The pioneers of the 1800s had it easy. Granted, during their trek West, they had to contend with surprise visits from wild animals, open-air “bathrooms,” and the occasional Indian attack. But what’s all that compared to the complications of connecting iPods or DVD players and keeping our three children Katie (age 10), Jake (age 7), and Zoe (age 5), and our 10-year-old niece Maggie entertained during a week-long road trip from Minneapolis to the Dakotas.
In lieu of our usual summer vacation in the Berkshires, my husband Ken and I decided to take our first major family road trip last summer under the theory that it would be a great bonding experience for our family after having been without Katie, who spent her first summer at sleepaway camp. Still, a road trip with four kids under 11? We had our doubts and fears. At the top of my list was the concern that they could end up fighting the whole 1,200 miles, the way my sister and I used to on my own family’s interminable road trips to Florida. And what if I completely misjudged the level of fascination they would have for Mount Rushmore and the beautiful parks? But after flying to Minneapolis to pick up Maggie and my brother-in-law’s minivan, and after a crucial stop at the Minneapolis Whole Foods for a week’s worth of trans fat-free snacks, the Fisher Family was on its way.
Day One brings us along Highway 14 in Minnesota, also lovingly referred to as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway. For fans of the Little House on the Prairie series, this is Mecca. Walnut Grove, the town where Laura and her family lived, is the kid equivalent of finding that Prada outlet outside of Florence. And having just read By the Shores of Silver Lake, the kids are fascinated to see up close the Surveyors’ House where Laura and her family lived during the winter of 1879, and the schoolhouse where she taught. Later on, in a pretend game of pioneer, I hear Katie tell Zoe, “Make sure we have enough potatoes for the winter.”
On Day Two, some of my anxiety about being on the road so much subsides because I have been reminded that one should never underestimate the power of advertising on small children. I am referring to the phrase “free ice water.” Seriously, from the moment we left the Minneapolis city limits, we begin to see ads for “Wall Drug” offering nothing less than “free ice water.”
Wall Drug is located in Wall, South Dakota, right by where we exit the Badlands’ scenic drive (a must-see!). You can shop for t-shirts and cowboy boots, pan for gold, and listen to a fake gorilla sing at a big piano. Still, from the minute we walk in, the kids are relentlessly focused: “Mom, we need to get the free ice water!” But I digress: This mini-van needs to get to the Circle B Ranch by nightfall or we’ll miss the Wild West shoot-out and chuckwagon dinner.
Located about 20 minutes south of Rapid City, South Dakota, Circle B Ranch specializes, in particular, in family-style shoot-outs. Here’s the background: Someone, it seems, has stolen the biscuits, and the sheriff, toting fake guns, must save the day. From around the back the scoundrel appears, has a bit of verbal back and forth with the sheriff, and runs off. The sheriff pulls together a posse of a bunch of 5- to 10-year-olds and sends them to catch the scoundrel. As they run to the end of the building and turn a corner, you hear fake gun shots go off. Those kids turn tail and run as fast as they can back to their parents. Do they actually think parents would allow them to run after a robber packing heat? Ken and I laugh so hard we can hardly stand.
On Day Three, we head to Custer State Park, stopping along the way at Mount Rushmore. As we approach Mount Rushmore, the outline of Abraham Lincoln’s face comes into view and the car erupts. Not since December 2003, when we entered Walt Disney World, have I heard my kids get so excited. Screams of “oh my God, I see Lincoln” fill the air. Don’t get me wrong, I find Mount Rushmore fascinating. I love learning about the engineering behind its construction, but other than a short movie, there is really not much to do except look at it. After about 20 minutes I think the kids must be ready to go, but three hours and 80 pictures later, we practically have to drag them from the place.
For my city kids, the closest they come to animal encounters is the occasional roach in our apartment and that yappy little dog that lives next door. But buffalo and other wildlife are the reason you come to Custer State Park. Our drive along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop enables us to not only encounter prairie dog town, but further along we also find ourselves surrounded by a herd of close to 100 buffalo. As I open my window to take some photos, I hear shrieks and screams from the back seat. “Mom, close the window—they’re gonna get you.” Hey, kids, we’re ensconced in 4,000 pounds of metal. Chill.
The next few days allow us to experience other wonderful South Dakota sights and adventures, including a wooly mammoth excavation site, caves, panning for gold in Deadwood, and an authentic rodeo which leaves us all a little queasy and Maggie another step closer to being a vegetarian. Our final drive before the long haul back to Minnesota leads us to Bowman, North Dakota, for what I hope is the pièce de résistance of the trip: A paleontology dig.
The drive to Bowman is dull. We barely pass another car, and all I keep thinking is that we could die out here and no one would find us. Our arrival at the Super 8 motel (one of the nice accommodations in town) leaves a pit in my stomach. And, by the way, it’s my anniversary. Even the kids are a little down about the place. I mean, I guess I can’t really complain. Despite all my fears, the trip up to now has turned out great. Jake gives all of our sightseeing stops 9s and 10s, and all four kids have gotten along really well and keep telling us how much fun they are having. The only thing we can do now is get a good night’s sleep before we dig for dinosaurs.
