“Fifty-nifty United States from thirteen original colonies…” with the word “colonies” exaggerated to an ear spitting level. I’ve never been an alto, but I could belt my “Fifty-nifty” song like Whitney Houston singing the national anthem.
Fittingly, the year after Whitney’s iconic performance, I got to see Mt. Rushmore at night. My eight-year-old heart had “God Bless America” silently pumping out while I stood looking up at Washington, Roosevelt, Lincoln, and Jefferson, their faces illuminated and fireworks going off around us.
Earlier that year, my papa asked, “what do you think about going out west with us, when school gets out, you wanna go?”
Of course I wanted to go! I wanted to see the world! Sign me up! Just the words “out west” were synonymous with “good time”.
My grandparents had been fully retired since I was three years old. They moved across the state and spent winters in Florida or Texas. When they weren’t “snowbirding”, they spent the summers traveling each state in the Union, parts of Canada, and Mexico as well. They’ve been everywhere and they’ve seen everything from the county’s largest cotton ball to the Grand Canyon.
The plan was pretty simple. When I got out of school following third grade, my parents would take me to my grandparents, and then we would head off. Westward Expansion 1993!
Our journey would take us through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, through parts of Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and into Wyoming. I was going to see the entire world in one week. How amazing was that?
“Are you ready?’ my mom asked.
“Yep! I have everything.” I replied, anxiously awaiting. I had wishy-washed a little before the trip. Wanting to go, but not wanting to leave my mom and dad. This was the first trip I’d take without them. It was more than a big deal. This was my foray into expedition.
While preparing for the trip, I remember being beyond excited to stop in Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is there, and the Little House books were among my childhood favorites. My mom took me to the library every week and I think she’s the one that suggested I read them.
My mom helped to supply me with camera after camera, so I could document my trip. I have had an affinity for pictures for as long as I can remember. Snap, snap, snap. I took photos of everything I saw.
I raced along the bank of Plum Creek like I imagined Laura doing, and I basked in the enormousness of childhood.
As an adult, I would like to go back. At eight, I liked to read, but the importance of words, books, language, and writing hadn’t yet solidified. I was still going to be a rockstar (as evidenced by the “Fifty Nifty ” performance).
I collected pamphlets and brochures along every stop along the trip. I know I had them for a long time, but I am not sure they survived long enough to make it into my adulthood.
We went to Sturgis, South Dakota just after the big Harley Davison rally. It had been the week prior to our arrival, so the city was quiet, making for fine exploration. In Sturgis, we went to the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame. There, I listened to my papa tell me the history behind many of the motorcycles and I imagined such grand adventures.
They took me to Custer State Park where I became fascinated with prairie dogs. At that time, I didn’t understand the history. I just knew that it was beautiful. I didn’t know about things like war and Native American slaughter. I knew buffalo were huge animals and seeing them up close was ah-maz-ing. I also hoped that the Crazy Horse monument would be completed while I was there.
I remember Wind Cave as well. I thought it was super cool because I’d never heard of a cave that blew air backward. It was a sight! I am pretty sure that my papa wanted to tour it, but for whatever reason, we didn’t. We walked only as far as one can go for free.
I talked about Wind Cave for years and it remains one of the most fascinating pieces of nature that I have even been fortunate enough to see.
We also followed every road sign that led us to Wall Drug. That one stop I distinctly remember my papa being excited to take me on our journey. My grandparents had been there, and before we left, he talked about Wall Drug like it was Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
My papa told me multiple times, “you can get a cup of water for FREE! And it is HOT there, let me tell ya bud.”
He pointed out every sign leading to Wall Drug. When we got there, we went in for our water and we got some ice cream. That’s what you do when you’re on an epic journey across the world.
While we were at Wall Drug, I went on a quest to get my mom and dad something really special. I spend painful amounts of time looking for just the right thing to get as gifts, but it’s exacerbated when I am traveling.
I got my dad a tie tack made from Black Hills gold. And I got my mom a super corny t-shirt that says something about “these two turkeys” to wear while out with me and my dad. My dad’s gift was obviously something unique, and my mom’s? Well, it was nice of her to be so excited to receive it, but what the heck was I thinking? (If anyone asks, I found her a lovely pair of earrings and she wears them every day.)
I had a blast! All the while we were camping, and back then I still liked it. Our version of camping was me sleeping in the cab of their pickup truck and them sleeping in the bed of the truck with a modified bed. We bathed in lakes and rivers and we cooked by campfire.
We also stumbled upon military property and were politely asked to leave, by a lovely man in uniform with a fairly stern expression. Was I at Area 51….?
Somewhere along the way, I started to develop blisters on my feet. My white sandals weren’t exactly conducive to tons of walking. They were white and pretty. As per usual, I had been concerned with cuteness over practicality.
My papa noticed and said, “we have to get you some shoes.” And although I wasn’t complaining about my white sandals, he was right. I was content to put band aids over my blisters and keep truckin’. I was an explorer and explorers don’t tucker out.
“Pick out whatever you like, just make sure that they’re good” he said. And I wandered through the shoes at a Wal-Mart somewhere in South Dakota.
I picked a pair of River Rapids. They were a kind of hiking sandal that resembles Teva sandals but at a quarter of the cost. They were brown and blue and they were sturdy enough for me to hike and pal around in without making my feet look like a deleted scene from Nightmare on Elm Street. These shoes, these River Rapids, were the beginning of the end of the good memories about this trip.
