The Great Midwest Trip – Part 3

Note: This is part three 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.

The next morning in Sam A. Baker State Park we woke up to cooler temperatures than we Houstonians had experienced in a long time. As someone who had traveled through Missouri during multiple unbearably hot summers, I was shocked by the difference in temperatures, especially since I had been certain that it would be miserably hot for most of our drive up north. I took a short run, enjoyed a quick shower, and we managed a quick family trip to the camp store and playground. We rushed through the rest of our break down when thunder scared us into thinking we were going to be heading into a storm. Thankfully, the storm went right past us while we were packing and we safely got out of the campsite, dumped our waste, and headed down the road toward Illinois. At least, we hoped we were heading toward Illinois.

Lack of cell service in the 21st century is a funny thing. We say we long to disconnect from our technology so that we can connect with each other, and yet when our cell phones aren’t connecting to the outside world, we feel completely lost. And sometimes, when we can’t connect to the outside world, we literally become lost.

As we pulled out of the state park, neither of our cell phones could connect to enough service to get two different GPS apps going. Fortunately, I had printed everything out for the trip, including the Google Maps plan that I made while I was figuring out just how far we should go for each day. For the first time in a long time, we referenced the printed out directions, which got us to the main highway and safely on our way. We eventually had enough service to get the GPS working on both of our cell phones, thankful that we weren’t completely disconnected from technology, confident that we could now get to northern Illinois without any further problems.

Shortly after we got married, we moved to Northwest Indiana, otherwise known as Chicagoland. We lived in the greater Chicago area for three years before moving to central Indiana, and although we loved visiting downtown Chicago for special occasions, we typically avoided heading towards the city, preferring to travel back to southwest Michigan to visit our parents or occasionally a new state park in Indiana. It wasn’t that we didn’t like Illinois, we just didn’t want to head back towards Chicago for our weekends, especially since I drove to Illinois every day for my teaching job.

But during our early camping years, there was one weekend exception. One of Jeff’s coworkers convinced us to camp with him and his wife at a state park in northern Illinois. We would have to pass through Chicago traffic to get there, but he promised that it would be worth it. We were game. We enjoyed camping with other people, especially since living in one state and working in two other states gave us very little opportunity for a social life outside of work. I’ve always had fond, albeit faint, memories of that particular camping trip, mildly remembering at least one hike to a high point and a visit to the lodge where Jeff convinced me that he needed a wooden hiking stick, a hiking stick that has traveled with us on every camping trip since. When I was mapping out our trip to Iowa with the intention of working our way to Wisconsin first, Starved Rock State Park was right on the map of where we needed to go. I made the reservation and hoped for the best.

After leaving Missouri, we drove through typical Illinois farmland. Cornfield after cornfield with an occasional line of windmills blanket the landscape. It is hard to believe that a state park that boasts waterfalls and rock climbing could actually exist in the region, but it does. The low fuel light turned on as we neared the last 20 miles of our trip, but there were no places to stop for gas, at least none that we could see. We nervously neared the park, praying that we would not go from “Low Fuel” to “No Fuel” while we searched for our campsite. We drove through the park, noticing a lot of flood related closure signs, hopeful that the campground was untouched. When we finally found the campground, in a location separate from the rest of the park, we were relieved to find that the campground, at least, appeared to be dry. Then we saw our site.

Our tight spot

Some states will make it really easy to determine how your camper or tent will fit onto a particular site. There are plenty of pictures and occasionally multiple angles so that you can get a full picture while you are selecting your sites. Some states. That is far from all states. We drove up to our site only to discover that we were in the woods, which by itself isn’t that big of a deal, until one considers the location of trees and other foliage on a specific campsite, foliage that could make parking a 30-foot camper all the more difficult. And more difficult means more stressful, for the driver and parking assistant (a term I use loosely when referring to myself) alike. Camper parking has become the marriage test in our later years that tent set up was in our earlier years. Jeff has become skilled at parking the trailer, but that’s not to say that we don’t still experience moments of gritted teeth with him yelling “If you can’t see my mirrors then I can’t see you” and me responding with “Then where do you want me???”

I’m just praying that those moments don’t send our kids to therapy once they are adults.

Thankfully, our next-door neighbor gladly jumped in to help. He had also struggled with a difficult site and a larger camper, so he helped me guide Jeff into the spot, giving my dear husband the directions that I often feel so helpless about giving.

As soon as we had the camper parked, the kids were ready to jump out and race to the playground. Our daughter grabbed the map, found our campsite number, and then found the playground location, which was right next to the bathrooms. They played there until dinner and then returned to the playground for more play time while I went out to get some much-needed gas. When I finally got back, Jeff said that they didn’t come home until it was dark and the only reason that they came home was because Jeff had gone to get them.

It was official: three days into our trip and they were in full camping mode.

As soon as our kids ate breakfast the next morning they were ready to go. They got dressed, grabbed their bikes, and they played at the playground until I told them we needed to leave. We interrupted their play to head to the state park visitor center, just to see what was there before leaving for our next stop. Jeff and I had fifteen-year-old memories of a full weekend of beautiful hikes to cliffs and waterfalls, which would have been a lot of fun to try with our kids, but with another 200 miles to go before our next stop, we had enough time for the kids to ooh and ahh over the visitor center exhibits (which were pretty cool and very informative) and for Jeff to give into one very short hike up to the top of Starved Rock, a mere 0.3 miles one way.

As we left the visitors center to head out on our short hike, the kids saw the snack shop and the park store. Seeing that it advertised ice cream, they begged to go inside. Ever since we moved down south, every time our son is north of the Mason Dixon line he starts looking for ice cream shops that sell Blue Moon ice cream, his absolute favorite. He doesn’t care that it is packed with artificial colors and flavors that turn his poop neon green for days afterward, he just wants to taste the super sweet goodness. Jeff made the mistake of saying, “Ok, but I’m only getting you ice cream if they have Blue Moon.”

And there it was, right in front of us. A tub of the Blue Moon stared right back him and our son’s eyes lit up. We started our hike up to Starved Rock with two kids savoring their ice cream, both faces covered in blue and our daughter desperately trying to keep her fingers clean while drips of melted ice cream covered our son’s hands in blue streaks.

When we finally packed up our site and I had delivered lunches to everyone, we started toward Wisconsin, passing rolling Midwestern fields of corn and soy, crossing the Mississippi for the second and then third time of our trip up north, and finally arriving at Nelson Dewey State Park for two full days of camping and relaxation before starting our trek back south. We were ready to park for a couple days in a brand new state (for the camper and kids) before we slowly headed back south.

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