Tucson to Houston on a Vespa – Thomas Barnes

 In Shop Talk

In the late forties, Vespa was a popular motor scooter. It was economical, stylish, smooth and easy to handle. While in hot, dry Tucson, Arizona, I bought a used Vespa. I enjoyed riding it so much that in 1958, I decided to buy a brand new one. Nothing fancy – just a gray, deluxe model with a 5-horsepower engine, a continental kit, luggage rack, anti-flip roll bars and a sturdy stand. One day I heard some airmen talking about how they had rode their motorcycles across country. The thought crossed my mind that I’d like to take on the challenge of riding my Vespa on a trip like that. If I was going to do anything, I had to do it right away because I was in the Air Force and scheduled to report for duty at Goose Bay in one month. Hesitantly, I was convinced I could do it.

I was stationed at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The question was how was I going to get all of my stuff to Houston? I decided to ship my bags by Greyhound. I told my church, the North Stone Assembly of God Church, about my venture and they were so excited for me that they gave me a going away to celebrate my journey. There was no changing my mind now. I had to do it. So, suited up in my uniform, with my raincoat and a change of underwear, I set out to Houston on my new Vespa. I hit the road immediately following the celebration. It was nightfall, I felt free as a bird riding a calm wind as I listened to the vibration of the scooter.

The first ten miles were great as I made my way up the mountain toward Benson, Arizona. I wasn’t long before my calm was disturbed by lightening, gusty winds and rain. This was all a bit much for the scooter to handle, so I pulled into a truck stop to wait for the rain to pass. It didn’t look good at all. However, an eighteen wheeler pulled into the truck stop. San Antonio was written across the trailer. It was as if a train had pulled into the station and I had my ticket ready to get on board. My baggage was my Vespa. I approached the driver as if I were approaching the conductor. I politely asked him if I could hitch a ride up the hill. Looking at me mysteriously, he responded with a”Yes”. He opened a small compartment in the trailer that was just the right fit for my scooter. I was relieved because I knew I would not have made it up that hill. The weather was too bad. He was kind enough to take me as far as he could go near the New Mexico border. He was not allowed to transport any vehicles across the state line. This was truly a blessing from God.

Once again, I got on my Vespa. Blue skies, bright shining sun, and bug everywhere. I saw every size and shape of cactus one could imagine. The mountains were strong and beautiful. I thoroughly enjoyed the scenery from dawn to dusk. As the light faded into night, I became hungry and stopped at a New Mexico restaurant. Mind you, it was not customary for black people to enter into a restaurant by way of the front door. I must have been delirious from the full day of riding, and forgot about the discrimination of the time. I walked right in, went directly to a table, ordered my food and was served without a problem. I was in my uniform and generally, people respected military men.

Refueled and rested, I resumed my trip late into the night. It was pitch dark. No moon, no stars, no cars to help light the way; only the white strip in the center of the road to guide me. I was hypnotized by that white line. Sleepy and tired, I drove to a roadside park. After checking out my surroundings, I put my feet over the handlebars, and leaned back on the seat, bundled up on the scooter and drifted into a deep sleep. I woke to find there were others who had the same idea. Five carloads of people were bunked out in the park. I made it through the night without any harm.

The morning dew was still falling when I got on the Vespa. It was warm, but raining cats and dogs and the clouds were roaring with thunder and lightening. I had to pull off the road to keep from getting soaked. I hunkered down under a large tree until the storm had passed. When the storm ended, I started back down the road again on the Vespa, making my way to Houston, when U was harassed by two white guys in a sedan. They ran me off the road, and I was forced down an embankment, but I was able to maneuver the scooter without getting hurt. I waited until they were out of sight before I started my journey towards Austin.

The road to Austin was rough and rugged, but the Vespa was still going strong. I survived the ride without having any breakdowns or repairs. Through valleys, up mountains, down the hills, in stormy weather, my Vespa and I made it to the ark of safety at Bergstrom Air Force Base. I was on my last leg, but the scooter was still smooth as ever. I needed a good hot shower, a little food, and some rest.

I was on the home stretch. Ain’t no stopping me now so I had to keep moving. It would be a total of 1400 miles – me and my Vespa. Houston, here we come. I arrived in Houston sun burned and tired. My family was so surprised to hear that I had traveled all the way from Arizona to Houston on my Vespa scooter. This became the talk of the town. As word got out about my trip, the local newspaper wanted to do a featured article on me because this was an unusual trip. No one had ridden this far on a scooter. I gladly accepted the offer to pose on my scooter for the newspaper photo…

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