Frank Andrews: Hitting the Road with ALS

by Richard Senti on Fri, 2013-03-01 09:00

Adventurer and longtime ALS survivor Frank Andrews, and his family, have figured out how to keep taking extended road trips and going tent camping

Article Highlights:
  • The article looks at how Frank Andrews, who has ALS, goes on monthlong camping trips with his family.
  • With several key pieces of accessibility equipment, he’s able to “rough it” on the road.
  • Andrews offers tips on planning a successful road trip.

Let’s face it. Frank Andrews is a trooper. The former civil engineer and avid scuba diver from Katy, Texas, has always loved the outdoors, going way back to his Eagle Scout days, growing up in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. But in 2002, his world was turned upside down with a diagnosis of ALS.

After a period of realization with his family, after the ground had settled somewhat and he had time to clear his head, the determined outdoorsman called up his buddies and said, “Hey, let’s go diving!” And so, with lots of help from his friends, he continued the sport for another six years.

If you’re a regular reader of ALSN, you may remember this story a few years back; we wrote about Andrews' Caribbean underwater adventures in No Fear (ALSN, October, 2007). In this article, we’ll catch up with this active guy to see how he’s doing.

Yes, his disease is progressing. He now uses a power chair for his mobility, and in 2009 he started using a BiPAP breathing device 24 hours a day. So, his scuba diving days are now a thing of the past. But is he slowing down? Does a 58-day, 8,000-mile, 10-state camping trip through the West sound like he’s losing steam? We didn’t think so, either. And that was only his most recent journey; he and his family have been doing these marathon road trips for the past five summers.

How many people do you know who have spent time in more than 30 national parks in five years? The Andrews family has trekked northwest to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks in Montana; northeast to New York and Niagara Falls; southeast to the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Parkway; and their most recent jaunt, a grand tour of the West, including the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Big Sur, Yosemite and the Colorado Rockies, among numerous other stops.

We asked Andrews to share some of his camping knowledge with our readers, to show that it is possible to hit the road with ALS. He will be the first to tell you that satisfying his travel lust would not be possible without the two strong women in his life, Melanie and Leah, his wife and teenage daughter. Though he’s the primary architect of their road trips, the physical duties — the driving, setting up camp, the cooking — fall to them. Fortunately, they too are troopers.

“We’re a fairly free-spirited and adventurous group,” Andrews says.

The key to their successful trips, he says, is careful planning well in advance. But he warns not to be a slave to your itinerary once you’re on the road.

“The planning of a trip is part of the enjoyment for me. We’ll have a basic idea of what part of the country we want to see, so three or four months before we leave, I’ll get on the computer and pull up maps and websites, and start checking out national parks and other points of interest along the way. I’ll rough out a logical route we can follow. But once we take off, we don’t necessarily hold to it; we might come across some place we like and want to spend extra time there. Or someone we meet along the way might tell us about a place they really enjoyed.”

In other words, map out your general direction, but keep an open mind.

You might expect the Andrewses to travel in a motorhome. Nope. They are tent campers, pulling a small utility trailer with their Ford E-250 van. Although they used to travel in a Dodge Caravan, in 2011 they traded up to the full-size conversion van.

“Love the extra room,” says Andrews, “but hate the gas mileage.” (It gets around 12 miles per gallon.)

The van is equipped with a Braun UVL side-entry lift. A platform slides out from underneath the van, then elevates Andrews and his chair to the van’s interior. He then maneuvers into the front-row passenger space where the seat has been removed. Special tie-downs have been installed to cinch his power chair in place.

How They Do It: Snapshots from the Traveling Andrewses

  • Family portrait at the Grand Canyon: Along with border collie Scout, the family dog, Frank Andrews is joined at the North Rim last July by daughter Leah, left, and wife Melanie on their recent tour of the West.

  • Leah, Melanie and Frank in Glacier National Park: The travelers along a Montana river in 2008, before Frank started using his BiPAP full time.

  • The Andrews’ vagabonding rig: A Ford E-250 full-size conversion van pulling their customized 4-by-6-foot utility trailer. Shown below the van’s side entry doors is the power UVL (under vehicle lift) that slides out from under the floor to elevate Andrews and his power chair into and out of the van.

  • How Frank sleeps in a tent: The Gigatent dome tent was the biggest they could find, with a 12-by-18-foot footprint and an 85-inch interior height. They place the Cabela queen-size air bed (with folding steel frame) near the center of the tent with space beside it to position Frank’s power chair. Two free-standing, telescoping vertical posts support a crossbeam rail which spans the bed and chair space. The rail supports a lateral-sliding power lift (shown above, right) that elevates him from chair to bed and back.

