We leave on a Tuesday around dinner and make it to North Dakota exactly two days later. The drive takes 19 hours, but with three kids, a business meeting, 27 potty breaks, a roadside picnic, three underwhelming fast food experiences, one temporarily closed water park, and a whirlwind tour of the North Dakota Heritage Center, two days feels right.
The bug-splattered SUV pulls into the baseball field just in time for my nephew’s game. The cousins run to each other and pick up where they left off a year ago, while my husband and I get a first peek at our new five-month-old niece. We will be spending the next day recovering from the first leg of the drive before we pack our kids back into the car and continue the final ten hours to Yellowstone.
My husband wakes at 6:00 the next morning to drive the three hours back to Bismarck to help my brother retrieve the truck that finally made it to the dealership. I spend the day at the house alongside my sister-in-law refereeing five little boys full of energy. We get a nice long taste of what the next eight days have in store – unbridled laughter, bumps and bruises, and the intermittent wail of a wounded toddler.
After our easy dinner of cheap burgers in a nearby park is rained out, we improvise a spaghetti dinner to fuel the kids for a long day in the car.
My husband and I play musical beds all night, rotating between a deflated air mattress and our nephew’s bunk bed once he vacates in search of his mom.
Day 1: Holy Cluster Trucks
Morning comes early, but we get out the door ahead of schedule. Shooting for 7:00, we pull out of the Watford City gas station at 7:30 to make the hour drive to Sidney, Montana to meet my parents, throw the older boys in their vehicle for some quality grandparent time, and continue the day-long trek.
But nothing goes quickly on a multi-family road trip, and we should have known to set our expectations lower. My brother and I arrive in Sidney at our scheduled time with our anxious crews who get to sit…and wait. Time ticks by, and I watch my husband grow more and more irritated with each passing minute. It is going to be a long week.
A half hour later, my parents arrive (my mother needed to stop for a fancy coffee) and we spend the following 30 minutes rearranging so we can fit our children into their backseat – which we could have avoided had we known there was no space for them via a simple text sent an hour earlier but once you promise kids something for an hour, you can’t make those words go back inside your mouth – but I digress. She tries to explain, but the knowing smile on her face makes it difficult to take her seriously.
With newly reorganized trucks, an overstuffed SUV and one disgruntled husband, we load back up and speed into the Montana landscape.
“I wish our home was in this place. Don’t you wish that?” my middle one says peering out the window. There are times I do. The distance between my brothers and me is hard. I always pictured us raising our families together, and every year, our lives become further ingrained in our very separate locations. I think I know it will always be this way, and these sporadic reunions bring a kind of melancholy that is hard to ignore amidst the joy. As soon as we arrive, I start the countdown to good-bye. Maybe this week would cure me of that. Sometimes togetherness is the perfect antidote for loneliness.
By the time we reach the Airbnb cabin 12 hours later, I am pretty certain this will be the case. “Who can waste the most time at a gas station?” and “Where the hell did so-and-so go?” turn out to be pretty sucky travel games. We have already ruined dinner with late afternoon McDonald’s, especially when the yogurts we order for the kids are replaced with fudge sundaes. Our bedtime arrival makes the planned nacho feast seem unlikely. Why do we make plans again?
The kids run the entirety of the cabin like kenneled hounds unleashed while the adults unpack three massive vehicles, trying to find room for the mountain of supplies. I was hoping our spontaneous hour at Bozeman’s Museum of the Rockies mid-drive would help temper some of the boys’ energy.
Despite its interactive kids’ area and impressive dinosaur skulls, it does not. We corral them long enough to inhale the remaining pb&j’s from lunch and they are off, running and launching themselves off bunk beds late into the night.
Day 2: On the Road Again
We enjoy a leisurely morning and get to the park entrance at the exact moment every other tourist does. Our pre-purchased National Park pass ($80 annually) does little to speed the process along. The “express” lane is actually longer than the procrastinator lane, and we lose another 30 minutes waiting to be waved through. Inside the park, it’s no different. A noon arrival proves a bad choice as we sit in standstill traffic for the first 20 miles of the West Entrance. Someone 47 cars up sees a squirrel and needs a picture. This, I now understand, is a regular Yellowstone occurrence, and after the seventh or eighth time, I exhale and accept that this will be a slow journey. Better to be stuck in traffic with a mountain view than one made of concrete and dull smog.
With this new perspective, it doesn’t take long for me to see why this place ignited an entirely new process of land preservation. America’s very first National Park is nothing short of miraculous. On Day 1, we drive the entire northwestern loop from Madison to Norris to Mammoth Hot Springs and through Dunraven Pass winding us back toward West Yellowstone. The kids gasp at the fumeroles and their “smoke” that dances and escapes into blue sky. The river brings elk, bison, deer and all species of bird to its edges, and the boys make hash marks on scratch paper with each new sighting. We spot a young coyote at the roadside and watch ground squirrels hurry in and out of their holes. Immediately after my oldest proclaims he would like to see a swan, we round a bend in the river and my late grandfather sends us one. It’s the only one we spot the entire trip. My grandpa always sends us swans.
