside of their own towns.
Richard Ratay, author of “Don’t Make Me Pull Over! An Informal History of the Family Road Trip,” told Insider he remembers his family pulling into a roadside motel filled with other families from all across the country. Many Americans grew up road tripping, and the shared experience is something Americans still bond over today.
Since road trips may start making a comeback, here is a look back at Americans hitting the road, ready for family-bonding, exploration, and plenty of mishaps along the way.
In the early 1960s, Americans realized the relative ease and low cost of cross-country road trips, and started to pile into their cars.
Americans were ready to begin cross-country road trips that would be taken by other families for decades to come.
Amid the post-war economic boom, middle-class families had a new sense of disposable income.
With the baby boom underway, American families were growing — and ready to explore in their new cars.
“The nation’s railroads were in stark decline by the 1960s, [and] taking a trip by car was the most viable option,” Dr. Allen Pietrobon, who teaches a course at Trinity Washington University examining the meaning of the great American road trip, told Insider.
With money to spend and the growth of the auto industry, Americans hit the road.
But it didn’t mean all journeys were smooth.
Author Richard Ratay said that while automobiles were on the rise, his family didn’t have the biggest confidence in theirs.
“It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ you were going to break down, but when,” he said.
For Ratay’s family, every trip would start with his father stopping at Kmart to stock up on equipment for the inevitable breakdown. Ratay said he has plenty of memories of standing on the side of the road, watching his older brother use a wire coat hanger in an attempt to fix to the family car.
The interstate’s debut promised open roads with far less traffic than we see today.
Sparked by President Eisenhower, who wanted the military to be able to move freely across the country in the most efficient way possible, the interstate system was launched in 1956. With a looming fear of atomic attacks, it was also designed as a way for people to easily escape cities.
If families needed advice on where to start, a strategic partnership between car manufacturers and cities created advertisements to lure families for a visit.
Dr. Pietrobon said this was a win-win partnership, where car manufactures would convince Americans to hit the road in their new vehicles, encouraging them to visit specific cities with unique charm. That way, the automobile industry took off, as did tourism.
In a time when Americans were unfamiliar about the way of life even just a few states over, sometimes seeing an ad for The World’s Only Corn Palace in South Dakota was enough to get the whole family on the road to find out more.
Roadside attractions were built to lure families to new places, even if it meant abandoning your route to spend an afternoon climbing into the body of a giant Brontosaurus.
Sometimes families would be encouraged to veer off course by an eye-catching billboard. Other times, they would get recommendations from someone they met on the road.
In Cabazon, California, gigantic dinosaurs would greet families pulling into the parking lot.
Families carefully followed their AAA TripTik maps to find the roadside attractions and outlooks.
The cross-country road trip honored the saying “it’s about the journey, not the destination.”
Ratay remembers his father wanting to squeeze every drop of gas from the car, oftentimes leaving the family stranded on the side of the road with an empty tank.
On their road trips, some Americans would camp, opening them up to a new world of hiking trails, water sports, campfire cooking, and lots of Jiffy Pop.
Families would pull into the campground, park the station wagon, pop open the camper, and set up camp. Campgrounds were a great way to meet others and exchange travel tips.
In order to haul around all the extra gear, and for somewhere to sleep, families often attached campers to their cars.
Before we had tiny homes, we had pop-up campers. Campers would latch on to the back of the family Vista Cruiser and carry the camping gear, chairs, guitars, endless snacks, and toys.
Sometimes, families would leave the car and camper behind for the day and hit the road on bikes.
A bike ride along a glistening lake or through a forest was a great way for a family to spend time together outside of the car. For some, getting into nature was a completely new experience.
For those still wanting to avoid the great outdoors, motels were an easy, right-off-the-road spot to spend the night.
Since road tripping in the ’60s was such a phenomenon, it was common for motels to be filled with families on cross-country journeys. With people from all regions under one roof, motels were a unique hotspot to begin to learn about other parts of the country.
Ratay said he felt like he was a part of a “fraternity of travelers” all on similar trips with different stories to share.
