Montana: Lewis and Clark State Park

We landed in Montana on the 5th day – I’m pretty sure Aaron did some driving because he kept taking videos of the mountains while driving. He was seeing this landscape for the first time, winding hills dotted with cattle. An endless horizon and blue sky. He wasn’t just a passenger, finally :) I remember being pretty excited about this development.

Montana is windy. Just, you know, like 25 mile an hour winds on a vista. That same vista our little pop-up camper was parked for the night in the open air between mountain peaks. We had conquered rain and thunder, clapping skies and sheets of rain. We had been through heat and fevers and the flu. Wind though? We didn’t really know what to do with wind. (Video of wind)

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

So we played games.

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park
Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park
Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

We walked around the camp ground for a bit and read some signs: we were in bear territory and on the menu for dinner? Sausage. Eggs. Breakfast for dinner … inside the camper.

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park
Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

The crackling of the stove and the smell of cooking breakfast with wind whipping through our camper, the kids sitting at the table playing games with snacks, and Aaron finally functioning as a human. This was a new normal by day 5. Rugged, dirty, take it as it comes living.

With Aaron’s new found sea legs for traveling he was also all of a sudden aware of time passing. And how much more opportunity there was to FILL THAT TIME WITH SEEING EVERYTHING. We laugh about it now, but his being sick for the first 5 days was really a blessing. We actually traveled. He can take about 2 hours in the car before he needs to stop and look around. About 30 minutes before he starts complaining about being in a car. And yet, we love to travel this way.

Which meant that after dinner we started asking around wondering if there was anything “to do around here.” We hopped back into the car for a little field trip.

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park
Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park
Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

And this was the new soundtrack to my days:

Montana - Lewis and Clark State Park

Water and birds, all kinds of hidden bugs singing, little feet stepping, constantly parenting, and always wide-eyed wondering.

We were almost there. I started seeing sunsets behind mountains and recognizing the smells in the air. I also stopped showering thinking the next place wouldn’t charge $3 for five minutes of water … Note to self: keep quarters.

Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills.

On day four we woke up to birds chirping and the kids playing right outside the camper door.

Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park

They were cleaning their rocks, you see. Completely busy and unaware. The air was clean and the coffee was on it’s way. We fell in love with camping in Custer State Park.

Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park
Center Lake Campground, Custer State Park

After breakfast we packed up and headed out for the day. Mount Rushmore was on the schedule, driving through the Black Hills and Custer State Park was probably our favorite day of the trip out west. It was breathtaking and a good amount of time outside of the car at the monument meant the travel time was mostly anticipation between stops.

Day 4: Mt Rushmore

It’s also the only place we have a photo of all 4 of us :)

Day 4: Mt Rushmore

We had a great time learning more about how Mt. Rushmore was made, blasted out of the mountain side. How long it took, and what the presidents meant for the country at the time. The kids also spent their souvenir money at the gift shop: surprise surprise, they bought stuffed animals.

Day 4: Mt Rushmore
Day 4: Mt Rushmore
Day 4: Mt Rushmore

We had lunch and learned that President Jefferson was the first guy to introduce ice cream to the states. His recipe was on a plaque – and everyone was eating expensive tourist ice cream. (Except us, oh well!)

That night we stayed in Buffalo, WY at a KAO. There was a creek rustling through our backyard, we had amazing neighbors, and it was the first night we built a fire on the trip.

Buffalo, WY Day 4
Buffalo, WY Day 4
Buffalo, WY Day 4
Buffalo, WY Day 4

Day 5 we started driving through Montana and paying for showers…

Sight seeing through South Dakota and Custer State Park

Our third day of travel was what I always think about (poetically) when someone mentions a road trip. Scenic overlooks, random, yet memorable, passenger car diners on the side of the highway for lunch, great weather.

We went from gas light to gas light on day 3 in one stretch and where there was no gas station on our google maps for a good 12 more miles as the car was running on fumes with a sick Aaron, hungry kids, and very full bladders – there was this one, out of nowhere. Like a mirage, it appeared without warning or signage or welcome. It was just there, off I90.

That’s what Day 3 felt like. Small miracle after small miracle. Time stopped.

Day 3: on the road
Day 2: on the road
Day 3: on the road

We took our time to enjoy the trip. Stopping at the Badlands, Wall Drug, and finally ending up at Center Lake campground in Custer State Park.

