A Summer Vacation to Mount Rushmore

Aug 24, 2018

Having fond memories of our road trip last summer, we decided to do another one this year. This time our destination was Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, although, as you'll see below, it actually turned into a mini-Midwest tour, which was so fun.

My parents took my siblings and me to Mount Rushmore when I was six years old, but sadly, the only thing I remember is that I accidentally mistook someone else for my mom (they were wearing similar jackets), and I had my arms wrapped around her waist when she said, "I'm not your mommy, sweetie." It must have been somewhat traumatic for me because I can still remember it vividly.

Mike also visited it as a kid, but we figured it was time for our kids to make their own memories (and, in keeping with traumatic experiences, probably the only thing Ian will remember is that he was was bit by a dog at the Crazy Horse monument). 

As we planned out our itinerary, however, I realized that it had been over three years since I had seen my grandma (who lives in Nebraska), and I asked Mike if maybe we should go there instead. But "instead" turned into "in addition," and then we decided as long as we were going to Nebraska, we might as well go a few hours farther east and visit my aunt and uncle on the family farm in Iowa.

Here is a quick rundown of our itinerary before I launch into some highlights:

Day 1: Drive to North Platte, Nebraska
Day 2: Drive to Lincoln, Nebraska
Day 3: Lincoln
Day 4: Drive to Iowa
Day 5: Iowa
Day 6: Drive to Wall, South Dakota
Day 7: Badlands
Day 8: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 9: Black Hills/Custer State Park
Day 10: Drive home

All told, it felt a little long, but I don't know what I would have cut out because it was all so much fun, as you'll soon see:

As we looked at our summer calendar and planned when to go on our trip, my only requirement was that it had to be at a time when the fireflies would be out. I grew up in Colorado where we didn't have fireflies, but every summer, we would visit my grandma, and in the high humidity of eastern Nebraska, the fireflies would come out every night in droves. I just knew my bug-loving kids, especially Maxwell, would be completely spell-bound by these magical (could there be any other word for them?) bugs. And they were. Sadly, I missed their first encounter with them, which was on our first night in North Platte, which happened to be the night before the 4th of July. Someone had told us there were going to be fireworks "down by the hospital," but Ian and Clark were too tired to go. So Mike took the older boys, and before the show started, nature's own fireworks came out. Luckily, Mike caught it on video for me because it was a moment I'd long been waiting for. (And the next evening, when I caught a few fireflies myself, I felt like a child all over again and realized that this was one thing that had not become exaggerated in my memory through the years. Fireflies were, and still are, spectacular.)

Sharing traditions
This trip was a little walk down memory lane for me. Most of the traveling my family did when I was little was to visit my relatives in Nebraska and Iowa. All of our trips followed a similar pattern of the same routes, the same food, and the same activities. So of course, I had to share some of those old traditions with my kids, which included the twisty slide in Hastings, lunch at Valentino's, ice cream at the UNL Dairy, and a visit to the Henry Doorly zoo (which I'll talk more about later).

Exploring the beauty of Lincoln
But we also did things in Lincoln that I'd never done before. We went to the sunken gardens on our first evening (when it was in the upper 90's with 70% humidity, and we all thought we were going to die or melt, whichever came first). The next morning (after a storm blew through during the night and cooled things off), we went to the Pioneers Park Nature Preserve. I loved seeing a part of Lincoln I'd never seen before, and I had to smile a little when we were at the nature preserve because it looked like we were somewhere much more exotic than Nebraska. Speaking of which, I've noticed that people often give the midwest a bad rap and claim that, as far as landscapes go, it's pretty boring. But personally, I just can't see where they're coming from. I love the undulating fields, the big skies, and the lush greenery that make up both Nebraska and Iowa.

Visiting family
A big reason for our trip was to visit my sweet grandma (my mom's mom) in Nebraska, and my Uncle Bill (my dad's brother) and Aunt Sheri in Iowa. As an added bonus, we also got to see my Uncle Steve (my mom's brother), my cousin Michael (Uncle Bill and Aunt Sheri's son), and my cousin Karen and her family. We chatted, played games, ate good food, and just generally enjoyed one another's company. I also gave my grandma a pair of mittens and my aunt a shawl that I had knitted for them. Spending time with these dear people made me wish we lived closer so we could do it more often.

