It was 34 years ago this week that my husband and I arrived in Kansas City to live. Early June, 1979. We had just finished our last law school exams, and didn’t even stay in California for our graduation ceremony, because the preparation course for the Missouri bar exam had already begun, and we needed to catch up.
We loaded all our worldly possessions into my husband’s 1974 Pinto station wagon, and strapped my bicycle on top of the car. Then we headed east on a trip that was the reverse of the trek the Gold Rush ’49ers had made 130 years earlier. We went from the San Francisco Bay area to Missouri. We traveled four days, not four to six months.
The first day we got a late start, by the time we finished loading the car and eating our last meal at the Good Earth, our favorite restaurant in Palo Alto. We headed east on I-80 as far as Winnemucca, Nevada, where we ate a late dinner in a restaurant filled with smoke and slot machines.
The second day we drove from Winnemucca to Little America, Wyoming, which was nothing more than a truck stop and hotel. (Google Maps shows the hotel is still there.)
The next morning we got started before breakfast, and saw antelope roaming the hills between Little America and Green River in the early morning light. That third day we left I-80 to head south to Denver, where we picked up I-70, and continued on to Goodland, KS. Other than the antelope and traffic in Denver, I don’t remember much about that day.
But the fourth day, now that was memorable. Not for the scenery, but for the lack of it. I’d never been in Kansas before. It truly is flatter than a pancake (which science has since proven). The only visible landmarks were silos and windmills.
Moreover, it was hot. My husband had decreed that we would not use the air conditioner on the trip, to improve our gas mileage. After all, we were traveling during one of the gas shortages of the late 1970s, and we had only budgeted $1.00/gallon for gas. (We had to live all summer on our meager student savings, including what we had earned selling our law books before we left California. We weren’t starting our jobs until September, and we planned a delayed honeymoon in August after the bar exam.)
To repeat, driving across Kansas was hot. Stifling. I sat in the front passenger seat, surrounded by pillows, wool blankets, and other items we had crammed in the car at the last minute. I was steamed, in all senses of the word. I suggested we turn on the air conditioner.
“We agreed we wouldn’t,” my husband said.
“No, you agreed,” I said.
You know how those discussions go.
Well, the upshot was that somewhere around Salina, Kansas, the air conditioner went on, and it stayed on until we reached Kansas City. As a direct result of his wise capitulation that day, my husband and I are still married today.
We had sublet a one-bedroom apartment a block behind the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, sight unseen. I’m not sure how we had found it in those days before Craigslist, but we knew where we were going, and drove straight there. It was one of those three-story brick apartment buildings that are common in the older parts of Kansas City.
We trudged up the stairs to our sublet on the third floor and walked in. The apartment was not air-conditioned. (It had one window unit, we found out, but that had not been turned on yet that season.) The bathroom had a tub, but no shower. The kitchen had a gas stove, which I hate. And in the middle of the living room was a three-inch-long cockroach.
A dead cockroach, but that didn’t really make me any happier. I’m not afraid of roaches like I am spiders, but the sight still didn’t endear me to Kansas City. The first impression my new hometown gave was of heat, humidity, and bugs. Large bugs.
My husband dealt with the cockroach carcass, but knew he had to do more to appease me. After all, Missouri was his state of origin, not mine.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll take you to Winstead’s. It’s a Kansas City tradition. You’ll love it.”
We got back in the Pinto and headed to Winstead’s, just a few blocks away. I was too hot for a hamburger, so I ordered a tuna fish sandwich and a chocolate milkshake. It was a mark of how much my husband was placating me that he did not even rebuke me for ordering a milkshake for dinner.
The tuna fish had pickles in it, which I hate almost as much as gas stoves. But the milkshake was great. Finally, something about Kansas City I could appreciate.
I know my complaints about our trip – smoke-filled restaurants, boring terrain, lack of air-conditioning, cockroaches, and pickles – are minimal compared to what the Gold Rush travelers experienced. But that four-day drive was the longest car ride I’d ever taken to that point in my life. When thirty years later I began writing about emigrants to Oregon and California in the 19th century, my memories of our reverse trek helped me appreciate the travails they experienced and how awful a journey of many months would have been.