Towner Road Trips

Towner road trips were memorable. We towed our trailer behind us and carried our canoe above us. My sister Nancy invited her girlfriend Patsy to go with us on a few trips; and when Nancy grew up and left home, I invited my girlfriend Gay to go with us.

Frequently we ventured to beautiful Lake Texoma on the Texas and Oklahoma border. In Happy Fourth of July I wrote about a Fourth of July trip to Lake Texoma, but we made frequent warm weather trips to Lake Texoma; and we always camped at our favorite rocky point, which I have recently dubbed Towner Point.

On one of those trips to Towner Point, my then future brother-in-law Larry disappeared while scuba diving in the deep water off of our rocky point. He was diving alone and was supposed to stay close to shore so that Nancy would watch his bubbles. This didn’t go as planned. He swam off quickly one direction, while Nancy watched in the other, and she lost track of him. She was frantic. Daddy dove repeatedly into the 15+ foot depths looking for him but finally gave out. I wanted to dive in to help Daddy with the search and rescue; but it was too dangerous, and I was too young and too small to be anything but a liability. In the meanwhile, someone called the Coast Guard, and a crowd began to gather. I don’t know how long this went on, but it seemed like forever. Then our dog Charlie began barking urgently and acting like he wanted us to follow him up the rocky shoreline. He stopped, stood still on point, and stared up the shore. Here came Larry, safe and sound. I can still picture him as he walked toward us in the distance, dripping wet in his scuba gear, carrying his fins, and wondering what all the excitement was about. Nancy ran to him in tears. It was a happy ending to a frightening scene.

Nancy Larry Tina Lake Texoma abt 1960

 

A few of our trips took us to the Texas gulf coast – Galveston, Corpus Christi, or Padre Island. I vaguely remember one pre-camping-trailer trip to go deep-sea fishing off of the coast. I believe Uncle Gordon and Aunt Ruth were with us, along with Nancy’s friend Patsy and Patsy’s younger sister. We chartered a smelly fishing boat that was big enough to have a cabin with bunks. I didn’t fish, and I got sea-sick, so I lay on one of the beds much of the time. If I felt well enough, I gazed through the porthole out to sea. The return to shore at dusk was a long slow foggy trip. Everyone seemed really tense. I stood on deck, watched the buoys materialize through the fog, and listened for the deep wail of the foghorns as we approached land.

I am pretty sure Mother hated just about everything to do with beach camping. She hated the sand inside the trailer and in our beds and clothes, and she hated the heat. There might have been a gulf breeze, but it was still “H–O–T, HOT-HOT-HOT,” as she often exclaimed. On one trip to the coast, we were all climbing around on a jetty constructed of huge rocks or pieces of concrete, and Mother slipped off and fell chest deep into the water between the boulders. She was unable to pull herself out and hollered for help. I think I was the closest to her at the time, but we all came running. It was a challenge to get her out of the water, and she suffered scrapes and bruises but nothing which needed medical attention. Daddy ushered her into a nearby shop for her to dry off and compose herself. The person working there told us that the same thing happened to another woman only a few weeks earlier, and the woman died. The water current sucked the woman under the jetty, and she drowned. Mother’s guardian angel was watching over her that day.

L to R: Me (front), my sister Patsy (back), my sister Nancy, Mother, Nancy's friend Patsy (seated), Daddy; Padre Island beach, abt 1958

 