  • On the beach near Malibu: Frank watches swimmers in the surf from the edge of the beach at Malibu State Park. He says it’s often hard to find solid footing for his chair near a beach, so this situation was ideal.

  • Lunchtime at the ol’ chuck wagon: Meals on the road are a snap with their customized utility trailer’s easily accessible kitchen box with the drop-down table. The easy-up umbrella provides a nice shaded area.

  • Naptime at the campsite: With his feet elevated just right, Frank snoozes at a campsite. His Quantum 6000 EZ mid-wheel-drive power chair offers infinitely variable sitting positions. The chair also sports a small trunk to carry his BiPAP battery.

  • One chilly Montana morning: Frank agrees that Glacier National Park is appropriately named; he woke up one morning with icicles in his BiPAP!

  • Baking treats on the campfire: The Andrews family loves their Dutch oven rig — a tripod and chain that suspends a cast-iron pot with a heavy, tight-fitting lid over the fire (coals also are placed on top of the lid, as shown here). A favorite dessert from this vessel is peach cobbler.

  • On the edge of Zion: Frank and wife Melanie in 2008 at Zion National Park in southern Utah. Says Frank: “I’m just so fortunate to have a wife who loves to travel as much as I do and who also has a sense of adventure.”

< >


Andrews' van is kept surprisingly clear of clutter because of their well-organized 4-by-6-foot utility trailer.

“We bought the basic trailer, and then customized it to fit our needs,” he says. “We added what we call saddlebags or chuck wagon boxes on the side, with a drop-down table for easy access to our food and cooking gear. Even when we’re on the road between campgrounds, we can pull over anywhere, open up the chuck wagon and have a picnic without much trouble.” 

In addition to their traveling kitchen, the trailer hauls their tent and bed, their luggage and Andrews' extra medical devices.

How in the world is someone in a nearly 300-pound power wheelchair (Andrews uses a Pride Mobility Quantum 6000 with mid-wheel drive) able to sleep in a standard recreational tent?

“The tent is the biggest one we could find,” says Andrews. “It’s large enough to allow our fold-out, queen-size camping cot to be in the middle, and there’s still room for me to position my chair next to it.”

Once the air mattress is inflated over the bed frame, Melanie and Leah assemble a freestanding Easytrack power lift system, consisting of two telescoping vertical posts that support a crossbeam rail above the bed and wheelchair. The battery-powered Voyager lift hangs from the rail and lifts Andrews in a temporary sling, from his chair and into the bed.

Whenever possible, Andrews and his family find campsites with electrical outlets right at the campsites, which make recharging his power chair and BiPAP battery a simple matter. But because the independent-minded Andrews clan often shuns reservations, they occasionally end up without any electricity at all. Not to worry, Andrews says. They simply fire up their trusty portable Honda generator and let the recharging begin. He may be free-spirited, but he’s not imprudent: having backups of all important equipment is absolutely imperative, says Andrews. Needless to say, he always travels with a backup BiPAP and backup batteries.

Andrews is impressed with the quality of people they’ve encountered in their travels. “We’ve met a lot of nice people along the way, and they’re always willing to help you out if you’re in need,” he says. “I’ve gotten my wheelchair stuck in the dirt a few times, and up in northern Montana, after a really cold night in a very isolated campground, our car battery was dead, and without hesitation, people have pitched in to help us out. I have fond memories of sitting around the campfire, sharing homemade cobbler with friends we’ve made along the way.”

Have the Andrewses set their sights on their next big trip? Nothing’s set in stone yet, but Andrews' wanderlust eye keeps glancing up toward the Alaskan Highway. That’s the historic stretch of road — about 1,400 miles — built during World War II to connect the contiguous U.S. to Alaska through Canada’s British Columbia and the Yukon.

“I’ve researched it some,” says Andrews. “It was originally a pretty rough road, but it’s all paved now, with campgrounds and facilities every 40 or 50 miles, so it’s not as remote as it used to be. It would still be quite an adventure.”

Andrews concludes: “I’m just so fortunate to have a wife who loves to travel as much as I do and who also has a sense of adventure. She puts up with a lot,” he chuckles. “I’m always saying, ‘That looks interesting; let’s take that detour.’ Or, ‘I think we can make it a little farther. Let’s go.’”

Richard Senti
Your rating: None Average: 4.8 (15 votes)
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy