Our Ponitac Firebird Transam, 1978/79

Our Ponitac Firebird Transam, 1978/79

I wrote this blog quite a while ago for another blog site, an American site about retirement. Some things have changed (I’ve noted some) a bit but it was ‘true’ at the time. It’s another one of those retrospective blogs.  For reasons that will become obvious at a later date, I’m struggling a bit to write a weekend blog and so I have dragged this one out into the light of day. It will link nicely to the blog I am hoping to write and publish next Tuesday, one that relates to future (still relatively modest compared with this story) travel plans…

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, if you had asked me a year ago what we would do when we retired, the reply would have been – travel. We have a history in this area. We’re Brits and have lived abroad in the USA, New Zealand, Australia, travelled throughout Europe, visited China, stayed in Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, when it wasn’t part of China, so we’ve done a bit and we thought that is what we would continue to do. But not so. In the 6 months ( now more than 18 months and see Oslo blog) since we have retired the furthest we have been is a 70 mile trip to the coast. Reading through some of the blogs on this site our lack of travel ambition is stark. This is when a couple starts to look back rather than forward. So…

In 1978 / 79 we lived in the USA. At another time I will give you the story of how this happened.  I was a teacher then and we decided it would be fun to ‘do’ an exchange. After a stutter, when an exchange in Long Island didn’t materialise, we – my wife, 3 year old daughter and I – ended up the year after in Rockville, Maryland, just outside of Washington DC. I worked in a special school for children with behaviour problems (I had been working in the same area in the UK but this was different – much harder. For the first time in my life – I was thirty by then – I struggled emotionally). It was a case of what’s that over there, yes, right over there on the horizon, oh, that’s my comfort zone. Socially we had a great time, but work was hard. The point of me telling you this is to say that that Christmas of 1978, my brother in law sent me a diary as a Christmas present. I started to write in it as a kind of therapy. It helped me sort things out, get stuff out of my head and I’ve written every day in a diary since. Through good times and bad, through challenges and achievements. Through life.

Sadly, I seem to have lost that first diary, which for an OCD person like me is incredibly annoying because it means I haven’t got the full set. It was big and red, A4 size not like the A5 size I’ve used ever since. How could I lose it?  I have every one since and as a record of our travels – where we went and how it felt, they are revealing. I even wrote a book about life as a family in New Zealand and I have to say, it is quite scary. Was the grass greener? Well, in a country known for the greenness of its grass the answer was – definitely not. But that’s for another time, back to America.

Kansas garage

Daughter also broken down in Kansas she got a coke out of it though and didn’t seem to mind

The year itself was chock full of challenges, we were so young, so naive, so unprepared, I really have no idea (see above for lost diary) how we made it through the year. But we did. The final challenge of our American year was to take our Transam (see above and end of blog for more ‘on the road’ photos – for those of you who care this was the model before the one with the redesigned front-end made famous by Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bear movies, Burt I was there first) and drive, with said daughter – see right – and a tent, across America. What a smart move the Transam was but I loved that car and posting the photo of it above brought it all back to me – the good and the bad. Either way I was determined to buy a full blown (and they don’t come any more full blown) American car unlike our nearest exchange partners who bought a sensible VW. As I told the delighted used car salesman, I hadn’t come all this way to buy a European or Japanese car. But it has to be said that the Transam wasn’t 100% reliable, in fact setting off from Rockville we didn’t even make it out of Maryland before our first breakdown in Cumberland, West Virginia and met with our first act of random kindness on the road. A chap who stopped to help us and ended up taking us back to his family home and putting us up for the night. Such generosity was common. Would it, I wonder, be the same now? The second breakdown was in Kansas as in above photo of daughter and picture at end. Two breakdowns in 7000 miles, not too shabby.

Another smart move, apart from having three of us in a car not well-suited to purpose, was the situation vis a vis gas that year (1979). As I am writing this for a retirement site it may be reasonable to assume that you remember the gas crisis. This was the context for our trip and this in a car that did about 12 miles to the gallon. Yes, gas was cheap by British standards but you just couldn’t buy it unless you joined the line and sometimes not even then. Incidentally ‘gas lines’ was translated for our friends back home as ‘petrol queues’.  Our American friends, who all drove Japanese and VW Beetles, laughed and their joke was – it will pass anything on the road except a gas station. How we laughed. But, of course we couldn’t put it off to the following year because we wouldn’t be there, so off we set. Of course every cloud, and there was big silver lining to the gas crisis, no gas meant that Americans, who would be there next year, didn’t travel that year which meant, in turn, that all the campsites were pleasingly empty.

I don’t think I can quite do justice to the glamour of this enterprise. We, little old us from Leeds in Yorkshire, were going to drive 7,000 miles across America, up and back across by a different route. Jack Kerouac step aside, Paul Simon we’ve also come to look for America. Accompanied by Dire Straits, Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor and fittingly, America themselves, the very embodiment of the country, and many others, we drove from Washington DC to Los Angeles, up the coast on Highway One, stopping in San Francisco when it was the place to be, to the other Washington and then back again by the Northern route, via Yellowstone Park etc. All the way with luggage and tent on roof-rack – see end. We navigated with a Rand McNally road atlas which I still have and also the book of campsites we used to choose our nightly stop overs, those that didn’t involve staying with friends of friends, (we were after all quite poor) or just people we met on the road and who mistakenly suggested we come and stay with them little knowing that we just had the brass neck, as they say in Yorkshire, to show up on their doorstep looking sad, pathetic and British. For some reason we never could fathom being British and having a cute three year old made us an attractive proposition in America that year.

We stayed with people, Hal and Marie for example, who we met in the Rocky Mountain National Park. They lived in Palos Verde and they had a hot tub on the deck, a hot tub for heaven’s sake, overlooking the Queen Elizabeth on Long Beach I think it was. This was the America we’d been reading about. Thank you, Hal and Marie, 36 years too late. And to the many others who made the trip iconic, a big thank you.

I’m going to stop now although there is more to tell. I’ve been writing this in bed first thing in the morning, for some reason this is my best writing time, but now the pups have arrived, two, 7 month old (as they were then), border collies. They’ve been released to come upstairs, they leap on to the bed snarling and snapping, trying to bite each other’s heads and /or limbs off, pausing every now and then to look at me and say this is fun isn’t it? So I stop writing. And here – the pups – is one big reason why we don’t travel these days. There are others but, at the risk of repeating myself, they may be for another time.

So, yes, retirement, it’s a funny old business. Not at all what we thought it would be. Where is the tabla rasa we expected, that blank sheet on which to design our new life, full of travel? Is it possible to travel without actually leaving home? Of course we have armchair travel which we do plenty of and, as in this blog, we have reflections on past adventures. Will we ever hit the highway again? Yes, I think so. I found out you can take your dogs on the plane with you to the USA and we have a bit of land in Colorado which I want to build on, so that might figure in future plans. In the meantime we’re planning on hiring (to see if we like it) a caravan and touring, first round the UK and then Europe with the pups. That will be different. This last bit is no longer true as of this time.

transam in Rockies

Transam in Rockies somewhere – luggage on top

transam in Kansas

The reality of life on the road, broken down in Kansas

1 Comment

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  1. Lynn Turner 3 years ago

    What an adventure. Sounds like you guys need to hit the road again soon. Colorado would be a great destination.

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