Day 3: on the road
Day 3: on the road
Day 3: on the road
Day 3: on the road

Wall Drug was everything it promised to be, cheesy. Touristy. A must see at least once in your life and a place to spend your souvenir cash. I did a similar trip with my parents the summer between 9th and 10th grade out west, so I had been to Wall Drug before (I had even been to the Yogi Bear campground from the night before as well). It was odd to be in the same places, take the same photos as I did 18 years ago. Everything has changed, absolutely everything from my first memories to now – not one thing is the same. Except it was all eerily unchanged. Same chipped paint statues to sit next to, same stores and salt water taffy, same smells.

Day 3: on the road

This alley was my first sight of Wall Drug this time (we went in the back way) and it felt so incredibly right. Something I had never seen before. It made so much sense to me to see the guts first this time. To see what is supposed to be hidden, this isn’t what the billboards promised for the last 300 miles. And it’s what I saw first. Pallets. Blue barrels lined up against a brown wall. And then we went inside.

Day 3: on the road

And nothing had changed.

Day 2: on the road

Except everything was different.

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That night we arrived at Custer State Park looking for a campsite. Center Lake was where we landed and the kids quickly took off to explore. There were rocks to climb, lakes to visit, a campground to inspect. Water to discover and friends to make.

Night 3, Custer State Park
Night 3, Custer State Park
Night 3, Custer State Park
Night 3, Custer State Park
Night 3, Custer State Park
Center Lake

Center Lake is where this trip became our family trip – and not a walk down memory lane.

It rained like the world was ending that night. Thunder so loud I would sit straight up. Heart beating wildly, curled in a ball between lightning strikes and praying like crazy to see the morning light just one more time. We stayed dry, and you guys – I keep saying this because our camper has so many holes. Just so many. Patches, but holes. And we stayed dry that night (and every other night). The kids slept through it and somewhere in the middle of the night I stopped waking up to every gong of nightmarish thunder. With every crack of the skies above me, separated from the elements only by vinyl fabric and a couple blankets.

And we woke up on day 4 to birds chirping, fires crackling, and the kids already playing.

South Dakota. Longest. Day. Ever.

Aaron started driving on Day 2 … which put me in an extremely optimistic mood. That and 3 cups of road coffee later, I could do anything. Which came in handy when he asked me to drive the rest of the day and he fell asleep for the next 8 hours, on and off.

South Dakota was just really long. And hot.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

By the end of the day, we had decided to splurge on a resort type campground for the kids and were excited to relax and eat some food together.

There was a heat advisory and we didn’t get the memo that Yogi Bear was basically a frat party for parents who forgot college was over and beer pong was done. The pool was murky, but cold, over capacity, but cold, and I started to bubble from the burn (no shade! no umbrellas!) and Aaron was now battling over 100 degree temp.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

We went to a grocery store and bought some food for breakfast the next morning but caved and bought Chinese take-out for dinner. Then capped the longest day ever off with another swim before trying to go to sleep during the campgrounds DJ sponsored dance party. Our camper was literally vibrating. We called the front desk only to realize the noise was on purpose, and not even almost over.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

South Dakota. 100 degree heat advisory day, aka hell.

We made it. A little crabbier than we started. We woke up on day 3 with headaches and short tempers. Packed up and got out of there. Day 3 was the redeeming factor to making it through that night. The corner had been turned. We were finally on vacation.

Beaver Creek Valley State Park

Our first night on our road trip out west was in Minnesota at the Beaver Creek Valley State Park.

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

We drove our longest day on the first day because, like my wise friend Leanne told me, they’ll be the most excited on the first day. So go farther. The car is still fun! We were racing this sky on our way in to the state park, hoping to set up before it started pouring.

Ominous sky on our way into first night of camping

We just made it, I got soaked but the kids were dry and the camper was up. We had a dry night and an early one. The kids woke up with the sun the next morning (the entire road trip we were up around 5:30 every morning with our adorable non-sleepers, thankfully we kept gaining hours on our way West) and since we didn’t have service we didn’t know what time it was exactly, but were sure it was still before the parks quiet time ended.

They hopped on their bikes and we went exploring.

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

I felt some feelings, this place was kind of magical.

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

We packed up the camper after breakfast and were on the road before 8 am that morning.

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

Night 1, Day 2 of Summer Road Trip West

We had rain (usually thunderstorms) every day. My mom called it our daily storm.

And we got through it just fine. The adventure had begun.