The year was 1989 and the vehicle was a brand new 1989 Red Jeep Grand Cherokee. To christen this new vehicle – the first brand new vehicle my father had ever purchased—the family was going to pile into the Jeep for two weeks and road trip West.
Clark Griswold, did you call? Because my father had those high hopes for family magic as we planned our route from Minnesota through South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho and back through Montana, Canada and North Dakota.
Three kids aged 5, 8 and 10 piled into the backseat of a Jeep…a man’s dream come true.
Just a few days after I finished the second grade, we loaded up our Jeep with clothes our backpacks filled with the most recent book order score, as well as workbooks to prepare for 3rd grade for me and 5th grade for my brother.
There were little cardboard game sheets with slider views to play license plate bingo, trivia cards, coloring books and crayons and books, books, books all neatly organized in little backseat travel organizers as we hit the road from Minnesota bound for The Badlands. In the minds of my me and my siblings? We were headed for Wall Drug!
It was everything we had dreamed about and more. It was HUGE and there were all kinds of neat things…like this little packet that rattled like it had a snake in it. Genius! There was also, FREE water. After a short stop so that my parents could at least stop hearing about Wall Drug the entire trip, we were on our way to Mount Rushmore. There were some giant heads of dead guys in the side of a mountain. It was cool, but now we were distracted by the thought of swimming in the pool at our hotel. Also, by the sound of explosions from the Crazy Horse monument being formed.
That was exciting.
My poor parents – they just couldn’t win with us in South Dakota. Honestly, they couldn’t really win with us for the rest of the trip, either.
We journeyed on westward, as I read West from Home letters from Laura Ingalls Wilder home as she and Almanzo journeyed westward. Even as an eight-year-old I thought that was pretty ironic. Our next destination was Yellowstone National Park. This stop provided several benefits for my parents in keeping our attention. The first was we were to see Old Faithful shooting into the sky. Though we hadn’t seen explosions on Crazy Horse up close, this was guaranteed to explode! Next, we had the thrill, and really the terror, of seeing bears looming upon us for our visit. Finally, it was my brother’s eleventh birthday while we were in the park and we were going to go horseback riding with a chow truck!
We did indeed get to see Old Faithful erupt, although I remember the waiting being simply excruciating. We did not get to see any bears, but the garbage cans were really hard to open because they had bear covers on them. We were fairly impressed by this. I was mostly impressed because I remember I was unable to take the garbage out at our little cabin because I couldn’t open the lid myself. So far, my parents were two out of three!
Unfortunately for great plans, we were unable to ride horses. My youngest sister was too little to ride, so we had to ride along on the wagon instead. I might have held a grudge against her for a while. This grudge lasted approximately until I was fed, when my crabbiness wore off. Or, it was later that evening when I discovered the Yellowstone Ampitheater. Wide awake as the sun still seemed so high in the sky on that summer evening, I sang and danced on stage. I could pretend I was famous! As I played around on the stage my family watched. Then strangers that came walking by the theater as well. They even clapped for me!
It was my first public performance that was not at a school or a church.
The exhilaration of making and audience smile, whether on stage or through words saved the entire Yellowstone experience for me. That and the three bison that we could almost touch – although we were not allowed to reach out the window of the Jeep—as we drove out of the park the next day.
Thus began the driving portion of our trip. And when I say that, it isn’t like we weren’t driving before…but now it was JUST DRIVING. One day the big excitement was finding a church playground to play on. I am pretty sure my parents were just sick of hearing us whine from the backseat and wanted us to burn off some energy.
I just remember for the first time in my life, running and actually enjoying it. We ran back and forth in the field because the playground was about three swings and one of those metal monstrosities for climbing that were prevalent in the eighties.
My parents made us our picnic lunch and then piled us back in the car. Once my dad is on a mission, and I am much like this myself, that mission will be accomplished henceforth with no disruptions.
In an effort to make the détente reached between the three siblings stuffed in the back of the Jeep, my parents acquiesced to stops at used book stores along the route as they were seen. They were not seen often. My brother and I made our way through the pre-trip books procured from the magic store we knew as B. Dalton at the mall in rapid succession leaving us to entertain ourselves in other which sometimes consisted of games or reading to our younger sister, who did a fine job making the stories up herself by looking at the pictures.
The only true peace in the east, was to supply us with more books.
Our reading frenzy became so associated with the trip that even as we drove along the pass through Glacier Mountains my parents were oohing and aahing from the front seat about the gorgeous views. They couldn’t figure out why we were so quiet, until they turned around to see each of us missing the scenery and instead lost in a book.
