Destination: San Francisco to New York
Film: Horatio’s Drive, America’s First Road Trip, a Ken Burns PBS Special (2003)
In 1903 the world changed. The Wright Brothers took their first flight, the President of the United States sent a message to the King of England over wireless, a cable was strung across the Pacific Ocean for communication, and Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic, drove from coast to coast across America.
If you have a member of your family who gets grumpy when you start planning a road trip, find the travel film, Horatio’s Drive, and make them watch it. On the other hand, if you or someone you know is obsessed with automobiles, check out this blog about automobiles and American life.
Most rational people in 1903 thought the automobile was at best a nice toy for the wealthy, and and worst, a menace to horses. Horatio, insanely optimistic and obsessed with automobiles, begged to differ. He believed that people would use the automobile for long distance travel, and he made a little bet–$50–that he could drive across the country in less than 90 days. At that point nobody had made the trip across the country, and with very good reason.
You did not just add gasoline and take off. You carried spare parts enough to build a second car. You made friends with blacksmiths along the route. And you hoped that your car would not sink into desert sands or mud pits, seeing as how there was not a paved highway to be found. Not to mention no maps, no road signs and no motels.
Every day Horace Nelson “Nel” wrote reassuringly to his wife little notes that said things like “We had to set up the winch and tow the car 18 times” or “took the wrong road and had to backtrack 50 miles,” and ended with “but from now on everything will be fine.”
Fortunately for us, he took photographs along the way. With those photos, letters to his wife, and a lot of new footage shot on back country roads that resemble the ones “Nel” was on, Burns has made a remarkable recreation of this fantastic adventure.
Tell your family nervous Nelly, that if these guys could do it in 1903, and in only 63 days, 12 hours and 30 minutes, then you can make a road trip to a National Park that is 200 miles away.
I really loved this video, partly for the production values (narration by Keith David , Tom Hanks, Adam Arkin, and Eli Wallach, among others.) But I also loved the personalities involved, and the picture of a nation trying to come to terms with a gigantic change in daily life. It makes me think of today’s struggle to reconcile the age of print with the age of pixel.
When Horatio Nelson Jackson got back to his home in Vermont, he fixed up his car (a cherry red Winton that set him back $3,000, a real fortune in those days) and kept on driving. A few months after his return, he got picked up and fined for driving faster than six miles per hour. Somebody should have told him that those red cars are traffic cop magnets.
I got the DVD from Netflix, but you can also find a book by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns,Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip, that was published to accompany the TV show. National Geographic carried an article in 2003 about a trip retracing Horatio’s wheel tracks.
The Winton picture comes from the Smithsonian Institution, and you can click on the landscape picture to see more about the photographer. Picture used by Creative Commons license through Flickr.com
Have you had to overcome arguments against a road trip? What are the worst obstacles we face in the 21st century to taking to the road? (Tune in Wednesday as the Great American Road Trip reaches West Virginia.)
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