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

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

| July 2011

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 The route traveled across country was the old two lane US-30 which has now been replaced by I-80.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.

bike on highway

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