Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Long Road

19 days
17 states
5 national parks/monuments/memorials
6,271 miles

We had so much fun driving across country the last two summers in a row, I decided why not do it again this year?

Just kidding. My parents were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this summer, so we had no choice.

And to be honest, I was kinda dreading the whole prospect. But once we got past the anticipation stage of the trip and on to the actual trip, we had a great time.

C did not join us (his exact words: "I hope when people ask me why I didn't come along, you say somebody had to work to pay for this trip."). Which meant a lot more driving for me. He usually does somewhere between most and all of the driving, while I knit, read, nap, and entertain the kinder.

M, however, has his learners permit and did a fair amount of driving in the states which honor other states' permits (which is most of them). This was a terrifying experience in many ways. But, as I reminded myself over and over (and over and over) again, better he get his first road trip/multi-lane freeway/80 mph highway driving experience with me in the passenger's seat, rather than in a college buddy's near broken-down jalopy. I remember my first road trips and I'm lucky I and my friends are still alive. He did great, but still I nearly wore out my imaginary brake pedal. Needless to say, I did not get any knitting/reading/napping/entertaining the kinder done.

Because C wasn't with us and because I didn't have to worry about fitting the trip in between work obligations or within limited vacation time, I aimed for a bit more of a relaxed pace than usual, and left the return trip open-ended.

On the way out, we took the long way through Missouri to visit Laura Ingalls Wilder's Rocky Ridge Farm, and stopped by Mushroom Rock State Park in Kansas, a side trip C and I took when we drove out with a three-year-old M.

In Colorado, we attended two big family events and hung out with various relatives, doing city/suburb stuff like going to the pool and the climbing gym, eating out, and window shopping. We also went for a hike in Rocky Mountain National Park, hiked the first 6.5 miles of the Colorado Trail, which we missed last summer because we'd begun at an alternative start point, and visited a glacier.

I thought for a while about heading up to Yellowstone on the "way" home, but decided that would be too rushed (and, no doubt, crowded). Instead we headed west to the top corner of Utah, and spent a couple of days in Dinosaur National Monument, then drove diagonally across Wyoming to see Devils Tower. From there, we hit the requisite sites of Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, and The Badlands.

We were the ultimate tin can tourists, popping into parks for a few hours. My twenty-something self would be horrified by our rushed sight-seeing, but it poured rain while we were at Devils Tower (which, by the way, is incredible, despite the crowds), so more than the shortest hike around the base would have been miserable.

And there's really not much to see at either Crazy Horse or Mt. Rushmore (in truth, I'm conflicted about both of these sites; on the one hand, amazing human ingenuity and artistry, on the other, is it ever right to desecrate a mountain, whether for a coal mine, a ski resort, or a giant sculpture of a dead guy/guys?). My only regret is that we didn't have more time to spend at Badlands, like a couple of days. We went on two short hikes, and despite the kids being tired and cranky and determined to get out of South Dakota by the time we got there, it ended up being one of their favorite places.

I have to give the National Park Service credit for establishing very efficient sight-seeing tours of their parks. We had a full day, two nights, and an afternoon in Dinosaur, where took two driving tours, stopping off at all of the overlooks, and went on two short, beautiful hikes. The actual dinosaur bones were almost anticlimactic after all of the incredible scenery we took in. I have a super secret plan to go back there and raft the Green River in two summers, after the boys graduate 8th grade/high school. I may even get a job in order to pay for it.

Did I mention that rain followed us almost everywhere we went? 

I discovered that there's no way to get across the country without looking at a LOT of corn. But I did enjoy the fields of sunflowers in South Dakota and appreciated that Minnesota leaves a swath of tall grass prairie growing alongside the highway.

Having done this trip several times and several ways, I've found that the nicest way across the country is to cross Pennsylvania on I-80, then zig-zag down Ohio to I-70.

This way you avoid most of the yucky industrial junk, in the northern parts of the vowel states, avoid most of usurious tolls in those same states (plus NY and PA), have to endure less tractor-trailer-truck traffic, and get better scenery. You still get some sketchy interstate pretzels and multi-lane traffic, in almost all of CT and MA, as well as some midwestern cities, but having taken the long way on I-90 through the heart of Chicago, I'll take Hartford.

As for the kids, this was their third year in a row of driving to Colorado and back, so they did pretty well, sitting in the car all day and helping out at campsites (except when we stayed with relatives in CO and visited my aunt in Missouri, we camped every night).

We had very long days (either C is a faster driver than M and I are, or he's less judicious with rest breaks) and they kept it together really well. M acted as second adult, taking on a fair amount of driving, and bossing people around. We listened to audiobooks on the way out (a challenge in my rather noisy car), as well as music.

On the way home, I had E and Z take turns reading out loud from their respective books (they'd both finished the books they wanted to read and were stuck with books I'd brought along from the bookshelves at home). In each state, they read from their travel atlas. And they got to play a lot more video games than I allow at home, although whenever we went somewhere with a view, I made them put them down ("scenery not screenery" became the mantra).

I don't know what the boys will remember from this trip. The deluge in Utah that nearly washed away our tent? The kind neighbors in Pennsylvania who shared some white gas so we could cook our last night's meal of macaroni and cheese? The glacier? The lizards? The mountains? The desert? The buffalo we barely caught a glimpse of as M zoomed by at 70 mph? The endless seas of cows? The rabbits? deer? pronghorn? lizards? Nearly unlimited Asphalt 8 on their iPads? The dozens of relatives they met for the first, and possibly last, time? Endless corn fields?

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