On the Road: Cross Country on a 1948 Indian Chief 60 Years Ago

Dodging weather and keeping your Levi's dry on US-30

us 30 postcard

60 years ago, George Protopapas rode his 1948 Indian Chief from Laguna Beach, Calif., to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Most of his route was on the old US-30, which cut through Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois. US-30 is now Interstate 80.

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I enjoy your articles regarding classic bikes and articles reminiscing about the older era of motorcycle riding. Some of your readers might be interested in what it was like to go on a cross-country motorcycle road trip 60 years ago with a 1948 Indian Chief.

I made a couple of cross-country trips from Laguna Beach, California, to Ann Arbor, Michigan, back in 1948, 1949, and 1940. I was going to the University of Michigan at that time. The trips to Ann Arbor were in the middle of September and the return trip was in the middle of June. The route traveled across country was the old two lane US-30 which has now been replaced by I-80. It traversed the states of Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois. The weather was stormy on one of the trips. Since the times of the trips were in late spring and early fall it was quite cold in the higher elevations, especially in the mornings.

In those days there were no freeways. With the exception of when you were in a large city, all roads were two lanes. Making 500 miles in a day took at least 12 hours, if everything went well. However, traveling on those two lane highways was much more enjoyable than on freeways. One saw a lot more of the country, towns, and cities in those days. The highways always went through the towns and cities and weren’t by-passed as sometimes modern freeways do. It wasn’t as monotonous as freeway driving. Gas stops were a lot more convenient.

Most of the breaks were taken at gasoline and oil stops. During that era motorcycles were noted for using oil and as a result oil stops were every 400-600 miles. These stops were either at a Harley or Indian dealer because they were the only ones that carried 50 wt. oil, which is what motorcycles used at that time. There was always much camaraderie at those stops. You’d spend a little time swapping motorcycle yarns with the dealers and their employees. There, you would sometimes meet someone traveling in the same direction and you would travel together for a ways.

You didn’t have all of the different travel bag options that you now have to carry your luggage. All you had were the two standard saddle bags hung over your rear fender and whatever didn’t fit in the saddlebags was wrapped in a tarp and attached to the rear fender rack with rope or straps. There were no sissy bars to attach packs to.

Because of your limited luggage space you had to be very careful as to what you carried. In order of priority you took your necessary tools, spare parts, such as points, condenser, plugs, 50 wt. oil, any other spare parts that you thought you might be needed, and a tow rope. Next, you’d try to cram in the saddle bags at least two changes of clothes, a sweatshirt, if it got too cold, and your toilet articles. If the sweatshirt wasn’t enough for the cold you supplemented it with newspapers. Usually there wasn’t enough room for rain gear. In those days if you had enough room to carry rain gear, it was World War II surplus navy foul weather gear. There wasn’t any of the light foul weather gear that is now available.

Your headgear consisted of a motorcycle helmet and goggles similar to what airplane pilots used to wear. There were no fiberglass helmets in those days. Since I wore glasses and didn’t need goggles, I rode bare-headed. I don’t know why, but there is nothing like riding a motorcycle without head cover. If the weather was cold, I wore a navy knit stocking cap. If it was very cold, you could pull it over your ears. It was quite comfortable. Much more comfortable than wearing the modern fiberglass helmets, but not as safe. You wore the traditional leather jacket, Levi’s, and motorcycle boots. In those days it was fashionable to wear a brown leather jacket. Nowadays your jacket has to be black. Gloves were whatever you happened to have. When it was cold you often warmed your hands wrapped around a mug of hot coffee at a coffee break. Since the suntan lotions in those days weren’t as efficient as they are now, the only way you could get by without frying your face was to cover your nose, cheekbones, and forehead with zinc oxide. You looked like someone from outer space.

If you got caught in a prolonged storm you would have to hole up in a motel for the duration. If it was only shower activity, you’d travel between showers. When you got wet you would change into a pair of dry Levi’s, wait until it stopped raining, tie your wet Levi’s on the back of the bike, get on the road again with your wet Levi’s drying in the wind hoping that the Levi’s were dry before you get caught in the next shower.

Barns, if available, were a good place to find shelter during some of the trips when I hit rain showers. One of the breakfasts that I ever had was when a farmer who was milking a cow invited me to his family breakfast when I ducked into his barn during an early morning downpour. Once I hit a hailstorm in southern Wyoming. There were no trees or buildings where you could find shelter. All you could do was slow down to 10 MPH and place your head against the windshield, which minimized the impact of the hail.

Those two trips were my most memorable of the many trips I took on the Indian Chief. Incidentally I’m 82 and still riding. I still have the riding “bug.” I have a 1968 Honda CL 350 and a 1997 Honda 1100 Shadow Spirit.