My grandmother was pissed. My papa spent money on me. He didn’t make me buy my own sandals. To her, I was eight, hell, why didn’t I have a job? I could afford them out of the spending money my parents sent with me.
When I came home I was as geeked as a kid could be about everything we saw and did.
My ramblings sounded something like:
“Mt. Rushmore at night was just the coolest”
“Ooooooh my gosh dad! You should have seen Wind Cave!”
“Mom! Wall Drug is sooooo big!”
“Dad! Devil’s Ridge is way tall!”
I talked about that trip for years. I went back to school in August with my treasures. I showed my fourth grade teacher all of the pamphlets and brochures. She was pretty interested to hear about the Laura Ingalls Wilder museum too. It was wonderful! I had an arsenal of stories and it seemed like everywhere I went, I had an audience of willing listeners.
The next summer, we didn’t take a trip together.
Nor the summer after.
Or the summer after that.
Before I knew it, I was a teenager. I got a job when I was in high school and I worked very hard at making the best pizzas that Little Caesar’s had ever seen. When I graduated from high school, I started college right away the next fall. And when I completed my bachelor’s degree, I started graduate school that same fall. I worked full-time by then and was in my early twenties. I only had a few summers that I could go on expeditions and be an explorer extraordinaire.
My grandparents spent one with me.
“Did I not say thank you enough”? I wondered.
I tried so hard to make sure I thanked everyone. By the time I could write my own name, my mom taught me to write thank you cards. And I started sending them for everything. Because I was taught to be grateful and not just for birthdays and Christmas, I sent, or gave, thank you cards to those that supported my school fundraisers or gave me “just because” things. This is something that I still do because in my experience, people don’t often realize how much others depend on them or appreciate them. I want to make sure that I don’t compound that, so, I send my antiquated hand-written notes.
I worried that I didn’t say this enough to my grandparents. Was I not grateful enough? Did I act like I didn’t have a good time? Because I did! I told everyone about that trip. I showed my pictures, pamphlets, and brochures to ev-er-y-one that could or would look at them. I talked about Wind Cave for years! I still do.
I spent years following my trip out west wondering what I did wrong. Why didn’t they ask me again? I honestly thought it was because of something that I said or did. I was convinced that I wasn’t grateful enough.
I told my mom about this a few years ago. I expressed the disappointment and hurt from years of wondering and withholding. My mom knew. She said, “you know, I offered to pay her back for the sandals.”
My mom offered to pay my grandmother for the hiking sandals that they bought me at a Wal-Mart in Nowhere, South Dakota.
My grandmother passed away in June, 2018 and all I can tell you, without a doubt, that she spent most of her life concerned about two things: how much something cost and how many calories were in it.
The reason that I wasn’t asked to go again was because of the River Rapids. My grandmother was petty enough that she wouldn’t have me again because I had cost my grandfather less than twenty dollars.
This is the same woman that flipped out because my papa purchased a calculator for me at K-mart when I was five.
“Did she ask for it?” my mom asked my grandma.
Before my grandmother could answer, my papa interjected, “it’s not a big deal! It’s a one-dollar calculator Mary, and no, she didn’t ask for it. I wanted her to have it.”
It wasn’t until I was in my late teens when I began realizing that it had nothing to do with me.
My grandmother began acting “odd” toward me when I reached the age of about ten. Then she started acting as if I was some sort of competitor in the race for my grandfather’s attention. She put the kibosh on that. They still came down to see my parents and me, but they were always uninvited and showed up without any warning, but it wasn’t the same.
That’s not to say that I don’t have good memories involving my grandparents. They were present for all of my milestones, and I had a good relationship with them as an adult.
They came to each of my college graduations, they saw me buy my own house, and they were present at my wedding.
My grandfather got to hold my daughter,
My grandmother developed dementia and spent her last year in a nursing home. Sometimes she knew who I was and sometimes she didn’t. Often, I believe she thought I was just some lady there in the room.
In her more lucid moments, she enjoyed seeing videos and photographs of my daughter. She always said, “what a doll” and smiled.
But I always wondered why I wasn’t taken on more adventures.
My parents have already proven that an apple can fall far from the tree. They have already taken my girl on adventures, and she’s not even three years old.
I was eight on my first and last adventure with my grandparents.
I can already hear my daughter saying:
“Oh my gosh, you are never going to believe how cool Mackinaw Island is”
“You’ve gotta listen to this. So we were at this really cool place where they have all these old cars…”
She’ll conclude her whale of a tale with, “I can’t believe how much fun we had! When can I go again?”
And my parents will take my little girl to all the fun places that grandparents should haul their grandchildren. They’ll pile into my mom and dad’s truck and go tent camping and eat by campfire. Every child should learn how to become an explorer and have wild adventurers.
The years I spent wondering what I did wrong won’t be a reality for my daughter. Instead, she will have years wondering where they are going to go next. My parents know how to love without calculations and cost/benefit analysis.
River Rapids isn’t a brand that I can find online. Not even Amazon, the place where you can find anything, even pretends to know what I’m talking about.
There is a Walmart located twenty-two minutes from Sturgis, South Dakota.
I wonder if I could call because I’d like to return and get the childhood joy of that trip back.
But I think I’m in trouble.
The joy was sold, and I don’t have the receipt.