Monday, September 15, 2008

In Which My Family Calls My Bluff

When we left for our long vacation, it felt like summer around here. We returned to autumn. Of course, the great thing about taking an 11-day vacation is, when you come back, you've got 11 days worth of work backed up and waiting for you.

So for our big summer holiday we went to South Dakota. People who know South Dakota, and particularly the Black Hills, may be nodding their heads in understanding. Everyone else--like pretty much everyone we told about our trip--says "Huh?"

I grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, surrounded by a close extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was terrific. Although the movie "A Christmas Story" is set a generation before mine in a different part of the country, I remember a childhood very much like little Ralphie's. When I was 11 we moved to California, and within just a couple of years my entire South Dakota family had scattered across the country, as if spun out of the state by centrifugal force. Throughout my marriage and my kids' whole lives, my family has been hearing me blather about this idyllic wonderland I grew up in. Finally, they called my bluff. "Put up or shut up, pal!"

I'd been back to South Dakota once as an adult, accompanying Mom to her 25th high school reunion (just about 25 years ago--Yikes!), so I thought I'd shaken the "everything looks so small!" effect. That trip also confirmed that my judgment wasn't entirely addled by nostalgia; the Black Hills are a genuinely beautiful and unique part of the country. I was pretty sure I could show my family a good time, with a nice mix of sight-seeing for them and misty watercolored mem'ries for me. So I accepted their dare, and next thing I knew we had reservations and an itinerary.

We took Amtrak from California to Denver, two full days on the train through the Sierra Nevada and Rockies, much of it following the Colorado River. Amazing scenery. Spent a day in Denver--one of my favorite second-tier U.S. cities (Portland being another)--and then drove north to Rapid City, where we spent three days before reversing course to Denver and then back on the train.

A note on train travel: it's fun, interesting, a great way to see the country. We encountered people from around the world doing the same (especially Germans, it seemed). We had sleeper rooms and ate in the dining car, which provided more privacy, comfort, and luxury than the poor schmoes in Coach got. But--and I say this with all affection--it gets old. After four days on the rails, we all agreed it felt very much like camping. Great fun, something you'd love to do once in a while, but at the end you're really looking forward to a good shower, nice meal, and comfortable bed.

I think the trip was a big success. We all forgot what day it was, which is one of my criteria for judging the quality of a vacation. My kids got a feel for the big empty nothingness of the western U.S. that they'd never experienced before. We mixed sight-seeing at places like Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park and the Badlands with detours to my old houses, school, and grandparents' cabin in the woods, where the Best Christmases Ever took place and which the current owner was kind enough to let us tour after I bribed him with old photos of the place being built. We strolled through restored cavalry forts, stooped and clambered through a cave (another first for my girls), and walked in the wheel ruts ground into rock by pioneers following the Oregon Trail. And my family finally got to attach real places to all the tall tales I'd been telling for years, and maybe find out that I wasn't entirely lying.
Although everything looked so small.

I've always been proud of originating in the Midwest. I think being from the middle of the country can give people a core of straight-shootin' decency that's good for the soul. Near the top of the list of things I hate are people who think of "flyover country" as a wasteland full of morons, hicks and rubes. You're talking about me and my kin, pardner, and I take that kind of personally. They often have a different lifestyle and way of looking at things, but it's valid and valuable doesn't deserve anyone's condescension. I hoped my two California girls would get a sense of that as well, although I don't ever expect them to stop teasing me about my roots. That's what Dads are for.
Sylvan Lake, one of the prettier spots in the Black Hills.
Although part of the movie "National Treasure 2" was filmed
there, we did not find a secret cave leading to a lost city
of gold. Very disappointing.
The Badlands east of Rapid City, an amazing
geological laboratory. Look at those strata!
Me, Karen, Laura and Robin, right under the presidents' noses.


Sherwood Harrington said...

Good Lord, I have so many responses to this post (all positive and all in sympathetic vibration) that I'm going to have to just grab a couple of them and throw them here:

1) Same sort of thing happened to me shortly after Diane and I were married. I had been carrying on and on and on about how wonderful a place Upstate New York (where I grew up) is, so she finally agreed to spend a couple of weeks there in the summer of 1992. My parents, then living in Florida retirement, met us there and we had a great couple of weeks together. Given events', accidents', and diseases' subsequent harassments, that also turned out to be our last extended happy time together with my mom and dad. Diane now, at least, can identify some of the places I talk about as real, experienced places -- but she insists on calling the area "pasty-land" in honor of the general complexion thereabouts.

2) I have only been through the area you come from once, but I loved it, and it's so embedded in rose-colored memory glass that I'm sure I remember it even better than it was. It was in the summer of 1972, and two friends and I were driving a VW bug across country, delivering it from the Bay Area to its new owner in New York. We had time and energy in surplus, so we avoided freeways as much as practical (it took us three weeks to make the trip), our route determined more by KOA campgrounds' locations than speed. Absolutely etched into my memory are the Badlands at sunset, prairie dogs in a city popping up and down checking us out when we stopped at a random roadside place, and Mt. Rushmore. Looking at your last picture reminds me of our giggling to one another that the talus coming down the bottom makes it look like they all had just sneezed.

And, speaking of that photo -- damn, Brian, you have such a wonderful-looking set of expressions. What a great photo for future generations, and for us, too.

Great post, sir.

Brian Fies said...

Sherwood, much appreciated as always, thanks. Great stories.

We went to look at a prairie dog town in the Badlands but were chased away by a bison who wanted to use our interpretive sign as a scratching post. Saw others elsewhere and got a story out of it, though, so no complaints.

Kid Sis said...