From the Dallas Morning News, July 24, 2002. Section Front/Texas Living

 

Author gets a lot of mileage out of his research

 

Bob Schaller’s family life imitates art in his RV mystery series

 

By JEAN NASH JOHNSON

Staff Writer

 

Bob Schaller and his 8-year-old son, Garrett, arrived in Dallas to midsummer in their 33-foot Winnebago Adventurer to put down temporary stakes at the Dallas West RV Park, readying for a new adventure for the Arlington family.

 

The Arlingtons are the fictional characters in Mr. Schaller’s X-Country Adventures, a preteen book series about a family that travels across America in its RV, solving mysteries as it goes. This time the Schallers are getting ready to roll for next year’s Return to Texas, the sequel to Treasure in Texas (Baker Books, $5.99).

 

The Arlingtons’ exploits are actually the SchallersMr Schaller and his son Garrett, have been providing the plots for the Arlingtons through their real-life explorations. Like modern-day explorers, they have seen much of the West and Southwest, Massachusetts and Florida. Eventually, they’ll hit all 50 states, Mr. Schaller says.

 

The former Colorado newspaper sportswriter fell into the book idea after Garrett was born. He took one look at his baby boy and knew things had to change, he says. For one, his 60-hour workweeks.

 

“I was working all the time, and I knew I didn’t want to miss his childhood,” he says.

 

The family purchased a used 24-foot RV and began taking weekend trips to remote places in Colorado, and later mini-vacations around the West. Mr. Schaller would lug his Radio Shack TRS-80 computer on the brief getaways under the pretense of getting work done. But the family time always made him forget about the job.

 

Before he knew it, he was telling Garrett bedtime stories that mixed their adventures and the region’s history.

 

One night during a visit to Mount Rushmore, the tale grew wilder and more fantastic. He began taking note and realized he was onto something.

 

“When our generation was in school, geography mattered,” he says. “Children love adventures stories and need to learn more U.S. history an geography, and this was a clever way to give them both.”

 

By the time Garrett was 2, Mr. Schaller had a plan.

 

With careful budgeting and the money he had in savings, he could become a free-lance writer and work on the book series. The family could travel during the summer and research the books.

 

“I went in and told my boss I was thinking about quitting, and he asked me to take some time and think about it,” he says. “I didn’t need any time. It’s been the best decision of my life – to be able to watch (Garrett) grow and learn and be there for him.”

 

The Schallers became modern-day explorers on the road with all the conveniences. Their current state-of-the-art RV, an endorsement deal Mr. Schaller’s agent landed him with RVIA, has a slide-out room that expands the living space, a computer workstation, full bath, kitchen microwave and refrigerator/freezer.

 

They took in Montana and South Dakota one summer and researched the first two books of the series.

 

In the following summers, they covered Custer’s home outside Garden City, Kan.; Nebraska’s Chimney Rock, a landmark along the California Gold Rush trail; the re-enactment of an old-fashioned cattle drive; and the Oregon, California and Mormon trials.

 

Garrett will probably be 18 by the time they cover all 50 states, and that’s OK with him. He constantly reminds his dad that this is a collaborative effort. On a visit to Mount Rushmore a few years ago, Garrett and his dad talked about how it didn’t even seem right to have Thomas Jefferson’s head atop the monument because the president had been pro-slavery.

 

“We decided that better representatives of what America stood for would be Crazy Horse, Teddy Roosevelt, Sitting Bull and George Washington,” Garrett says.

 

It also was Garrett who corrected his dad during a visit to a Lewis and Clark museum in Great Falls, Mont. “We were looking at this painting and he said, ‘Look at the buffalo,’ and I told him, ‘Dad, that’s a bison,” Garrett says, laughing.

 

Mr. Schaller is pleased that he is instilling in Garrett a sense of country.

 

“Our kids take so much for granted about this land, and we are constantly finding out that there’s more to learn about and explore,” he says. “And it’s so easy now to get on the road.”

 

It takes only a little preparation. He lets the boys decide many of their destinations. Garrett says they first turn to the atlas to choose a location, and the rest is easy.

 

“We get on the Internet and we type in a state to find out history stuff and how much it will cost (for an RV hookup). Then we decide where we want to stop along the way. For Texas, we printed out 47 pages,” Garrett says.

 

Each family thrill leads to a mystery for the Arlington siblings – Ashley, the sister, who is a jock, and Adam, the computer nerd.

 

Mr. Schaller was inspired by the Hardy Boys series he read as a boy and his sister’s Nancy Drew books, which he sometimes sneakily peeked at.

 

After he laid out a formula for his own work, stories were easy to organize. Each of the books has a Fun Fact File, which is a history lesson at a glance. There are maps, Web sites and pertinent background on the region.

 

The stories for readers 10 and up are relevant, suspenseful and fresh. In Message in Montana, Ashley and Adam set out to find a cast-iron ampersand that Lewis supposedly sent to Clark before his death. In Crime in a Colorado Cave, the pair searches for a missing set of crystal stalactites from the Cave of Winds.

 

In Treasure in Texas, Adam purchases a holster form a lea market and finds an old letter inside. The teens try to unravel the mystery behind it as they explore the Alamo and Goliad, check out the Battleship Jacinto and go searching for a six-shooter.

Garret says he’s been to Texas four times. His favorite spots are Six Flags and the Alamo. He is struck by the size of the Lone Star State. On the back cover of the Texas book, a quote from the Arlington sibling could be attributed to Garrett: “It’s almost like Texas is another country all to itself.”

 

He and his dad are somewhat mum about Return to Texas, the sequel they are in North Texas to develop. You get the feeling that these books are a write-as-we-go project.

 

Don’t be surprised if the second effort takes a more modern approach. Garrett and his dad are both fascinated by their DART bus and rail experience.

 

“Garrett had never been on a city bus,” Mr. Schaller says, pondering the possibilities.