As I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to be able to take a lot of vacations. Well, vacations may be the wrong word. Working vacations, road trips, or just getting away from home are all probably better labels for what we had.
Those of you who have read much of what I’ve written will remember that my Dad had a business that required a lot of travel. We were fortunate in the fact that since he owned the business, he was free to take the family along on any trip he pleased. If he had a trip to make that would take him close by anything of significance, he would load the family up and take us along with him for a few days.
Now while this meant there were never any trips to places like Disney World or Six Flags, what it did mean was that I got to see a whole lot of this great country. The numerous trips also instilled in me a love for travel that has never died, and I eventually went on to take a job that required me to travel quite extensively for a decade myself, partly because of the nostalgia of all the trips from my youth.
Now don’t go thinking that we only rode in a car and saw the sights along distant highways. Like I said earlier, if he was going to be close to something cool, he would go out of his way a little and we’d spend a night or two there. It was due to this fact that I was fortunate enough to go to places like the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the Beach.
Even more local places like Pigeon Forge TN and Cherokee NC were semi-regular stops through the summers.
Besides his over the road trips, he made time for quick getaways. Our family loved camping and had many outings at the local lake or National Forest through the years as well.
But there was always one vacation I could count on taking each summer of my youth, and that was the yearly two-week sojourn of wagon train, where we’d kind of be like pioneers the whole time….traveling by wagon from stop to stop, and camping out when we got there every night.
From back in the very early 1980’s, my old man was President of the Iron Mountain Riding Club. A group of dedicated horsemen, sport shooters, outdoorsmen, farmers, and all-around good guys. Every Saturday night of the year, they had a “shooting match”, where marksmen from all over would come and compete for prizes. The other tradition of the Riding Club was Wagon Train.
Wagon Train was a yearly tradition for the Riding Club long before my Dad took over. It actually had its roots in the 1950s when the “old” Riding Club had an internal problem and split. The younger guys at that time broke away and started the Riding Club my Dad belonged to, and they started the yearly tradition. Those young guys who had broken away were part of the older generation by the ’80s, but they were still a part of the event every year when I was a kid.
The schedule for the wagon train was an easy one to remember. It always started on the Friday before the 4th of July. Unfortunately, this lined up with the same week of the local tee-ball and little league all-star games in our area. I was a pretty talented ball player back in the day and was selected for the game every year I played, and due to the wagon train, never played in a single one of them. I could have left the wagon train to go play, but I never wanted to miss any of it.
As I said, it started on a Friday night. On that first night, the riding club always held one of it’s biggest fundraisers of the year, the BBQ Chicken sale. The members would come in with several pull behind grills, and cook over 500 bbq chicken dinners and sell to everyone around. Also on that first night, they would hold an unofficial horse show. I say unofficial because the last night of wagon train was always the official Championship Horse Show. This earlier one was just a scrimmage I guess you could say.
The first Friday and Saturday night, the wagon train was always camped at their riding club’s headquarters, which was an old schoolhouse. Everyone would line their campers or tents around the horse show ring for those two nights, and a lot of fun was had. Along with the chicken dinners and the horse show, there were roughly 25 more kids my age who were there every year, so I always had plenty of friends to play with.
At first light on Sunday, everyone would be up packing things up and getting the horses hitched to the wagons. You always tried to pull out by 9 am and strive to arrive at the next stop by 4 pm. We had clearance from the Highway Department, and that was the general schedule that was reported to them, so we needed to stick as close to it as possible
We never covered any great distances in a day, but it was an all-day trip because the wagons moved so slowly. A lot of the members had wagons and would drive them all day. Others, who just wanted to be a part of everything only had campers. The ones with the campers would pull out first and head on to the next stop and get their campers set up. Then, they would double back and pick up and move the campers of the ones driving the wagons and get them set up at the new location too.
I loved traveling in the back of a wagon. Our family had one, but we didn’t take it every year. In those years, there was never a shortage of wagons in which I could bum a ride. I would pile up in the back with a friend, and we would get out some kind of travel game and kill the day that way. Either that or I would settle in with a wrestling magazine and read all day while drifting along. I can remember having this particular gem with me one year:
Besides blissfully spending the day riding in the back of a wagon, I loved the lunches on wagon train. It was a simple one, and maybe nostalgia plays a big part in my memory of it all, but breaking open a can of Beanee Weenees and a pack of Lance crackers sure did always hit the spot.
We’d spend that 3rd night at a local farm, and then we would make a two-night stop after that near the lake in a place called Alvaredo. From there, we’d cross the mountain and spend a night in Shady Valley, then back down to the town of Damascus for two nights. Damascus was where the official horse show was held each year as a fundraiser. Then the whole thing would move back to the starting point and disband for another year.
At some point each year, my Mom would want a day away from the wagon train, so she and I would run out to the closest town to pick up fresh groceries, and usually eat lunch. She would often also pick up some new toy for me to help keep me occupied without having television around. I can still clearly remember getting four of my favorite G.I. Joe figures one year, as I was able to pick up Dr. Mindbender, Zandar, Low-Light, and Leatherneck.
As much as I enjoyed the days on wagon train, I probably enjoyed the nights even more. Nights were filled with fun and games, and music on occasion. A lot of the old-timers in the club were musically inclined and would pull out their instruments and entertain everyone. Except for the night of the 4th of July. On that night every year, they would pull in a flatbed trailer and hire a local band to come play for everyone. The members would also pack fireworks for that night, so it was the biggest night of the whole thing in my mind.
Also on a nightly basis were the cake walks and the watermelon races. You probably all know what a cakewalk is. Where everyone walks around a big circle while music plays. When the music stops, you stop, and whoever is closest to the point wins a cake. As I said, you’re probably familiar. Watermelon Races? You mean you’ve never heard of watermelon races?
Well, a watermelon race is kind of just like it sounds. They’d group us kids by age, and adults too. They’d put a watermelon on the ground about 30 yards away, and when they said go, you’d take off on a mad dash for it. Whoever got to it first won it. It was a pretty simple concept. It could be dangerous though. I remember the time Wayne Cannon broke his leg sliding in for the win.
In addition to those games, the adults would come up with some strange ones to play as well. There was the time they thought it would be a good idea to tie balloons to their saddles and try to pop them with switches. Missing a balloon and hitting a horse with a switch repeatedly causes the horses to get quite angry. I saw many men bucked from horses during those games.
At the final horse show of the event, they would give out trophies for things like the barrel race, the barrel jump, and other games. They also made sure each year to honor the older guys in the club with a trophy. Even if they had to make up categories, all of the original members went home with one.
As the years rolled on, fewer people participated in wagon train. After a couple of years of low turnout, it was decided to not pursue it any longer. Even though I never hear of anything like wagon train anymore, I still find myself staring off into the distance on a hot summer day, and the smells that surround me take me back to those summer days long ago, and for just a moment, I’m back on wagon train. In that moment, I’m not an adult with a job…..I’m a kid again….standing in a field surrounded by campers and wagons….and everything is right in the world.