I am sure that never in any time has any parent ever said, “Put that book down and look at the window!”
Except my father.
With all of the natural scenery being presented, we should have been enthralled with our journey west. However, we were kids and the strangest items are what stick out from the great family road trip.
Idaho was a big state for us. We stopped in Boise to visit my aunt and uncle who lived there, and my two cousins. They all took us hiking up some mountain. But what we really remembered was the Tootin’ Tater, a little train that ran back and forth around the bottom of the mountain with no tracks. I mean the title of the Train had Tootin’ in it – that meant farting. Hilarious!
Despite the beautiful mountains, another highlight was swimming in the pool with our cousins and the freedom of running around the Holiday Inn in Boise and playing with people that weren’t my siblings. By this point in the trip, we had begun to tire of each other’s constant presence. We had started off gangbusters– we had books of mad libs that we would play with each other and laugh and laugh and laugh.
The most hilarity inducing word in each of our Mad Libs?
It was funnier than the Tootin’ Tater!
Beyond the Tater and the pool, we also visited my dad’s friend up on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Apparently, Lake Coeur d’Alene is quite phenomenal in in’s beauty. The Google images that I have seen tend to support that, and there is a small inkling in the back of my head that I may have observed this beauty as an eight-year-old and quite admired it.
But there were distractions abounding. My dad’s friend lived on: A HOUSEBOAT! His house – was a boat. Eight-year-old world rocked. Because when you live on a boat, that means you have to go to the bathroom on the boat. My mother would later realize that my sister and I had an obsession with bathrooms.
Actually, my obsession with bathrooms began when I was two and a half. We were out to breakfast after Mass one Sunday and my mother took me into the ladies’ room at the Country Kitchen. I walked out and immediately announced very loudly that the bathroom was extremely dirty.
As my mother said, if a two and a half year-old could figure out it was dirty, it was bad.
Later, I passed the obsession on to my younger sister. We developed a bathroom rating system regarding size in gymnastics terms. I am still not sure that my mother realizes that this system was implemented by actually attempting a handstand (the smallest), somersault (medium), and cartwheels (the largest).
Cartwheels were also often characterized by ash trays with fancy stamps in them.
In this enlightening moment in time, my obsession was with the houseboat bathroom. It was tiny. And the toilet? It was plastic! PLASTIC! I had obviously never been in a camper before as this BLEW MY FREAKING MIND! Also, when my dad’s friend realized how obsessed my siblings and I were with this toilet, he brought it out onto the deck. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: I can neither confirm or deny this fact as my eight-year-old brain was rather fanciful.)
You could pee on the deck!
I honestly have no idea what else the trip brought after that experience. It literally changed my life on the possibilities to how people could live.
In comparison, the rest of the trip was bleak. I remember some crappy hotel in Canada where the pool was outside and filled with leaves and it was cold. I believe we also bought me a boy’s wind suit while in this dumpy locale, but that is all I remember.
After the tragic night in the dump armpit of Canada, my siblings and I were about done with the traveling.
We had been gone almost two weeks and we were ready to go home.
My dad was not.
He wanted to go to Banff, Canada. He had heard it was beautiful and since that was the theme of our trip, it was next on the agenda.
But the crappy hotel and boy’s wind suit sealed the deal for me. Whining commenced. I am not pleasant when I whine and my whining tends to help my siblings feel more comfortable whining as well. Our entire experience in Canada had been tainted by a crummy hotel and boy’s wind suit. As I now absolutely adore Canada, and while I was there this summer attempted to find a Canadian husband so I could move there (sorry, current Hubby. I love you), at the time we were not fans.
My mother finally pitched in to the cause of the children, and convinced my dad that we needed to move on back to our own beds and the comfort of not driving for hours at a time. Our entire experience in Canada had been tainted by a crummy hotel and boy’s wind suit. As I now absolutely adore Canada, and while I was there this summer attempted to find a Canadian husband so I could move there (sorry, current Hubby. I love you), at the time we were not fans.
Instead of Banff, we drove to the wonderful city of Fargo, North Dakota where we were properly appeased, as we had a Holiday Inn with a pool that we could actually swim in it because it was indoors and not filled with leaves. And the added bonus? Video games in the pool area. Banff-Schmanff – the Fargo Holiday Inn was the place to be.
A little more than ten years post-car trip, this defiance in the face of natural beauty was thrown back in our faces. My father had driven through Banff as a part of a business trip through Canada. The following Christmas, we all received Banff sweatshirts.
Dan the man will always have the last word on family vacations.