Remember the days when the only way to take a cheap vacation was to get in your car and drive there? Maybe it was for a totally unplanned trip in the good old days with your friends. All you needed was some good music (cassettes, eight-tracks), junk food and enough change to keep the tank filled. Later, maybe it was with the kids and the spouse and a well-planned, cooler-packed, license-plate game-ready kind of a trip.
Either way, the excitement of the road trip beckoned us — to diners with gigantic sticky buns and the best barbecue in the world or to outdoor museums of retired mini-golf courses and turquoise jewelry. It is sad to think that these economic bits of recreation have faded into our past — as has Horatio Nelson Jackson, the man who took the first cross-country trip in an automobile in 1903.
Jackson was an eccentric doctor from Vermont who, on a visionary whim and a $50 bet found himself driving a 20-horsepower Winton touring car from San Francisco across the country. Jackson had no tunes to listen to nor time for games. In 1903, there was only about 150 miles of paved road and that was mostly within city limits. He had virtually no road maps as we know them today, but he did travel with a mechanic — which was a good thing because there were no service stations. They had to carry their own fuel in the car. When parts broke down on the rough roads, they had to telegraph the factory to send replacements and then find a town with a train station where they could wait for the parts to arrive.
But as with all road trips, Jackson and the mechanic had quite the adventure. They adopted a dog along the way who rode with them in the front seat with goggles on. And Jackson, ever the true heart, never missed a night writing a letter to his sweetheart back home. Despite the delays and obstacles, Jackson remained optimistic, determined to prove that the automobile had a bigger future than just as an in-town car.
While it took them months to complete the trip, by 1908, families were making the same trip in 32 days. Jackson’s success caused the government to take notice and build a system of highways and for state governments to develop driving rules. Once the roads were installed, service stations popped up along with restaurants, hotels/motels and, eventually, places to buy those eight-track tapes and junk food.