Kids who were lucky to pull in early enough would head to the motel pool.
Adults would sit poolside and exchange stories of getting lost or ask other families about the best roadside attractions.
Not all motels were on the side of the road. Others looked more like summer camps, where families could bond over activities before continuing on their way.
For a lot of families, getting the chance to ride in a motorboat or try kayaking was a completely new adventure.
To keep the kids entertained, families could play mini golf or shuffleboard.
Any motel that had mini golf, shuffleboard, or ping pong was a huge find.
Baseball was America’s favorite sport throughout the ’60s, and a pick-up game of catch was a way to get the body moving after spending all day in the car. Fishing, soccer, rollerblading, and card games also kept kids engaged.
Some motels even had game rooms, where families would team up against others.
Ratay remembers getting to a motel and rushing straight to the game room until he had to go to sleep. The chance to make a new friend or two was always a plus.
But games weren’t confined to motel rooms. After packing up the car and getting back on the road, it was time for the road-trip games to begin.
Road-trip games were essential for keeping everyone entertained for hours in the car.
The alphabet game, license plate game, car bingo, and the timeless game of Mad Libs carried families through never-ending corn fields and desert plains.
Lost families would turn into rest stops to ask for help getting back to their routes.
Half of the adventure of road tripping was staying on track. With a sole paper map (that could easily fly out the back of your Lincoln Continental convertible), if you made a few wrong turns, you were faced with stopping the car and asking a stranger for help.
Ratay remembers his sister sitting on the armchair rest between his mother and father in the front of the car, referencing a printed flip-book map from AAA. Like most families, their plan was to drive from the top of the page to the bottom, and when you reached the end, you would simply flip to the next page and keep going.
In many ways, road trips were golden opportunities for Americans to learn about their own country outside of history books or movies.
Finally people were tasting new cuisines, hearing different accents, and learning firsthand about different ideologies.
Ratay recalled stopping in New Orleans, where he tried new dishes including po’boys and okra, which were completely foreign to a family from Wisconsin. He also observed different lifestyles as they cruised down the road, noticing active sharecropper shacks and parents doing manual labor with their children in the fields.
But road tripping in the ’60s, a time of segregation, was not as easy if you were African American.
As Dr. Pietrobon explains, when African Americans were at home they knew their go-to “safe” spots where they could go out to eat or refill on gas.
Hitting the road meant giving up that security, and oftentimes African Americans would try to reach their destination as quickly as possible, a stark contrast to how white Americans valued the journey over the endpoint.
If Ratay’s father ever ran out of gas, he would stick his thumb out on the side of the road, hitchhike to the nearest service station, and eventually return with enough gas to get the car to the rest stop.
For an African American traveler, running out of gas on the side of the road would not necessarily promise the same outcome.
The “Negro Motorist’s Green Book” was published in the 1930s for African Americans on the road, noting safe places for them to stop, grab a bite to eat, or spend the night.
Dr. Pietrobon said that “even rest-stop picnic areas and vending machines were frequently segregated,” and African Americans used this book as a method to avoid humiliation or at worse, a dangerous situation. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the book was no longer published.
The movie “Green Book,” depicts the travels of a black musician and his chauffeur using the book as a guide to find lodging and do business.
Without a doubt, cross-country road trips played a central role in shaping Americans’ brave, determined spirit.
Travelling went beyond sight-seeing and the feat of making it across the country. The exploration itself began to shape Americans.
“What a road trip provides to American life is the fact that if you’ve done that sort of exploration once, it makes it easier to do it again,” Dr. Pietrobon said, “i.e. to risk a change and take that new job; to move to a new city; to be more adventurous in life overall.”
“Traveling … is what gives Americans their rugged drive and sense of individualism,” he added. “It’s what makes Americans tough.”
Road trips not only gave Americans a deeper understanding of their country, but they also created new adventures that families would bond over for a lifetime.
Returning home from the road welcomed opportunities for change, and new narratives that could be passed along to others.
As siblings grew older and passed stories and lessons down to their children, they could reminisce over the adventures and unpredictable situations they handled together, as a family.
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