The Great Midwest Trip – Part 7

Note: This is part seven 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 morning after our roadside RV park one-night stay, I was awakened at 6 AM by countless tiny thuds and pecks. At first I thought that the kids were up, but when I went in to check on them, they were both asleep in their beds. I thought that maybe we had a wild animal in our camper, but that didn’t make sense either. Then I opened up the door. A full flock of birds flew away from around our camper, filling the field next to the campground. I walked around the camper just to make sure that we didn’t have any lingering visitors, and finally fell back asleep so that I could at least pretend to be well-rested before we got on the road.

After a stressful, windy drive south, we arrived at Lake of the Ozarks State Park in Missouri, ready to take our reserved camping spot. I had initially reserved for two days thinking that we would want an extra day at the state park to vacation on our way home, but before we even left Houston, we had decided to throw away our second day so that we could get home a day early. Since we were traveling over the July 4th holiday, we weren’t going to be able to easily cancel a day, but we decided it was worth it if it got us home earlier. Since most Missouri state parks don’t have water hook-ups, we had to use the water fill station to fill up the camper before we moved on to our site.

The problem once we got there? We couldn’t get in.

This was our sixth camping spot in just over a week. Our neighbor in Dubuque had been thoroughly impressed with Jeff’s parking skills and his maneuvering at Starved Rock proved that he could get into nearly any tough spot, but with this site, we were bottoming out on both ends and risking some serious damage to the camper.

So we did the only reasonable thing and asked if there was an open spot in the half-filled campground that we could use for just one night. We found a simple pull through site right across the road from the playground and the bathrooms, the change a definite win.

Once settled, we grabbed swimming gear and towels and headed for the lake. We saw deer grazing on the side of the park roads and walked along the lakeshore after the kids played on the playgrounds that overlook the lakes. Then the kids decided it was time to swim, enjoying downtime without a schedule of obligations. While Jeff and I didn’t get in, our kids, who spend most summer days getting at least an hour of swim time in our backyard pool, enjoyed the short period of refreshing lake time and swimming, climbing out hungry and asking what we were going to do for dinner.

When we first started looking at campers, the dealer that we bought our first camper from talked about some of his favorite Indiana state parks and then he admitted that he and his family rarely ate at the campground. They usually left the parks to eat out and then they came back to hang out and go to sleep. We thought this was unthinkable. In our early marriage, camping was one of the only times we made a real effort to cook, and now that cooking and grilling had become one of our favorite household collaborations, we couldn’t imagine that being the standard while camping, especially since we usually stayed at state parks that were too far from a wide selection of restaurants.

At the time I wondered what was the point of going camping and never eating at the campsite. For the first year after we started camping with both kids, we frequently found ourselves leaving the campground to get items that we forgot we needed, but once we finally had a packing plan and practice, those extracurricular trips became less and less common and we did everything possible to avoid leaving the park for any reason, including food.

Which is why my son, who had been promised that he could help his father cook a rather boring hot dog dinner, was so distraught when I told him that we weren’t going to eat at the camper. Instead, we were doing something we never did and we were going to enjoy some free kids meals at Steak N’ Shake.

It’s silly, I know, but when one moves to different parts of the country, one misses certain things about the places that have been called home. And while it’s not that important and there are plenty of family friendly restaurants in the country and our family rarely eats out, I missed being close to Steak N’ Shake. Yes, there are some in the Houston area, but they are too far away for a quick post-church Sunday lunch or a girls night with drinks, cheese fries, and shakes. Since we were a mere five miles away and and it was the weekend (which meant our kids could eat for free), that is what we were going to do, so we did.

When we returned to the camper, we gave the kids two options: we could either have one last campfire or we could play another round of Oregon Trail. Shockingly, our kids, who usually enjoy building and sitting around a roaring campfire no matter how warm it is outside, selected another game of Oregon Trail. While our son was still suffering from cousin withdrawal, he found solace in quality family time before being tucked into bed. Travel fatigue was starting to set in. The primary goal of the back end of our vacation was just getting home and we needed three more days of cooperation with no idea what to expect from them the next day.

After the kids crashed in bed, Jeff built a small fire with our leftover firewood, and we reflected on the trip and where we wanted our next family vacation to be. During that late night quiet time we made Christmas break plans to visit Big Bend so we could have the “family only” vacation we felt we still desperately needed; we also began the conversation that would eventually lead to our new, current camper. As ready as we were to finally be home, we couldn’t wait for the next time we could get on the road, this time heading exactly where we wanted to go determined entirely by our family’s desires.

I managed to get a short run in before we packed for the road. Within two hours we were headed to Oklahoma, across more farm and ranch land, and with few places of interest in-between.

Probably the coolest stop along the way was the last visitor’s center in Missouri. At that point we discovered that we were on Route 66 and the entire rest area was Route 66 themed. Our kids ran up and down the picnic shelters, pretending that they were at the diner or grocery store or pumping gas. It was the one highlight of a long day of traveling and a year later they are still asking if they can return to that particular rest area. We keep telling them we don’t intend to take that route again, but during this past summer vacation, we pointed out all of the Route 66 memorabilia available in Sante Fe and Albuquerque, showing that we were in fact back on the historic highway corridor.

When we finally arrived at the KOA where we had reserved for the night, we were more than ready to send both kids across to the playground and Jeff was ready to relax, but first we had to set up camp. Our last two reserved spots of the trip were KOAs because we were traveling over the Independence Day holiday, a week during which many campers, regardless of the weather, head out for camping at the state parks. Because I had been too slow in making my plans, we were stuck with privately owned campgrounds. On the plus side, the campground had a pool, which we welcomed. It had been a long day, it was hot outside and getting hotter as we headed further south, and a chance to dip in a pool and relax for a little while before heading back inside to our air-conditioned camper sounded like the perfect end to our evening.

Then Jeff asked for the distance to our next stop. After looking at the distance from where we were in Oklahoma to home and comparing to the distance of two more days, we decided that cutting out at least 60 miles and an extra day of travel was worth getting us home early. Not only that, but the next day’s forecast included a full day of thunderstorms. No one, especially Jeff, looked forward to a full day of driving and traveling through thunderstorms.

So when we got up the next morning, we headed home.

It was a long day, but we made it, and by the time we had the camper unpacked and dropped back off in storage, the clouds started to build in the horizon. When I woke up the next morning, buckets of rain dropped out of the sky.

To say it was a perfect vacation would be a stretch. Our trip to Disney World had been a perfect vacation, from start to finish. But it was a good vacation with some definite highs. We got to see family and our kids got to spend quality time with their cousins. Our kids visited two new states, Jeff visited one new state, and our whole family camped together in three new states. We got to visit a national monument, hike through forests, and see wild animals up close.

And our whole family unplugged while we plugged in to each other.

Driving through rural America took away Jeff and my ability to constantly check our email and social media, and within a couple days on the road, our kids weren’t begging for their Kindles or asking if we could play a movie on the TV that got turn on once, just so that Jeff could see what kind of channels were available in the middle of nothing. Instead our kids were on their bikes, running to playgrounds, chasing fireflies, reading books, drawing, or begging us for another game of Oregon Trail. Two nights after we got home, while Jeff went out to play basketball, they begged me for a pre-bedtime board game instead of a movie. We weren’t kidding ourselves. They had spent a fair amount of time that day getting back to Disney Infinity and Plants vs. Zombies, but they still wanted to connect. They still wanted face time with Mom.

So I gave in and handily beat them at Monopoly.