We’re finally off on our family adventure—a road trip from Seattle to Yankton, South Dakota with a return through Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Some might not consider this a particularly exciting route. To me, however, the destination is less important than the experience. In fact, this road trip is about stepping out of the routine, shrugging off the patterns of our daily lives and savoring the new experiences that we have.
For months, I’ve thought in general terms about this trip. I’ve considered the route. I’ve dreamed about it when work was monotonous or the weekday marathon of kidssportsscoutsgrocersyshoppingdisheslaundryerrands all got to be too much.
Now I need to let that all go.
This trip is really about having no expectations. None. That’s what truly allows me to feel like I’m living. I feel more awake and in tune when I travel; my senses are more alert, my time is looser. I can listen to an entire album, and then do it again. I can admire a cloud formation. I can just be.
So here goes. I propose a road-trip-toast to no expectations and yet an absolutely memory-filled adventure with the people in this world I love the most.
If I do it right, travel is about overcoming things that make me afraid. Not that I’m a proponent of stepping into a pit of snakes or bungee jumping off a bridge. That’s a whole different category of terrified…and I don’t need that to feel like I’m living.
But I sometimes find myself fearful when I go on trips. What will I encounter? Who will I meet? What if things go differently than I planned? What if I lose my favorite pillow?
That’s when I remind myself that the unknown is the whole point of going.
So today I faced down one of my fears—the kind that makes my heart race in a good way. Rollercoasters. We were at Silverwood, a theme park in Idaho. I started out with a short one with a curly cue and upside down loop in the middle. Then I tried the old fashioned wood one with a distinct clackety-clack sound and a whip-quick ride. Trust me, I screamed a lot and laughed even louder.
But I met my match with the gigantic, legs dangling-type steel coaster with 100-foot drops and a forward/backward corkscrew. My family opted to do it; I volunteered to hold the backpack. Being terrified was simply not on my travel bucket list.
There is something incredibly mesmerizing about driving long distances. My mind stops thinking on overdrive. My “to do” list disappears. Time stops mattering so much. It’s just me with my hands on the wheel, eyes fixated on the road, breathing deep and steady. It’s my own brand of eyes-open meditation.
Today I’m practicing this form of meditation underneath an immeasurably large expanse of sky in Montana. The road runs parallel to a chalky green river. Rock outcroppings, like exposed ribs of the earth, flank either side of the road. My family is engrossed in pages of books, the shuffle of music. It leaves me inexplicably free—and I am grateful for the soothing sound of the tires rolling beneath me.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. I have a crush on rangers…as in National Park Rangers. Some people collect celebrity sightings; I collect ranger talks. I admire how these people are so passionate and deeply knowledgeable about history, geology, flora and fauna. Thanks to park rangers, I’ve learned about the lives of cougars, what it takes to go caving, how sound from airplanes affects the ecosystem below the flight path, and much more.
Today, I was rapt listening to the story of Custer and Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn National Monument. That’s saying something since I’m not a battleground fan or military strategy buff. To be honest, this location is unremarkable to me—a green swath of prairie grass, rolling hills and a granite marker.
But thanks to a couple of ranger talks, it was almost as if I was the one wearing a blue Army coat, crouching behind my horse, feeling in my pouch for ammunition that wasn’t there, sucking on the metallic taste of fear, wishing for a way out. Those park rangers made history come alive.
Unfortunately, there is one thing that could be a deal breaker to me becoming a park ranger someday. I simply cannot abide by those long green wool pants and brown boots on 98-degree days. If they have shorts and sandals option for the National Park Service, I’m in.
Travel experiences rate much higher than travel destinations to me. So while we spent the morning at Mt. Rushmore—a must see in the Black hills of South Dakota–it was the afternoon that made the day so memorable.
I wanted to try gold panning and dozens of the brightly-painted billboards exclaimed that Big Thunder Gold Mine was the place to do it. Maybe it was a tourist trap, but I was willing to overlook that fact. Plus everyone in my family was excited about the prospect, too. (Sorry about the pun.)
The experience included a tour through the mine, complete with the opportunity to wear plastic yellow hard hats. In an earlier post, I mentioned facing my fears and one of them is going underground in caves and such. But I was determined.
At stops throughout the mine, I learned about the two miners who had worked this claim. Their story can be summed up in numbers: 35 years of work, 630 feet into the side of the hill and 10 ounces of gold total. That’s dedication, desperation and an unyielding sense of hope all mixed up into one.
Afterwards, we were handed gold pans and given a short lesson on how to scoop, shake and swirl water over a mixture of sand and gravel to reveal tiny specks of gold. We collected them into a water-filled vial. Tacky souvenir? Perhaps. I don’t care, though. It triggers an experiential memory that is much richer to me.
