David C. Hamilton
David Hamilton

Fellowship Title:

Two Cars, Four Motorcycles and a Three-Day Weekend

David Hamilton
November 20, 1972

Fellowship Year

The conversation is inevitable and invariable: “Oh, there’s another car from Ohio!” (I choose Ohio for sentimental reasons; you could fill in your own. We have this irrational attachment to abstract places, we tourists.)

“That’s us.” The reply.

“Oh? Where you from?”


“I don’t know where that is.”

“East of Canton, about 50 miles south of Cleveland. Ninety miles north of Columbus.”

“Oh. I have a friend in Columbus. We’re from Cincinnati.”

The important part of the inevitability of this exchange has arrived. All pause to ingest this mass of information. None can think of a proper response. To folks out seeing America — the Grand Canyons, Kitty Hawks, Rushmores, Key Wests, Williamsburgs and deserts that have been the grist of dreams since at least fourth grade — there is nothing inherently interesting about Cleveland or Columbus or Canton, or even Wooster, for that matter.

“What are you doing so far away from home?” Someone rallies. “Besides looking?” This is answered with a shrug and a grin, as is fitting. “Hanging out?” The speaker, who we may assume by his terminology is young, by now has his own self-image as a conversationalist invested.


“How long you out?”

“Three months.”

“When you due back?”

“Two months. We figure to be out two more months. Then maybe we’ll head back, maybe.”

All the while, these people have been inching determinedly toward the doors of their cars, even the conversationalist. They have had time enough to get there, and they punctuate the meeting with cheerful waves and door closings.

A modified version of this scene takes place when the greeters are from different states (and may be defined by age, since it seems always to take place among the elderly).

“Where you from?”

“Van Wert.”

“0h! We’re from Illinois.”


Smiles are exchanged, and sage noddings.


“Let us be lovers,
We’ll marry our fortunes together.
I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”
So we bought a paek of cigarettes,
And Mrs. Wagner’s pies,
And walked off To look for America.

This is a story about Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Bob and Carol Kowolski of Chicago met Ted and Alice Smith of Wilmette on Oct. 19 at the precipice of Hoover dam and had a pretty good laugh about it. You might think I made that up, but if you suggested it, we’d only argue whether art imitates life or the obverse, and that would get us pretty far off the subject. And I am not an artist anyway, I am a reporter. This is a story of changing patterns.

The vacation season didn’t end on Labor Day this year. Maybe it never did. But Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice could converge at the brink because Bob, who is 36 and a chemical engineer, and Carol, who is 34 and a secretary, have no children and a five-week vacation period (he saved time from a previous year; she simply quit her job). And Ted, 34, a former junior high school science teacher, and Alice, 34, the mother of two pre-school girls, are out looking for the horizon.

They’re different, if you consider them on the spectrum of American vacationers.

That rainbow starts with the guy who takes time-and-a-half instead of his days off, and the guy who works around the house instead of traveling, and the guy who goes no farther than the neighborhood beach. It begins to hit middle with the cop in Queens who sets his family up in a cottage in Long Beach for the summer season — and joins them on his days off — (and the farmer in Vermont who puts his family up in the hills at a “camp”), and the family that travels two states off to visit the ancestral spawning grounds. And it really takes on the aura of “vacation” with the Winnebago-goes-West executive and the two-weeks-fishing-at-Fox Lake factory worker, the month-in-Las Vegas-grandmother and the “this year let’s see Disneyland” conversation in Kalamazoo.

Now that leaves out some of my favorite people — like the lady at her sewing machine in the storefront on 12th Street, while her neighbor is off on the Midnight Special to San Juan, and all of Bruce Jay Friedman’s gardeners — but they are always left out when we talk about our comings and goings as a people. We’re stuck with dealing with ourselves as we are. And BCT&A are not in the mold.

For one thing, Bob and Carol have no family. “Well,” Bob says, “you know, the population problem and all…. We talked it over…” (There is this hitch-of-the-pants, flick-of-the-eye uncertainty when people talk to strangers about voluntary birth control.) And for another, Carol quit her job for this vacation. “I wasn’t attached to it, you know,” she says. “It wasn’t like I was an executive secretary or anything. I’ve done it before. I just work to have something to do anyway. And we use the money for vacations.”

