To Texas or Bust in 1944

George Gilbert Lynch

1932 Chevy
Image provided by the author

I thought our 1932 Chevy sedan was a fine looking car with those nifty nickel plated louvers on the sides of the hood. It was neat the way they could be opened or closed so in summer I could open them for my dad to make the engine run cooler. When crossing the deserts I figured out with all that air coming through those wide open louvers this old Chevy would run just fine. We had never motored across the Mojave Desert before but I had seen the movie Grapes of Wrath, so I was a little frightened.

I had just turned thirteen and WW2 was in its third year when my family decided to move from Bakersfield, California to Sweetwater, Texas. My Dad had been offered a good paying job as a roundhouse hostler for the Santa Fe railroad. With gasoline rationing I couldn't understand how we were going to drive all that distance with only an "A" ration book.

“Dad, how are we gonna make it to Texas with only ten gallons of gas,” I asked. “See that can of gas there George,” he replied, “I just mixed it half gasoline and half cleaning solvent. We're going to experiment with it and see if it will run in the old Chevy.” [Cleaning solvent is used to wash greasy clothes and engine parts and was always for sale at Standard Gas Stations.]

Down the street we went with the half and half mix in the gas tank. We drove east on Brundage Lane from our house and when the car was picking up speed I could hear a loud knocking sound coming from the motor and I shouted, “Stop, it's gonna blow up, Dad.” “No it's not, son, I only have to make some adjustments to the timing and carburetor, then she'll run like a new watch,” he replied. After a week of experimenting with different mixes and adjustments to our old Chevy, we found if we primed the motor with gasoline when it was cold, we could run on pure cleaning solvent with no gas mixed with it. This was good news because anyone could buy cleaning solvent, five gallons at a time at any service station, no ration stamps required. As long as we could keep a can of regular gas handy to start the motor we could cruise on down to Texas on cleaning solvent.

The next day Dad and my uncle Bob began overhauling the motor in our Chevy. I used to love crawling under the car while they were taking it apart so I could see how they did it. Mom was upset with the black grease I got all over my clothes but I explained to her how important it was for me to help them fix that motor in case we had trouble on the way to Texas. She just smiled and patted me on the head; she understood. Most of my parents' relatives still lived in Texas and I knew they longed to see them all again. After a week the motor was as good as new, the tires were all patched and the time was nearing for the trip to commence.

desert water bag
Image provided by the author

Back in those times, heading east towards the desert called for detailed preparations, especially if money was tight and the car was old. First important thing was to buy two canvas water bags which we hung on the front bumper so the wind would cool the drinking water as we cruised along. Next we rented one of those swamp coolers that fit through the window, using the airstream when moving to cool the passengers. The cooler could be turned back in at Barstow or Needles for the deposit refund. Next we had to load all our camping provisions because we couldn't afford motel rooms or cafes. We were going to camp out at night and drive by day. With the supplies all loaded, gas cans filled, spare tires tied on, and goodbyes all said, we were ready for the long trip over the Old 66 route to Texas. We probably looked like the Grapes of Wrath, going the wrong way.

It was 100 degrees that hot August in 1944 when we headed east toward Tehachapi. Our family consisted of Mom, Dad, sisters Mildred and Patsy, and Mildred's year-old daughter Linda and I. It was a tight squeeze for us all to fit into the little old Chevy but we made out OK. The first steep grade would test the old Chevy on its diet of cleaning solvent for fuel. Dad said, “If she will make it to Tehachapi, she'll make it to Texas.” The highways in those years were so narrow and steep compared to today's freeways, one can see the dramatic difference by taking a drive out through Edison, on the old highway, and continue on till it merges into the new highway. Just imagine meeting big trucks on those narrow curves; believe me it was frightening.

author with sister
Author and sister Patsy with "Sparkie," our hound and puppies, a month before our "Texas Or Bust" trip in 1944.

Our departure was timed so we would cross the desert after dark like everone did back then. The Chevy went up over Tehachapi pass without any trouble except some pinging and some smoke from the motor, which dad said wouldn't hurt it. In crossing the desert on the way to Barstow, we found out the rented window cooler was useless. It didn't cool the interior at all and ran out of water every ten minutes, so we rolled the windows down and let the hot wind cool us from then on. When we reached Barstow it was time to get our deposit back on the phoney swamp cooler, fill-up with cleaning solvent and buy some more at the Standard Station.

We left Barstow and proceeded across the worst stretch of desert we would encounter on the journey. It was hot till the sun began to set then it began to seem cooler without the bright sun streaming through the car windows. The car got very hot and boiled steam out on some of the long grades across the desert. We would stop and explore the rocks and entertain the baby while the car cooled, then after putting in water and oil we would resume our journey toward Needles. Having found a big horny toad under a bush, I surprised the sisters with it after we resumed our trip. The horny toad quickly gained his freedom after the screaming subsided.

