It was the classic All-American road trip: Badlands, Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone. Played out in a 20-year-old travel trailer and a pick-up truck in the glaring heat of I-90. Two kids in the back, two overgrown ones up front. I’ve been talking about doing this trip for 10 years and we looked at the kids and realized another 10 could sail by just as easily…. that we had to go, it was time.
Mapquest promised the worst: 27 hours one way. But it came as no surprise. I’d grown up doing this trek nearly every summer as a kid. There was no way around it — it was three days of travel each way with a trailer and kids in tow.
Or, in our case, four days. Less one trailer awning, plus one flooded kitchen and the purchase of a brand new transfer case on the truck to the tune of $2,500.
The awning incident came on Day 1. There’s nothing good about a car pulling up next to you on the Interstate and the passenger making flapping movements with his arms before speeding off. When you take a closer look in the rearview, sure enough, your awning has unspooled and laid itself nicely along the top of your camper, flapping like a flag.
This was no big surprise either. The spring broke on the awning last year and we knew it was on the countdown. We figured a thunderstorm would take it out in the end. But this was a blaze of glory, even by our standards.
You see, the beauty of our trailer is that it’s old and it’s imperfect but it’s ours. Each new “incident” brings a wash of love over us. Remember when the bathroom trim came off in my hand that night? How about the time we noticed the plastic was burning through, melted from a fire in the overhead light? And don’t forget the day the latch on the fridge broke and the milk exploded all over the floor AND the ceiling. Them those are the good ol’ days.
So Tim secured the awning in the dusty parking lot of a failed 24-hour café in Iowa. Tool of choice? Duct tape. The awning was taped into submission, its arms taped tight. The awning was a lost cause, tattered, its final stretch a reach for the heavens in a prairie sky. We held a moment of silence to recognize that we would not, in fact, have the enjoyment of shade on this trip.
Next up, the day we went to Bear Country, U.S.A. This is a drive-through animal park. Elk, bear, big horn sheep next to your truck, hysterical kids begging to roll down the windows. Totally worth it. We went at feeding time and watched the wolves defer to the 20-year-old kid in khakis with a bucket of feed. “That boy is the Alpha Male,” I told the children, “leader of the pack.” This led to an age-old face-off between Tim and me on who was alpha in our family.
After dropping $40 in the gift shop, we headed back to camp, stuffed bears in hand, necklaces swinging from our necks. And when we pulled in, we noticed a small rain shower coming from beneath the camper, a lake forming in its path.
“Here we go,” Tim said.
Inside, a flooded kitchen, water running over the discolored linoleum and down through the floor and out into the campsite we were paying a hefty $39 a night for.
Tim opened the cabinet under the sink and water burst out in welcome, a water line loose, broken, routing water everywhere.
Small potatoes, people. This same floor was flooded once before. In fact, the rotting floorboards in the kitchen have given rise to a few doubtful moments when the larger members of the family make a breakfast of buttered toast.
Once that was fixed, it was time for the biggie.
The breakdown arrived politely. It waited until we were 19 hours and one Mt. Rushmore into the trip. We left bright and early on a Tuesday morning headed for the Big Horn Mountains and beyond, Yellowstone. The parking lot simmered in South Dakota heat. Tim’s truck offered up an unusual hum, a rattle, a warning call.
“What now,” Tim said.
He ferreted out the problem, flat on his back in the parking lot of a GM dealership — not much fluid in the transfer case. The what? No matter, my tool man had us back on the road after a few quarts of fluid.
“Is it fixed?” I asked, filing my nails.
“Who knows,” Tim said.
Exactly 40 miles later, we knew. It was a major problem. Transfer case fluid had leaked out and blown all over the front of the camper in the 40 miles we’d traveled. We found a GM dealership three miles away and the guys took us right in. A new transfer case was needed. Cue the $2,480 bill. A weakness ran through my legs.
“Go drop your trailer down the road at the Rec Center,” the man in overalls said. “Bring the truck back and we’ll have it ready by 5.”
We were at once shocked and relieved. We were broke! We were alive! We lost one day! We lost only one day! We didn’t know whether to cry or cheer.
But when we pulled into the Rec Center, fanning our credit cards out for selection, my mom handed down a little bit of heaven and tipped the scales in our favor.
For what stood next to the Rec Center? A water park bigger than Mt. Rushmore itself. And only $7.50 a person for the entire 90-degree day. It was unheard of bounty in our time of need.
“Get your suits on!” I called. Thank God, I thought. I’d been imagining an eight-hour day in a parking lot with a deck of cards and two small badgers.
So we played all day in the park. I was talked into doing the rocket red slide once, which made the kids look upon me with something close to kinship. I quietly booked a chiro appointment for the day we returned home.
Tim shook off the setback after hiking back to the rec center on foot and rode the slides all day with the kids. I read my book in the shade, wrote a little and avoided eye contact with the red slide.
The truck was done at 5 as promised. The kids were happy but tired. Tim and I were broke but resilient.
“What a great place to break down,” we said that night, penniless, lying in our camper with our duct-taped awning and waterlogged kitchen floor. “Isn’t vacation the best?”