I can tell by the interstate traffic that it’s vacation time (whether that’s prudent or not, I’ll leave that between you and your corner of the internet). The roads are a hoppin’: slow Ohio drivers in the left lane, slow North Carolina drivers in the right, and my least favorite kind of vacationers: the five-car caravans who believe fervently that if their entire twenty-person party doesn’t show up at the same McDonalds for a food break halfway between here and Myrtle Beach that the entire trip will be for naught.
If it sounds like I’m anti-vacation, I am not. Anti-car caravanning: 100-percent, and it’ll be part of my political platform one day. But anti-vacation? Not one bit. Especially because I have been fortunate to take part in some really good ones: a week-long trip to Ocean City, Maryland. A train trip across country to California. Three weeks exploring the Northeast United States. A week in Washington D.C., where I found out they frown upon people playing frisbee on the steps of the Supreme Court (that’s on you, D.C.: you should get better signage).
But my absolute best summer vacation was the trip we took Out West. “Out West” was, for the longest time, this place I knew enough about to pass history tests. But the summer I turned 17, my parents took three weeks off from their jobs, rented a van, mapped out a route, and we headed Out West. I’m making it sound like it wasn’t a huge undertaking, but keep in mind, this was pre- GPS 1999, pre-every hotel having online reservations, and at a time when taking three weeks off work meant my mom was going to have no more vacation days at the hospital and my dad was going to be leaving his small business to his partner to manage for three weeks (and ask any small business owner: leaving your business for any length of time is scary, even before you had social media to contend with).
Yet off they went, US Atlas and paper maps in tow, with three weeks of luggage, fishing equipment, car snacks, and a VHS copy of “Lewis and Clark,” along with my brother and I, stowed away in the back of the van. We picked my mom up in Charleston, then headed towards Missouri. We drove through St. Louis at night, just barely making out the arch in the fading light, and we only stopped once we were outside of the city, where we slept at a rest stop. I knew then, as I tried to find a comfortable way to sleep in a passenger seat chair while also keeping an eye out for rest stop prowlers, that we were in for an adventure.
There are many things that I remember from that trip, but the first thing that always comes to mind is that this was the trip where my parents decided it was worth their money to give me and my brother our own hotel room. Now I realize this is a huge luxury for any family (it was a huge one for ours), but if you can swing it and your kids can handle it, get them their own room. Vacations are 100-percent more relaxing if at the end of a day together you can get away from each other, to say the least of not having to share a bathroom.
Colton and I got our first room to ourselves in Custer, South Dakota, on July 4. It was a clean, small motel, and our parents were about four rooms down from us. That night, we watched the world’s slowest fireworks display (I kid you not, it was easily ten minutes between each firework. Say what you want about the Ripley fireworks back in the day, they were like Mighty Mouse-speeds compared to the Custer VFD), and then happily went off to our own room where he watched the TV and I read a book, and feeling very much like grown-ups before either of us could even vote.
And off Out West we went. We visited the site of Custer’s Last Stand, Mt. Rushmore, and drove through the Badlands. We stopped at this little stone church my dad stopped at when he made this trip as a kid and Dad tried to get Colton to hop the fence, like his dad made him. We meandered through the east part of Montana (stopping to fish at any convenient spots; my dad kept a fly-rod locked and loaded with a fly on the hook at all times), until we reached our major vacation destination: Yellowstone National Park.
Now, I had at this point in my life been to other national parks. But Yellowstone… it’s something else entirely. From the moment you go through that stone gate marking the north entrance, you feel like you have been transported back Lewis and Clark times. It’s vast and wild, and there is no other place like it, in the entire world. I don’t care if Old Faithful feels “touristy;” that’s a hundred foot gush of hot water coming up from the earth, every hour, for no other reason than that’s how the Earth works right there. We met a guy who went to Marshall University working the Old Faithful gift shop (because as we all know, West Virginians are uncanny when it comes to finding each other in the world).
Maybe you don’t understand what the big deal is about seeing buffalo up close, but wait until you find yourself next to a herd of them while driving through the park (or in our case, letting Mom out of the car to get a better shot with the camera. I guess we took a vote and decided if we lose her, then “got trampled by a buffalo” was the way she’d want to go.). We stayed in the little campground near the Yellowstone lodge where we had our own cabin, but shared a bathroom with the cabins around us (great preparation for college, lol), and y’all, I communed with the fuzzy prairie dogs, who came right up to be fed and adored.
I remember thinking then, what I still think now: this is what a real vacation is. This is new, and different, and these animals and mountains and plains, they won’t be in West Virginia for me to see so often that I take them for granted. So take in what you can, because you may never see it again. And for the next two weeks, I did.
Next week, Part II:
The Adventure Continued...