My 9 year old son & I finally took a family vacation back in August. I’m hoping he’ll remember this trip, unlike some of the other adventures we’ve been on. We were gone a week, put 3330 miles on my car & had a pretty awesome time. I left my work phone at home; I couldn’t tell you the last time I was fully unplugged from a job. I can tell you the last time I took a vacation that wasn’t to spend time family: 1998, when I took a week long school trip to Mexico over spring break. Maybe I’ll actually take an adult vacation one of these days.
- The dog went to my friend for the week.
- I obtained a citizens band radio, antenna, & a copy of the same CB slang dictionary I had as a child.
- I obtained 2 disposable color cameras for my son, & 1 disposable black & white camera for me. The photos in this post are from that camera, except for the ones at the end which are from my smartphone.
- I made a bunch of sandwiches & filled a cooler with those & water bottles. Eating on the road is expensive. Also plenty of snacks.
- Tent, sleeping bags, changes of clothes
- A flask of bourbon
Day 1 — Chicago & Westward
I got up a bit after 5, loaded the car, & woke up the kid about 10 minutes before 6. He got dressed, used the bathroom, & we were on the road by 6:05am. Driving from Cleveland to Chicago is expensive. A tank of gas & $20+ in tolls later & we arrived at the Soldier Field parking garage ($22 base rate) to visit The Field Museum of Natural History ($36). Abraham & I enjoyed the large collection of meteorites & looking at a full Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil, but both of us felt a great presence of colonialism, as much of the museum consists of artifacts “discovered” & transported from their point of origin. En route to Chicago, my son got on the CB as “Kung Fu Kat” & requested a traffic report using the slang dictionary. It was hilarious.
Back on the road & headed toward Wisconsin. Abraham was just happy to visit a bunch of States he’d never been in before, but I was eager to get to some sort of Wisconsin Cheese House™ so I could obtain, if I was lucky, some New Glarus Brewery Wisconsin Belgian Red ale, my favorite beer of all time. We stopped at the Mousehouse Cheesehaus & my dream came true. I purchased the 3 bottles they had left in stock & kept them in the cooler for the next 6 days.
Right after Abraham finished one of my sandwiches, we got pulled over. We got out of a ticket, I think, because my son had dried mustard all over his face & was cute & chatty with her about going to South Dakota. A few hours later (15 hours after leaving Cleveland) we arrived the Jackson, MN KOA, where an outdoor karaoke night was in full swing. This day wasn’t bad, I just knew it was going to be long & nutty — it did not disappoint. We passed out.
Day 2 — Tourist Trapped & Okay With It
& were up at 6 & back on the road to South Dakota. South Dakota is a magical land where the speed limit is 80mph. Don’t go over the speed limit or you’ll get pulled over. I got a warning here as well; the trooper said since the speed limit is 80, they don’t give any leeway. It was really cool how crossing the Missouri river resulted in an immediate change in the landscape as well as an immediate presence of billboards & their siren songs for all the various tourist traps that we ended up visiting. This included:
The Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD.
This appears to be a city hall covered in corn cobs & shucks.
The Badlands Petrified Gardens in Kadoka, SD
We stopped here on a whim — I love their old school signage. Epitome of a middle-of-nowhere tourist trap, but we received some amazing intel on how to spend our 2 days in the area from the old couple running the place. If it weren’t for them I might have skipped the Badlands or Devil’s Tower, and that would have been a huge mistake.
Some Prairie Dog Place That’s Not on the Map
My prior experience with prairie dogs was an old-ass video game shooter. They are basically blonde groundhogs. We stopped here so that my son could take a few pictures.
I had no idea this was so close to Mount Rushmore, or I would have put it on the list in the first place. Thankfully the folks at the Badlands Petrified Gardens encouraged us to take the scenic route. After so much prairie, driving over a hill into a completely different landscape was a moment of unexpected awe. We’d been through an awful lot of driving and seen an awful lot of stuff, but this is when Abraham said “Dad, this trip just went to the next level!” The Badlands are not a place I would want to be lost and without water.