And then there are Ted and Alice, dropouts of a sort, headed for San Diego, Volkswagen en clan, looking for a different life. “I just couldn’t go back to teaching,” Ted says, following a litany of complaints about the U.S. public education system as manifested in Wilmette. What he’ll do, he says, is “anything that comes along.” But there is none of your Establishment, meaningful, commune nonsense in this adventure. He can write, he says, or cook, or manage, or work with his hands — “at least I can try it” — and he feels an obligation to his children. They will have the best of lives.

So here they are, these four, on the edge of the dam, looking down at the mist that hides the river and up at the clouds that hide the rain. Or is it snow? For there is one other point that distinguishes them in the spectrum — it is Oct. 19, after all.

The typical travel vacation begins sometime after Memorial Day and ends sometime before Labor Day. Some have always flown in the face of this wind: retirees headed for sunny weather — the man at the trailer court unfailingly calls them “snowbirds” — or young marrieds hoping to squeeze into lodgings between summer and ski seasons, or campers or backpackers or others who until very recently have been the odd statistic.

But with the increase in disposable income (in 1960, one in 25 Americans had earnings of more than $15,000; in 1970, one in five did) and the surge in travel by the young (leading ultimately to the debasement of “the road” as a metaphor by U.S. filmmakers) vacation has become more common to all seasons. Such fragments as the amount of sales of skis and snowmobiles, the rapid rise in camping as a pastime, the phenomenal sales of recreational vehicles, National Parks Service and Army Corps of Engineers statistics are some indicators.

This is one manifestation of what U.S. News & World Report saw (April 17) as “Leisure Boom: Biggest Ever and Still Growing.” What I am interested in here is the “still growing” part — the time when 48 million of the 53.3 million U.S. families have both discretionary time and discretionary income. (That is all but 10 percent of us, and that is how many they say it will take to run this place after awhile. Already only 40 percent of the workers are involved in the production and distribution of goods.) I am interested in what those 48 million do with that time and that money. We are not standing on the brink for nothing.

“Kathy,” I said,
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,
“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.
It took me four days
To hitchhike from Saginaw.
I’ve come to look for America.”

Motorcycle Cowboy on his, Kawasaki 750, green, twin pipes, and his companion Safety Sally boil up on a modest cloud of dust, summer day. Mote speaking has the sound of bees buzzing, Hiya brother, as if his resonator were bolted to the roof of his mouth. He is wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, Sally is wearing an expression.

The Divinity Student and Ms. Chicago, his wife, having recently arrived, are discussing their totems, Coleman stoves and backseat Peugeot sleeping, over coffee. Mote and Divinity exchange glances, each as if he thought the other were an unpolished stainless steel mirror in an unlighted National Park john. “Got any sounds?”

The silence is broken by gaity wafting up from the hollow, where the men of the foundry are having their first annual picnic and booze fest, wives included. The Cowboy rolls his steed equidistant from the foundry blast and the Peugeot and begins in his buzzing fashion to disassemble the 738-piece pack he has put together for this 200-mile weekend roundtrip, Sally, in her vacant fashion, helping.

A two-man pup tops the pile, dayglo orange nylon, $70 at a discount, with a shroud even, and a fluorescent flashlight. Divinity and Ms. slip away like pages turning to a dinner of steak and potatoes, apologies for the extravagance. Mote and Sally rev up for a McDonald’s search, “Hey would ya watch my stuff,” even that doesn’t turn on her lights.

Like a fog from the hollow, in ones and twos and coveralls, the foundrymen drift up to have a look at all this. They have heard of these things. Ms. strings curtains in the white Peugeot.

Mote returns, dimly, at 4 AM, methodically trenching his tent with a confiscated trenching tool, and, symbolically, at the breakfast table, where he has accidentally strewn the grass from last night’s final celebration. He is gone, back to Chicago and the factory on the green Kawasaki. Sally is gone too, as if she ever wasn’t. Ms. takes down the curtains, and, Divinity at the wheel, returns to student days in Chicago. Eat my dust.

Laughing on the bus,
Playing games with the faces,
She said the man in the gabardine suit
Was a spy.
I said, “Be careful,
His bow tie is really a camera.”

This is a story about Steve and Vicky and Mark and Lynn. Steve and Vicky Burkett of Andalusia, Pa., got together with Mark and Lynn Schpero of Bladensburg, Md., this summer and went to Vancouver. And back. They put the dust of a dozen states on what was supposed to be a blue Plymouth station wagon, in massive gulps: Portland, Ore., to Yellowstone, Yellowstone to Worthington, Minn., Worthington to Chicago, Chicago to Philadelphia. That could give Chrysler Corporation an argument against jet travel. The car did not dissolve.