Henry Doorly Zoo
Even though the zoo in Omaha was one of my favorite destinations when I was a kid, it wasn't really at the top of our travel plans this time. However, on the day we were headed to Iowa, we realized there wasn't much of a rush to get there since we weren't planning on seeing my aunt and uncle until the next morning anyway, so we decided a trip to the zoo was in order. I had forgotten how truly amazing this zoo is, and when our whole vacation was said and done, this remained one of my kids' favorite things. (And I had to laugh because, without fail, my kids always love the snake and spider and lizard exhibits the most. If there's a tiny little window, they will look into it.)

The farm
My dad grew up on a farm in central Iowa, and his brother (my Uncle Bill) still lives there and runs it. He grows soy beans and corn, and it is a quintessential American farm. My boys loved it. Uncle Bill gave each of them their own private ride in the tractor while he cultivated the soy beans. Then they all went for a cruise in the mule four-wheeler, laughing and singing and just having a raucous good time. They played in the yard and the little thicket and ran around to their heart's delight. It was a gorgeous day with clear, sunny skies, and we felt like we'd come home.

The landscapes
I love road trips so much because they give you an intimate view of the changing and vibrant landscapes. As we made our way through Nebraska and Iowa and up into South Dakota, we kept an eye on the colors and the horizons and the skylines. And this world just truly never ceases to amaze me. One of the surprises for me was how much I loved the Badlands. I kind of thought it was just going to feel like a harsh and desolate wasteland (and, to a certain extent, I guess it did), but it was also absolutely other-worldly. The sharp, jagged hills and the segmented strips of color and the seemingly endless views just about took my breath away. And then we got to the Black Hills with its dark green forests and wildflowers, and everywhere you looked, the ground and rocks sparkled with mica. And because we were driving, we had the luxury to stop wherever and whenever we wanted and do a little more exploring.

Time in the car
No, really, this was a highlight. All told, we probably spent over thirty hours in the car, and although we had moments of crazed torture (you know what I'm talking about, right?), the majority of the time was so much fun. We took in the aforementioned landscapes, but also read books, watched shows (Pollyanna was an all-around favorite), knitted (me), listened to books and podcasts and music and our summer playlist, and counted the (literally) hundreds of Wall Drug signs. I love road tripping with my family.

Whenever possible, we prefer to rent a home when we travel rather than cram ourselves into a hotel room. On this trip, we stayed in two fantastic VRBOs, one in Lincoln and the other in Custer State Park. The one in Lincoln was a modest home in a quiet neighborhood. If I was led into that neighborhood blindfolded and had to guess where I was, I think I would have been able to tell I was in Lincoln; the architecture, the trees, the way the air smelled and felt was everything I've come love about Lincoln, and I can't tell you how happy that little house made me. It had a big window that looked out onto a fenced backyard that was perfect for catching fireflies in. Seriously, I was so sad to the leave that house. Then in South Dakota, we stayed in a lovely cabin right on the edge of Custer State Park. There was a spacious deck where we could sit and read and watch the deer, and it felt like we had the world to ourselves.

Sylvan Lake
This was my favorite spot on the entire trip, even though Ian had the biggest meltdown while we were here (think: writhing, inconsolable, overtired screaming where even random strangers were offering to help). It was just so gorgeous. I couldn't get enough of it. We went on a hike, and then Mike took the boys out on the lake in a canoe (while I sat on a bench and held a now-sleeping Ian). Seriously, when I pictured South Dakota, I never pictured this.

Once we got to South Dakota, there was no shortage of wildlife. We saw mountain sheep in the Badlands, bison and burro and prairie dogs on the wildlife loop, deer at our cabin, and bears and reindeer and wolves in Bear Country (which was maybe a little contrived, but still . . . ).

Mount Rushmore
And finally, the reason for our vacation in the first place. On the way there, during those many hours in the car, we all read Where is Mount Rushmore (part of the Who was . . . series). It gave a lot of great background information so that by the time we saw those majestic faces of our forebears carved in granite, we were ready and we could appreciate it. Someone had given us a tip of which road to take into Mount Rushmore so that you catch your first glimpse of it through a tunnel and then watch it get gradually closer and closer as you twist and turn in the Black Hills. It is a beautiful and impressive monument, and there's a reason why it is such an iconic destination. We ended up going twice--once in the late afternoon and again late at night for the lighting ceremony, which was emotionally patriotic, just as it should be.

At this stage of our family's life, I've learned that we need wide open spaces where noise and chaos won't matter, plenty of things to explore (that won't break), and a relaxed and flexible timetable. This trip ticked all of those boxes, and we came back home happy and filled up with good memories.

