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Ten for the road

Source: The Charleston Gazette
Publish Date: Sunday, June 21, 2009
Summary: The trailer opened into a 16- by 6-foot tent plus they had a zip-on room that held a cot and a set of bunk-bed cots.

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Rosalie Earle

Jun. 21, 2009 (McClatchy-Tribune Regional News delivered by Newstex) -- CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Forty years ago this month, Richard and Ellen Schafer loaded up their eight kids and drove from St. Albans west for 18 hours on the first day of a six-week vacation.

What were they thinking?

Actually, Richard had given the trip much thought. Being an engineer, he had spent about six months carefully planning the itinerary that would take them to Disneyland (NYSE:DCQ) (NYSE:DIS) and back.

"Disneyland was the plum. It kept the kids in line," said Schafer, recently recalling the trip with children who ranged in age from 3 to 15.

They piled into a Pontiac Bonneville station wagon that had three rows of seats -- the third faced backward. The space between the third and second seats served as a playpen for 3-year-old Peggy and sometimes for her 5-year-old brother Joel.

There were no seatbelt laws in the summer of 1969, and most cars didn't have air conditioning. Daughter Janine Olian of South Charleston remembers that for the trip her father bought an air conditioner that fit beneath the dashboard, but only cooled him and the two front-seat passengers. Pleas from those in the far back to crack a window would be met with "The air conditioning is on" from her father.

Schafer remembers many details about "the best trip we ever took as a family," except for one incident he feigns any memory of. Daughter Caryn Gresham of Charleston recounted that tale:

They had stopped for a picnic lunch at a rest area. Everyone had a job to do afterward -- pick up trash, pack away food, watch the younger kids. When they got back in the car, Gresham sat up front because her mother wanted to nap in the back.

It wasn't long before someone wanted chewing gum stashed in their mother's purse. But they couldn't find her purse. Then they couldn't find her. Their mother had been left behind at the rest stop. "It was nobody's job to watch her," Gresham laughed.

Their accommodations were an 8- by 6-foot pop-up trailer that they set up at campgrounds across the country. The trailer opened into a 16- by 6-foot tent plus they had a zip-on room that held a cot and a set of bunk-bed cots. The three eldest children slept there and everyone else slept in the tent.

They had used the trailer for other camping vacations, so Olian said that while sister Caryn wrote in her diary, she and her brother Paul became quite proficient at setting up and taking down the tent.

In one entry, Gresham wrote about the trailer blowing a tire on a dirt road near Reno, Nev. After fixing the tire, they went into Reno to buy another spare at a Goodyear tire (NYSE:GT) shop.

"Fortunately for us, not only did they have the tire, but they had a grand opening going on. The girl who worked at the desk told us to help ourselves to the free cokes, coffee and cookies they offered. We were more than happy to oblige her.

"When she asked us where we were from, we told her and she said, 'Oh no, that's where I am from!' Can you beat that!

"It turned out she wasn't just from West Virginia, she was from St. Albans and her parents lived right down the street from us."

As they prepared for the trip, Schafer said the kids started talking about what clothes to take. There was storage in the pop-up for some items, such as raingear and sweatshirts.

But for other personal items, Schafer built a chest about 5 feet high and 4 feet wide that fit between the tire well of the trailer. Each person got a drawer. "Whatever you can fit in the drawer, you can take," he told them. "They spent weeks putting things into the drawer and taking them back out."

Once they got to Texas, Schafer planned the trip so they wouldn't travel more than 300 miles in a day, and they would stay for several days at some parks. He made no campground reservations except at Disneyland.

Some of the other sights they visited were Carlsbad Caverns, the Painted Desert, the Petrified Forest, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Reno and Salt Lake City.

"We drove thru the salt flats," 15-year-old Gresham wrote on July 20, 1969. "Miles and miles of white nothing is the only way to describe it. We saw the capitol in Salt Lake City. It is kind of green and ugly."

They set up camp in a cherry grove, where the owners let them pick cherries.

"Tonight the astronauts landed on the moon. We were all excited about it. Some of our neighbors had TVs and they invited us to watch with them. Can you imagine, a man really on the moon!"

Schafer remembers the evening in Big Basin Redwoods, sitting in a folded chair with his normal drink looking up at the tall trees. He was concerned whether they were on schedule, then thought, "I don't care if we never get back."

Olian's memories include playing in the snow in the Rocky Mountains and climbing the rope ladders to the Indian dwellings in Mesa Verde. But it was the education she received from the sites visited as well as her father's research on those stops. She still incorporates some of that knowledge in the classes she teaches at Sacred Heart Grade School.

Gresham and Olian baby-sat the younger children so their parents could enjoy a night on the town in Las Vegas. "That was our plum," said Schafer.

Olian remembers her mother getting her hair done at a beauty shop to go to Caesar's Palace to hear Tony Bennett sing.

On his return, Schafer said he did grumble to friends about driving a station wagon with eight kids pulling a trailer through the desert and having to pay 50 cents for a gallon of gas. That was the most he paid for gas on the trip.

The worst stop, though, was at a campground near Lawrence, Kan. "We arrived at night and must have camped in a swamp. We were eaten alive by mosquitoes," Schafer said.

After a stop at Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, the Schafers headed home. On July 25, Gresham noted in her diary:

"This is our last long ride ... Tonight we will be in Cincinnati and on Sunday we will be home. When I say a long ride, by now everyone is used to it. We get in the car and start warm-up exercises for getting on Daddy's nerves.

"I really feel sorry for fathers. Apparently they don't remember what it was like to be a kid cooped up in a car.

"Mothers are more understanding, but, they, too, have their limits."

It was the last major trip that all the Schafers made together. Schafer said he wanted his kids to know what their country looked like. After the summer of "69, the older children had summer jobs that kept them home.

"That trip -- you couldn't have asked for anything better," said Schafer.

With two teenage girls on the trip, Olian said there wasn't always harmony. "But it was all part of family bonding. It made the family very close."

Reach Rosalie Earle at or 304-348-5115.

Newstex ID: 35904223

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