Heartland Roadtrip

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.

Trip Prep

  • 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

The Trip

Day 1 — Chicago & Westward

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

& 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.

Badlands National Park

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.

Mount Rushmore

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.

Whispering Pines Campground

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Day 4

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.


Roadtrippers Itinerary

View Full Trip

Sundry Digital Photos

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(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)