Late that night we arrived in Needles, California and bought more cleaning solvent and some groceries to make our supper further down the road. We pulled off Route 66 near the Topock bridge over the Colorado river and drove some distance from the highway to make camp for the night. We built a campfire and mom began cooking supper. Meanwhile we put down tarps and quilts for mattresses as our beds for the night. Soon our meal of fried potatoes and onions with fried eggs was finished and the exhausted clan began choosing where each would spend the hot desert night.

We all lay on the rock covered ground astounded by the brilliance of the stars in the desert night, and the moaning sound of the big diesel trucks on the distant highway soon lulled us to sleep. In a couple of hours I was awakened by loud voices and I heard my sisters complaining about things crawling on them. Upon lighting a lantern we found these big black stink bugs were on a march and we camped on their highway. We moved our beds to a new rock pile and tried to get back to sleep but someone would imagine a spider or scorpion was crawling over them and wake everyone up again. My sisters and the baby spent the night sleeping in the Chevy and Dad, Mom, and I stuck it out on the ground. Between the rocks sticking us in the back and the bugs crawling, it was a long miserable first night of our journey to Texas.

Next morning mom cooked breakfast and dad and I prepared the car for the “cold starting procedure.” Dad rigged a can with a hose running to the carburetor so he could supply the motor with gas till it warmed up enough to digest the cleaning solvent. This would be the first test of the great experiment of solvent for fuel on our trip to Texas. After we loaded the gear and had the motor on a solvent diet we hit the old 66, driving into a rising sun in the east.

road to Oatman today
Today, old Route 66 looks much like it did back in 1944 west of Oatman, Arizona.

The Route 66 grade up to Oatman, Arizona was the worst part of our trip. Steep and narrow with no place to meet trucks, somtimes it seemed we took forever to get through that little town. We then headed for Kingman, Arizona and the road down from Oatman was worse than the road up to it. The Chevy kept on running fine, pinging, smoking and boiling on steep grades but she just kept on pulling us along.

The wartime speed limit of 35 mph made for long hours between towns and curio stores along old 66, and most of the desert stores had signs about two-headed calves and pits full of rattlers, but after stopping at some we found they were mostly fakes and charged admission or 25 cents for radiator water so we avoided them thereafter. We did stop and walk down into the meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona and it was a once in a lifetime experience, something I will never forget. I believed I would be able to find a piece of the meteor if I walked to the bottom of that tremendous hole in the ground but upon arriving at the bottom, nothing was there except old drilling machines. At least I felt others found nothing also so they drilled down trying to reach it.

The roads in Arizona were mostly red gravel at that time and our worn tires began to puncture frequently. Dad and I would glue a “Boot” inside the tire, patch the tube, and run it some more because no tires were available anywhere due to the war shortage. We made the seven tires we had last the whole trip. We had no trouble buying solvent for fuel and our camp-outs were not as exciting as the first night at Needles, but sleeping out on the desert anywhere is full of surprises. Everything that lives on the desert comes out at night and if we were in their territory they let us know it quickly.

The third day we were in New Mexico where it seemed all the houses were made of adobe and modern towns were hundreds of miles apart. By this time Linda, the baby, was cranky and worn out so my sister announced she would buy us a night at a motel to rest up. We were all ready for a real bed and a good night's sleep so we stopped at a place in Gallup, New Mexico and rented a cabin for a day. After a good night's sleep we all felt refreshed, so the women washed all our clothes at a laundromat, then we cooked a meal and back on the road we went. As we rolled along watching the scenery pass my sister and I decided the only thing they sell in New Mexico is clay jars, pots and straw baskets because that's all we ever saw.

Our Chevy purred across New Mexico with ease and everything seemed to be going just fine until about 40 miles from the Texas border. We were pulling up a long grade and suddenly, pop-pop-pop-pop, the motor sounded like a machine gun and was smoking like a steam engine. We quickly pulled off the road and dad opened the hood to find the trouble. He ran the engine and announced that the motor had a hole burned in a piston. “That knocking from the cleaning solvent fuel did it,” he related. We had no idea what a hole in a piston meant but were relieved when dad told us, “I'll pull off the spark plug wire on the bad cylinder and she should go on to Sweetwater on five cylinders OK.” After Dad fixed the motor it sounded funny but it stopped pouring out blue smoke.

Late that day we pulled into Sweetwater, Texas, running on five cylinders but we had made it. We rented a house, Dad began working on the railroad and he put new pistons in the Chevy. Within a few months the railroad discharged Dad because of his health. We had a family pow-wow and decided we all wanted to move back to Bakersfield. In a few days we were filling the canvas water bags, patching the spare tires and filling the gas cans with cleaning solvent. “If she'll make it to the Texas border, she'll make it to Bakersfield,” Dad proclaimed as we headed west on Old Route 66.

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author George Gilbert Lynch
Author photo.

George Gilbert Lynch is the historical editor for BakersfieldMagazine.net. Article protected by copyright.