With Johnny’s school once again taking a full week off to celebrate Memorial Day, we were left with yet another conundrum—fly someone in to Austin to watch him, take precious vacation time and stay home with him, or go on a family vacation. I lobbied hard for a South Dakota road trip while Lauren initially proposed a week at Texas’s Big Bend National Park. In the end we landed on my idea, and I spent the next 6 weeks gleefully planning our first road trip with Johnny. I had a huge list of roadside attractions to stop and see, but in the end we did virtually none of them. Even with 9 days, I slightly overbooked our trip and we were mostly rushing off from one place to the next. When will I learn?!
Day 1 – Friday, May 25 – We dropped off Baxter at the Megos’ and left Austin for our fun adventure north! Taking routes we’d never traveled before, we weaved our way up Hwy 183 before stopping for a quick bite in the town of Lampasas at the famed Storm’s Drive-In. A short time later, as we approached the town of Zephyr, the skies turned an eerie gray and we were soon engulfed in a wild hail storm. I pulled the van to the side of the road along with several other motorists, and we braced ourselves as hail slammed the van for 15 minutes straight. It was so loud we couldn’t hear each other talk! The winds picked up so strong that the van felt like it was about to blow over, and the temp dropped all the way from 89 to 54. Finally the storm subsided and we continued on our way, driving through piles of hail and branches, noticing damage to trees and even a truck that had plummeted through a guardrail. We were thankful to be safe! That night I drove us all the way to Lubbock while Lauren and Johnny slept, arriving at our Days Inn after midnight. I had inadvertently booked a smoking room, so everyone was eager to hit the road bright and early Saturday morning.
Day 2 – Saturday, May 26 – We stopped off at a Lubbock park for Johnny to get some exercise before we hit the road, traveling northwest into the far extremities of the Texas panhandle on smaller roads and highways. When we reached the Texas-New Mexico border, I pulled over to jump back and forth over not just the state border, but the Central/Mountain time zone border! We soon arrived in the small town of Clayton, New Mexico where we visited a small dinosaur park and grabbed lunch at the Rabbit Ear Cafe. As we made our way through NM, we passed a volcano—wish we would have stopped and checked it out! Instead we kept on trucking up through Colorado, through Pueblo, Colorado Springs, and Denver, before reaching our destination of Erie, the home of childhood friend Dusty Hovde and family. We joined in their neighborhood BBQ and Johnny got acquainted with the Hovde boys.
Day 3 – Sunday, May 27 – Lauren, Johnny, and I were joined by Dusty and Beckham as we headed back into Denver for the Rockies vs. Reds game. (Second baseball game of the year, both times coincidentally seeing the Reds as the road team!) I nabbed some front-row seats in the upper deck down the first base line on StubHub at the last minute. It was my first time at Coors Field (Lauren’s second). It was definitely a great venue, though I was surprised at the lack of craft beers at concession stands—lots of Coors products, though. The Rockies put on quite a hitting display, cranking four homers in an 8-2 win. That night, the Hovdes were nice enough to watch Johnny while Lauren and I had dinner at Acreage, a hot new cider brewery out in rural Lafayette. My main entree of Korean spare ribs was really weird, but otherwise a great spot.
Day 4 – Monday, May 28 – We bid farewell to the Hovdes and ventured north into Wyoming, and soon southwestern South Dakota. We arrived in Custer around 2pm and checked into our Comfort Inn hotel. Johnny was eager to visit the pool, so we all changed into our swim gear and went for a swim. Johnny was shy at first but soon was leaping off the edge, begging us to back away and not catch him! Afterwards, we headed to Mt. Rushmore where we explored the monument up-close. I hadn’t been there since maybe 1998, and Lauren had never been. Later we had dinner at the Custer Wolf, where I enjoyed a buffalo brisket sandwich and a couple local brews. After Lauren and Johnny called it a night, I went out for a beer with high school teacher and basketball coach Mr. Kelley. Custer was quiet on Memorial Day night, so I was back to the hotel at a reasonable hour. In the middle of the night, though, Johnny began violently throwing up! I wadded up the puke-filled blankets and alerted the front desk. We re-made the bed, but he was still very sick.
Day 5 – Tuesday, May 29 – Johnny’s overall grogginess and continued vomiting made us think he was sick because of dry drowning… he had gone underwater a couple times and has never had a swim lesson, so we feared the worst and headed to the ER. Our fun day of touristy stuff took a backseat to six long hours in the hospital, undergoing x-rays and tests. He continued to puke at the hospital. We watched Paw Patrol on the hospital TV for seemingly hours. When I felt like we’d had enough TV, I turned it off and immediately Johnny rolled over and went to sleep. Like within 3 seconds. Finally, around 2:00, we received word it was just a virus and he’d be alright. We drove north up to Deadwood and Lead before checking into a temporary cabin (the real one was still being cleaned), then moved over to our rental property, a huge 14-person cabin out in the country. The three of us unpacked and relaxed while we waited on the rest of the family to arrive. At one point in the evening while exploring the house, I randomly got up and opened the front door to take in a nice breath of country air, and in ran cousin Hudson! Scared the SHIT out of me! I had no idea anyone had arrived. Calvin, Hudson, and Colton hung out for a while, and not long after Dad, Jordan, Hadley, and Peyton arrived. A while later, Alex, Ann, Adrienne, and Auden showed up. And finally, at 5:30am, Mom and Emmy arrived, having driven directly from the airport after their big New York vacation.
