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Read about when they became engaged

On the road in a sheep wagon with an awesome assignment:

"Interview Dale Evans"

Ever since I spotted my first Wyoming sheep wagon, I've wanted to camp out in one. I imagine myself hidden under the covers watching the moon through the small window. The stove crackles and spits, the light from the kerosene lamp flickers across the canvas ceiling.

For some reason, herding bleating sheep isn't part of my fantasy, but the rest of my dream is as clear as a mountain stream.

So, when my friend Lynn Arambel of Sheridan, Wyoming, who turns abandoned sheep wagons into designer bedrooms, and her 9-year-old daughter Henley, invited me to accompany them to California--they were hauling a sheep wagon to a client--I was interested.

I had to go to California anyway. Western movie star and Roy Roger's leading lady, the beautiful Dale Evans, had agreed to meet with me to discuss the character of the old-time cowgirl.

Lynn promised me we could camp out in the wagon every night. We didn't have a horse, but Lynn's Ford 4x4 truck would facilitate our journey. The wagon was equipped with a working wood stove, an antique kerosene lantern, dishes, and a bed with a down comforter and Ralph Lauren pillows.

At the start of our trip in Salt Lake City, I tossed my sleeping bag into the back of the wagon and made some comment about looking forward to sleeping there. Henley, the 9-year old, turned to me with her hands on her hips and said, "You two can sleep in the wagon, but I'm staying in hotels and ordering room service."

Then she jumped in the truck onto her perch in the back cab and turned on the Spice Girl song, "Tell me what you want, what you really want..."--loudly. A group of people waiting at a bus stop stared in disbelief as we left town, heading for the interstate.

After dark, and a few greasy cheeseburgers, Lynn, Henley and I chatted about Dale Evans. Henley wanted to know who she was. Lynn, like other children of the fifties, remembers identifying with Evans' independent Western character.

I was surprised to learn that Dale Evans, after returning from the hospital with her first child with Roy, a Down's syndrome baby, wrote the famous song, "Happy Trails."

For the next few days we zigzagged. Lynn hadn't quite finished her wagon, so when she saw a branchy tree on the side of the road, she stopped and jumped out with her clippers, excited to have found the perfect drawer pulls. We also found an old shaving mirror and early Western books for the wagon in an antique shop. We took back roads through small towns, and we even had a picnic inside the sheep wagon in the parking lot of a supermarket.

People approached us constantly, curious about the wagon and what we were doing.

As a child, Lynn had played in a sheep wagon, and as a young adult, she lived in a wagon in Wilson, Wyoming. She enjoyed the simplicity of the space, showering at her friend's next door and stoking the fire when the temperature dropped. "I loved it," she said. "I didn't have much, but I couldn't have much. Before my life is over, I'll do it again."

Obviously, Henley just doesn't relate. "I'm a city girl," she told me, even though she lives on a ranch, wears yellow boots, and takes care of chickens and lambs at 5:00 in the morning before school. "I just want to go to Las Vegas." So, with the Spice Girls blaring, we pulled into Caesar's Palace with the wagon and paid for valet parking. We'd be there for the night and have room service in the morning before hitting the road.

The following day was my meeting with Dale Evans at the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, California. Since we had a little time before Dale arrived, Lynn, Henley and I perused the museum, a wonderful three-dimensional family scrapbook. Of course, there were Trigger and Buttermilk and there were loads of black and white photos, Roy and Dale's Nudie outfits, and other family memorabilia. One corner of the museum honors the three children that Roy and Dale lost. Robin Elizabeth Rogers was born with Down's syndrome and died just before her second birthday. Deborah Lee Rogers, who was adopted, was killed in a bus accident at age 12, and John David Rogers, another adopted child, died in the service. Not all of Roy's and Dale's trails, I was learning, were happy ones.

Just after noon, Dale arrived, wearing a velvet dress. She and her assistant and daughter Cheryl and I went out for fish and chips. Dale is 85, beautiful, with lovely white hair, and is still a pistol. She sang and shared stories about her life with such enthusiasm.

"I loved cowboys," she told me. "I used to say that when I grew up, I was going to marry Tom Mix, whom I used to watch at the Saturday afternoon picture show. He was my hero."

She also admired cowgirls in the early pictures. "I liked Ruth Roland. She was always getting tied to the railroad tracks, but she came out of it. She was very brave, and I thought I'd like to be like her."

She was born in Uvalde, Texas, but grew up in Arkansas. She loved to ride ponies and dreamed of becoming a singer. She chatted about the evolution of her career from a nightclub singer and radio personality on WBBN in Chicago to Hollywood, where she was cast in her first movie with Roy Rogers, The Cowboy and the Senorita, 1942.

"When I first met Roy, I thought he was rather shy--quite good looking, but rather shy." But it didn't take long for the on-screen romance to flourish in real life.

"In the fall of 1947, we were booked at the rodeo in Chicago," Dale said. "We were on our horses in the chutes, waiting to be introduced to the audience, when Roy said, Dale, what are you doing New Year's Eve?' New Year's Eve was still months away. I had no plans. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box. Inside it was a gold ring set with a ruby. He put the ring on my finger and said, Well then, why don't we get married?'"

Then Trigger reared up, and Roy Rogers galloped into the arena. Dale followed. "Before lifting the microphone to sing the national anthem, I turned to look at Roy. He looked back at me, beaming with delight. The din of cheers made it impossible to speak. I formed the word Yes' with my lips. He nodded, and we began to sing."

Today, Dale, a legendary Western star, best-selling author, and wonderful mother, is still Roy Roger's companion and full of fire. She's a devout Christian, the host of her own television talk show, and she's working on a new book about surviving her stroke.

I found her energy overwhelming and inspiring, just as many young children did when they watched her on television.

"What I always hoped children learned from me and the cowgirls I played was bravery and to be themselves--not to try to be something they're not. The cowgirl's independent character suited me. I was a Texan, and I was independent."

That night, Lynn, Henley, and I slept in the sheep wagon in the parking lot of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum. We read each other stories under the kerosene lamp and pretended we were out on the range. I think even Henley would agree it was the best night's sleep on the road. In the morning, Lynn stoked up the stove, and we had coffee and hot chocolate.

Sadly, I had to leave just before the wagon reached its final destination, but I was delighted to find out later that the buyer was tickled with his new Western hideout. When the new owner walked in, a sea breeze blew through the window and, of course, "Happy Trails" played in the background.

By A Cowboy & Indian Fan


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