What I Read in July

Aug 10, 2018

July was a good reading month for me, both in terms of quantity and quality. I was satisfied and content in every way.

1. America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoi
This was my favorite read from July, in part because it suited the month so perfectly (and you all know how I feel about a good, seasonal read).

It is a fictionalized account of Martha "Patsy" Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson's daughter). Her mother passed away when she was just ten years old, but not before securing a promise from Patsy that she would always take care of and protect her father. The promise itself seems fairly innocent on the surface--her father had just lost the love of his life; of course she would want to look after him and help him--but it has far-reaching consequences. Patsy is her father's secret keeper, pushing forward the image that the new nation expects and covering the human foibles that would turn people against him. She gives up her own heart to protect his.

Much of the story is embellished and dramatized for the sake of entertainment, but I found the author's note at the end of the novel to be completely fascinating (and impressive). Every care was taken to make the story as historically accurate as possible, but where facts were not known (in part probably because Patsy herself erased portions of incriminating history), plausible details were inserted. Regardless of what is or is not true, Patsy's life was a tragic one, and at times, the heartache is almost too much to bear.

I listened to this during our trip through the midwest last month (more on that in my next post) and found that this long novel (over 20 hours) was the perfect companion, especially because our trip went over the 4th of July holiday and ended at Mt. Rushmore where we all got a good look at Thomas Jefferson's stony features. In spite of its length, it was a compelling novel that I couldn't seem to listen to fast enough. For those who love historical fiction or emotional drama, I can't recommend it enough.

2. The Willoughbys by Lois Lowry
The Willoughbys are an old-fashioned family of father, mother, three sons, and one daughter. But they are not a happy family. The parents cannot stand the children (they "frequently forgot that they had children and became quite irritable when they were reminded of it"), and the children's feelings are mutual. Thus, they both devise plans to get rid of each other: the children suggest a vacation the parents can't turn down (volcanoes, alligator infested lakes, frozen mountain peaks--all perfect ways for them to meet their end), and the parents sneakily sell their house out from under the children while they're away.

With that brief introduction, I'm sure you can see that this is a morbid, irreverent, and even dastardly wicked plot. Being big fans of Roald Dahl, it's just the kind of book my kids and I love, and it certainly had a lot of potential going into it. However, it lost some momentum for me when it introduced a whole bunch of sub-characters (an abandoned baby, a grief-stricken candy inventor, a no-nonsense nanny, an organizational freak, a lonely boy, and a love-sick postmaster). It was wildly entertaining to see how the different plot lines all eventually entwined with one another, but I think my interest waned because I didn't love some of the characters, but I felt forced to pay attention to them so I wouldn't get lost.

Still though, my kids loved it from beginning to end and always begged for me to read and then keep reading. There's also a delightful glossary (with explanations such as, "Irascible means having outbursts of bad temper. I myself had a very irascible third-grade teacher and it made for a miserable year.") and a bibliography of famous books at the end of the book. And it's Lois Lowry. So you know that even if I'm complaining about the plot, it isn't all bad. Not by a long shot.

3. Jean and Johnny by Beverly Cleary
As a teenager, I remember reading Fifteen by Beverly Cleary and loving it, so I wanted to try one of her other young adult novels (in part, to help fulfill my goal of reading three pre-1970 young adult novels).

I honestly don't know what today's teenager would think about this book. I'm sure they would find it a little bit cheesy and a lot old-fashioned (because I myself kind of felt that way about it), but I wonder if they'd also be able to see past some of those things to the lessons of the story:
  • Jean makes almost all of her own clothes because, even though she is just fifteen, her parents expect her to furnish her own wardrobe and handmade clothes are so much cheaper than ready made garments. Even though it would be just the opposite today (I speak from experience that you cannot save money by making your own clothes), the principles of frugality, contentment, and gratitude are still needed.
  • Johnny is a real jerk. At first, I thought Beverly Cleary was actually casting him as the perfect male lead, and I was absolutely disgusted. (When Johnny takes Jean out for a soda and makes her listen to his entire radio program with himself as host, I laughed at how ridiculous it was.) But Beverly Cleary comes around, and so does Jean, and I think it would help all teenage girls see through the phoniness of so many boys.
  • Jean refuses a kiss on a first date. As someone who held my kisses close, I gave a silent cheer for Jean's level head.
  • The family dynamic in Jean's home is sweet: her father and mother sit around in the evenings, meeting their daughters' dates; Jean looks up to her older sister, Sue, and seeks her advice, but then rejects it when it doesn't fit with what she wants to do. It all feels very realistic while at the same time feeling just a little too good to be true.
In spite of my initial reservations, I ended up enjoying this story and wish it was the kind of book teenagers wanted to read today. It is the very definition of wholesome.

4. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick
This was the book we settled on for our little family book club, and it was a big success. Even Mike, who hasn't read a physical book in probably a couple of years, really liked it and was actually the first one finished with it.

It's definitely a book that must be read, not listened to, because half of the story is told through pictures. Ben's story takes place in 1977, beginning in Gunflint Lake, Michigan and ending in New York City, and is told through words; Rose's story begins in 1927, beginning in Hoboken, New Jersey and also ending in New York City and is told through pictures. It is an interesting format, one that moves along at a rapid pace because you read two pages and then you look at the next twenty. 

When we had our book club meeting, I asked everyone to tell us about their favorite moment. Mine was easy. It was the part where the two stories collided, and I turned the page and saw Ben's face for the first time. I think I actually gasped. I probably can't tell you about each person's favorite moment without giving away major parts of the plot, but almost all of them were pictures, which I found so interesting especially since they told me they liked Ben's story (the one told in words) better than Rose's. I think pictures lodge in our memories a little more easily and maybe trigger emotions faster as well.

There are some mature themes with this one, not the least of which is that Ben's mother and father were never married (and Ben never even met his father). Mike and I were a little concerned about this, mostly because six-year-old Bradley was reading it, and we didn't know if we wanted to get into any hard explanations. But adults see very different things than kids, and because this relationship was merely alluded to without going into any sort of detail, it went right over his head. And we let it. Instead we focused on Ben and his adventures in the Museum of Natural History (think From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler) and Rose's loneliness in her quiet, protected world, and we marveled at this masterful storytelling. 

5. Courage to Be You: Inspiring Lessons From an Unexpected Journey by Gail Miller
I'm going to be completely honest with this one (even though I'm sure many readers will not share my opinion): the overall message was good, a few of the stories were interesting, and there was a smattering of memorable insights, but from the beginning this felt like a trite and formulaic inspirational read that was only selling copies because of who the author was (wife of Larry H. Miller). Whew, that was a long sentence, but sometimes it's best to just get it all out in one fell swoop.

The writing itself was overly simplistic and bland (despite being co-authored by Jason Wright) and was filled with many self-deprecating statements such as, "My marriage wasn't perfect; I'm not perfect; I might look like I have it all figured out, but I don't." I'm not saying that these statements weren't sincere; they probably were. But the tone just struck me as a little bit lofty even while she was trying very hard not to be.

My favorite chapter was, "Love to Serve--Serve to Love," where she shared this thought, "The only people I don't love are those I don't know yet." That alone was worth reading the book for, and I wish I could keep this statement at the forefront of my mind and really internalize and live it. In spite of not loving this book, I think Gail Miller really exemplifies this and the other principles she attempted to teach, as did her husband, Larry.

6. The Boy on the Porch by Sharon Creech
This was recommended to me by a friend a couple of years ago, but it wasn't until I was searching for an audiobook that was available for immediate download (an increasingly difficult feat) that I remembered it and finally listened to it.

It's a short book, which sometimes makes a story somewhat forgettable, but this one had a sweet poignancy that I think will stay with me. That said, I wouldn't have minded hanging out with the characters for a little longer.

When middle-aged couple, John and Marta, find a boy on their porch one morning, they are surprised and also a little disturbed. Try as they might, they can find no information about the boy save for a cryptic piece of paper from someone (his parents? a guardian?) that says they'll be back for him. What's more, the boy can't (or won't) talk, and so John and Marta are left to deduce as much as they can. Although the whole situation is strange, they both have big hearts that have been longing for a child to love. And so their relationship grows quickly and easily, until one day, when they've begun to assume it will go on like this forever, it comes to an abrupt end.

This novel took an unexpected turn toward foster parenting that I absolutely loved. My cousin and her husband have been foster parents for several years, and after I finished this book, I immediately told her about it. Even though it's a middle-grade book, John and Marta's self-sacrifice and non-judgmental warmth will touch the hearts of children and adults alike. Foster parenting is a roller coaster ride of emotions and is not for the faint of heart. This book celebrates those courageous individuals who are willing to share a piece of their hearts with others.

What have you been reading lately? Have you read any of these books? Tell me in the comments!
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