Jay and I recently moved from Georgia to Kansas. Since traveling is part of our lifestyle, you’d think we’d be really good travelers. Jay absolutely is. He packs appropriately. He’s patient and laissez faire about delays or less than stellar accommodations. Me, I’m a terrible traveler. I over pack. I over analyze, and I freak when the accommodations are less than pristine. The girls and I also tend to need and expect a certain amount of infrastructure over the course of a road trip. You know, bathrooms…the occasional restaurant. Jay can drive for hours on just a pack of crackers.
Our most recent family vacation was in South Dakota. It’s about an 11 hour drive to get there from our current home. We decided to do it all in one day, and Jay wanted to get on the road early. Over the years, Jay has learned that leaving “early” means something different to me than to him. If he had his way, it would still be dark when we hit the road. Think the Great Santini. I tend to want to get up, shower, have coffee, pack my last few toiletries, and get on the road about nine. This used to be a source of great consternation for Jay and resulted in a few arguments, which inevitably delayed us further. I can’t pack while I’m yelling at someone. I must focus all my energy on making my point. Bless him, Jay has finally yielded to my travel pace rather than continuing to try to force me to yield to his. Really, I think the girls sealed the deal. Once he had three females to try to hurry along, he just gave in. I mean, let’s face it…he was herding cats.
So, off to South Dakota we headed, bright and early, at 9AM. Now, the majority of the drive was through Nebraska. It’s a lovely state, very rural, and with a landscape not much different from Kansas. I hear they have a nice zoo in Omaha. The thing is…they don’t seem to believe in rest areas or restaurants. We literally drove for hours without seeing anywhere to stop. We passed through several towns which consisted of a smattering of houses and a post office. I don’t know where those people buy groceries!
We finally ran across an interstate oasis that had a couple of gas stations, an Arby’s, a Wendy’s, and a place called “Runz,” which I didn’t think would be a good idea. So, we chose Arby’s. Now, I guess Jay and I are food snobs of the highest order because our kids had never had Arby’s before. The only fast food they’ve ever had is Chick Fil A and Subway. I asked the girls how their first Arby’s experience worked for them, and Grace, our youngest, responded with, “Good. I’m not hungry anymore.” She’s our pragmatist. For the record, “Runz” was actually “Runza.” Apparently, the “a” was missing from the first sign we saw, and it’s a Nebraska thing. Even with the “a” I couldn’t get past the name. I laughed till I cried at the implications.
Our next opportunity to eat finally came about two hours after dinner time. We’d spent a couple of hundred miles driving through a reservation and playing cows and windmills, Jay’s version of “I spy.” The game is simple. The first one to spot a herd of cows or a windmill gets a point. We didn’t actually keep score, but I’m pretty sure Jay won. Out of nowhere, like a mirage on the prairie, we spotted an exit with two gas stations and a restaurant called The Covered Wagon Grill. Thankfully, I had cell service and could check Trip Advisor to make sure they weren’t in the habit of giving their diners food poisoning. The place had a respectable number of stars and decent reviews, so we ate there. It might have behooved us to wait till Rapid City, but hindsight, ya know? The food was fine. Stomachs were filled, but it certainly wasn’t worth the $58 we paid. Of course, it was another two hours to Rapid City.
Ah, Rapid City, a mecca of civilization in the middle of nowhere. We had to stop there for groceries because upon checking for a grocery store near our rental in Lead, we discovered that the store closed up shop at eight. We were an hour past closing and still just under another hour to the house. We found a Walmart Supercenter and got the basics for breakfast. The stop was uneventful, except for the people of Walmart. Enough said.
We left the bright lights of Rapid City and headed into the Black Hills. The next town of note was Deadwood. I had such high hopes for Deadwood. It was on my list of must sees, but after passing through that night and seeing casino after casino, I crossed it off. It’s definitely a gambler’s paradise. I wonder if Wild Bill would approve?
