Northward Ho – the first leg in Trekking Torrey’s 2019 van-cation.
What I recall are lights, the glaring brightness of passing cars and illuminated billboards. Our van-cation began at 8:30 pm on a Friday night and within thirty minutes I was the only one awake in a car filled with the people I love best in the world. Alone but accompanied, traveling down the road toward adventure—an auspicious beginning. My shift ended at midnight when Joshua took the wheel and again I recall lights, blazing from Oklahoma’s casinos. I slept, Joshua drove, we switched, it rained, and then. Then, the horizon began to appear and the light was no longer electric but natural. The dawn had come and with it the prairie.
We had left Mt. Rushmore (or maybe it was Crazy Horse Memorial) returning to our campground when we noticed the stopped cars—a tell-tale sign of wildlife. Frantically we looked out the van windows and spotted it. A Bighorn Sheep, precariously, impossibly, and marvelously standing on the near sheer rock face alongside the highway. Although nearly twenty years have passed since this event, I remember it clearly. When we first began discussing a van-cation to Canada I knew I wanted the trip to include time in the Black Hills of South Dakota to give my children similar experiences.
Joshua balked initially. A more direct route to Canada existed, to a larger city with more Canadian tourism options. I insisted. The Black Hills possess a romance in nature and story, ancient geography that is majestic in formation and yet still, somehow, accessible. Perhaps merely the influence of a wonderful childhood vacation, but I hold a surprisingly strong attachment to the area and the route was confirmed. Northward Ho, with a decided nudge west. Thus we found ourselves ending Day Zero of van-cation 900 miles from our starting point in North Platte, Nebraska, sights set on Custer, South Dakota for Day One.
Quickly, this portion of our trip became a pinball version of travel, bouncing from one thing to the next with little opportunity for reflection. Of course, the kids would disagree. Sitting still in “traffic” while a wild donkey herd blocked the road for half an hour nearly caused them to mutiny. Although we spent time each day reviewing personal highlights (and sometimes confessing failures we hope to learn from in the future), most of the trip proved action-packed. Judah could glumly recite the maxim I answered with any time he requested a physical souvenir, “we’re buying experiences, not things!”, and we racked up those experiences.
Bison walked down the road in front of our vehicle, mountain goats clogged an intersection, and the antics of a huge prairie dog town kept all (passenger) faces glued to the window. Single car tunnels carved out of living stone slowed our progress and hairpin loops, “pigtails,” further arrested our speed. For me, these moments were savored. For the children, these moments were endured. One too many scenic highways and the lack of a Bighorn Sheep made Custer State Park a byword for “boring.” It nearly filled me with despair.
Yet, they hiked three miles up to a ridgeline, across meadows, through blackberry brambles, and across fallen ponderosa pine branches to play on the shores of a sparkling lake. They witnessed an ancient hoop dance by members of an ancient Lakota tribe in the shadow of a memorial to Crazy Horse, honored chieftain. They named the presidents whose likenesses are carved into granite and posed for pictures in the foreground shouting, “best road trip ever.” They ate ice cream, watched deer play from our back porch, argued over silly putty colors, climbed a fire tower, and rode a steam train. In my eagerness to share my past experiences I nearly forgot to leave room for our own, different, new ones.
Thankfully, it takes more than my whimsy to derail the Trekking Torrey’s from a good time. The sun set over our little cabin on Day Three and before it rose again we had packed up and put Custer in our rearview mirror. Canada loomed, and with it the second leg of our trip.