Twenty-six students from Arendtsville Vocational High School set out on a cross-country journey to Alaska and back on June 18, 1937. The trip had been years in the making and for the boys, many of whom had barely ventured to the furthest reaches of Adams County, no matter what happened, it would be well worth the wait.
They first headed east in their Ford half-ton flatbed truck, which had been specially outfitted to carry all of the boys, their teacher Edwin Rice, and everything they would need for their journey. Rice had taken his students on a number of summer trips over the years, but the 9,000-mile trip planned for 1937 was by far, the grandest trip that he had undertaken.
The traveled along the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware, and down into Virginia. They stopped at Virginia Beach where the boys went swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the boys had never seen an ocean before, let alone swim in one.
Each evening the group stopped somewhere near a freshwater source so they had water to drink and wash with. They prepared their supper on the hand-made stove that they carried on the truck and performed different duties that they had been assigned. They camped out overnight and in the morning, cooked their breakfasts. Then they hit the road again stopping somewhere along the way for lunch.
Their southern route them through North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
“The vastness of the country was mind-boggling and the experiences came so fast that they are hard to recount,” Wayne Criswell, a former student at the high school, told James Wego in the unpublished article, “The Journey of a Lifetime”. “In Oklahoma we were in a terrible dust storm. This was the period of the famous Dust Bowl climate in the west and mid-west – crop failures that devastated countless farmers and their families.”
In Texas, they traveled along the famous Route 66, which at the time was little more than a dirt road, according to Criswell. For the most part, that was not much of a problem, but the group ran into heavy rains in New Mexico. They pulled a tarp over the open bed of the truck to keep the boys dry, but the dirt road turned into “gumbo road” that mired the truck. It forced the boys to get out and push the truck free.
In Arizona, the group visited the Grand Canyon and stood at the edge in awe of what they saw before them.
“There were nothing but cliffs, gorges, the river, and it went on forever,” Criswell said.
The boys hiked nearly eight miles along a narrow trail that wound along the sides of cliffs down to the Colorado River. Their joy at reaching the bottom of the canyon was interrupted when one of the boys had an appendicitis attack and had to be taken back up the canyon and driven 90 miles to the nearest hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona.
From Arizona, they visited Bryce Canyon in Utah and then traveled to Salt Lake City where the State Director of Education met them and introduced them to Governor Henry H. Blood, who spent about 10 minutes talking with the boys.
They also attended a concert at the Mormon Tabernacle, which apparently put some of the boys to sleep.
They had more fun floating in the Great Salt Lake and driving across the salt flats. The salt in the flats reminded the boys of snow.
“One of the boys suggested, I think it was John Lynn, that if his imagination were a little stronger he would have frozen to death. It would have taken some imagination for the thermometer stood around 105 degrees,” Rice wrote in a letter to The Gettysburg Times.
From Utah, they drove into the Nevada and the American desert.
“We had practically all the types of weather the desert has to offer,” Rice wrote. “In the morning, it was so cold that it was uncomfortable; by noon it was so hot it was worse than uncomfortable; by 4 o’clock in the afternoon, thunder stormed could be seen in the horizon and a cloud that looked like the worst kind of hail storm was directly in front of us.”
Out of the desert, they traveled up into the mountains and over Tioga Pass, which is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level.
“The road was so steep that we had to get out and walk next to the truck; otherwise it would not make it and overheat the motor,” Criswell said.
At the top of the mountain, the boys took a break and had a “terrific snow ball fight.”
Once in California, they headed down the mountain to Yosemite National Park.
“There were steep narrow roads with hairpin turns,” Criswell said. “It would take make times of backing up, turning, backing up, turning, etc. to finally find a straight road.”
They spent the night in Yosemite and got to see a “waterfall of fire.” In a practice that ended in 1968, a huge bonfire was set afire and then pushed over a high cliff.
From the park, they headed toward San Francisco, anxious to travel across the Golden Gate Bridge, which had opened to traffic just three weeks earlier.
“On our way to California we saw a truck carrying fresh apricots,” Criswell said. “Our truck was so close to it that we were able to “pick some off’. Maybe that is why they tasted so good.”
When they reached San Francisco, they were disappointed to find that they would not be allowed to drive their truck across the bridge. They had to take use the older Oakland Bridge instead.
They drove up the coast from San Francisco, passing through Oregon and Washington and into Canada. They stopped in Vancouver where they would leave the truck for a while to travel aboard the Prince Rupert of the Canadian National Steamship Line.
During this first part of their journey, the group from Arendtsville had driven through 19 states and territories, but now they were about to experience sailing on an ocean.