From its maw each night they pulled two tents, four foam mats, four sleeping bags, one two-burner Coleman stove, one two-mantle Coleman lantern, one Thermos jug, one Thermos ice chest, four mess kits, one flashlight and one hatchet…traveling light.

The Midwest Research Institute, Kansas City, Mo., reported camping the most impressive gainer this year among the ways that Americans spend discretionary income. Twenty-one percent of the population had at it. Americans layed out $18 billion for recreational equipment, including tents and campers, and $40 billion for travel, lodging and fees for their vacations, some of it the $2-to$7 permission to park and/or set up a tent for a night.

They come in all sizes, these campers, hitchhikers, motorcycle cowboys, tenting trunk-fillers, pop-up trailer haulers, the Volkswagen Mafia, Chevy-DodgeFord interior decorators, shag-carpeted and naugahide-seated highway ark guides. Steve and Vicky and Mark and Lynn fall in on the low side, trunk-fillers.

The code of the road dictates that people who triple-lock the front door at home and lay out $12 for an automatic lamp-lighter (whatever happened to Diogenes?) trust the stranger in the next bay to “look over my stuff, willya?”. The oil cloth over the propane burner is protection from rain, not thieves. “Oh yeah, we had somebody report a theft this year,” the ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campground in Chamberlain, S.D., says. “Some guy went to wash his hands and when he came back his bacon and pancake syrup was gone. They didn’t touch his stove or flashlight or lantern, though.”

Ladies who cook on Corning get used to tin plates and cold water showers, collapsible Army-olive shovels “Made in Japan” instead of a Johnny Mop. And what TV dinners did to the living room, Hamburger Helper threatens in the woods.

That’s downslope, actually. Upland, they’re into breathtaking views, three-and-one-half-pound nylon tents and freeze-dried apricots (although the Crunchy Granola folks get by without such commercial claptrap), down sleeping bags, and pride in their workmanship. It is not the Middlesex matron who walks seven miles with thirty pounds on her back in order to see two elk, one moose, a horned toad (maybe), six deer, a mountain goat, one bear, a brown eagle, two osprey and uncounted crow. They are happy in this knowledge, the uplanders, and mostly oblivious of the $120 lightweight tent, $75 goose-down sleeping bag, $27 hiking boots and the price tag on other paraphernalia and freeze-dried foods that this distinction costs.

SVM&L sit one last night on the road, in the mist of Lake Michigan, diddling with the twin mantles of the lantern, making lists. One Coleman stove, one Coleman lantern, one Thermos jug, one Thermos ice chest, one flashlight, one hatchet. This part of the trip has been jointly financed, and a division of goods is in order, drawn by lot. Almost as exciting as Monopoly. The Schperos, who hope soon to be dentist and wife, wind up with the lamp, the jug and the hatchet and seven dollars down to the Burketts, future lawyer and wife. Restitution is made and tent flaps drawn. Early up tomorrow for the flight to Philly.

Ernie Vito, fourth generation German-American and toy wholesaler, lacks only shades to further sully the distinction lost in the Americanization of his name, but it is 10 PM. Spreads mosquito netting from the doortop of his Volkswagen two feet from the algae-clogged Wisconsin channel (“water frontage available”) and smooths his sleeping bag under it. Listens to the leaves rustle, white undersides of the quaking aspen showing, rain tonight.

Three hours later, showered, he rolls the bag into the backseat, netting on it, and putts off, to live another day, albeit dogtired, Sir Douglas Quintet “Mendocino” throbbing at his temples.

“Toss me a cigarette,
I think there’s one in my raincoat.”
“We smoked the last one
An hour ago.”
So I looked at the scenery,
She read her magazine;
And the moon rose over an open field.

Moonwalk. Silvery in the afternoon sun, the aristocrat of hitched trailers (the mobile home for those with truly mobile intentions), an Airstream, glides silently into the short loop of Warrior’s Path State Park, a new facility that offers paradise to boaters, fishermen, hikers, swimmers and get-away-from-it-allers. Parked, out he comes, inhabitant, dressed for the occasion in khaki slacks and shirt, hair parted, and tugs at the electrical umbilical rolled into a compartment of his craft. My God, even that is silver. At this point the vision blurs, slow-motion and floaty, as he drags the silver cord to its hookup, and, weightless, climbs the steps into command module. You have to feel the sound, you can’t hear it, the television antenna, hissing upright, plugging him in to ground control. Three days and three nights, he is not seen again. On the fourth day, he returns to earth.

