From prairie to peaks
On July 3, the entire summer changed for me. The old van was finally packed up, and ready to roll. It was about noon when my family climbed in, and took off for the farm for my great-grandmother Petra Klug’s 100th birthday. The farmstead is 26 miles north of Bowman. By the time we had reached Dickinson, it seemed the bleakness of I-94 set in. When we realized that we drove past our exit, we had gone 20 miles. But on the bright side, I had gotten some nice pictures of the Badlands.
We had finally arrived, but we were the last ones to show, which is kind of embarrassing considering we were only a few hours away, and there were cousins from as far out as Norway and New Jersey. It was about 5:30 p.m. when we got there, so there wasn’t much time to do anything. The rest of the night was sitting around the campfire and reconnecting with people that hadn’t seen each other for years.
The next day, was busy. The neighbors started showing up for Petra’s birthday. Some came with food and drinks, others, commercial-grade fireworks. In the morning, a large group of people left to go climb White Butte, the highest point in North Dakota. Sadly, as a smelly teenager, I didn’t go because I took a shower. The day slowly passed as more people joined the celebration.
When the day finally closed, it ended with a bang. There were firecrackers for little people and city-size fireworks for the big people. It was a fitting ending to the 4th of July.
The next morning, the van was packed up, and the road led us south. We passed through Belle Fourche, S.D. – my mother’s hometown – and spent a half hour exploring how it’s grown. We turned west into the Badlands and the mountains of Wyoming. This leg of the journey took nearly six hours.
Finally, we reached our destination: Tensleep Creek. Family reconnected, and little kids hopped along the creek. But the night came too soon. However, the fun didn’t stop there. A campfire was put together and s’mores were made. At around midnight, when people finally started leaving, the ground was littered with ashes, chocolate wrappers, burnt, molten marshmallows and assorted cans. But the cleanup was fast. After a coordinated effort, by which I mean, kids did it all, it was clean and ready for the next day.
It was a sunny morning, and food was mysteriously packed up in backpacks and coolers. Our aunts and uncles told us to get in the cars, and we took off. They drove to a gravel road, I expected them to stop, and kept going.
In North Dakota, the gravel roads are usually well-kept. While they may be bumpy and rough in some places, they are generally smooth. But this road was nothing like North Dakota road. It was not smooth and followed the land. Trees grew right at the edge of the road and rocks sprang up out of nowhere. The gnarled roots made the trip really hard on the cars. Even though I was sitting down, I was left with a few bruises on my legs. When the trees finally opened up, a massive meadow, stood before us. In the background, snowcapped peaks cut the clouds and a deep mountain creek split down the middle.
We got out the blankets and coolers, and had a picnic right next to the creek. My uncles took advantage of the opportunity and went fishing. Naturally, the minors did what they did: exploring. My cousin and I traversed along the creek and followed it until we saw claw marks on the trees. That’s when we knew we were in bear country.
So we headed back, and walked along the more open side of the creek. A few hours in, and we decided it was time to go back. The sunburns and tan lines proved good signs of that. It was nearly dark, and as I said earlier, it was bear country. We went back to the campsite, and put together a campfire like the night before. The chit chat was nice as people took care of their burns.
It was a morning of mourning. There was family we may not see again until I graduate from high school. The van was packed and ready to go. Our next stop would be Billings, Mont. We were going to stay at my grandmother’s house for a while and enjoy Billings. But we weren’t going completely alone. There would be family there to join us on our misadventures through the Montana city.
The few days in Billings came and went. We ordered a lot of pizza and watched a few movies. There was even some alone time. Another relative and his family joined us midway through the week, along with my dad. But the day we left came too soon. But my absolutely incredible I-can’t-thank-you-enough-Mom-and-Dad vacation was not over yet. My mother stayed behind as my father took my siblings and me west.
It turned out that our older cousins planned a float on the Madison River the next day. But first, we needed to see their house in Belgrade, Mont., so we, along with the rest of the family, stayed the night. But as there wasn’t the room in the house, a lot of people had to stay in tents. Unfortunately, it stormed that night. I was one of the lucky ones. I slept on their couch, and was dry the next day. We packed up and drove for an hour and a half. After crossing the Madison, we found a launch site and blew up the raft and tubes. Everyone climbed in either a raft, tube or fishing boat. Our cousins took us along a gorgeous eight-mile stretch of the river. In the foreground, you could see rolling grasses and treeless expanse as far as the mountains.
The hills and riverbanks blocked the view of most of the mountains, but they towered over the hills in all their glory. It was obvious why those snowcapped peaks are called the Rockies.
The float filled most of the entire day. Basically, we sat on the raft and flowed along the current and talked the entire time. Sadly, like every day when something fun in the sun is planned, the clouds come in and take it away. They rolled in about lunch time when the pictures were being taken. Even though it never rained, you could hear the thunder and see the lightning beyond the mountaintops to the west. We still finished the float, even though the weather got colder and windier. Towards the end, I got to watch some incredible fly fishing.
But sadly, like all good days, it had to come to an end. With the exception of my grandmother, we would say good-bye to the rest of our family. We had to head all the way back to Billings, which would be an arduous three-hour drive through some of Montana’s beautiful scenery. It took longer than expected and we didn’t get back until the sun was finally setting. And in summer, the sun takes its sweet time to set.
The next morning, we said our penultimate goodbye of the trip. This time, to my dad. He wouldn’t be coming home with us. Instead, he would travel to Great Falls, Mont., for nearly four months with his new job with Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
But that day wasn’t all sad. It was my grandmother’s birthday, so we celebrated in our subtle way. We went out to eat after my mother was done working, and even scored a few balloons on the way out. However, after a long trip, and on a full belly, one gets tired, so our crew headed back to the house, and went to bed.
We spent the next couple days enjoying Billings on our own, while my mother caught up on a few days’ work.
But it finally came time to say goodbye and go home. This time, we would actually be going home on our traditional route. But it ran right through the oil patch. Highway 2 was rough and dusty, with all the trucks and it was the middle of the week. But we got through alive, and after Minot, we saw familiar territory. It was the road I knew by heart. And we were finally home.
It was two wonderful weeks of family, food, fun and amazing scenery, and it was definitely worth the drive.
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