Wall Drug in Wall, SD
If you took all the signs for Wall Drug scattered across South Dakota, and assembled them, you might end up with enough to make another Wall Drug. Wall Drug is huge, so imagine how many signs we saw? There’s no real reason to stop here, other than to say that you stopped there.
We were worn out by the time we stopped here. All there really is to do here is the photo op & it was nearly impossible to get a good picture out of either of us do to worn-out-ness. The most interesting part was learning that the site is also known as Six Grandfathers & is sacred to the Lakota Sioux. They are not pleased with the guys carved into it.
We spent a great two nights here, definitely recommend it as a spot to camp if you’re in the area.
We stopped into to this pizza shack for dinner, it was full of bikers from the Sturgis Rally. One of those spots where people write notes on $1 bills and staple them to the wall. Notable only because the table we sat at had a $1 from someone from my hometown.
Day 3 — Devil’s Tower, WY & A Hail Storm From Hell
Abraham somehow knew that Devil’s Tower was out this way & he talked me into the 3 hour round-trip drive to see it. I was about driven-out by this point, but I’m glad I took his advice. It was an amazing piece of geology & unfortunate that the name is a mistranslation. This site is like the Vatican for the Lakota Sioux & 22 (?) other indigenous folks. It’s really called Big Bear Lodge (or something to that effect, the word for bear & the word for evil spirit apparently sound similar if you’re not paying good attention). We spent most of the morning here & got back to camp in the early afternoon. We’d mainly been eating out of packed food from a cooler, but went to a restaurant nearby for dinner.
As we left, a hail storm hit the area. This was something very different from every other hail storm I’d experienced. I thought it was going to crack the windows on our car. It ended up leaving about 110 dents & doing $1500 worth of damage to the vehicle.
We arrived back at camp & my awesome tent had withstood the storm with aplomb. We hurried inside & it grew dark and stormed all night long. I’ve never experienced a storm of this ferocity. My son slept like a log through the whole thing, but I don’t know how. I felt like we were inside the thunder. It inspired this poem. I’ll never forget it.
We drove all day. South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri. Camped in Missouri and had some of the best southern food I’ve had at the Tin Kitchen in Weston, MO. Took our first showers in 4 days in the nicest showers I’ve ever seen in a state park. Happy Centennial Missouri State Parks!
Day 5 — Saint Louis Pizza & New Harmonie State Park
We went to the arch, of course, but the real reason we hit St. Louis was so I could have a St. Louis-style pizza, which is the archetype of pizza. The quintessence of pizza remains Pizza King, but as for its progenitors: the mother is clearly St. Louis & the father likely Chicago. It was about 95° & 90% humidity, so we headed over to Indiana, where, if not any cooler, was at least shadier. New Harmonie State Park reminded me very much of Whitewater State Park, where I spent much of my childhood. We followed the sounds of a barred owl deep into the woods. It started to rain, but the tree cover kept us dry & we saw a couple of deer who didn’t see us.
Day 6 — Mammoth Cave & Wigwam Village #2
Mammoth Cave was the last big stop on our trip. The boy was too excited to realize how tired he was, which is good, because we explored all around the cave and managed a great tour of the best bits of the cave before we spent the rest of the day laying in bed at our motel. Wigwam Village #2 was built in 1937 & the ceiling fan almost electrocuted me. The shower was like a pressure washer, and much appreciated. Although the tackiness of the motel now is quite clearly politically incorrect, the place is owned by Indians. From India. Can you taste that flavor? That’s the flavor of America.
Day 7 — Harveysburg, OH & Home
The final day was just a 6 hour drive back to Cleveland, with one stop on the way, in Harveysburg, OH. We covered over 3000 miles in just about a week, with not even the smallest disagreement, until about 3 miles from home when I made my son try to do the math on how many miles we averaged per day. He sat next to me in the front seat almost the whole way, and everything we talked about was important. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Sundry Digital Photos
(The reason this took so long to post is that getting the black & white photos developed was a complete disaster & took several months to get done correctly)