By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
Lowell Hughes, a 99-year-old World War II veteran, and a friend to all of us at the Historical Society, recently dropped by with a diary he wanted to share. This is a diary his sister kept of a trip his family took in November of 1922 from Poteau, Oklahoma to California. Lowell was only 4 years old when his family took this trip. This diary was published in “The Poteau Hi Life” school newspaper, on Friday, Feb. 19, 1923.
I am digressing a little this week from local history to Southwest history, but the facts in this diary are quite interesting.
“Trip To California
“We started from our home in Poteau, Oklahoma on November 17, 1922 about 10 a.m. It was a fine day. Going south to Wister, then turning west up the Rock Island railroad, we went through a number of small towns. After reaching McAlester, we turned south again, camping about 6 miles out the first night. We were in a Dodge Touring car with auto tent and camping outfit. It was here we ‘kids’ got our first lesson in camp life.
“Nothing unusual happened that night, so we arose early the next morning and started on our journey. We were now going into strange country to most of us, nearly everyone was seeing new things that day, as we passed through several small towns, (Kiowa, Savanna, Atoka, Caney, Caddo, and Durant.) We picked up a nail in Durant and had our first tire trouble. Having a spare along, we soon changed and were on our way again.
“That afternoon we crossed Red River into Texas having to pay a total of $.75 to cross the bridge. After going through Denison and Sherman we camped for the second night. Wood and water being scarce, we broke camp early the next morning. We went through some fine farming country and also a number of small cities. As the other boys along had some car trouble, we were delayed at McKinney almost half a day.
“When we reached Dallas, we turned west to Fort Worth, both busy cities. We stayed here in an auto campground on the third night. It was a very pleasant place, but I think mosquitoes lived there the year around, as they all seemed to be full-grown and they were very hungry. We left them before daylight the next morning.
“When it became daylight we found that we were in prairie country, very thinly settled. We drove about 180 miles that day, and camped about 6 miles east of Abilene. That being a high dry country and with a brisk wind blowing, we were not bothered by mosquitoes and everyone began to get jolly again. The next morning all were in good spirits.
“We went through some desolate looking country that day. We could look in the distance and see the horizon and prairie meet. We stopped near some large salt lakes about 12 miles west of Big Springs. We carried some fresh water along in containers, wrestled some old cross ties and camped for the night. About 10 o’clock an awful black cloud came up and we thought we were in for a storm, but it only rained a little. The wind changed to the north and it turned cold.
“The next morning the boys took some shots at some ducks for supper, which were very plentiful on the lakes. We started on again. It was not very pleasant that day, although we made good time and camped 50 miles west of Pecos, Texas. We managed to wrestle some water and pay $.25 apiece for two old cross ties for wood. We ate our supper, and went to bed early to save our wood. Some time during the night some hobos came along, rebuilt the fire, and burned all our wood.
“The next morning we found it was colder than we thought. Our radiator froze and busted, but still held water. Not having anything for windbreak but a three-wire right of way fence, we started on as early as possible.
We stopped at Van Horn and put up our curtains. As it was cold we stopped only when necessary. We drove into El Paso early that evening and camped. The auto camp was crowded with cars from all parts of the United States and crowded with all kinds of people. Some were going to ‘Sunny California’ and some back to ‘Good Old Arkansas.’
“The next morning, while having our radiator fixed, part of our crowd visited Old Mexico. Getting the car ready by about noon, we drove out to a bridge on the Rio Grande, which was on the edge of another desert. Here we stayed overnight to get an early start the next morning where we crossed into New Mexico. It was here we met sand blowing crossways. It kept the ruts filled until it was some pull for the car to get through. Finally we came to a filling station where we got a little water at five cents a gallon. When we started on, the snow began to fall and I started to think of all the good fires we had had back home, but we kept going on. We passed through Deming to Lordsburg. Here we gave a fellow $.50 to camp in his lot and use wood. It rained a little that night and snowed on the mountains, but it was not very cold and we fared fine.
“The next day we crossed the Arizona line at Rhodes. We drove into Douglas about 10 o’clock. Douglas is a very interesting city with an aviation field there.
