A Tent, a Cartop Carrier, and the First Big Trip

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I don’t plan to take you to all of the Lower 48 states in a row for the next umpteen days, but come along with me today on our first big trip that started our family quest for 48.

When Ray and I married, he had been to four states and I had been to eight. All those states either bordered our home state of Tennessee or were just one state farther away. Moving all the way up to central Illinois in 1985 was a big deal to us Southern-bred folks. We even took day trips to Chicago sometimes. This was tall cotton, as we say down South.

When we had been in Illinois almost a year, I said something like this to Ray: “Who knows how long we’ll be up here in the North! Let’s see some of it while we are here!” I don’t remember why we chose Mount Rushmore for our first adventure. The distance between our church-owned house on Sunnycrest Drive in Urbana, Illinois, and Mount Rushmore is 987.4 miles! You would think we would have thought of something closer, especially since we were only taking one week of Ray’s two weeks of vacation time.

We purchased a small dome tent, a cartop carrier, a couple of inflatable pool rafts to put under Ray’s and my sleeping bags, and a Coleman camp stove, like the one my parents had when I was growing up. On a Sunday morning in August, Ray and I finished stuffing the cartop carrier and the trunk of the car and drove to church. After Sunday School and church, including Ray’s sermon, we piled into our Plymouth Reliant sedan and headed west through Illinois. We crossed the Mississippi River and drove to Des Moines, where we set up our tent for the night.

John, Bethany, and Mary Evelyn had already been to 6 states before that Sunday (and 4 of those were related to our move to Illinois). Iowa made 7.

The next day we drove the rest of the way across Iowa and then across South Dakota to Rapid City. We set up our tent again, this time in a campground near Mount Rushmore.

We visited Mount Rushmore (Mount Mushmore, according to two-year-old Mary Evelyn) and went to an exhibit to learn about its construction.

We drove along Needles Highway . . .

. . . and went to Custer State Park to see the buffalo.

In Keystone, we had an especially memorable ride on a stagecoach, especially memorable because the driver was a bit tipsy. In Rapid City, we found great activities for our young children. They played among storybook characters on Storybook Island . . .

. . . and climbed on Depression-era dinosaurs in Dinosaur Park.

We visited the now-closed Flintstone Bedrock City in nearby Custer.

Somehow we still had time to enjoy the campground. An incident during an evening activity there continues to be a powerful influence on my life today. One night native dancers came to dance with the campers. As we stood in a circle, hand-in-hand with them, I had a strong urge to say, “I’m sorry for the way we treated you.”

I don’t remember actually saying that, but beginning with America the Beautiful in 2010, I have consciously worked to tell their story in an honoring way. I don’t know another civics curriculum besides Uncle Sam and You that has a whole unit on Native American tribal government. I love that many homeschoolers know about that now. Often, when I write about native people, I think of this man.

We started home on Friday morning, stopping briefly to see the Badlands and making the mandatory visits to Wall Drug . . .

. . . and to the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Realizing that we had an opportunity to add two states to our family’s list of states visited, we chose a northerly route home. We crossed Minnesota and then camped for the night at Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. We splurged that night. Instead of putting the tent up, we rented a KOA Kabin — one rustic room with two sets of bunk beds (with no linens), a tiny front porch, and a nearby bathhouse. We came on home on Saturday and Ray preached again on Sunday.

Adventure number one completed: 11 of the lower 48 states down, 37 to go.

That moment dancing with native people in a campground in 1986 is one of God’s many gifts to me. I am grateful to have lived it with my husband and our children. I thank God for every moment He has given Ray and me with our children — and every moment He is giving you with yours.

You enlarge my steps under me,
And my feet have not slipped.
Psalm 18:36




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  1. Tent camping was a wonderful solution to how to see 48 states on a budget! So much of the traveling expense revolves around paying for hotels and food, so I can see how camping and cooking your own meals would have really kept costs down.

    One question: what did y’all do if a storm came up? Were you able to stay dry and safe?

    • Well, Betsy, that’s a great question but I don’t remember us being in that situation. I know what I would do now. I’d get to a safe place pronto and come back for our equipment later! You surely don’t want to be on the ground during lightning.

  2. What a great trip and adventure you had.
    It was only a few years after your trip, that I was there with 5 of our 7 children and saw most of the same things. Great times.
    On our most recent trip to Rushmore, Ranger Red Cloud (yes, the grandson of the famous Red Cloud) did an amazing presentation at the foot of the sculpture. Thank you for the respect you have shown in all of your curricula for all peoples stories.
    My youngest graduates this year, so now I’m trying to figure out if my oldest two will come with me or let me take the grandkids, so the journeys can continue.( It is hard to stop, once you get a taste of adventure). If not, I guess retirement is not that far away….(47/50)

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