“I feel the thunder in the sky / I see the sky about to rain / And I hear the prairies calling out your name”

-Rich Mullins

When I was a boy, there came a day that Grandma took me with her on the long drive to Texas.  I was the navigator.  I sat next to her with the TripTik and the big ole Atlas and got us from Flint, MI all the way to Pleasanton, TX.  In the time before smartphones and installed car TV’s, we would just drive places.  Far away places.  Hours and hours in the car.  Seeking radio stations every time the last one fell out of range.

I am now a man with children of my own.  And the time has come to take them on a great American roadtrip.  Our destination?  We decided to head out west.  The Badlands. The Black Hills.  Yellowstone.  The Grand Tetons.  And ending with the Rocky Mountain National Park. Here are some of the highlights. 

The Biers.  We spent our first few days in South Dakota with my old college roommate and his family.  My good friend has now become a great family friend.  My kids and theirs got along like gangbusters.  It was a joy watching my boy and the Bier’s boy bouldering, running, exploring, and facing all kinds of danger with no regard for the pain a misstep could bring.  That is what being a kid is all about.  Lina and Evie shared a love of reading and scary movies.  The Biers were our guides through the Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, and into the Badlands.  I love how old friends are still good friends.

Trails.  We hiked.  Man did we hike.  My feet still hurt (I wish I was lying).  The Notch Trail in the Badlands was a great trail leading to an incredible view.  The Mystic Fall trail at Yellowstone was a joy.  Out of the forest, along a river, and then some off-trail bouldering made for a truly great day.  The waterfall is awe-inspiring.  The Cub Lake Trail at Rocky Mountain National Park was one of my favorites.  Little varmints watching us as we walked toward the foot of the mountains.  The plateaus leading to the mountain were so flat, I felt like a Ranger walking the field of Middle Earth on some urgent errand.  

Wildlife.  Bison once ruled the West, until wiped out by the greed and stupidity of a growing nation.  These animals now have refuge in Yellowstone and The Tetons.  They really do look like fluffy cows.  Though big and furry and sweet looking, they are dangerous animals that gorge some tourist every single year.  They are amazing to see, interspersed with elk and deer, raising their young, traveling across great plateaus.  We saw bears.  Black bears and grizzly bears.  Mamas and cubs walking along empty roads.  This was magical.  Seeing these mighty animals from the safety of our van was great.  But at the Grand Tetons we experienced something truly scary.  We had just gotten to the trailhead of Leigh Lake.  The family was still double-checking their daypacks, and I was on my way to the woods.  There were only a few cards present, and there was a man further up the trail.  He didn’t yell.  But he spoke strongly enough for me to hear his voice on the wind.  “Bear.”  It wasn’t spoken in excitement.  It wasn’t a call to come and see.  It was a warning.  His tone stopped me in my tracks.  And then, about twenty yards ahead of me, a bear came walking out of the path.  She was a black bear, and she never even raised her head to see me.  But I saw her.  And I froze.  I had bear spray in my bag, and a decent knife on my belt.  But I made no move for either.  I was half in awe and half in terror at this animal in front of me.  She lumbered past and kept on walking into the forest.  I didn’t move for a long time.  It is a moment I will never forget.  

Tourism.  We aren’t just hikers.  We are tourists like a mug.  My kids are consumerist Americans.  We like doing silly tourist things.  We went to Waldrug and ate their homemade donuts and drank their 5-cent coffee.  We had frozen custard at the World’s Largest Culver’s.  We went to Buc-ees, a truly Texas-size gas station with good breakfast burritos and better brisket.  We went to the Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining.  We went to welcome centers at every National Park and got random stuff to remember our trip by.  I am going to sticker up something fierce with all the stickers I got from that long road.  

The Drive.  Honestly, this was the part I was most worried about.  Would Lina get sick?  Would Nesto die of boredom?  Would Angie grow tired of navigating for the grumpiest grump this side of the Mississippi?  But I was also the most excited about this long drive.  I looked forward to having time together.  Just us four, together for hours and hours.  It was great.  We did top-five lists for hours.  We all took turns picking albums we loved, and the rest of us would rock out or endure the next hour.  We craned our heads out the windows looking for wildlife.  We watched storms come across the prairie slow but menacing.  I am grateful for the time with my family.  I am grateful to spend time with such great people whom I love so much.

The Lord.  There were times out on this open road when I drove in silence.  In the middle of some hike, I would just stop to take in some grand vista.  The kids got bored before my heart was full.  I could stand there and drink it in for hours.  I didn’t mind the hot sun.  I didn’t even hate the bugs.  Looking at this world God has made, it does something.  It rings a bell within me.  The greatness of creation fills my sight, and my view of God increases.  

I come back exhausted from hiking and driving and packing and unpacking and camping and cooking and hunting for bathrooms.  But I come back with a heart full of love and majesty.  It was a great trip.  And I am thankful.    

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