In an effort to ensure that our sons—15 and 13—had plenty of fond childhood memories, my husband, Bob, and I did our best to take a fun family trip each year. Last summer, our trip was destined to be memorable: we decided to stop at almost every monument we could find on our way from our home near Mount Rushmore, on to Gillette, Wyoming, and finally, Yellowstone.
“Well kids, this should be a ‘monumental’ trip,” Bob joked as the boys rolled their eyes at his attempt at being funny, plugged in their headphones and laughed in spite of themselves.
Nothing brings history to life like seeing it in person, and we started our trip off with a bang at Mount Rushmore. We took turns guessing which state flags were which on the Avenue of Flags, a flag-lined approach to the monument. Bob and I tried to stump the kids with the fact that there are actually 56 flags—one for each state and territory of the U.S.
It had been years since we had taken the children here, and while they were fascinated with the incredible task of carving former presidential faces into the side of a mountain, my husband and I were filled with a sense of pride in the way our current country was born and developed. Seeing the faces of our first president and others that paved the way for the country’s future reminded us of how hard the path had been for those before us. George Washington took the reins even though he didn’t feel comfortable being a leader, and Abraham Lincoln essentially rid the country of slavery; Jefferson and Roosevelt also contributed greatly to a country that has led the world. These were men who did what was right in spite of their shortcomings, and it was inspirational. My mind filled with thoughts on how to emulate them as we made the 130-mile trip to Devils Tower to start the next phase of our trip.
Our kids were walking the fine line between childhood and the adult years, but we hoped we still had a few years left where monuments like Devils Tower would fill them with a sense of child-like awe. The monument juts drastically out of the flat land surrounding the Black Hills, where magma intruded through the layers of sedimentary rock in the Earth. After spending a good portion of the day in the car, the boys were thrilled to hike the 1.3-mile trail that circled the actual tower.
“Doesn’t that make you feel small?” I asked the boys as we stood at the base of the 1,267-foot natural monument.
“Makes YOU feel small because you’re only five feet tall, Mom,” my 15 year old, six-foot tall son reminded me with a smile as he teasingly rested his arms on top of my head.
Bob told us stories he had read online of the many Indian tribes, including the Lakotas, that considered this place sacred. The Lakota tribe actually held their sacred Sun Dance during the summer solstice at Devils Tower, while others are geographically tied to the place. We were fascinated that so many tribes had such a connection to this raw place in nature.
Next, we packed back up in the car to head to our next stop—Gillette, Wyoming. We decided to make the drive that evening and stay in a hotel in Gillette before the next monumental phase of our trip.
On our break in Gillette, we heard of the Eagle Butte Mine—we had to see this in action. The boys were fascinated to learn how something as elemental as coal is produced to aid in something as advanced as energy. I could not believe how large the machines were that essentially move materials under the earth. There was even one machine that was taller than our home! The mine runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
That night, we left the boys for some recreational time at the hotel and Bob and I hit the Big Lost Meadery. We loved the recycled wood interior, diverse types of tables and the engaging conversation with the employees, who ended up feeling like our friends. Bob enjoyed a drink out of a real cow horn while I had an entertaining conversation with others visiting from around the country.
We ended our time in Gillette with a tour of The Durham Ranch, one of the world’s largest and oldest working buffalo ranches, which includes 55,000 acres and more than 3,000 bison. Joining a tour on their 18-person bus, set up through the Campbell County CVB, we learned about the history of bison in the western U.S. and how Durham Ranch manages resources sustainably to provide a home for bison today and far into the future. We made a stop for a photo opportunity in an open field with a group of bison, hundreds strong, close enough to hear them snort and snuffle. I captured the boys’ huge grins for posterity—I could already tell this would be a highlight of the trip. A delicious barbecue after the tour was the perfect way to complete the experience.
Being from the flat lands, it’s difficult for us to comprehend a land where mountains are the norm, but the Bighorn Mountains were the next stop on our monumental trip. With over a million acres of national forest, there was plenty for us to do!
The boys caught fish and splashed each other incessantly in a creek while I watched with a book in my hand, enjoying the peacefulness of the alpine air. We had a simple picnic surrounded by purple wildflowers and hiked to a cascading waterfall that contrasted starkly with the arid desert land surrounding it. The boys picked me leaves and flowers along the way that I planned to take home and laminate in an effort to preserve the family memories we’d made on this trip. We genuinely enjoyed being together in this serene place. With such beauty surrounding us, it was hard to think of returning to normal life.
Luckily, we didn’t have to just yet. Our final destination before we headed home was Yellowstone National Park. We left the Bighorn Mountains early the next morning and arrived in Yellowstone five hours later. I felt momentarily overwhelmed by the unspoiled nature of the land, as this was my first time to the park. The boys had plans to do some mountain biking and canoeing, and even persuaded me to join them. In a world where everything is moving forward faster than most people can keep up, it felt surreal to walk through a park that is mostly untouched by technology and the human hand.
Despite no longer being children, the kids seemed to turn into little boys again, splashing each other, throwing grass and chasing each other along the trail when we saw Lower Falls, Yellowstone Lake and Old Faithful. Our final night in the park, we enjoyed an Old West cookout that transported us backward in time to a place where life was simple in some ways, and more difficult in others.
After five days on the road, I thought the boys would be ready to head home to friends and video games, but they seemed content to take our time to let in Wyoming’s vast wilderness. While my children were growing up faster than I wanted to admit, I realized on this trip that they would always remember these monumental experiences, no matter where they were in life. My goal of giving them great memories was achieved.
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