I haven’t showered since Jackson Hole. That was Day 4. This is Day 9. I am disgusting. My hair is slicked back into a disheveled bun using a mixture of sweat and dry shampoo. I am wearing glasses because my eyes rejected contacts this morning after hours of staring at the road. My armpits and breath compete for most offensive. We are somewhere near the bottom of Wisconsin and our energy reserves. Our youngest has been asking for home for the last two days, and it’s starting to break me.
Last night was a disaster, and it’s my fault. I broke my own road trip rule. Prebook your hotel. I knew better than to leave it up to chance in South Dakota. The rest of the trip had gone so smoothly…too smoothly.
The last day I bathed.
We are introduced to Jackson Hole, a marvelous little city that has this weird ability to make a person spend lots and lots and lots of money. We walked the touristy strip with its souvenir shops and swanky storefronts. We dropped a dime on espresso and muffins and laid down the credit card for shirts and hats proving we’d been to the trendy little resort town.
I contemplated a set of mugs for $60. Coffee mugs. For $60. I dreamt about being rich. Like really, really rich with all the things that I tell myself I don’t need, things that will corrupt my grounded, sensible self, things that I laugh off but secretly desire. Like $60 coffee mugs that read “the mountains are calling” in attractive color schemes and stylish fonts.
We spend an afternoon in those calling mountains, looking out from the rocky beach, the Grand Tetons standing guard in the distance, their reflection shifting across the glassy lake as the sun made its slow descent toward dusk, reminding me why I value days like this over things.
Day 6 looks eerily similar to Day 5. The same expensive coffee. The same credit card tour of the downtown shops. The same feeling of dark envy for the upper class when I spot a $300 bracelet that would look really amazing on my wrist. And the same settling back into gratitude when we land at that same rocky beach and spend an afternoon soaking up the sunlight and soul-reviving beauty of the mountains.
We continue to Yellowstone’s south entrance. The trek runs along ravines that drop to cascading rivers, intermittent lakes and hot springs, a slow ascent up the mountains that line the eastern side – breathtaking and somehow completely different than the other byways of the park. We arrive in Wapiti, Wyoming in the wake of an evening storm. The sky presents us with a double rainbow, a thank you for making the long journey with six small kids and six exhausted adults to see what this dusty corner of the country has to offer.
It turned out the dusty corner held some awe-inspiring stretches of highway along the Shoshone National Forest. It held an historic hotel, the Wapiti Lodge, which could not have been more accommodating to our band of travelers.
It held lazy mornings and cozy naps and ice cream smiles and family dinner and rocking chair coffee. It held my lost patriotism, waiting to be found.
We left Wapiti, Wyoming just before 11:00 which made my plan of hauling our lot to Sioux Falls by dark unlikely. We would stay in Mitchell, South Dakota instead, a good hour and a half short of the original stopping point. Little did I know these detours would not be our biggest obstacle, and we would, in fact, end up in Sioux Falls by day break.
After a brief two nights at the Wapiti Lodge, we had managed to move in, and it took the entire morning to repack for the long drive home. While my husband and I would be starting our trip back to Michigan, the rest of my family was taking one last drive through Yellowstone to hit Lamar Valley and the Beartooth Pass before heading back to North Dakota. We had run out of time and weren’t able to fit in the northeastern side of the park as we had planned. I could not reconcile myself to the fact that not only did I have to say good-bye to my long-distance blood, but they were also leaving to do super fun stuff without me. I was salty.
After we got moving and found some strong coffee, I shook off the clouds and got excited for the Wyoming wonders that lie ahead. It wasn’t long until we spotted the Bighorn Mountains. The next two hours of breathtaking vistas, pine forest mountain tops, and herds of elk and mule deer put me back to giddy. My husband and I took turns pointing out dream properties and wildlife in the distance. We climbed up the range’s western side with its sprawling expanse of red layered atop yellow atop red, sporadic sagebrush dotting the strata.
Wyoming has a wild kind of beauty that I haven’t experienced in other places. The barren landscape which I had imagined to be flat and gray was a myriad of color, pastels and dusty reds against a piercing blue sky. Some of America’s most glorious places also happen to be the most uninhabitable. It seems to be how God keeps them safe.
