Cross-Country, COVID-19, and Sweet Lemonade
Part 4: Heading Home
by Christina Fain
Our route home would not be I-70. We decided that, “since we were in the neighborhood,” we would take in a few more sights using a more northerly route. With a little stab of disappointment, we drove our way through Wyoming in complete darkness, so we have an excuse to go back to that state.
We made it to South Dakota early and headed straight to Mt. Rushmore. You can see the carved presidents before getting to the welcome center, and the kids were excited to get up close. And get up close they did.
As soon as you enter the park, there they are, the four presidents: Roosevelt, Jefferson, Washington, and Lincoln. Four hundred workers tirelessly sculpted the men who represent the nation’s birth, growth, development, and preservation. The kids learned about the building of the Mt. Rushmore monument, how it came to be, and about the presidents who grace the mountain.
I tried to get a head count at this popular tourist attraction. Roughly fifty people were taking in the sights with us, as well as a few hikers lining the trails. Another sign of the times, but at least we did not feel ghostly. And we are more than grateful our kids had this experience. (Parenting Win No. 3).
The base of Mt. Rushmore is a quaint town with an old western feel, and, as in many tourist areas, billboards shouted “kid things” to do. We learned quickly that our eight-year-olds could read. After seeing an advertisement for a mountain coaster, we indulged them and headed up the mountain road to see if it was open (we hoped it wasn’t) on this overcast and misty day.
The squeals and excitement from the back seat made it clear that the coaster was open. It was in a small amusement park with other rides, a zipline, 3-D movie theaters, and a mile walk through an underground cave. After looking around and noticing the park was almost empty, we purchased tickets (Middle-aged-mom Parenting Mistake No. 1).
We have pictures of the kids on the coveted mountain coaster, and we are right there screaming with them. I would not change those two hours for anything. I would rather have changed bodies with a twenty-year-old mom, however.
After the amusement park and some sleep, we were off to see the Badlands. Google was navigating, and we were following directions, up until we got stopped at a Native American Reservation COVID-19 checkpoint. Our navigation system had not accounted for the virus. We were questioned and promptly turned away after given a nonspecific alternative route to the Badlands.
As unnerving and intimidating as the reservation stop was, it worked out for the best. Using our trusty road atlas, we found a bypass right off the highway that would take us around the outer rim of the Badlands. We made it in time to see the best of the Badlands as the sun began to set.
It was just before dusk when we turned onto the bypass. Only a half mile later the Badlands were before us in all their glory. I have heard the word “exotic” used to describe the area. I am still trying to find an adequate adjective. The word “breathtaking” is overused, but at first look, you simply forget to breathe and let the grand proportion absorb you.
A second look at the scenery reveals color so faint, yet so vibrant that you cannot discern when one color blends into the next. Millions of years of water and wind have left horizontal and vertical striations across the sedimentary rock. The grand stone mountains are reminiscent of abandoned sandcastles being washed away by the sea.
There is no uniformity to the erosion or formation. Some structures are mountains, others are cliffs, some are rolling hills, but all look as if they just rose up to stake their claim on the valley floor, as individual as snowflakes, one not replicating the other.
Shades of red, tan, yellow, black, and purple appear along with the towering rock formations. One color with a definitive line but blending into the next. Millions of years of sediment forming an array of texture and color representing the years of persistent growth.
As the sun began to set, we continued our drive around the rim to catch views from different angles. One word kept coming to mind: “fire.” We watched the red-orange sky take over the land. As the final moments of the sunset approached, the sun threw flames across the tops of the Badlands, making them appear to be burning, smoldering embers. Maybe a legacy of their origin as volcanic rock.
It seemed that we had come full circle. In just a few short days, we had embraced both the snowcapped Rocky Mountains to the fire in the Badlands. So, after a night in a quaint South Dakota cowboy hotel, we headed east toward home. Despite a flat tire in Minnesota, we made our way back east, starting to feel the miles wash over us.
We arrived in Wisconsin Dells in the late afternoon, all of us tired and cranky, ready to be in our beds. We found a short reprieve when we arrived at the hotel to find a fantastic view of the Dells and a suite, complete with a third room for the kids.
COVID-19 had put a delay on the Wisconsin Dells summer season, so the waterparks and other attractions were closed. The extra hotel accommodations gave us all some much-needed space as we watched the sun fade silently into the waters of the lake and river, behind the green trees that reminded us of home.
We were tired, but the kids were recharged and loved having their own “apartment” for our last night. We are not sure how late they stayed up. We were strategically planning for a quiet drive home that could only be achieved with sleeping children.
We made it home in the late evening of our tenth day, knowing how fortunate we were to have had this time with our kids. We can only hope that, when they remember 2020, our excursions will overshadow everything else associated with that year.
We allowed ourselves to lose count of good and bad parenting moments. We made it home safe. We laughed, got wet, slipped on rocks, moved cattle, had snowball fights in the mountains, hiked our forty-plus-year-old legs in rugged caves, rolled down hills, and simply experienced life, even under extraordinary circumstances.
Sometimes life does give you lemons, but it is up to you to slip on the mask and sweeten the lemonade.
Photo credit by Kelly Lacy (Chattanooga, TN) @kellymlacy
Tina began creative writing at a young age. Professionally, she has written for legal professionals spanning more than 20 years. As an over-thinker, mother of two, she draws her inspiration from her adult son and much younger daughter, as well as her personal experiences trying to navigate life’s beautiful complications. When not writing, she spends her time reading, hiking with her family and planning her next travel adventure.