Ironically, after yesterday’s Big Thunder mine tour, it was thunder and lightning that woke us up at 5:30 AM. We packed up our campground and hightailed it out of there just as huge raindrops let loose.
Over breakfast at a local diner, we listened to a group of elderly men catching up over their Friday morning ritual. I caught snatches of conversation…about losing $11 at Bingo and the six inches of rainfall (!) that drenched a town the day before.
Then one man, who was obviously hard of hearing, asked his friends if he could recite a poem. They obliged and he launched into an eight-stanza poem about a blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I vowed to find that poem again as it so reminded me of my own grandfather and here it is: http://www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_poem.php?pid=38
After breakfast, we got back on the road only to learn that the National Weather Service had issued a severe storm alert warning people to stay inside due to baseball-sized hail. To skirt the storm, we decided to take a detour through the Badlands National Monument. It was an otherworldly landscape of sculpted spires and striped dunes as if the innards of the earth had been exposed for continual erosion. Barren and raw, yet richly beautiful…that was the Badlands.
Let’s hear it for detours.
The terrain got decidedly flat and farmlike as we made our way to the far southwest corner of South Dakota. This location was one impetus for the trip…meeting my husband’s remaining relatives. While here, we learned about his great, great grandfather and grandmother, who claimed a chunk of this fertile land near the Missouri River and farmed it with their children, and children’s children, for more than 100 years.
Family is obviously a core value out here, which I can certainly respect. Everywhere I looked were family-style buffet restaurants. Entire families turned out to bowfish at the local dam. (Yes, I said bowfish, as in spear fishing with a bow and arrow. You have to see it to believe it.) Life feels slow out here and more than a bit unsophisticated to my city-honed tastes, but I still appreciate the family sentiment.
Being from Seattle, however, I was accused by the one remaining relative who still farms the land of preferring organic produce. Guilty. Then he and I proceeded to have a rather sophisticated conversation about global warming and GMO crops, and how hard it was to make a living off the soil. Last year’s drought wiped out his livestock; the corn he planted to feed them only grew knee-high before drying up. I certainly don’t envy his position.
Standing out there on that farm, however, I reaffirmed my belief in eating simply, locally and as organically as possible. He may be family, but I have to believe my way is better.
I’ve noticed that I tend to consume travel in two ways: let’s call them appetizers and entrees.
When arriving in a new place, I take in everything in small bites as if I were sampling from an appetizer tray. After I leave, I keep thinking about the things I tried, and I find myself wanting to return to the place to take it all in at a deeper level, kind of like the main course.
I found this phenomenon to be true in our stop today in Cody, Wyoming, which is touted as the rodeo capital of the world. I tasted “appetizers” as I looked in store windows along the main street. I sampled “appetizers” from the choreographed gunfight that the locals put on each evening to draw tourists into town. And I tasted actual “appetizers” in the form of cowboy beans and biscuits from the back of a chuck wagon at the local museum.
At the end of the day (and ironically after a real meal of Mexican food), I had to ask: What’s for dessert?
There was only one answer. Seats at the nightly rodeo, of course. Where else but Cody can you see a rodeo every night all summer long? It turned out to be one of the sweetest memories from the whole trip.
In hindsight, all those experiences made me hungry to return to the area in the future, maybe for a week at a dude ranch. Don’t laugh…that definitely qualifies as an entree travel adventure!
Today we stopped at Mud Volcano on our way into Yellowstone. While I’d like to write something deep and meaningful about the relationship between life and what transpired to create this unusual geologic formation, all I can think about is making an appointment for a facial when I get back home.
I attended another ranger talk tonight, this one about how the bison, bears, elk, wolves, coyotes and other animals in Yellowstone survive the long winters. If I understood the ranger correctly, when one frog species senses winter is approaching, it actually changes its cellular structure to a gelatinous state so that it won’t freeze solid in the mud.
Seriously? That is so cool.
I assume evolution somehow allows the frogs to change back in time for the spring thaw so that they can hop off in search of mosquitoes and the like.
Speaking of jelly, I sort of feel like my mind has turned a bit soft, due to travel experience saturation or TES. You’d think with all this extra time, I’d practice things that make me a better, more spiritual person—things like more yoga, better eating habits, bold decisions about my life. Instead, I’m in a free flow mode….simply fulfilling basic needs and taking in experiences as they come. I suppose that’s a victory in itself as it’s so rare that I get to do this.
At the same time, it’s a reminder that I have to take my travel in doses. In fact, on my next trip, I hope to have a home base from which I can practice my good-for-me daily activities with some diligence and then make excursions into the yonder.