Then and Now: Retracing a 1939 Teenager’s Cross Country Journey

In 1939, my grandfather built a bus out of junk yard materials and went on a two-month cross country road trip with six of his friends. They started in Florham Park, NJ and ended in San Francisco, CA. They went west following the Lincoln Highway and returned on historic routes 66 and 40.

I plan to retrace their route as closely as I can, using The Spirit of ’39: a cross country trip by seven intrepid boys, the book written about their adventure, as my main guide. Exploring how towns and cities and environmental health have changed from 1939 to 2017 will be my main purpose, though I also want to investigate other questions tangentially related to road travel; for example, how are young people traveling alone viewed? How do spur-of-the moment overnight stays in 1939 compare to 2017?

Prior to my trip, I will be researching each of their stops, focusing on what they were like in 1939. I will gather as many photographs as I can, along with news stories, town descriptions, and records of major environmental events. These I will compile and synthesize into a user friendly “story map:” a GIS application produced by ESRI that combines spatial data, media, and personal narratives in an interactive web page. On my trip, I will focus on the aforementioned categories (photography, news/politics, town descriptions, and state of the environment) as they are in 2017. I will keep a journal and take my own photographs. After I conclude my trip, I will work to add my experiences, photography, and research to my story map.

Presenting the evolution of America in a unique, personal way has the potential to connect with a wider audience than, for example, a textbook. With the rise of mini-blogging platforms (i.e. Twitter), and the relative importance of quality photography (Instagram), the public turns more to media for personal education rather than more traditional means such as a library. Using my grandfather’s route to compare the US in 1939 and 2017 grounds the project, and my methodology (retracing the route myself, taking my own photos, recording my personal experiences) adds a human touch, distinguishing it from other forms of historical education which are usually very impersonal.

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