Prior to our trip, I read guide books, many of them warning against bringing small children who would just be bored and too young to experience the rugged park. This garbage should be burned (but only if the fire danger alert sign reads “low”). Yes, if your idea of Yellowstone is more like Jellystone with docile talking bears and an amusement park, your little ones will be disappointed. This is not that. This is so much better.
We spend much of our time inside the car. Some of this is due to the overabundance of visitors this time of year. We try to stop and explore various sites, but the maxed-out parking areas deny entry. The Artist’s Paint Pots are first on our list, but after circling the lot three times, we opt to keep trekking. Next, we attempt a picnic at Sheepeater Cliffs. We fudge a few parking spaces and set up shop while the kids try their hand at rock climbing, scaring the marmots back into the cracks in the granite.
The dads chase the kids up the jagged incline, and soon thereafter, I am chasing the dads chasing the kids because they’re outnumbered and the nearest hospital is a solid hour and a half back the way we came – three hours if there happens to be a buffalo standing somewhere along the roadside begging travelers to take its picture.
By the time we return, my mom says it’s time to pack it up and go. No picnic. She looks irritated. The hose to connect the propane to the grill is missing. No one wants frozen hot dogs, so we continue on to Mammoth Hot Springs to find a restaurant. I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow in our footsteps.
The snack shop is hectic and overcrowded. There is a handwritten sign on the door before we enter letting us know they are out of hamburger buns – which wouldn’t be a big deal except everything on the menu requires one. My brother gets his kids juice, and I get mine lemonade, and when this results in a near catastrophe, we determine we must confer with one another before all future food and beverage purchases. We pay over $30 per family for far less appetizing hot dogs than a grill with all its working parts could produce.
We eat as quickly as a group with six kids can and then journey up the boardwalk to take in the city’s namesake. Mammoth Hot Springs is a sight and stench to behold. It smells like my butt after too much dairy, and given the questionable lunch stop, I am grateful for the camouflage. We manage a solid group pic, though, so the sub-par wieners and long day of driving ends up being worth it after all.
Day 3: Ironing out the Kinks
Determined to correct our missteps from the previous day, we set alarms to leave the cabin by 9:00. At 9:15, we are on the road, and the wait at the entrance is bearable this time. We are destined for Old Faithful with a quick stop at the Midway Geyser Basin. The springs here prove far more impressive than the infamous geyser, and I would highly recommend the short walk to the Grand Prismatic Spring for anyone visiting the park.
The boardwalk that encircles the various hot pools lacks a railing in most places, though, and everyone is so busy taking selfies, you could easily lose a kid over the side to a tourist buried in their phone and own self-importance. Take precautions and securely strap every small or misbehaved child to your body.
We spend a good hour at the springs and reach Old Faithful by midday. With a 40 minute wait until the next estimated eruption, we wander into the Old Faithful Inn (another recommendation as the interior of the historic lodge and restaurant is amazing). The line for ice cream is too long, so we promise the kids a treat after the timed geyser display and set off to find our seats for the show.
A few spurts of water and steam escape close to the anticipated hour, and I secretly wonder if that’s all she wrote. My three-year-old nephew guesses it’s broken, eliciting giggles from the crowd hoping he’s not right. I listen to a group of women next to us discuss how many people would die if the underground super-volcano finally decides to come alive, and I want to tell them to shut their filthy mouths so as not to frighten the children, or me. The old geyser finally does its thing, and while I am impressed with the predictability of it all, the display itself looks ejaculatory, and the climax is unsettling as hundreds of binocular-clad strangers “ooh” and “aah.”
Because we are secret geniuses, my brother and I bypass the lengthy line for ice cream after the show by sneaking in the back parking lot of the park’s General Store. We grab frozen treats from the cooler at a tenth of the price we would have paid for the hand-dipped variety. My brother drops a spoonful of frosty malt into the crack between his driver’s seat and the center console of his new truck which I find hilarious. He’s already stopped to wash the thing seven times since we’ve left North Dakota while we’ve sat in our mud-covered SUV and waited. There is a sweet justice in it that I find satisfying.
When we finally reach the cabin in Island Park, Idaho, the family enjoys (seriously, enjoys!) dinner together and our silly boys swim in the hot tub until bed time. I read the little guys “Goodnight, Yellowstone” and we recount our day in the park. My sister-in-law retires to a quiet corner of the house to breastfeed the baby. Grandpa and Grandma tidy up the kitchen.
When the kids finally close their eyes, the adults pour drinks and relax while my husband puts in a few late-night hours of work as he is accustomed to doing on these crazy road trips. For a minute, I feel guilty but then find myself another beverage. He doesn’t mind soaking in a hotel hot tub when I’m home wiping noses and packing our entire family for said road trip. I sink deeper into the jacuzzi as the third Jack and Coke tips the scale back to level, and I wonder what new sights tomorrow will bring.