We wound down the mountain pass and into eastern Wyoming, headed for Devil’s Tower, the last must-see landmark for this particular journey. After that, it would be a balls-to-the-wall sprint home. The two added hours was all worth it when, upon entering the park, we realized the boys could finally complete a Junior Park Ranger Program and earn the coveted badge. We had been chasing this plastic honor ever since we entered Yellowstone, but long days and poor planning had left us empty-handed.
Badges in hand, we made our way back to the car. The road was starting to show on the boys’ tired faces, and the last minutes at Devil’s Tower were spent shouting and chastising my children.
That will be my Devil’s Tower memory – worth the drive, not worth the extra wear on the babies. My need to see more had put them over the edge, and we still had four states to go.
We arrived at the restaurant to meet fellow traveling friends at 7:00 – right on time – but slow service put us further behind schedule. We said our good-byes knowing we were in for a night of tears, maybe the kids’, maybe our own.
Still Day 8…
If South Dakota had more than three towns, we would have settled into a cozy rented bed within an hour of leaving dinner. But there are no hotels, motels or really much of anything on the three hour drive between the state’s northwest corner and Mitchell, and come to find out, Mitchell was all booked up. It was the Saturday before the Fourth of July. I called every single hotel along I-90, and no one had a bed. We would press on.
But Sioux Falls didn’t have anything either. It was well after midnight, so the web search couldn’t show me who had availability as it was already on to the next day. I called hotel after hotel, each front desk informing me, “All full.” I found one Holiday Inn with a remaining room, but they wanted $170 before tax, and I wasn’t going to pay. We were due in at 3:00 am. $200 for a nap was criminal.
I finally reached an airport Fairfield Inn and the angel on the other line told me they were full, but then paused and asked if I could hold. There was one no-show. Did we want a King room for $106.00?
At 3:30 am, haggard but happy, I thanked our Fairfield angel and circled the hotel until we found the sole remaining parking spot in the lot. The five of us fell into bed, Kurt and I at each end, two boys in the middle and the little one crosswise atop our pillows. His sweaty feet tickled my nose until I passed out.
It’s 1:00 a.m. when we pull into our sandy, tree-lined driveway, and the glow from our kitchen window welcomes us home. The two big boys are out cold, and we move them easily from car to bunk bed where the middle one smiles and presses cheek to pillow. The little one, though, the one who’s been crying for home since Wyoming, cruises into the house with a fire in his eye, a maniacal cackle erupting from his throat as he spins from couch to rocking chair, under the table, around the corner, through the kitchen, then back to give the rocker another turn.
He checks in on his model fire station, rings the bell and shoots a wooden truck across the floor. He’s off to his room, pops open the plastic lid on a tote of blocks and constructs half a tower before he’s in the closet, rifling through a toy box. He ducks into the teepee, then stops to squeeze a moose stranded in the corner for two weeks. He giggles, talking to everything he touches. I watch and laugh and sprawl across his bed. It’s 2:00 a.m. now, and I can’t bring myself to call an end to this reunion, settle him for sleep.
He has missed this house, these walls and everyday things we so easily pass by without thought or thanks. Maybe this is my lesson. There is always one or two or thirty, depending on the adventure. Watching our smallest guy love – truly, actively love – all the simple things we are blessed with in our life, in our home, I think this might be the takeaway – to learn to love the plain, gray rocking chair that has calmed these babies, the rocking chair where I spent the first six months of our middle one’s life. Every night we slept there, upright and tense, as he kept us praying over his health, his little body, the steady flow of unanswered questions.
I watch our youngest spring into the rocker again, sending it into orbit as he laughs. I should love that chair that much. It holds days of fear and gratitude. I should miss that chair when I am gone from it for weeks on end or for an afternoon. Some things have real value, too. Not everything. Not $60 coffee mugs. But some things, like this chair that’s held the weight of my children and my worry. This chair that welcomes me home like the warm glow radiating from our kitchen window through the thick of the trees and onto our driveway, like the crunch of gravel under tires when we turn toward the house and that beacon of light, and that chair, waiting for us to get our fill of the world and its dusty red corners. That chair, waiting for us to come home and sit awhile.