I wanted to share an essay written by my father, Ray Frost, for a contest in Highways magazine. Unfortunately, there was a 500-word limit, so it was never published. The story is a recap of our first RV trip as a family, my parents and sister, aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandparents on my Dad's side. It brought back some great memories for me, especially about my Grandpa, who passed away in 2001. So, for my own little tribute to Grandpa Frost, the "Wagon Master", and to my own Dad, please read on, and enjoy...
On the Road With the “Wagon Master”By Raymond Frost
Our first RV trip was prompted by my mother’s small inheritance and two family reunions in June, 1984. Mom would foot the bill for gas, food, and camping if we all RV’ed back to southeast Idaho and Nebraska for reunions on both sides of the family. My folks were outfitted with a “snowbird-tested” motorhome and my brother Dan and family would travel in his trusty pickup camper. We had a Mazda sedan—so we started shopping for our first RV. Moving up from tent camping was a bit of a jump, so we hit on a middle-of-the-road deal that put us in a used Coleman tent trailer, supposedly easily towed by our Mazda. (First-timer tip: Check on tow ratings and hitches.) The tent trailer seemed in good shape and had plenty of room for our family of four. It even had a stove, sink, and ice box—quite luxurious compared to the tent.
The first day we traveled solo from southern Oregon to meet my folks and Dan and family in Boise, Idaho. They had traveled down from southeast Washington. After we got set up in the campground, I realized we had completed our first RV’ing day without mishap. The next morning after daybreak, we heard a soon to be familiar sound—RAP, RAP—on our trailer door. This was accompanied by “rise and shine, we’re burning daylight” or “head ‘em up, we’re moving out” or some such wake-up call. It was my dad with his cane. Mom might be paying the bills, but the “Wagon Master” was in charge of meeting his itinerary. No sleeping in on this vacation! We soon got used to the early routine, which gave us time in the afternoons for sightseeing.
Dan and I both bought Golden Eagle Passports which covered entry fees at all of the National Parks and other Federal sites we visited. Our first one was Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho. We all rode in the motorhome for a tour of the Monument. The Park Ranger at the entrance burst into laughter as Dan and I pressed our Passports against the window, as Dad used his Golden Age Passport (think Senior Pass) to cover the entry fees.
By that evening we were parked at Grandma’s farm in southeastern Idaho. This was the gathering place for the first reunion—Mom’s clan. As I cranked up the tent trailer our first mishap occurred—you knew it was coming—a cable jammed and an eyebolt spread open. My uncle grabbed his welder (every farm has one) and repaired the bolt, but the top needed lifting assistance—a cane or a stick worked fine. No dealer or repair shop in the area would touch it within the Wagon Master’s tight schedule, so we limped through the rest of the trip. Later I learned that a cable had jumped off a pulley and split. (First-timer tip: Know your crank system or buy a hard-side.) Oh yes, we saw lots of relatives, but my uncle’s rib barbecue on the River Ranch was the highlight.
RAP, RAP! Off to Yellowstone and two days camping and sightseeing in the Park. We discovered it gets real cold in mid-June there! We also learned that ice crystals forming on the canvas from your breath can “snow” on you when you roll over in bed. (First-timer tip: Consider adding a propane furnace.) After touring Yellowstone, we found ourselves in a calendar photo on Jenny Lake with the Grand Tetons looming over us. You felt you should speak in whispers to avoid disturbing the tranquility.
RAP, RAP! Our little convoy headed across Wyoming, watching for antelope. The four grandkids rode in the motorhome the whole way, keeping occupied with their Walkmans and various games. We pulled into our campground in Douglas in a thunderstorm, not ideal conditions for setting up a tent trailer. However, by this time we had a routine worked out and each of us had a job to do, so it went fairly quickly. Our wagon train lined up with our rig first, closest to the restrooms. Unfortunately, that was the direction of a major league straight-line wind out of the south, and I spent a good part of the night with my back against the door in hopes of keeping the Coleman from rolling over. It didn’t. (First-timer tip: In a lightweight trailer, hide behind the biggest motorhome you can find, when in windy country.)
The next day was an easy one. The itinerary included visiting a number historic sites and National Monuments: Fort Laramie, Scott’s Bluff, Chimney Rock, and a state park with swimming for the kids. We also encountered our first fireflies, to the delight of the youngsters. This was our first dry camp in our RV. We managed just fine, especially since Mom provided dinner for us all. Okay, I cheated a little and took a quick shower in the motorhome.
RAP, RAP! We made a quick run across Nebraska to the next reunion—Dad’s side. By late afternoon we were set up in a nice city campground, with scads more fireflies for the kids to chase. We had another first when we learned there was a tornado warning in effect, but a glance at the sky and my worries faded. The next day included a barbecue at my cousin’s (where I noted the location of the storm cellar, just in case) for nearby relatives, including my other grandma. The main event was a gigantic potluck the following day at the fairgrounds. Dad’s every living relative must have attended. We gave up keeping track of the various families and just enjoyed all the good food, visiting, and taking pictures of dozens of cousins.
RAP, RAP! Time to start our return trip. The Wagon Master informed us we had to be in the middle of South Dakota by that night. A pleasant drive north through the Nebraska sand hills put us on I-90 headed west. We pulled into our campground in Murdo with lightning again flashing around us and quickly set up camp. Then we heard: Tornado Watch! A look at the sky this time scared me. I had never seen such an angry rolling black cloud mass. The Wagon Master proceeded to scare the kids (and me) by pointing out the limited tornado shelter options we had. The boys thought diving into a nearby ditch was the answer. The girls opted for our car or the motorhome. Looking at my tent trailer flapping in the wind, I plotted the quickest way to the concrete block wash room—just in case. Despite our fears, nothing touched down in our area. (First-timer tip: Carry a NOAA weather radio in Tornado Alley.)
The next day we took in the Badlands National Park and stopped at Wall Drug, where I ran into a co-worker from Oregon. Small world! On to Rapid City and the Reptile Gardens and the Dinosaur Park. Then the Wagon Master led us on a three-day tour of the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore and Wind Caves were highlights and the kids enjoyed our night at the Flintstone Campground in Bedrock City—lots of cartoon-based play equipment.
RAP, RAP! On to Montana after spending a night in Sturgis at my uncle’s. Construction had limited access to the Little Big Horn National Monument, and with the temperature hovering around 103 in Hardin, the kids voted for a dip in the campground pool as an alternative. Our last night in Montana was spent at Lewis and Clark Caverns, where we took the interesting cave tour.
The following day we were atop Lolo Pass looking into Idaho. We were just two or three days from completing the loop on our three week odyssey. After we arrived home, I had to marvel at our first time with our mighty Mazda-Coleman combo. Despite our one mishap and several weather challenges, we still had the trip of our lives. (First-timer tip: Keep a journal—so you have memory joggers twenty-five years later. Also helps in labeling photos.)
The Wagon Master passed on in 2001, leaving behind two avid RV’ing sons. My brother upgraded to a motorhome and we to a fifth-wheel trailer. Even though my wife and I now live in Arizona, we still RV together whenever possible. And yes, I still have the Wagon Master’s rapping cane.
RAP, RAP! Yes, I hear you, Dad. But we’re retired now and RV at a slower pace. I think we’ll “burn a little daylight” today.
Thanks for the memories, Dad. --Robert