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.

Home

We’ve been on a cross-country road trip for the past week or so, finally landing in the Pacific North West for an extended stay for the summer, then we traverse back across the country to land in the midwest again before school starts.

This has been in the works for over a year. Last summer we had a family vacation planned that suddenly got canceled due to the airline we were using and it kind of fell apart. Then my brother moved his family away and I fell apart.

I started researching this idea to relocate for this summer then and had to sell the idea to Aaron. I came up with a plan to save for the trip and the rough outline of what it would look like if just the kids and I did this, or if Aaron wanted to come too. And it changed a lot over the last year from conception to actually renting a house and driving across the country. We kept it a secret from the kids for 11 of then 12 months and worked hard to make this happen.

Then we woke up last Friday morning and left. Aaron had a fever over 100 for the first 5 days, I drove 90% of the trip out here. We lived through high winds, 100 degree weather days, cold nights, a thunderstorm every single day on the trip out here, over 2,700 miles, pulling a popup camper through the Black Hills and not entirely knowing what we were doing at any given moment.

But it’s been amazing.

I had all these grand ideas about writing a poem every day for the entire summer, then I was the one in charge of driving and I only just opened my journals to write the other day. I’ve written one. But I have more in me.

My expectations have been countlessly revised to meet with the realities of this trip. Of the actual movement, as well as the ideal outcome – and I’ve come to the happy place of taking what comes.

Yesterday we walked to my grandparents house and the vault inside of me opened. My grandma walked me around her garden telling me about her roses and flowers. What went wild, what she did or didn’t plant, who bought what for her and when. My grandpa told us he’d take us fishing and show me how to smoke my catch, then he let my kids ride the 4-wheeler and Jessica found my grandma’s piano and started pecking at the keys and everything made sense.

I came back to
the one place we
can all agree
belongs to me.

My varied history, nomadic pattern of history. A vagabond heart with a patchwork family … this place, this place doesn’t change. This place is one place I can always come home to.

12 weeks of freedom

Summer has arrived! And right on time.

Centennial Park
Centennial Park
Centennial Park

Every year since the 4th grade summer vacation has gone faster and faster. I say this because that was the summer I finally understood time passing. Before that the days were an endless buffet of exploring, climbing trees, riding my bike. I didn’t have a concept of time because I didn’t need one. Life was one big Saturday. And this year, this summer, it feels like eating dessert first – and with gusto, on purpose.

Is it our age? Or are we all in at a place where it’s time to savor the slower burn of time? Longer days, sun kissed shoulders. Water sports and beach days and hikes, camping, adventure.

Centennial Park
Centennial Park
Centennial Park
Centennial Park

There’s something about this season, these 12 weeks ahead of us, of freedom from rigorous charts and lists. Maybe it’s the age of our kids and the complete disregard for bedtimes or their ability to ride their bikes for miles at a time. Maybe something just opened up to us that we’ve never had before this summer. A new kind of opportunity.

Where grass stains are the mark of a well accomplished day. Where we keep track of how far our kites can fly and how long it takes for the first bite to bend our line off the end of the pier.

Centennial Park

This summer feels special. A giant red-bow wrapped package of time. And I can’t wait to tear into it.