It’s easy to be the first one up when you’re sleeping in a tent. And when your tent is staked in a national park, it’s a joy. I got up a little before five, and the sky was still the cool blue of pre-sunrise. The dry, pink hills were finally cool and breezy.
I woke the team, and we packed up the tent and van in a jiffy. We wandered out onto the previously sun-baked trails in the cool of the morning with bags of trail mix in our hands. Without the powerful overhead sun, the badlands felt like a precarious pink playground to climb.
They climbed on ledges, scrambled up rocky trails, and gaped at stomach dropping overlooks. I tried to be cool. But there is something about rocky ledges that makes little boys feel like daredevils, and makes moms feel shout-y. We tried to strike a balance. “Please don’t fall to your death! But I love you! Have fun! STOP that, have you lost your mind?“ You get it. It was the best, most dangerous, rocky desert playground. After scaling an overlook, Rowan would shout, “We completed the challenge! What’s next?”
What was next was the heat of the day, so we trundled everyone into the van and drove to Mount Rushmore. Now, from the start, I would like to say that I was skeptical. Honestly, what’s there to see? Faces in a rock? But here’s the thing. Somewhere along the way, Caleb has turned into a dad, and at Badlands he bought a “U.S. National Parks Passport” book that has a place for a stamp and a sticker from each national park. Once we had the passport book, it just felt like if another national park was so close, we had to do it. There’s something about the satisfaction of checking things off a list.
The line to get a parking spot wrapped around the mountain. After we had paid to park and unloaded all the kids in a fume-filled parking garage, we woke Leo up and him into our teal alpine hiking backpack. He hates it. And he hates being woken up. Even fruit snacks were a non-starter.
Bearing all this in mind, please picture us doggedly trooping up four flights of stairs to see Guzman Borglem’s* famous monument: the sun in our eyes, our throats choked with exhaust, the children fighting, and Leo furiously screaming.
*I do not know the sculptor’s name. But this is probably pretty close.
Yup. There they were. Four guys carved into stone. Leo came around a little and was willing to point and say, “Guys! Guys!” at the four presidents. Who I can now name from memory, and possibly in order: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, Lincoln. Check.
Passport stamped, we flew down the hill into the Black Hills National Forest. And now we pass into the portion of the trip that is so painful because everything is so beautiful and interesting and once-in-a-lifetime. We have to get across the country, but we also have to see EVERYTHING that is completely magical along the way. Here’s how it goes:
Caleb: Let’s get to Buffalo tonight so we can sleep.
Rebecca: Yes, my one true love, let’s absolutely do that.
Caleb: (he’s quiet, so this is him just riding along looking at the scenery.)
Rebecca: HELP! I CAN’T BREATHE! LOOK AT THAT LAKE! I HAVE LITERALLY NEVER SEEN SUCH CLEAR, TEAL-BLUE WATER IN MY LIFE! WE HAVE TO STOP! YOU ARE SO HANDSOME!
Caleb: Unbelievable. Gorgeous. If we stop again we won’t get to Buffalo until 3am.
The Black Hills National Forest looks like a vacation postcard from the 1950’s. The blacks and greens look like the colors in an episode of the Andy Griffith Show (the color episodes). The evergreen trees are hunter green and the rocks are black and orange. We felt like we were on an american vacation from a different era.
By the time we reached Deadwood, however, we all needed a break, so we wandered onto mainstreet to see a gun fight. It was great, overheated actors with really loud guns. I missed all the action because Leo requested I cover his ears and his eyes. But afterwards, Gus asked me casually, “The gun shooting was fun. Did that happen in real life, or no?”
Back in the van, each child with his own interpretation of what actually just happened, we crossed from South Dakota into Wyoming. We loved South Dakota for it’s yellow hills, but in Wyoming, those hills all turn green and they get bigger. Wyoming looks like a cowboy with his feet up and his hat tipped low: all casual gorgousness. It’s like Wyoming isn’t even trying, because it knows it’s green hills and wide plains are just right, whether or not you notice, ma’am.
Admiring the bigger and bigger green hills as the sun began to set, we came over the final hill and looked down on Buffalo. It is nestled at the foot of a mountain range. The mountains looked nice sized Wyoming hills turned big, but then behind the mountains, we saw huge dark shadows in the sky. At home in Tennessee, those dark shadows are always clouds. We have never seen real mountains before.
I gasped, and Caleb whispered, “The Rocky Mountains”. We looked in awe at the snow capped monsters sitting in darkness before us; around them swirled their own foreboding cloud system. We have both waited our whole lives to see mountains like this and we had no idea they were waiting for us so soon and so close. It’s got to be hard for mountains to sneak up on people, but we were surprised and dumbstruck by those giants of rock and stone.