The Great Midwest Trip – Part 1

Note: This is part one of a seven part series about our camping trip up north during the summer of 2018. I had originally written this as part of a much longer memoir manuscript, but as I continue to rework what has been been written, the original is taking a different shape. However, I still wanted to share everything our family experienced and learned while on that vacation. So as I take a writing break so I can successfully make the transition back into my classroom over the next few weeks, I’ve broken down and revised the 2018 summer journey, which was a very different adventure from our 2019 vacation.

My dad is the oldest of seven kids who eventually settled all over the country and my paternal grandparents lived in Canada for half of my childhood. My childhood memories consisted of vacations that usually involved visiting family wherever they lived. That’s not to say that our childhood vacations were boring. My toddler years were spent traveling from Detroit to Goderich, Ontario, so years before Lake Michigan became my true love, Lake Huron was my first, the icy water lapping over my frozen tiny toddler toes as I begged my teenage aunts to join me in the water. In later years, we flew to British Columbia for a family reunion and then traveled to Toronto for a couple holidays when my grandparents lived there before they settled into retirement back in the United States, moving to Kansas so they could be closer to two of my aunts.

Visiting family took my sisters and me to San Antonio, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, and every place in-between as we traveled from place to place. My parents did whatever they could to make our trips to see family feel like true vacations. So while the exciting, non-family visiting trips (such as the trip we took to California when I was nine) were rare, I did get to go to a lot of new places growing up. It’s just that it usually involved family.

So when one of my nineteen younger cousins announced that she was getting married in Iowa at the end of June, I decided that I was ready to ditch the plans we were already formulating for a Colorado vacation. I hadn’t seen many of my aunts and uncles in years, and with my grandparents getting older and my grandmother’s steadily declining health making itself more and more apparent, I felt like it was something that I both wanted and needed to do.

The only problem? I forgot to run the change of plans by my husband to see what he wanted to do. See, while I spent most of my childhood crossing time zones, and sometimes national borders, to visit extended family members, most of Jeff’s extended family lives right in Michigan, or at least really close. When his family left their home to go on vacation, they were going on vacation.

Let’s just say that this particular difference in our childhoods has been an occasional cause of disagreement.

And because it is an occasional cause of disagreement and I am a notorious conflict avoider, we didn’t make actual plans for our summer vacation until well into May, when Jeff begrudgingly said he would take the vacation time to go to a region of the country that we kept promising we wouldn’t return to (the Midwest) and we could camp our way up and back. But I had to do all of the planning. And my initial dreams of adding Minnesota to our camping map had to be scratched. He wasn’t driving the camper that far.

So, with one month to go and the school year finally behind me, I mapped out our trip, made reservations, and waited for the moment that we could pack up and go back up north and towards the Midwest for the third summer in a row.

The week of our departure I made multiple lists and checked them twice and then thrice, making sure that we had all of the food that we would need for our trip, the snacks that we would need for the truck, and reservations made for the dogs to spend two weeks in the kennel.

As had become routine, we picked up the camper and parked the camper in front of the house the night before we were to leave, plugging it into the house to start cooling down the refrigerator and freezer and packing all of our clothes and our dry food goods, all the while checking each item off of the list as we went. It had already been a warmer than usual June, even for Houston, and between my morning run, the pre-vacation errands, and walking back and forth between the house and the camper, I crashed into bed before I was finished, waiting for my alarm to wake me up so I could finish packing while Jeff slept a little longer before a full day of driving.

The next morning we finished packing up the camper, dropped our house key off at our friends’ house so they could get our mail and use our pool while we were gone, and finally got onto the road the usual hour after my goal departure time. I once remember my uncle telling people “we’re not late, we’re on vacation.” While that philosophy works great in many cases, when we’re hauling a camper and we need to get to a specific campground before it is too dark to set up camp, we actually can be too late.

Our usual practice when driving through Arkansas had always been to follow the GPS, staying on the main roads and stopping at an off the highway RV park when Jeff just couldn’t drive anymore. I decided that this time, if this was going to be an actual vacation, we were going to stop at places that felt like vacation stops. The Arkansas State Park system had treated us well during the previous Spring Break. It was time to let the state parks do the same for our trip back to the Midwest. Thankfully, while it was a long first day, we arrived at White Oak Lake State Park with plenty of time to spare before the sun went down. Jeff backed into our spot, I took our daughter to the bathroom, and Jeff and our son started the process of setting up camp. When I had offered to take our son to the bathroom, he refused, saying that he needed to help set up the camp, my little seven-year-old walking around with a power drill like the little man that he desperately wanted to be.

Once we had the camper set up, I promptly sent our kids to the playground, hoping that the walk to the playground and playing on the equipment would help them use up some of the energy that had built up after 370 miles in the car.  By the time they returned from the playground, frozen pulled pork pulled out of the freezer from home was thawing in a pot of boiling water. I sent them both on their bikes, telling them that it was the perfect loop for them to ride around on. The campground sits on the edge of White Oak Lake, and both kids wanted to check out the docks. Since I usually get nervous around water, at least with my kids just hanging around water without adult supervision, I told them that I preferred that they wait, but our daughter, now a big nine-year-old, insisted that she could handle the trip across the campground to the lake by herself. As I stirred around the bag of pulled pork in the pot of boiling water, I heard what sounded like our daughter’s scream. Jeff walked back up to our campsite at the same time.

Normally the sound of our kids screaming would send me running, but since we didn’t hear or see anything else, I calmly waited until Jeff was settled back on the site with our son. I hopped onto my bike, and then I rode around the loop until I found our little girl sitting on the ground at the bottom of a hill next to a set of trash cans, surrounded by two strangers helping to comfort her while she inspected her own body. Still not fully skilled at speed control, she hadn’t slowed down enough as she went down the hill and experience her first big bike crash. With a minor scrape on her knee, scrapes on both elbows, a huge scrape on her right side where she landed on the ground, and battle scars on her bike helmet and cheek, she was quite a mess. One of the kind strangers offered to help us get our bikes back to our site and I slowly guided her home, checking out the bleeding wounds as we walked.

It was just another example of our kids starting a road trip with a bang.

We got our daughter calmed down enough to still get her to agree to a post-dinner walk over to the lake so that the kids could check out the docks and the views. Arkansas is lovely, something we didn’t really discover until our spring break camping trip just months before, but the walk to the lake helped to highlight what stops at roadside RV parks never revealed: the natural beauty of the whole state. For three years we had questioned the nickname “The Natural State,” but once we were off of the interstate, we finally understood why people in Texas headed directly east for vacations: there is genuine natural beauty that rivaled what we had seen on trips through Tennessee and Kentucky. It was too overcast for a true sunset, but the mist hovered over the lake in wispy clouds that only slightly obscured the darkening pine-covered shoreline. We wouldn’t have time to take advantage of the hiking and biking the park offered, but at least we got a chance to stretch our legs, experience slightly cooler nighttime temperatures, and walk over to the campsite of the strangers who had so kindly helped our daughter after her fall.

Despite the biking disaster, it was a good start to our vacation, and that was all I could ask for.

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