When I first proposed taking five of my grandchildren, ages 7-10, camping in the mountains of Montana and Wyoming, response from family and friends ranged from incredulous to heroic. My wife, when she finally realized I was serious, insisted that I have a complete physical examination and hinted it would be well also if I dropped by to see our friendly neighborhood psychiatrist.
One daughter, mother of two of the prospective campers, asked if I had forgotten "how really bad children can be." A school teacher friend suggested I confer with a child psychologist. Others commended me on my courage but usually ended mumbling about my being ". . . a little nutty."
The only people who accepted the idea with unqualified enthusiasm were my grandchildren.
As for myself, I had no qualms. After all, I had been a camp counselor in my youth, an assistant scoutmaster, and a company commander in World War II. There were some who noted that the last experience did not necessarily equip me to handle five children in the wilderness.
If the kids were a bit too young for such an adventure, in another year or two, when they might be more ready, I probably would be too old.
Having thus rationalized, I plunged ahead planning the trip.
Purpose of the trek west was to show the children, all of them bred and raised in cities of the East and Midwest, the grandeur of mountains with sharply sculptured peaks that frequently pierce the clouds and have glaciers where the ice pack never melts. I wanted them to experience the deep and haunting silence of the wilderness, to hear the thunder of waterfalls and glimpse some of the wildlife that still raoms the forest and plains. And, of course, to introduce them to camping as a healthful and exciting sport.
I selected Montant because I have had a love affair with that beautiful and rugged state since the days when a great uncle, who lived in Butte in the roaring days of the Copper Kings, spun tales of the Old West which later found their way into print. And, I thought, it would be less crowded than some of the more glamorous and accessible national parks and forests. Our first camp was to be in the Gallatin National Forest, an area in the foothills of the somnolent and moody Spanish Peaks, some 50 miles south of Bozeman on U.S. Rte. 191.
I must confess another reason, and perhaps it reveals what lay behind the confidence with which I approached this adventure. An old friend, a retired Defense Department official, was living in that area in a beautiful and spacious log house in the edge of the wilderness. His advice before and support during the week we were there was like having the backup of an Army Service Command.
I planned to spend our second week in Teton National Park in Wyoming, where one finds what are perhaps the most spectacular mountain ranges in North American.
Months in advance of the departure date, I set about gathering information and assembling the necessary equipment. I issued Periodic bulletins announcing the activities in which we would engage, travel schedules and, especially important, listing the clothing and equipment each camper would be expected to carry.
If you are a grandfather with not a great deal to keep you busy, you can while away weeks and months planning an adventure like this. There were letters to the Superintendents of the National Parks and Forests. These, incidentally, brought prompt replies, including excellent maps and detailed information essential to trip planning. State Tourist Offices provided facts on where to camp in and out of the national forests and points of interest. Trail maps are also available enabling you to plan hiking trips well in advance. This kind of information is like combat intelligence; you can never have enough of it.
As planning progressed, it underwent change and compromise; the adventure became a bit less grandiose, tailored more to the physical capabilities of my young campers and the Old Trail Boss. The gasoline crunch forced a change in mode of transportation. We went from pop-top camper to Amtrak. As it turned out, there was plenty of fuel along the way and in the camping areas. Amtrak, even with its trains running four to seven hours behind schedule in some areas, cut travel time to and from the West in half. There is a lot to be said for leaving the driving to someone else.
We scrubbed an overnight pack trip into the high country, because even the minimum packs would have been too much of a load for the younger kids -- to say nothing of the strain on the Old Trail Boss at elevations where the air becomes mighty thin and breathing becomes gasping. Just what the limitations were dawned on us the night before departure when one of the younger children, putting on his pack and bedroll, was pulled over backwards by the weight.
So we settled for shorter day hikes that took us to the edge of some of the wilderness areas, usually with some scenic point of interest as a goal. Children, I learned, are not terribly interested in long hikes; they tend to be much more interested in the cowboy and Indian aspects of the West, so we spent a lot of time on trail rides and just hanging around corrals.
Since the young campers were almost overtaxed with their packs and bedrolls, it was clear the organizational equipment had to be kept to a minimum in both weight and bulk. Since we were going by train, we shipped two barrack bags holding one four-man tent and one pup tent with tent flys and tarps for laying under tent floors to protect against cold and dampness. Other gear included a two-burner gasoline stove and a six-person cook set.
We carried with us a medium-size ice chest in which the mothers had packed enough lunches, snacks and cold drinks to last the trip West. It was a nod toward economizing that I repeated on the return trip.
Amtrak took us from Cincinnati to Bozeman, where we arrived five hours behind schedule -- too late to get to our camp area and setup. We were met by my old friend who took us to his home, where he dished up a sumptuous chili supper and bedded us down for our first night in the West.
First order of business next day was to select a camp site. We looked at one of the Forest Service camps in the Gallatin, smack on the river. It was too crowded, as most camps are in summer, and a bit too far from support services. We settled on a camp in the Big Sky area at the foot of Lone Mountain, the southwest anchor for the Spanish Peaks which were visible in the distance.
Big Sky was less crowded and much further from Rte. 191 than the National Forest site. It was accessible to a camp store and swimming pool, which proved to be a major attraction during afternoons when the temperature rose into the 80s. Five young children in an isolated camp area could become a restless and irritable troop, especially in rainy weather when they would be tent-bound.
Once camp was established, we called a meeting to discuss the chores of camping -- gathering kindling, scrubbing blackened pots, disposing of trash and policing the area. We agreed on a duty roster that assigned each camper a different job each day. That eliminated a good deal of the squabbling -- but not all. A lot of emphasis was placed on cleanliness of tents and surrounding areas to avoid attracting bears.
Each night, before drenching the campfire and turning in, campers lined-up and turned pockets inside out to assure there were no bubble gum or highly scented candy wrappers stashed away.
Keeping dry and warm is a critical need in the high country, where temperatures can drop from the 80s into the low 40s or even the 30s in a few hours time. This was brought home to us rather forcefully one night when our youngest came down with a touch of heat exhaustion after one of those devastating mountain thunderstorms had drenched us and the camp.
Although we had ample first-aid supplies, the incident pointed up my failure to pinpoint beforehand the nearest medical service. As his fever rose and pulse raced, I cursed myself for that failure. Just as we were about to put him into the pickup and rush him to the hospital in Bozeman, 50 miles away, the fever broke. As usual in a child, it left him as suddenly as it had come. I learned next day there was a doctor much closer at hand.
All I had to contend with after that was a bad case of homesickness which, I understand, is to be expected in situations like that.
Needless to say, the mothers were concerned that I feed their darlings a properly balanced diet. They were a bit skeptical that it could be done over a wood fire or on a two-burner gasoline stove. So was I, of course, but I never let that be known.
It was obvious from the beginning that today's children, at least the ones who were with me, do not eat everything and anything that is put in front of them. For example, they don't eat onions, which every cowboy knows, are major ingredients of Chuck Wagon Stew, an item frequently on the meno. Unless a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is made with grape jelly, forget it -- or at least forget half of it. It helps to glamorize the menu; pancakes are always Trailside Flapjacks.
By the end of the first week, all the kids had saddle sores, and the Old Trail Boss was aching in every joint. We had hiked or ridden over most of the trails in the area, going high enough into the mountains to look down into the valley and the gorges. We didn't quite make it to the glaciers, but got close enough to intrigue the kids: "How come the ice doesn't melt?" "How deep is it?" "How long has it been there?"