Many times we drove westward to the Rocky Mountains, and a few of our trips took us through Fort Collins, Colorado, where my mother’s brother Hal and his wife Martha lived on the edge of town. On a visit there in 1961, the whole family, including my uncle Hal and aunt Martha, drove to Red Feather Lake in the Red Feather Lakes area of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Fort Collins. It surely is not possible that anyone has ever caught as many rainbow trout as we did that day. Daddy took a couple of us at a time out onto the lake in the canoe. We caught as many fish as we could and then brought them back to Mother, who was standing over the fire ready to clean and fry them up in the hot iron skillet. I think this was when I discovered how tasty fish could be. We ate as many as we could, then Daddy took the next group out on the lake to catch some more. Once, after a round or two of very good luck, we threw our lines in the water, and Daddy counted down saying, “OK, we should have a strike in five…four…three…two…one…STRIKE!,” and we caught one ─ just like that! I’ve heard that story so many times that I can’t even remember whether I was in the boat when that happened or not. What fun! We caught ‘em, cooked ‘em, ate ‘em, then caught some more until we couldn’t fish or eat any more. We also caught a bunch of crawdads off of a big rock just a short paddle from the lake’s bank. Nancy, her friend Patsy, and I tied bits of wieners to a string and dropped them into the water around the rock. The crawdads latched on, and we pulled them up and put them in a bucket until we had a bucketful. Then we took them back to shore, dumped them onto the ground out of view of the lake, and watched in amazement as they immediately turned and headed toward the water – a real learning experience for me.

 

When I was twelve or thirteen, my friend Gay traveled with us to the Rocky Mountains on a summer vacation. We again spent a few days in Fort Collins, Colorado, visiting my mother’s brother Hal. Daddy had a tire that needed repair, so Gay and I accompanied him to a garage on the edge of town. Behind the garage was an idyllic scene of mountain slopes, rolling green fields, and grazing horses. Daddy told me and Gay that we could go explore while he was busy in the garage. She and I wasted no time walking to the back pasture, eager to get close to the horses. As we followed a narrow path through the thick green grass, I looked down and saw a very colorful snake (black with multicolored rings) crossing the path in front of me. I impulsively reached down, picked it up behind its head (as Daddy taught me to do) and let it curl around my arm past my elbow. I was excited about my new slinky friend and couldn’t wait to show Daddy. Gay and hurried back to the garage, where we found him and the mechanic bent over the trunk of our car with their heads deep inside. I poked my serpent-wrapped arm down into the trunk right between their faces and chirped, “Look what I found, Daddy!” Daddy hollered, “Good night!” as he and the mechanic rose up and violently hit their heads on the inside of the trunk. Daddy quickly ordered me to take that snake back where I found it and let it go, which I did. No one ever looked at it long enough to identify it, so I don’t what kind of snake it was, but it was pretty. Of course, I didn’t think about its being poisonous when I picked it up; and, except for my friend Gay, no one else seemed as happy about my snake as I was.

Certainly, our camping trips were a lot of work for Mother and for Daddy, too, of course; although I didn’t give that any thought when I was young. We spent many fun times vacationing around Texas and in various locations in the west, and I am so lucky to have so many beautiful memories of these family trips.

First Travel Trailer

 

There are two versions of how Daddy came by our first camper trailer: According to what he journaled in May 1970, it was a 15 foot Mobile Scout, purchased for $1,050 in May 1957. However, in the late 1990s, I asked Daddy about our first travel trailer. I had not read what he had journaled about it. In fact, I didn’t even know he had a journal at that time. He answered that he had received the trailer as compensation for a job. He said he was working for Hughes Steel at the time, and he bid on a job for a trailer company. When someone asked him about compensation, he said he would like to be paid with a travel trailer. I can only guess why there is a discrepancy between these two versions, but the payment for a job scenario is highly plausible.

I remember when I first saw the camper trailer. I had traveled with Mother via train to Kansas to see her mother, and when we returned home, there was a new travel trailer parked in the driveway. I don’t know if Mother knew about it ahead of time. I think we all helped Daddy paint the black lightning bolt along the sides, and later we added cartoon animals on the front, sides, and back of the trailer. The cartoon characters are visible in the gallery photos of the trailer. I am not sure who drew the original designs, but they look like something I might have contributed to, even at the young age of seven. More likely, though, it was a group effort. I can still picture Daddy, paintbrush in hand, painting the designs on the trailer.

