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Unless you count Pensacola, Florida (10 miles away) and Chattanooga, Tennessee (13 miles away), I was 18 years old before I ever left my home state of Alabama. When I was a child there was no money for elaborate vacations, and I dreamed about those iconic American journeys -- to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Disney World -- that I heard about every September from my classmates. I told myself that when I had kids of my own, we would spend our summers exploring the great American landscape, from sea to shining sea. No child of mine would get stuck writing a back-to-school essay called "My Summer Vacation at Lake Lurleen State Park."
Then Haywood and I actually had kids and discovered that traveling with small children is absolutely no fun. Imprisoned in their car seats, they wail for hours, begging for deliverance from their government-approved straitjackets. Family reunions were the only trips we could handle. One day, we figured, we'd be up to a big adventure.
But then my father died, and Sam became a teenager, and still we'd taken no grand excursion into the heart of America. It hit Haywood and me that these days together are terribly, terribly short. So we came up with a plan to combine a mini family reunion with a massive family vacation: a multigenerational trip through the American West involving a grandmother with Parkinson's, a grandfather with an artificial knee, and three bouncy children completely unaware that mountain overlooks are not safely surrounded by guardrails. It did not begin auspiciously.
Day 1: To avoid the July Fourth rush, Haywood and I pick up our rental car, the largest SUV on the market, a day early. We arrive at the rental agency and promptly have a fight: I point out that Haywood has reserved a car whose backseat is no bigger than our own minivan's, and the whole point of renting is to give long-legged Sam more space. Haywood points out that, unlike our minivan, the rental has a DVD player and more luggage room. I question whether having the DVD player is worth $1,600 and 3,500 miles of lousy gas mileage. Haywood questions whether, in the absence of a movie option, we have the fortitude to play I Spy with My Little Eye for 3,500 miles. Haywood wins.
Day 2: Haywood and Papa head to Wal-Mart to buy an extra-large cooler; Grandmother and I stay behind to chop vegetables, wash fruit, and boil eggs for lunches. Papa returns and doubts that so much food will fit into one cooler; he suggests heading back to Wal-Mart -- a store that I hate and he loves -- to buy a second cooler. Haywood doubts that a second cooler will fit into even a monster SUV. Grandmother notes that I'm on the verge of saying something mean to both Haywood and Papa. Gently, she leads the men out of the kitchen.
Day 3: Planned time of departure: 6 a.m. Actual time of departure: 9:10 a.m. Time we discover that Henry has forgotten Ralph, the stuffed giraffe he can't sleep without: 9:40 a.m. Time of second departure: 10 a.m. First highway argument: 10:07 a.m. Subject: Haywood's driving. I think he's driving too fast; he thinks we've lost too much time. If we don't hurry, he says, we'll have to skip our very first stop, Cahokia Mounds, an ancient Native American settlement near Collinsville, Illinois, also home of the World's Largest Catsup Bottle. Papa is interested in Indian mounds; Sam, Henry, and Joe are interested in the world's largest catsup bottle; Grandmother and I are very interested in not dying on the highway. The World's Largest SUV is interested in flipping over every time Haywood peers down at the map Papa has spread across the dashboard.
Day 4: We explore St. Louis, "Gateway to the West." Sam, Henry, and Joe are indifferent to the many educational sites associated with westward expansion. "Please, Mom, can't we just go back to the hotel and watch the Cartoon Network?" Joe asks, handing back his copy of the educational brochure I've picked up in triplicate. "Yeah, Mom, it's not really a vacation if you have to learn something," Sam mutters. "Hey, it says here we can go to the top of the Gateway Arch!" Henry enthuses, breaking ranks and actually reading the pamphlet. "On a windy day you can feel the whole thing swaying!" Suddenly I'm thinking about heading back to the hotel to watch cartoons myself.
Day 5: Following the Lewis and Clark Trail, we're heading west in a covered SUV as I read aloud the story of Sacagawea, the Shoshone translator who, eight weeks after giving birth, traveled through the wilderness with Lewis and Clark and their band of unbathed explorers. Attempting to ignore the human farting contest being conducted in our backseat (courtesy of the three-bean salad we forced the kids to try at lunch), I consider what it must have been like for Sacagawea to be the only woman in a large party of sweaty, malodorous men.
Day 6: We're approaching the highlight of the trip for me: The Ingalls Homestead, in De Smet, South Dakota, immortalized in Little Town on the Prairie. Papa is navigating; the kids are intent on their GameBoys; Haywood, fighting gale-force winds, is trying to keep the Giant SUV on the Prairie somewhere near the middle of the road; and I am reading aloud from the gorgeous prose of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No one is listening but Grandmother.
Day 7: The Badlands are aptly named. The barren landscape might have been imported from Mars -- or hell. It's beautiful and terrifying, and the children can endure the heat and the relentless wind for only a few minutes before they pile back in the car, refusing even a potty break at the visitors' station. We've allowed a day for hiking in the national park, but clearly that's not going to happen. Our guidebook points out a nearby attraction: a giant cement prairie dog and convenience store. "I hope they have Icees," says Henry. "I hope they have a swimming pool," says Sam. "I hope they have a bathroom," says Joe.
Days 8 to 12: After a stop to pick up Grandmother's medication, which is running low but can be refilled in Rapid City, we make it to our home base: Custer State Park, in the heart of the Black Hills. From here we make day trips to tour a gold mine, ride a train from 1880, take a vertiginous drive along the Needles Highway, and visit Mount Rushmore (which Haywood has taken to calling the "World's Largest Carving of Presidential Heads"). The boys are catching the spirit of the trip, eager to go fishing, eat a buffalo burger, and hear about cowboys, the Gold Rush, and the snakes of South Dakota. Standing next to a tank holding an irritable prairie rattlesnake, a local herpetologist asks for volunteers. My boys leap to their feet, hands shooting up, and the herpetologist smiles. He says, "And now you know why the vast majority of snakebite victims are first, male; second, under 25; and third, attempting to pick up the snake."
Day 13: We've left the cool Black Hills behind now and we're back on the hot Dakota prairie, headed east for the Corn Palace, in Mitchell. The children hear us talking and groan; once we leave the Old West behind, they're like horses who smell the barn -- ready, after their grand adventure, to get back home. Haywood and I smile at each other. The boys are tired, we're tired, and the grandparents are sound asleep. We've hauled three generations across seven states, learned about agronomy and zoology and geology and anthropology and history -- and had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the kind of family vacation I dreamed of as a child. I reach across the massive front seat to hold my husband's hand. We're still 1,200 miles away, but it's time to head home.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2007.