We finally found our vacation rental in Lead. The first thing our headlights lit upon was a broken window. This did not bode well. Jay got out and went in first to check it out. He came back and proclaimed it safe to enter. We found a fairly comfortable abode, but it did not meet my fastidious standards for clean. I had to clean the bathroom before our daughters could bathe. The sheets and towels were clean, and I chose to ignore the mouse traps under the kitchen sink and in the laundry room. We got our cleaning fee refunded.
We had five days in South Dakota, and our first stop was Mount Rushmore. It is truly amazing. The fact that Gutzon Borglum managed to carve something like that in the side of mountain without the benefit of today’s technology and in only 14 years is truly remarkable. The museum has his working models and depicts the adjustments he made so his sculpture could fit the mountain. The man was a genius, plain and simple.
We did some hiking, toured a cave, and then, Jay discovered Black Elk Peak in one of the guide books. Lord, help us all. I generally have a strict protocol of carefully reviewing any attraction before I recommend it to Jay to ensure that every member of the family has good chance of survival and that it doesn’t require that we all have Ranger tabs to participate. Sometimes I think Jay thinks those things are hereditary. I must of been lulled into complacency by the miles and miles of unbroken prairie because when I read to Jay about Black Elk Peak and the watch tower on top that you can hike to, I failed to notice that the hike is seven miles roundtrip and takes an average of five hours to complete. I also failed to note the “steep and rugged” terrain which comprises the last hour of the hike.
We got a late start that day, and I really doubted we’d make it back before dinner. At one point very early in the trek, Jay paused as we came around a bend and pointed out the lookout tower across a gorge and at the top of the next peak. I looked along the ridgeline and around to where we stood and seriously considered turning around because it looked way further than three and a half miles. All along the way, Jay kept pointing out rock overhangs or big trees and saying, “That would be a good place to shelter.” I just ignored him and kept plodding along.
The next stop that gave me serious misgivings was right about the time the terrain got really challenging. There was a box fixed to a post in the center of the trail with a sign instructing hikers to fill out a white card and drop it in the box. This was so the rangers would know how many hikers they had in there in case someone didn’t come back.
As we got closer to the lookout, and the trail got steeper and rockier, we met a family coming back the other way. I couldn’t help myself and asked, “How much further?” They said, “maybe a half hour.” Then, the man added as he got out of reach of my walking stick, “And, you know, it only gets steeper from here.” I just missed him.
But he wasn’t kidding. It did get steeper and rockier, and just when I thought we’d never get there, we rounded a bend and saw it, right overhead. Unfortunately, there were what looked like about 300 stairs to the top. Actually, it was more like 30, but to my quads, at 7,200 feet, it might as well have been 300. The kids ran it, and I shook my fist at their backs as they disappeared from view. The panorama at the top made the pain worth it, and as Jay said, the pain made the trip all the more memorable.
The downhill trip was easier, and shorter, as it so often is. We did get rained on and hailed on, but we took shelter under a friendly pine that Jay had noted on the way in. Now, I understood what he meant by “a good place to shelter,” and I appreciated his infantryman’s instincts. The storm soon passed. I left my walking stick by the informational sign at the trailhead for some other gullible tourist to use. We stood in silence around the tailgate of the truck, gratefully drinking from the gallon jug we’d left in the cooler. We ran out of water on the way up. We’d made it in three hours and 45 minutes with the 30 minutes we spent at the lookout.
I insisted on hobbling into the park general store for a Black Elk Peak destination sticker for our Yakima. I wanted proof for that one.
We spent our last day shopping in Hill City. Jay figured I’d earned a reward. We decided to take two days to drive home and went out through the Badlands, which are another amazing sight to see. Nebraska from a different angle is pretty much the same. The gas station beside the hotel we stayed at in Lexington had a sign that said, “You are NOWHERE.” I’m pretty sure they meant,”You are NOW HERE,” but I told Jay, “See, they even admit it!” I think they can keep that zoo in Omaha.