By late 1971 we had four children ages five, three, two and a half and six months and needless to say I had my hands full. Fortunately, they were all very good kids and well behaved. I had benefited from my years as a teacher and knew the rewards of discipline so I was a pretty strict mother – with that many, that close you’d better be strict or prepare to be bald at a very early age.
My husband was in the Air Force and was stationed at Malmstrom AFB in Great Falls, Montana. He got a month leave every year and while most of our neighbors took a week here and a week there during the year, my husband would save all of his until summer and then we’d travel for a month. We had purchased a small camping trailer a couple of years earlier and it had worked quite well, still, traveling with four kids in the back of a station wagon – even with a trailer was not conducive to making long trips. The following fall my husband took the trailer to Dallas and my father sold it for us.
Then just as we were beginning to wonder what our next travel solution might be, my father called to tell us about an ad that he had found in the Sunday Dallas Morning News and that he had checked out. It seems that an oil man in Dallas had purchased a brand new, large, customized Winnebago and had an employee deliver it to him from the Winnebago factory. He planned to use it as his office in the field. He had it two days and died of a heart attack. His family was all quite wealthy and no one was interested in having a Winnebago, they just wanted to settle his estate and move on. My father felt that the price they were asking was too unbelievable to pass up. We agreed and arranged for the loan at the bank and my father handled it from there. It was winter and we weren’t going to be able to travel for several months so my father and mother said that they would keep it at their house until spring, at which time they would drive it to Montana. It was the beginning of some wonderful times on the road and was the absolute perfect way to travel with the four kids and the dog and the cat! It had a full bedroom in the back, a bath with a shower, lots of storage room, a kitchen with stove, eye level oven and a fridge. The couch made a double bed; there was a double bunk over the driver and passenger seats. There was a comfortable chair in the living room area, a pull out dining table. It had a built in vacuum system and just in case traveling became a little too overwhelming, there was a built in liquor cabinet. Looking back in light of the motor homes they have today, it was crude at best, but back then it was a castle on the road!
As the children got older we decided to try and make our month long travels educational as well as fun. We thought with all the historical sites within easy traveling distance we could perhaps liven up history and help make it come alive for them. So, we chose sites and found books about them.
One of the most interesting trips was one in which we pretty much tried to follow the path of the Nez Perce Indians as they had tried so desperately to escape the military troops that were determined to either kill them or get them back onto the land that had been assigned to them in the Treaty of 1863. Nez Perce country in the Northwest included the territory where Washington, Oregon, and Idaho join together. But when the Treaty of 1863 decreased their lands to one-tenth its original size, some of the Nez Perce bands refused to agree and became known as “non-treaty” Nez Perce. Among them were Joseph and his band, located in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon. In 1877, a number of young warriors from Joseph’s band attacked settlements of people who had earlier killed members of their family. When the U.S. Army was sent to make a show of force, the Nez Perce drove them back, and the Nez Perce War of 1877 began.
Fearing retaliation, the non-treaty Nez Perce fled their homelands. They walked or rode and just kept moving in any way they could in order to reach safety. They initially hoped the Crow Indians, their hunting partners on the Plains, would give them shelter once they crossed the Rocky Mountains. When the Crows instead attacked them and stole horses, the last chance for the Nez Perce was flight into Canada where they might live with Sitting Bull’s Sioux.
Traveling over 1,500 miles, through what would become the four states of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and finally Montana, the fugitive Nez Perce kept moving – they were determined to reach safety for themselves and their families. Their long journey took them through the newly established Yellowstone National Park where they encountered several groups of tourists. The journey lasted more than three months, across mountains, rivers, and prairies.
When we finally reached the Bear Paw along the Montana Canadian border where the last battle was fought we were on that last leg of our trip. It was late and in the dark you could swear that you could hear the ghosts of those who had died there and wondered what Chief Joseph's thoughts were. At that time it was a very remote, rugged and somehow a sad place. Early the next morning we walked over the site, there are still holes to be seen where both soldiers and Indians had dug in with the hopes of avoiding bullets. It had the same eerie feeling that you get at the Custer Battlefield. Somehow you can feel the history and it makes an impression that books alone could never achieve.
I feel that those trips were among the best things we ever did for our kids and we all still have wonderful memories of those times. Memories that I know none of us will forget.