In August of 1963 a bunch of my classmates and I piled onto a 1947 IC41 Brill and headed northwest from Baltimore. For years I’ve wanted to retrace that journey, because it profoundly influenced my life.
Also, there were a few mysteries about the route. We were headed toward a Christian youth ranch in Colorado, where the organization hoped to make me into a good person. The jury is still out on that, but they did, for sure, turn me into a bus guy.
We milled about the Woodlawn High parking lot while the drivers packed luggage into the rear trunk and under the raised seat platform. Brills had a pancake engine and minimal storage, so loading was an art form. We wished they’d hurry, because we wanted to escape our hovering parents.
Not only was the trunk small, the door springs had apparently been procured from a bear trap factory. A couple of years later I slammed the door on my boss’s arm. Bob (a Methodist minister) had a REMARKABLE command of the language.
The 797-cubic-inch Hall Scott gas engine belched to life. A massive 13 liters of displacement putting out a rompin,’ stompin’ 190 horsepower pushed the 20,000-pound-plus bus to its governed speed of 60 mph at an average of 4 mpg. The Honda used in retracing the route this fall had only 179 horsepower from 1.5 liter. Top speed is classified out of respect for the Statute of Limitations.
Off we went… toward Chicago. Even the geographically challenged know that Chicago isn’t between Baltimore and Colorado. We took the Pennsylvania turnpike and toll roads because the interstate wasn’t complete.
We stopped at an “Oasis” south of Chicago late at night. It was misty, but you could see a smudge of light that was the distant city, and we wondered if we’d ever see it close up.
The stop was necessitated by the fact that Brills didn’t have lavatories. Apparently, prior to 1947 people didn’t go to the bathroom.
We then turned south on old Route 66 headed for St Louis and the partially completed Interstate 70.
Normally one driver would sleep while the other drove, but this section of Route 66 had (if memory serves) 11 rail crossings, and Brills had “virtual brakes.” One guy drove while the other served as lookout, in hopes this early warning system would allow stopping before the railroad tracks. Halting astride the rails was bad form and attracted locomotives.
In McLean, Illinois, the coach pulled into the Dixie Truckers Home… my first real truck stop. They pumped over 100 gallons of gas into the coach, costing ALMOST $30.
By now my 16-year-old self was agog at the wisdom and skill of our drivers. Dick and Bill were just shy of 23 and knew their way around the world. I wanted to be like them.
Roaring across the Mississippi into St. Louis and onto I-70, Dick and Bill started noting the highway mileposts. It turned out that Missouri’s weigh stations periodically posted a sign that said, “busses weigh,” and they knew where the stations lurked.
Bureaucrats can’t spell “buses,” but if that placard was hanging from the scale’s sign… Dick and Bill had to do some fancy adjusting. Brills had heavy rear ends so a bunch of kids had to crawl forward and hide in the aisle, until we’d crossed the scale. Even then it wasn’t politically correct to tell the fat kids they had to sit up front.
Years later, cruising by in my Honda… the placard was still there, still misspelled. Those scale guys are freaking persistent.
Roaring west, I asked Bill about the roaring. It turns out that four-inch flex pipe makes a good replacement for a Brill muffler and costs less. There was an added advantage when convoying at night. Each bus torched a foot of blue flame out its exhaust, easy to keep track of each other. If the police ever replaced radar with heat-seeking missiles, we’d be toast (pun intended).
After crossing into Kansas, we climbed onto the Great Plains. For those who haven’t done it, the prairie is… large. Then, and now, it takes about 10 hours to drive it. It’s like crossing an ocean sprinkled with cows, except these days there are a ton of wind turbines.
Now comes the mystery. Around midnight we dropped off the highway in Oakley and crossed into Colorado near Arapahoe. We cruised through Cheyenne, Wells, Kit Carson and a bunch of quiet towns very slowly.
Dick explained that they tried to avoid using the brakes or clutch, timing stop lights and double-clutching clutchless (YES, that is a thing). It turns out that the Brills’ clutch linkage and brakes were unreliable, and this was good training for the inevitable failures. They practiced theological maintenance. Brill parts were hard to find so they carried all their spares with them. They trusted Providence to ensure that the only things that would break were parts that were on board. Apparently it worked, because none of their Brills ever rode a hook.
We cruised nearly an hour on the two-lane at night without passing another vehicle. At dawn we left the prairie near Canon City and could see the sun lighting the summit of Pikes Peak, 45 miles to the northwest.
Years later (after learning map-reading) I asked why we had zig-zagged so much. I was told the direct route through Colorado Springs involved climbing the back of Pikes Peak, a daunting task for the aging Brills.
The real reason is that JJ, who put the trip together, was thrifty. Colorado had a “ton mile” tax that was collected at “Ports of Entry.” You could avoid paying the tax by circumnavigating the Ports. Mystery solved.
Years later we discovered a simpler method. The scheduled Trailways buses into Colorado Springs simply drove by the Port, flashing their marker lights. The Officer recorded the passing, and billed Trailways. Well heck, our marker lights flashed too, so why stop?
We were on our way to becoming bussy juvenile delinquents.
Canon City is a nifty town, nestled beautifully at the edge of the mountains where the Arkansas River exits Royal Gorge. My most vivid memory of it centers around… a hamburger. Let’s face it, you don’t get a body like mine without working at it.