Traveling, 1960s style

When I was a kid, we drove everywhere. Mostly, this meant going from Ann Arbor, where we lived, to Jackson where my Mom’s parents lived. Every Monday, we visited Grandma and Grandpa and just Grandpa after Grandma died in 1969. I have fond memories of laying down in the back seat (my sister was in the front with Mom) during these trips.

Before the English arrived, Michigan was basically all forest. As trees were cleared for farm fields, a row of trees was left at the borders, including along the roads. There are back roads that run roughly parallel to the interstate between Ann Arbor and Jackson. Sometimes, Mom would drive the back roads instead of the interstate. As I looked up from the back seat, I would see a section of the sky and flashes of treetops. When I closed my eyes, the sunlight would flicker across my eyelids.

Sometime in the 60s or early 70s, we got seatbelts in the backseat and I got yelled at for lying down after that.   When we drove to Colorado on vacation one summer, Anne and I were allowed to lay down in the back of our Dodge Dart, one on the floor and one on the seat. We were small enough to stretch out. Dad built covers for dish tubs. We stored our crayons and coloring books in the tubs. Since there was a bump on the floor in those days, we used the tubs to even it out for sleeping. I will add that dish tubs were an indispensable item, used for transporting popcorn to the drive movies and many other utilitarian tasks.

We sometimes drove down US 12 and stopped at roadside attractions. US 12 was originally an Indian trail and runs from Detroit to the West coast. Many old tourist attractions were losing customers in the 60s and 70s because the interstate was not necessarily close by US 12. We sometimes went to the Irish Hills in Lenawee County near Jackson. They have a place called Mystery Hill where you can see the mysterious forces inherent to the area at work. The current sign says “The Amazing Force of Gravity,” but I distinctly recall a demonstration where they took two people of equal height and made one taller than the other.

On weekends in the summer, we might spend time at our neighbor’s cottage on a lake near Pinckney, MI. Summer had a whole different feel. We went on vacation and weekend trips, including the cottage and sometimes we went to drive-in movies. Summer for me is about the sound of the wooden screen door closing and the smell of a wooden dock soaked in lake water. It’s also the smell and taste of potato salad, corn on the cob, meat grilling, and melon salad.

At the end of a long, hot summer day we might go to a drive-in movie OR the Cascades in Jackson. The Cascades are a waterfall light show located in Sparks County Park. The park and Cascade attraction were the brainchild of William Sparks and the first show was in 1932. The Cascades has a stairway all the way around the falls and includes several large fountains and reflecting pools. The lights change in time to music played through speakers and they now have fireworks, which I don’t remember from my childhood. As a child, the falls had a distinct smell that I associated with colored water, even though the water was colored by the lights. It might have been a particular mineral in the water. The light show was probably the most spectacular thing I had ever seen other than 4th of July fireworks. But, the walk up the steps was long and seemed to go on forever.

I recently visited and it’s much smaller than I remember. And my sister and I had to figure out where it was located. As a child, your parents take you places and you don’t really follow where things are relative to one another.   I just knew it smelled different and there were pine trees all around it.


(Image courtesy of

I should add that if we ever went very far away, we might have to use a rest stop. This was to be avoided at all costs because in the 60’s in Michigan rest stops, the toilets were often just a hole with a seat installed on top. The sinks usually had separate hot and cold faucets, but that was true for many public restrooms. You learned to switch hands or otherwise manage the temperature so as not to freeze or burn your hands.

Mystery Hills and the Cascades are still around and have the following websites. However, the drive in theaters are all gone from that area.


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