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Westward, ho!

April 2, 2011

Family trips began due to a bright idea I had to try to please everyone. If we had an exciting trip together as a family the children would bond, I could use almost every experience as a teaching moment, and trips in the car were conducive to singing, so historic western songs could be analyzed to glean information about each area we traversed. Further, Grandpa Frank would be happy because a family vacation for six is always less expensive on the road rather than flying above the earth to a specified destination, camping was less expensive than motels, and food was cheaper when purchased and prepared over a crackling campfire or in a motel kitchenette. The best part was that there was NO destination, only a route. We would head out on one highway, define where we were likely to be when half of the vacation days were spent, then come back by a different highway or back roads for the remainder of the the trip. It sounded so simple, so sane, so patriotically American to teach our offspring about the richness of our country. And so it was.

Below is a bullet list of some of the highlights of the trip out west that we took as an entire family including Grandpa Frank, Kimberly (14), Heather (12), Joe-your-dad (7), Jenny (6), and of course me, bringing up the tail end. Part of the story has a tendency to be overblown in retelling, so a few things to clarify:

  • I did believe the Platte River was something worth exploring (I had just read about the river in James A. Michener’s Centennial, and wanted to explore living history). Following the Platte would allow us to take Interstate 80 to Cheyennne, Wyoming, head north to Devil’s Tower, and then return east via Interstate 90. A visit to Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug (whose advertising in the 1930s to sell ice water to parched travelers was a stroke of genius), and a day wandering the badlands in South Dakota marked the beginning of our eastward odyssey back home.
  • Your dad and I did find bovine skeletons and partial carcasses wedged under logs and stones in a dry, braided stream section of the Platte River. They must have been caught in the last surge of water to flood the river bed. We were sad because some of them were clearly the remains of calves.
  • We did eat buffalo (bison) and beefalo.
  • We did pan for gold in streams rather than in tourist traps.
  • I did not kill a rattlesnake in Pennington County, South Dakota. I did find myself mesmerized by the rattlesnake we had accidentally run over with our car. It had been basking in the road and looked like a long stick. I realized only at the last second that it was a snake, so Grandpa Frank was not able to avoid it. We stopped to—well, I don’t know precisely what we had planned to do—check it out I suppose, when the very alive snake caught my mind and lit it on fire with curiosity. I just wanted to get a little bit closer, then closer. There was a cacophony behind me but I didn’t identify it until later as the screams of four terrified children and one terrified husband (who was trying, and failing, to get the camcorder to record whatever spectacular happening would present itself next).

    Something had to be done with the snake; we couldn’t just leave it out there to suffer and die in the blazing summer heat, partially flattened as it was. I was going it help it. There was not even a whisper of a thought in my head as to how I would do that, but I continued to walk toward the now curled snake, whose rattling tail was accompanying my strides with a castanet-type rhythm. Rapt in my intention to render aid, I continued toward it. Our eyes were locked in a stare-down. The snake rattled.

    When I was about five feet away from it the snake did something I didn’t expect. It leaped about three feet straight up into the air, fangs out and hissing. It must have been due to its injuries that it didn’t leap toward me. I could see in its eyes that it wanted to leap toward me; it wanted to do a great deal more than leap toward me. The leap stopped me in my tracks and I stood there thinking a variety of thoughts. I wanted that snake. I wanted its rattle, and I wanted its head. It was going to die anyway, and I would have my trophies. I may have temporarily lost my mind.

    Sanity returned with an approaching Pennington County, South Dakota highway department vehicle. The very nice gentlemen in the truck saw what they perceived to be my plight and stopped to help. One of them grabbed a shovel out of the back of the truck, walked directly up to the now prone snake and with two quick chops and a couple of hearty laughs (I swear!), dispensed with it. The two chops left the head and tail, which the highway department man gave to me, and the body, which he threw into the badlands. I wanted to go and get the body and cook it, but the family had had enough. I still have never eaten rattlesnake.
  • Back in the car and on the road, I tried to interest the kids in the still moving head and still dripping-with-venom fangs. It fascinated me that the snake was still moving without its body. I tried to interest them in the movement of the many rattles. Your dad checked it all out with me; I think the girls were all mad.

  • I did keep the rattlesnake’s head and tail. I mounted the head on a varnished oak board and still keep the rattle in a plastic box inside the family room table. I did name the head and tail Pennington.
  • I did collect dried cow patties in the badlands to show the kids how settlers had cook fires in the badlands with so little available wood.
  • I did threaten to attach myself to your dad with a bungee cord while visiting Devil’s Tower, with hope that I would have a chance in hell of getting him home alive. He was climbing the scree at the base of the tower that had been created by falling columns. The boulders were huge and the dark, gaping spaces between them looked bottomless to me. Your dad told me that Paul Bunyan chopped down a massive tree to form Devil’s Tower, because he and his blue ox, Babe, needed a table to use for their dinner. He was always telling me something.
  • I did allow all four children to enter a gambling establishment in Deadwood, South Dakota. They were allowed to stay in the casino and drink pop if they stayed with a parent. It was the first and last for most of us, I believe. We didn’t like the way the slot machines kept taking and keeping our money.
  • I did take photographs of the children in a historic outdoor jail in some city in Wyoming, or South Dakota, or Nebraska, or Iowa. By that time I did contemplate leaving one or two of them in that jail, in that city. Maybe I wrote the city on the back of the pictures—we can take a look. Or maybe one of them will remember the city. I suppose it’s a good thing I didn’t leave any of them there if I can’t remember where that little jail was.
  • We did have a pronghorn antelope keep pace with us in the car for about a mile, so near to the car we could almost touch him. We were concerned about hitting him, but the South Dakota pronghorn antelope seem to know what they are doing. It was breathtaking. I can’t imagine why that stunning animal would want to run along with a nutty group like us, but I was certainly grateful to it for sharing its beauty with us that way.
  • I did teach the children a song your great-great-grandfather Harry (Grandpa John’s father) taught me. It’s about North Dakota and Minnesota where he lived all of his life, but we were in the neighborhood:

    YUST come down from North Dakota,
    All the vay on a trash machine,
    ALL the vay to Minnesota,
    YUST to see the great state fair.

  • I did get us lost on a back road that dead ended in a flock of sheep. The silly animals don’t know to get away from the car, so getting out of their pasture took a while.
  • I did move a huge box turtle out of the road and call just a couple of turkeys out of a nearby thicket with my “turkey call.” I no longer do the turkey call.
  • We did visit a large area of mounded earth in Iowa, after following a highway sign. All of us had been dozing in the car when Grandpa Frank woke us and said he was taking us to see “prehistoric earthworms.” We didn’t see any worms, just the mounds. When we drove back to the highway, we saw that the sign read Prehistoric Earthworks. What a difference one teensy letter can make.

The rest of the time was spent in normal family vacation activities. The other five can tell you about the trip out west from their vantage points; above you have my account. Soon I will tell you about our northward trip.

Our southeastern trip : Daddy and the Duke
Our northern trip : Redux

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