The Hiking Grandpa: Bill Andrus spends winters hiking in Arizona
Bill Andrus likes to hike and bike along burrow trails or through cactus in quest of an unexplored Arizona canyon or ravine.
The 67-year-old from Dickinson doesn't fear encounters with an occasional rattlesnake, lizard, tarantula or kit fox. He's gotten in more trouble with patrols guarding the Yuma Proving Grounds or Mexican-American border.
Andrus started making trips to Arizona about 15 years ago. He plans to return after Christmas and will stay through the middle of April. His wife, Shirley, and family members join him for several weeks each season.
"It's the lack of people, the wide open spaces," he said. "There are so many things to see, and it's the climate. Yuma is the sunniest city in the United States. My camper has solar panels for electricity -- matter of fact, I get three TV stations."
Andrus' nine grandchildren call him the Hiking Grandpa because he's the grandpa who takes them on outdoor adventures.
"When he comes to visit, the teacher side of him comes out," daughter Kristi Jerome of Pierre, S.D., said. "He takes the grandkids on hikes and teaches them so many neat things about science. It seems like my kids were always writing stores about their Hiking Grandpa -- he is a big part of their life."
Andrus relies on a GPS and landmarks during his day trips. He seldom sees another human being.
"Every now and then, you'll see somebody on the trail," he said. "It's been pretty safe. There is so much law enforcement down there."
He tries to avoid the Yuma Proving Grounds, a large military installation in La Paz County. Hiking nearby, he sometimes missed the signs. Once, sensors signaled his approach, and a loudspeaker asked why he was in the area.
Another time, he was approached by a military patrol and escorted out of the area.
Still another time, he accidentally entered Mexico. He was driving south until he noticed a sign, "Welcome to Mexico." Explaining his dilemma to authorities, he was permitted to return to the U.S. through a remote checkpoint.
Andrus parks his camper somewhere in Bureau of Land Management land and may drive 5 to 7 miles for water. After scoping out a day trip, he bikes and hikes, sometimes biking 10 to 20 miles and walking 4 to 10 miles. He may travel with a walking stick, water, binoculars, a tripod, spotting scope and a GPS.
Andrus respects the terrain and weather. He knows that burrow trails always lead to a water source and he stays away from ravines after it rains because of flooding.
He has tracked a kit fox with a flashlight and watches tarantulas and lizards scamper around the camper.
Andrus traces his spirit of independence to a childhood growing up on the south side of Dickinson. He remembers sleeping in the basement having a dirt basement and finding snakes in his sock drawers.
Because his dad didn't believe in giving allowances, Andrus started a minnow business that extended from second grade through high school.
"Dad would not give us a dime -- he always said to earn your own way," he said.
He delivered the Minneapolis Tribune, the Bismarck Tribune and the Grit magazine to homes in Dickinson. He remembers meeting the 4 a.m. train to pick up newspaper bundles to deliver to other carriers and fill stands.
"I'd load the papers in a toboggan and delivered them in blizzards -- it didn't matter," he said.
He said the best money maker was selling commercial Spudnuts, earning a nickel every time he sold one.
Andrus attended Dickinson State University while working at M&H Gas from 30 to 50 hours a week. He made sure the classes were in the morning and he studied during shifts until midnight.
"I was not a straight A student," he said.
He married Shirley while in college and they became the parents of three daughters, Kami Thompson of Denver, Kristi Jerome and Kelly Beyer of Fargo.
After graduation, Andrus started teaching mathematics and science at Hagen Junior High School in 1968. He later taught science, coached wrestling and taught mathematics for the adult education program.
"I was at school from 7 a.m. and never left school until 10 p.m., going through the noon hour and weekends with Science Club projects," he said. "I still get a lot of hugs from parents thanking me for what we did."
Andrus taught more than science in the classroom -- he taught honesty and values.
"You tell kids straight up what will happen and don't back down," he said.
Once he warned a student that if he shot a small rubber band again, he'd eat it.
"Guess what happened -- he had to eat it," Andrus said.
In addition to teaching, Bill and Shirley purchased Andrus Resort on Lake Sakakawea. They also operated Andrus Bait and Tackle at Killdeer, Andrus Wholesale Bait and Tackle and Andrus Outdoors in Dickinson.
Thompson remembers her childhood filled with camping and fishing trips.
"We also worked our butts off at the resort," she said. "We'd worked 16-hour days. We did everything. He would not let us sit down and had lists every day of things we needed to do. It was fun for about a week."
Andrus retired from teaching after 18 years in the classroom at the recommendation of a physician friend.
"Watching me running around at the resort, the doctor said, 'Bill you're a Class-A candidate for a heart attack. You've got to slow down,'" Andrus said.
He would put 80 hours a week into teaching, but it's something he never regretted.
Along the way, Bill and Shirley also sold their other properties. They currently own and manage All-Season Storage Co., and plan to construct three more buildings after being issued a building permit.
Thompson said her dad loves being with the grandkids.
"He was able to retire pretty young," she said. "Now he's awesome and all the grandkids adore him."
When her parents visit in Denver or when she takes the children for a visit in Arizona, their grandpa takes them on hiking trips.
"He takes them on scavenger hunts and buries things with GPS clues and metal detectors," Thompson said. "I address my mail to him as Hiking Grandpa. He spends more time with the grandkids than when we were growing up."
Thompson also described her father as an outside person -- one who can never sit at home.
"He's very busy and is helpful to other people," she said.
Shirley was described as the family's stay-at-home mom -- the person who took care of the household and helped manage the businesses. She was out of town and unavailable for comments.
Thompson has no fears when her dad leaves for the desert. She trusts his ability to take care of himself.
Beyer isn't as confident.
"I worry about him and keep him in my prayers, but he's great at sending post cards and sending pictures of all the creatures that he sees on his hikes," she said. "I worry about his safety and being by himself, but he loves to explore."
Beyer's children love being with their grandfather.
"He's amazing with the grandkids," she said. "He's such a teacher. He has a genuine love of nature and he's taught them a respect of all living things -- he sees almost everything as a teachable moment. The kids treasure their time with him and look forward to his hikes, talks and the snacks to keep them engaged."
Andrus goes fishing summers at Lake Sakakawea, but it's the desert trips he loves most. He plans to return to the desert as long as his health allows.
"You're only on earth once," he said. "If I were to die, I tell people to follow the birds."