The aluminum trailer was equipped with a fifty pound icebox which was refrigerated with blocks of ice, a three-burner butane stove with oven, and a 16 gallon water tank with a hand pump on the sink. It slept five. The windows cranked open and shut. Hot water for sponge bathing, cooking, or washing dishes was heated on the stove. There was a large storage compartment underneath the bed, smaller storage cabinets on the wall, and one very narrow closet for hanging clothes. We hung our other clothes in fish net sacks on wall hooks. Often we had no electricity hookups. Our light source was a kerosene lantern hung on a hook inside of the trailer after dark. Mother did most of the cooking outside on campfires, and each morning she made a pot of campfire coffee in an aluminum coffee pot for her and Daddy. If it was raining, she cooked inside. The trailer was not self-contained. If we were not in a park that offered park restrooms, we relieved ourselves outdoors and if necessary took a shovel to dig a hole. We always disposed of any toilet paper properly. We took sponge baths in the sink, bathed in the often frigid mountain rivers or streams, and occasionally stopped at an overnight trailer park to use the showers and laundry facilities. Our favorite vacation destination was the west or southwest United States, especially the Rocky Mountains, and on several occasions we met our friends the Bowers somewhere in the mountains. We were protected from the elements by the tin can walls, and we entertained ourselves with silly family stories and anecdotes – so much fun.

I only remember one trailer trip with my oldest sister Patsy, who was nearly grown in 1957. I’m sure she joined us on shorter trips a few times, but this one trip I remember was a long vacation to California in 1957. I was seven years old in the summer of 1957. We were motoring across the desert in what I believe was a 1957 red and white Buick. It was the middle of the summer, the car’s air conditioner was broken, and I sat between Daddy and Mother on an old wooden box in the middle of the front (bench) seat, wearing only my ruffled red panties and holding a cup of ice water. My “job” was to flick ice-cold water on everyone within reach to keep the passengers cool. At least, that’s what I thought my job was. I’m not sure that my sisters were all too pleased about it. Daddy took the photo of me below during that California trip, clearly demonstrating that taking embarrassing photos of your children is not just a digital or cell-phone age phenomenon.

1956 Tina on pot roadside Disney hat
Me in my Disneyland hat sitting on a porcelain cast iron pot taking care of business; car door open and towels hung for privacy and to block the sun; 1957, apparently after we had visited Disneyland

 

We had many memorable experiences, one of which happened in 1961 at Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, where we camped for a few days. A large group of Native Americans began to gather and set up camp next to us. A man knocked on our trailer door in the afternoon and politely asked Mother if he could borrow a cup of sugar. She said yes, of course, and eagerly gave him what he needed. He returned a few minutes later, explained that they were having a “pow-wow” that evening, and asked us if we would like to join them. Daddy accepted, and that night we attended an authentic pow-wow. We were asked not to take photographs, and unfortunately, I don’t remember much about the ceremony, other than it was exciting and colorful, most of them were dressed in authentic Native American attire, and it was late when we got back to our trailer. Daddy and Mother greatly appreciated the invitation.

My parents had at least three camping trailers from 1957 on, until Daddy could no longer drive. Even after they gave up traveling, they parked their last trailer behind their country house in Merit, Texas, where it stayed until they moved to Bonham, Texas, in 1994. They used it for extra beds when needed. It must have been very hard for them to give up traveling, which they loved so much.

I loved these camping trips. We got up before sunrise to get ready to set out. Many nights, after a long day’s drive, Daddy just pulled over into a roadside park or even a wide space in the road he was tired enough, where we spent the night as 18-wheelers whizzed by, rocking the trailer as they passed. Among places we visited: Yellowstone National Park, Yosemite National Park, Pike’s Peak, Garden of the Gods, Royal Gorge, Jackson Hole, Mesa Verde, the Redwood forests in California, and the Dalton Gang’s Hideout in Kansas. We, fished, hiked, climbed mountains, rode horses, hunted for rocks, waded in and drank from cold mountain streams, and saw many majestic and unforgettable sights.

I vividly recall the smell of crisp clean mountain air, lush pine forests, campfires burning, the aroma of coffee brewing and bacon frying over an open campfire, the crunch of gravel roads under the tires, the smell of gasoline stations, and the delightful sounds of all types of nighttime noises (inside and outside of the trailer); and I can still feel the comfort of seeing the flying red horse and the Dallas skyline for the first time after a week or two away from home. I am so blessed to have been able to see all of these places as a child. I didn’t fully appreciate all I gained from these family trips until I grew up, when I didn’t get to do this sort of thing any more.