“The next place of importance was Bisbee. It was built in the mountains, with the main street going right up a gorge, and seemed higher as we kept going. A little way out of town we crossed the Continental Divide, an elevation of over 7,000 feet, and covered with snow. Then, for several miles we got good mileage on our gasoline as it was very steep going down, and with the road covered with snow, it was rather treacherous. We had a heavy load and it was hard to hold our car on the road at places. When we reached the bottom we found a man that had run off the road with a Ford Roadster. He said he had been there about six hours. We helped him back on the road and fixed his car. Then we all started for Tombstone. At Tombstone, silver was first discovered. A large monument was erected in memory of the man who discovered it, but I have forgotten his name. We drove out several miles from Tombstone and camped by an irrigation canal. That night we went to sleep listening to the lullaby of the coyotes. We arose the next morning and everything was covered with frost, but we had plenty of wood and everyone as usual had a good appetite. About sunrise we started on. As I should’ve said before, there was so much highway work being done all along, and we had to detour so many times, we lost lots of time and of course had very bad roads at these places.
“About 10 o’clock we found another nail and of course had another tire change. We drove late in the night and camped 7 miles east of Mesa at a small service station. I remember very well a large sign out that read like this, ‘Water for sale 10 cents a gallon. We would not charge for it but it don’t grow here!’
“Next morning, about 9 o’clock, we drove in to Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, and an interesting city, but we did not stay there long. We drove out to Palo Verde, had lunch, filled our machine with oil and gasoline and got a good supply of water and thought of all the things we had ever done, and then we started through another desert.
“We took the San Diego road and it was something awful winding through the sage brush. The road looked to be completely worn out. There were lots of holes, 10 to 12 inches deep, that caused rather slow progress. I remember very well, we met two men coming back who declared that they had found the end of the road. As we were from Oklahoma, we had ‘sooner’ find it ourselves so we drove on. Pretty soon we came to Gillespie Dam. After looking that situation over we knew what was with our friends, the only way across the river was to ford it just below the dam. Water was pouring over the damn 12 or 15 feet high and there was such a noise you could hardly hear one talking. But the state of California was on the other side and we had started there, so we drove in, and found it not so bad as it looked and it had a smooth concrete bottom. The water was just up to the axles on the car and about 1/4 of a mile wide. When we got across, the road didn’t improve any until almost night.
“We finally reached a small town where we got a new supply of gasoline and oil. Turning west again we traveled late into the night to get out of the desert if possible, but there seemed no suitable place to camp. We finally gave it up and camped by the railroad. The whole country seem to be alive with coyotes that kept up a lonesome howl all night.
We arose early the next morning and started on, the desert and bad roads continued. The sand became so heavy we had to deplete our tires 40 pounds. We met a man on foot that was famished for water, so we stopped and gave him a drink. He could not speak English but he sure could smile.
About noon we drove into Welton and ate our lunch. Welton was a good little town, but awful warm. When we left there we had better roads. We arrived in Yuma about 5 o’clock. We crossed the Colorado River into California and we camped in an auto camp in Ft. Yuma on the bank of the Colorado. There we saw a number of different tribes of Indians. Among them were the Yumas and Navajos.
“Leaving there the next morning, we started out through the Yuma desert, one of the worst we had come through. It was only about 40 miles across. We had plank road about 12 miles of the way. The plank road was built over the soft sand, where the sand was so deep you couldn’t cross it. There were three wells along the way and people said, ‘Get water at every one of them!’ We took their advice. Finally we came to a good paved road and soon drove into Holtville. We ate dinner and as Papa had a friend living there, we drove out to his place and stayed over for two nights. We rested up and had a very good time. This is great dairy country as they raise alfalfa, milo maize, kaffir corn, acres and acres of lettuce, and some cotton.
“Leaving there, we started out through El Centro and Brawley and a number of other small towns, and of course we soon came into another desert. But I rather enjoyed this one, good paved roads all the way across. Here we passed the Salton Sea, supposed to be 40 miles long. We drove parallel with it all the way. That night we camped at Indio. There was a funny old Irishman camped there that night also. Anyone could tell he was from the East because he was always looking for wood. He also had a very funny way of expressing himself.
“Starting on the next day about noon we came into some very beautiful country, mostly orange, lemon, and olive groves. We came on through Redlands and San Bernardino where we temporarily located about 5 miles out. We expect to go further north before returning home.
“I have only given you a sketch of our 2,000 mile journey over land. It might be helpful to anyone who expects to make this trip. We had some of the best roads possible and I think some of the worst, but to take it as a whole they average pretty good. The most unique was the plank road getting us across the sand dunes. We had an all around good time with very little bad luck, we learned at lot about the great Southwest, and saw lots of scenery.
“Ethel Hughes, Box 776, Rialto, California, February, 1923”
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.