The next morning, we meet up with Don and Kathy Wilkening of the Pioneer Trails Regional Museum, who host daylong paleontology digs, and believe me, it’s the real deal. The day is really hot, and we dress completely inappropriately and don’t bring a cooler to keep our water cold. After Kathy and Don’s warnings about scratchy brush, sharp rocks, rattlesnakes, and scorpions, I not only want to put my jeans on, but think maybe it’s best to spend the rest of the day inside the air-conditioned car. Snakes! Who said anything about snakes? She gives the party line that snakes are more afraid of humans than we are of them, and in all the years of taking people out in the desert, she has never seen a rattler. Although I want to believe her, the fact that within 10 minutes of walking to the dig site we come across a snake skin makes me feel that she is downplaying the whole snake thing for my benefit.
The area around Bowman is dotted with buttes. Contained within these little hills are the fossilized remains of dinosaurs that roamed the earth more than 65 million years ago. Despite the fact that Don seems to be pulling fossils out of thin air, I have no idea what to do. The kids, on the other hand, get the hang of it right from the start. At one point I find Maggie and Katie at work with Don uncovering the shell of a turtle that is 65 million years old. Later on, he takes Zoe off on a little adventure where she digs up dinosaur bone. Finally, I get it and work with Ken and Jake finding bits of alligators that roamed the earth so long ago. In the afternoon, we hike in the sweltering heat to an area where we discover close to 20 baby T-Rex teeth. We are all floored. At one point, Jake is so immersed that he almost slides off a cliff.
After the dig we head back to the museum to group all of our finds.Although the kids are allowed to keep some fossilized rocks, any dinosaur fossils must remain at the museum. As we say goodbye to Kathy and Don, I realize that the trip is truly over. That night we share a special dinner at the Bonanza Steakhouse in Dickinson, North Dakota [Editor’s note: this Bonanza location is now closed], with a salad bar that contains everything from spring rolls to tacos. We love the fact that the salad bar costs $2.99, and if you want a burger it’s an extra 40 cents. To this day, it remains the number one favorite restaurant of my kids. Although we still have a 10-hour trip back to Minnesota, I am confident that, like the pioneers, we will make the time fly by reminiscing about our adventures. After 15 minutes, I thank my lucky stars that I live in the 21st century and can put that DVD player to use.
Andrea Fisher is an attorney and avid traveler who lives in Manhattan with her family.
Tips For A Smooth Ride
1. Bring Goodies.Especially small toys, both old reliables and new ones, that kids can hold and play with while sitting on a car seat. Travel games are good too. For added effect, you might want to distribute the new toys somewhat strategically as rewards for good behavior.
2. Share the Responsibilities. Consider appointing older kids “resident (travel site) experts” so that they can act as “tour guides” when you arrive at something of interest. This will take some preparation, but the Internet makes that easy. Younger children can also be prepped; it’ll enhance their experience as well.
3. Remember the Tried and True. No-tech games like “Twenty Questions,” “License Plate Game,” and “Name That Tune,” almost never fail if the parents themselves are enthusiastic. And, of course, high-tech games like Gameboy, a portable DVD player, or even the GPS system can distract like nothing else.
4. Be a Muse.Prompt kids to create poems from words on billboards, tell a story about the people in a nearby car, or make up jokes inspired by a road sign.
5. Be Flexible (or not). Allow extra time for off-road fun, whether a half hour to play in a McDonald’s Funland or an impromptu frisbee toss at a grassy rest stop. On the other hand, if sticking to your timetable allows you to visit the largest ball of string, talk it up as your incentive for staying on track.
4 More Great Family Road Trips
Northeast: It’s A Shore Thing: Drive Route 1 from Portland, Maine, to Acadia National Park. Stops could include Freeport for L.L. Bean and the outlet malls, Popham Beach State Park or Reid State Park for a swim, Round Pond for lobsters, and Rockland or Camden for a tall ship windjammer cruise.
Mid-Atlantic: A Capital Idea: Start your vacation in Washington, DC, making sure to visit the monuments and kid-friendly museums like the Air and Space Museum. Then drive down to the beach in Cape Hatteras, NC, stopping at Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, VA, and spots throughout North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Southeast: Island Hopper: Drive from Miami to Key West, FL, detouring to visit the gators and wildlife in Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. Then begin your drive down Route 1/The Overseas Highway, a ribbon of asphalt and 42 bridges linking a 105-mile long chain of islands, and along the way go snorkeling at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, swim with the dolphins at Dolphins Plus or Dolphin Cove in Key Largo, and feed the tarpon at Robbie’s.
West Coast: Cinematic California Coast: Drive California’s Coastal Highway 1 from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz, often called the best road trip in America. Among other things, take a tour of Hearst Castle, enjoy Big Sur’s dramatic coastline, and plan to spend plenty of time on the Monterey Peninsula, where you can visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium. In Santa Cruz, Cowell Beach is a great place for kids to take surfing lessons.
–by Nancy Schretter, the managing editor of the Family Travel Network (familytravelnetwork.com)