The Great American Road Trip: Part One — The Journey West

Mississippi River, August 2011

It started in 2001, The Major read a book by Ian Frazier called  On The Rez.  The wildness of South Dakota piqued his interest.

Although the book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, rested on our bookshelf for years, it went unread.  Then in May 2011, The Major watched the HBO version of the book.  Running Girl — always game for adventure — was excited by The Major’s descriptions of The Badlands and the Black Hills.  When he proposed a trip to the Mount Rushmore State, she agreed immediately .

A few clicks later, the South Dakota Vacation Guide was on its way to Kay Nou.  The trip began to take shape.

Nine or ten days in the car stopping off at American sites of great natural beauty and historical wonder.  With three kids.

Truth was, we acutely felt the possibility that this would be the last occasion to cram family memories into the teenagers’ heads.  They didn’t want to go.  We forced them.  Our hope was that they would come to love the vastness and diversity of their country.

The results were surprising to us all.

Day One: Western New York to Chicago.

The excitement was palpable nonexistent on the faces of Subway Dude and The Fashionista.  Island Boy was merely puzzled.  We spent nine hours driving west.  Lunch was homemade sandwiches at a rest stop near Sandusky, Ohio.

We logged in five states this day: NY, PA, OH, IN and IL.  We continually quizzed the kids as to which state they were in at the moment.

Upon arrival in Chicagoland, we gained an hour as we crossed into the Central Time Zone.  Amazingly, Running Girl somehow managed to avoid all Friday evening rush-hour traffic with her deft driving skills.  She is a wonder.

Arriving at a family-favorite restaurant, Joe’s Crab Shack, at 6:30 produced a further miracle: an open table with no waiting.  We had fun sharing crabs and other delights.

While Mom and Dad had fun...

...the teenagers tried to feign disappointment.

A long discussion on cicadas took place.  Our kids were unfamiliar with these insects making loud noises in the hot, Illinois evening air.  RG and TM (who each grew up in more humid climes) knew all about these critters.  A specimen was produced — first a picture on Google, then a live one on the ground.  Wonders never cease.

The hotel arrangement at Staybridge Suites (another family favorite) was optimal: SD and TF had their own room with a queen bed each.  Mama and Papa had another bedroom with a king bed, and SD was on his own on the pullout sofa bed in the common room.  No one messed with each other.

After Island Boy was asleep, his parents went for a walk of about a mile or so around the grounds.  “Are we crazy to attempt this trip?” we asked each other.  Regardless, we were committed to the journey.

Despite our initial exhaustion, a great start to the trip.

Day Two: Chicago to Sioux Falls

We lit out early.  Within an hour or so, we had crossed into Wisconsin.  Some state borders are significant in that the scenery seems to change instantly.  This was the case in this instance as the rolling prairies of Illinois surrendered to the wooded expanses and dairy farmlands of the Badger State.

Somewhere south of Madison, a bald eagle swooped down beside our car making a dive for prey.  Even a blasé 17-year old was known to exclaim that this was a cool sight.

We had planned to make a rest stop at Madison and to explore the state capital.  We have heard nothing but good things about this city, and wanted to get a sense of the place.  Instead, we hit the only rain of the trip and sped through the capital region.

It suddenly dawned on The Major, that the thing to do was to stop for cheese.  When in Wisconsin…

We flew by The Mouse House Cheese Shop to The Major’s chagrin over his lapse in vigilance.  Silly Major, you’re in WI — there are cheese shops at every exit.  Ehlenbach’s Cheese Chalet did us just fine.  After a needed road-rest, we munched cubes of sharp cheddar, smoked Gouda and a Portobello mushroom variety.

We were going to buy him one of these hats. Then we saw the price tag.

Can we please get back to playing tag now?

At La Crosse, we crossed the mighty Mississippi.  After entering Minnesota, we stopped at the banks of the river for an impromptu game of tag — all to IB’s substantial delight.  The Major discovered that he can no longer outrun Subway Dude  — even with SD in crappy sandals.  Gracefully surrender the things of youth.

Lunch was in the small town of St. Joseph, MN.  Eschewing the chain restaurant, we chose to support the local establishment, Del’s Café.

What a mistake!  It was awful.  And the entrance of our biracial family caused quite a stir among the locals.  Particularly among a group of (partially toothless) town elders engaged in a game of dice at a table by the door.  They are probably still talking about us.  The good thing is that they were friendly.

Popping gum into our mouths to erase the taste of the poor lunch, we continued westward.  At a rest stop with a playground, we broke out the football from the back of the vehicle.  While IB and TF climbed and slid, the rest of us played catch.  In an effort to impress his girlfriend of 21 years, The Major caught a pass behind his back.  RG clapped in delight.  Never tiring of the spotlight, your Major took the next pass in a similar manner.

Gentle readers, can you hear the sound of the snapping of the fourth digit of TM’s right hand?  This was accompanied by his hopping around in pain.  The result: not a fracture.  But, it remained a lovely shade of aubergine for the remainder of the week.  TM took to eating Ibuprofen like M&Ms.  He still carries a vivid reminder of this event while typing this post.

RG made a great find — a town called Blue Earth, Minnesota (what a great name!) had a 60-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant.  We were so there.  The giant was wrapped in a tee shirt promoting the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life.”  We’re still trying to figure out how they dressed the giant.

The smelly Dairy Queen next to the statue made a tidy profit from our family on this hot MN day.  TM’s mud pie Blizzard is highly recommended. IB was still mourning the loss of his newest best friend — a little boy named Wyatt who bonded instantly with our hero, and gamely shared his trucks at the feet of the giant.

This was our first visit to Minnesota.  We traveled all the way across the Gopher State.  We felt as though we had found real America.  It was beautiful.  We also loved the fact that we encountered wind farms across the entirely of the state.  We saw literally thousands of spinning turbines, as well as several dozen more in various stages of construction.  Way to go, Minn.

Our book on audio — “No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy wound to its exciting conclusion as we neared the state line.  We highly recommend this cowboy thriller for road trips.  But — make sure the kids aren’t listening.

Just prior to leaving the state, we took a short detour down the Main Street of Luverne, MN.  TM had avidly watched Ken Burns’ series, The War, a few months earlier.  Luverne was one of the four American towns featured in this WWII documentary.  Although we knew no one who lived there, The Major felt that he knew the town.

We held an impromptu car celebration upon entering South Dakota (our 4th state of the day for those of you keeping score).  The city of Sioux Falls was just minutes away.

Check-in (Staybridge Suites again), dinner at Chili’s, and then a trip to Falls Park — the centerpiece of Sioux Falls.  When the sun went down, they illuminated the falls (which are spectacular in any light).  We suddenly wondered, “Where’s the laser show we were promised?” and “Why are all of those folks sitting on the hill behind us?”

Turns out that the laser show was taking place on the wall of an old grist mill on the banks of the Big Sioux River.  We moved back to view it, but were disappointed with the graphics.  SD accurately stated that he could devise a better presentation on his laptop.

Island Boy was winding down, so we called it a day.  Back at the Suites, SD and TF shared the common room, which featured a queen bed and fold-out couch.  Rather than make IB sleep on the floor (the original plan), The Major opened his heart and invited the Caribbean Prince to share our bed — the size of an adolescent putting green.

What could go wrong?

— The Major & Running Girl

To continue reading about our journey, click here.

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