Flashback. Kentucky is measured in ups and downs, not miles. Ravine in the distance has a blinding glow, not rainbow’s and this sunny day. It is a caravan (the European word for camping) of Airstreams, all in a row. Sunspots on my eyes.

Dino, Desi and Billy, Tennessee-mod and 14 all, are making me dizzy. Pop has put the rack on the back so the boys can bring their minibikes to camp. Cute. Round and round they go, when they’ll stop everybody knows: 8 PM when camp rules say they must. The Indy 500 for two-wheeler, two-banger, nifty, thrifty, Honda 50s. Since 1965, industry moniters say mini-owners have risen from 2,000 to 2,000,000. Even Pop takes a spin around the camping loop. Even the ants run for cover.

Sales of recreational vehicles (the term that finally has gained enough currency to displace “mobile homes” as the generic) have risen from $87 million in 1961 to $1.6 billion in 1971. Their buyers tend to be 45 years old, to have an income in excess of $12,000, and to use them an average 34 days a year. Time said that. “Once flush toilets were built into campers, the whole nature of the experience changed.” Ralph Keyes said that.

Step right up, ladies and gents, on display today truck campers by Bee Line, Roadrunner, Roust-A-Bout, Ayrway, $199 and up, and from Siesta, the Vacation Hut, Surfer, Cabana, Rustler, Panorama, Baja and Tourista. We have travel trailers, eleven models by Bee Line alone, seven from Concord, eight Foresters and three Royal Foresters from Kayot, a dozen Mobile Travelers, from $3,500. Try a new idea, fifth-wheel trailers, mount on your truck or soon on your car roof, Skippy, Travel Mate, Independence Coach, up to 32 feet long.

Why don’t you remodel your $4,280 Ford Econoline? We’ll sell you a fibre-glass top expander for $1,934 and let you do the inside, or do the work and charge you only $6,560.43 (not including shag carpet, $125; full double bed, $125; curtains, $24.59; child’s bunk, $16; front seat hammock, $29.65, or driver compartment panelling, $26).

Watch yourself you’re drooling sonny, motor homes $6,000 to $30,000 from Huntsmen, Concord, three floorplans each, Amico, Lifetime, Landau, the El Dorado Mini, Cortez, Ute Liner, Kayot’s Royal, Capri and Mini Scout, the Cruise-Air from Georgie Boy, Chevy-backed Sportscoach, the Executive (“brawny outside, elegant inside”), and everybody’s favorite, don’t hold back your cheers, Winnebago: the Brave, $8,886; the Indian, $11,691; the Chieftan, $15,951. If you got it, flaunt it.


Winnebago is a family operation. Founder John K. Hanson has turned $12,000 into $617 million with it. The company turns out 1,000 vehicles a week. On 1972 sales of $133 million it turned a $13.6 million profit. But is this camping?

GUIDE TO FLOOR PLANS (1) Driver’s seat (2) Co-pilot seat (3) Dinette (4) Stainless steel sink (5) Stove and eye-level oven (6) Refrigerator (7) Lounge (8) Shower/ or tub shower combination (9) Lavatory (10) Toilet (11) Shag carpet (12) Swivel lounge chair (13) Queen size bed (14) End table (15) Dresser

Dresser? End table? Shag carpet? Eye-level oven? Sportscoach offers a 57-gallon water tank with charcoal filter, a 7.5 cubic inch refrigerator-freezer, a 6.2 gallon, fast recovery hot water heater, and a 22,000 BTU forced air ducted furnace. I asked a gentleman in Illinois why he was riding around in a Winnebago Chieftan instead of, say, a tent trailer — or even a Winnebago Brave. He thought about that. “I would say comfort,” he said finally. I would say he knew what he was talking about.

“Kathy, I’m lost.” I said,
Though I knew she was sleeping.
“I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.”
Counting the cars On the New Jersey Turnpike.
They’ve all come
To look for America,
All come to look for America,
All come to look for America.

“Americat” 1967,68 Paul Simon Charring Cross Music (BMI)

(All names and prices of camping vehicles quoted from “5th Annual Mountain States Mobile Home, Recreation Vehicle, and Supply Show,” Denver, Colo. Logo from Woodall’s Trailer Travel)

Received in New York on November 20, 1972

©1972 David Hamilton

David Hamilton is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner on leave from Newsday. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Hamilton, Newsday, and the Alicia Patterson Foundation.