Day 6 – Wednesday, May 30 – After a night of debauchery with the siblings, I wasn’t up for much, but the ladies and some kids went for a merry hike nearby. Once I finally started to feel better in the afternoon, I joined Mom and Jordan for another hike, this time a very challenging route at Spearfish Canyon that required us scaling rock walls and walking through a river time and again. But the views were amazing and the Devil’s Bathtub at the end of the hike with waterfalls was worth the work. I kinda regret not emptying my pockets and jumping in for a swim! At night after dinner, everyone gathered around a roaring campfire to roast marshmallows. At night I waited out in the living room for everyone to finish the kids’ bedtimes so we could play a game or something, but no one ever returned! Guess everyone was seriously pooped out from a big day.
Day 7 – Thursday, May 31 – While Alex and Ann’s family went out exploring on their own, the rest of us attempted another hike, but were thwarted after being led astray by Google Maps! Instead, we went into Deadwood to explore. We were quickly reminded that it wasn’t a great town for kids as we struggled to find a restaurant that welcomed families. After splitting up for lunch—most of the family eating at a greasy pub, and me, Lauren, and Johnny eating at a slightly less greasy diner—we met back up for ice cream and a tiny bit of gambling. Back at the cabin, everyone gathered on the patio for the afternoon. I decided to start hitting the brandy pretty hard and got moderately intoxicated. Dad fired up the grill and we all enjoyed steaks and Calvin’s freshly caught bass for dinner. Alex and Ann went out to celebrate their anniversary privately. I had big ideas to meet Alex in Lead for karaoke, but got too drowsy. Despite it being our final night of the cabin, there were no late-night shenanigans. Sad.
Day 8 – Friday, June 1 – The families all packed up early and were on the road home by 10am. On our way out of the cabin, we stopped on an old dirt road to explore the remnants of the abandoned Presidents Park. Mom, Jordan, and I walked beyond a No Trespassing sign to get some interesting pictures with giant 12-foot busts of former presidents sitting idly, decaying out in the woods. If it had been night, it would have been even creepier! Johnny began to get cranky on the road, possibly due to all the driving, the odd sleeping schedule, and most of all, leaving his beloved cousins behind. I stopped at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum outside Rapid City and he was very angry, screaming at the airplanes. He was even angrier during lunch at Wall Drug. Allowed to pick out one toy at the store, he threw tantrums left and right. He calmed down a little when riding on a coin-operated stage coach, but his temper caused us to leave early before seeing everything. I drove south into the Badlands National Park, where I was excited to stop and get out of the van and climb around. Johnny’s temper still hadn’t subsided, so we plowed through the rest of the park and headed south through Rosebud Indian Reservation and into Valentine, Nebraska. We drove for miles until arriving in the city of Grand Island where we crashed at a Ramada for the night. Johnny had napped and was now eager to hit up the hotel pool before bed.
Day 9 – Saturday, June 2 – I had initially wanted to break up the route home from Nebraska into two segments so as not to overwhelm our 3-year-old passenger. In the afternoon we stopped for lunch at Public in Wichita, an awesome gastropub. Once we hit Oklahoma, we figured what the hell, let’s grind it out and get all the way back to Austin. Johnny threw up on himself near Temple, Texas and lied about it, otherwise the ride back was mostly uneventful. We arrived safely at home before midnight.
All told, it was a great trip. There are some things I certainly wish had gone differently (taking some time to see more of New Mexico and Colorado on the haul up to Denver, Johnny not getting sick, not getting so wild the first night at the cabin) but no major regrets. I’m just sad that it’s over and back to reality! Both Lauren and I agreed we desperately needed some time away from work and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I needed it both mentally and physically—my wrists and arms were starting to get really sore from typing and using a mouse all damn day. And as I had said prior to the trip, the idea of just getting out of Austin and hitting the open highway was very appealing to me. For most of the trip, driving was in fact as fun as expected, but only during the daytime. Once night hit, I noticed I’d be clenching the wheel extra hard since I feel like my night vision isn’t great and I’d occasionally get sleepy. There’s something about driving 75 in the dark in the rain in an unfamiliar area that’s rather stressful.
I’d say my favorite part of the trip was the first moments we arrived at the cabin. It was only 49º, rain was falling down, and we were happy to have gotten Johnny out of the hospital and to somewhere he could relax. We all felt very cozy in the cabin, and there was such excitement and suspense waiting for everyone else to arrive! I was sitting with my feet up, drink in hand, watching a Twins game, with the rain pattering against the giant windows overlooking the Black Hills. Ah… it all went by too fast!