Retracing Steps from 1939

Dad with New Mexico cactus

I have many of Dad’s diaries, but none for 1939 when Mom and Dad moved from the Midwest to southern California.  In March they went through New Mexico and Arizona.  I would have expected them to take route 66 – a direct line to California, but the photos show southern New Mexico around Lordsburg and up the Lee Highway (Highway 70) to Globe and Phoenix, Arizona.  And the black & white photos are the only record I have of their trip.

March weather can be almost anything here (this year we had many days in the 80s and one day of snow).  Their trip was in the days before air conditioning.  And yet, check out how Dad dressed to drive – suit, tie, and hat!  Mom was 6 or 7 months pregnant with her first child, but of course, dressed nicely for the trip.  And all of this with their cocker spaniel.

Mom, the dog, and the desert.

Mom told the only story I heard about the trip.  My gentle mother was raised in the saturated green of northern Illinois.  Crossing the desert with its sparse, drab vegetation frightened her.  She said she cried wondering what they had gotten themselves into.

A major highway, but a lonely road.

Dad with cholla.

My brother had the key to their choice of routes.  Dad was being transferred by his company to the Los Angeles office.  He would be selling Anaconda Wire & Cable products to the mines in the Globe Arizona area.  I’m guessing he wanted a look at his new territory.
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And I wanted a look at it too.  Highway 70 goes from the east coast to Globe.  Mom and Dad probably joined it in Texas.  I could pick it up near Deming, New Mexico.  Road trip!  I wanted to retrace a small part of their trip:  Lordsburg, Highway 70, Coolidge Dam, and Globe.
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A piece of the old highway near Gage I found pieces of the old highway, on frontage roads of I-10 which replaced it, abandoned along the newer, straighter Highway 70, and sometimes on BLM land with only cattle for travelers.

I too traveled in March, but 73 years after they did.  This year the wild flowers were early – and it was beautiful.  I think Mom wasn’t given the view with acres of poppies on her trip or she would have liked the area more.

Poppies north of Lordsburg NM Spring 2012

Biltmore Motel, Lordsburg

Mom’s photo of Dad at the Biltmore Motor Court in Lordsburg intrigued me.

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I found this listing in a 1940 “Lodging for a Night” —

Motor Courts: Biltmore and Hidalgo. North of town. Well-furnished and operated but a noisy spot. E. 2WB $2.00 up. FPark.

I drove around hoping to find it restored and bustling.  Many of the old motor courts have survived or been reincarnated.  The Biltmore, however, barely survived.  This is what I found

I think this was the Biltmore Motor Court. 2012

Turning north on Highway 70, leaving I-10 behind, I was back on the two-lane roads that I like.  A lot of the scenery hasn’t changed much over the years.

The road to Coolidge Dam.

Coolidge Dam and San Carlos Lake are on the San Carlos Apache Reservation and about 13 miles south of Highway 70.  Past the marina, the last mile of road is not well maintained – it gave me a glimpse into what Dad drove on in 1939.

The dam is quite accessible, cars can still be driven across it.  I think not much has changed here.  My camera is much different from theirs, but the views we photographed look the same.

Dad's view of Coolidge Dam 1939

Coolidge Dam 2012

Downstream from Coolidge Dam 1939

Downstream from Coolidge Dam 2012

Many of the large saguaros would have been there when Mom and Dad were here – these wonderful cacti live much more than 73 years (if people don’t harass them).


I enjoyed being where my parents traveled.  I felt a closeness to them in a place where only time separates us.

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8 Responses to Retracing Steps from 1939

  1. What a fantastic trip, being able to retrace some of their steps!

  2. Andrew McAllister says:

    Nice story and trip. What a great way to experience the west, following the steps of your parents.

  3. Doug Crews says:

    That’s pretty awesome that you did that.

    I always thought pictures of this road trip made them look very Bonnie & Clyde-ish. Frank was *workin’* that hat, baby!

  4. Bill Norman says:

    Very nice memories and photos.
    I’m not totally sure, but I think there’s a good possibility your folks may have traveled from Coolidge Dam to Globe not via Hwy 70 but on the original Coolidge Dam Road. I drove it on Thursday/Friday (camped out on the reservation). It’s still shown on modern maps, and actually is very driveable by most vehicles. Just a few mildly eroded portions. Distance: about 14 miles, which is quite a bit shorter than driving from the dam 13 miles north to 70 at San Carlos, and then heading west to Globe. I got lucky with finding the road. Can give you directions if you’d like.

    • I’m sure you are right. I wanted to drive that road, but in the midst of the construction (and lack of signs) heading west I missed it. When I got to the dam and saw that the road was not in the best shape, I wondered about the part to the east. I didn’t take the time to check it out and it sounds as if it would have been okay.
      Did you have to get a permit to camp there? I can already feel another road trip formulating in my brain!! I’ll check with you if I go again for directions, but it won’t be until it cools off a little.
      Thanks so much for your input.

      • Bill Norman says:

        Donna, the road I’m talking about is actually not the one to the southeast of the lake. That one on some maps is called road 500, but the locals call it the Calva Road (after a small community of that name). To take it, a few miles after you’ve passed west through Bylas, look sharp for roads to your left. If you get as far as the Gila River on Hwy 70, you’ve gone too far. The road is sorta-paved, but with potholes. To re-create your parents’ trip in full, you’d want to check it out, carefully.
        But northwest of the dam… do you recall the Soda Canyon store and trailer park on the north side of the lake after you’d returned from visiting the dam? From that point you drive about three miles, as though you’re heading back to San Carlos on Hwy 70. You’ll see a [second] yellow triangular ADOT sign indicating that you’re coming up on a fairly sharp turn to the right. Then you’ll see a yellow ADOT sign indicating a turn-off to the left. (On your right will be a chunky brown masonry sign that, for travelers heading west, advertises the Soda Canyon facility.)
        You’ll want to take the left-hand turn. Note that there’s a stop sign there for vehicles heading east off that road to the San Carlos/dam road.
        The left-hand road goes immediately to dirt. After you’ve driven a short distance, you’ll see a windmill about 200 yards on your right.
        You’ll want to stay on the dirt road for just about 14 miles until you reach the reservation community of Cutter (eight miles east of Globe) on Hwy 70. The junction is just east of the Globe airport and, further west, the Apache Gold casino. The dirt road is really in very good shape for its years, although you’ll encounter a few eroded areas that require you to go slowly. The road climbs gradually to a pass, with great views in all directions; then it drops steadily toward Cutter. Be very careful as you approach Cutter, because a concrete bridge has collapsed there –and there are NO WARNING SIGNS. You’ll need to turn left before that hazard and go about 50 yards before you can turn right again, cross over a dry drainage, and intersect 70.
        I hope you can eventually make the journey. After I left the main road I did not see another soul for the 14 miles to Cutter.
        Yes, I did buy a San Carlos Recreational Permit ($10 per day) in order to camp. Be aware that the permits are good from midnight to midnight, which usually means you’ll have to spend $20 in order to cover a single overnight camp-out.
        Best,
        Bill Norman

      • I stopped at the Soda Canyon store. I had actually looked for this road too and didn’t find it from either end! I think I did see the road you mean, but it didn’t look ‘right’ to me. So much for expectations! I could see roads on the map that I wanted, just didn’t quite have the courage to try alone. But this makes me eager to hit the road again. Thanks for great directions. I really appreciate your comments.

  5. Pingback: Dad Liked New Cars | This I Leave

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