Take The Trip
By Alexis Mercer
Two years ago our older two kids started talking about a trip to Yellowstone. They enjoy watching Planet Earth and had seen an episode pertaining to the wildlife there. It stuck in their minds and a seed had been planted.
My husband and I used to go on yearly camping trips to the UP when we were first married - but since having the two younger boys we have stuck closer to home to help with logistics and babies camping. This, if we could pull it off, would be our first major road camping trip as a family of five. I’m not going to lie - I was a little nervous. Not so much about the kids. They’re adaptable. Mostly about my husband. He doesn’t even pretend to like tent camping.
So when he suggested renting an RV, I first balked at the potential cost. I lost my breath a little thinking about how much a 10 day trip would be. But the kids kept talking about it - researching attractions - and I let it simmer. If renting an RV was going to help all of us, including Adam, be happy, then I suppose it was worth it. Right?
I found a potential rental on RVShare.com. A 24’ Mercedes Benz diesel that slept 6. Done deal. I reserved it, and paid the down payment to make it official. Little did I know that people plan trips to Yellowstone years in advance. So when I called for reservations in campgrounds inside the park, there was one night available. ONE? Alrighty - sign me up for that night. I did learn there are first come, first served campgrounds too. The Ranger told me what to do to try for those, so a plan was forming in my head. I’m quite competitive - those sites would be mine.
The other details of the trip I just flat out didn’t have time to work out. I was swamped at work. And Adam isn’t a planner. We’d have a place to stay in the RV, even if it was parked in the parking lot of a Walmart, so we would just have to figure out the rest as we went.
Vacation day arrived. The kids were so geeked they could hardly sleep the night before. Their backpacks were stuffed with books, games, and toys to keep them occupied. I had an entire tub of card games to play. AND there was a DVD player in the RV. I bought more food than would fit in our household kitchen for on the road, and off we went.
The first day we headed off south, around Chicago then through Wisconsin. Of course traffic was abysmal through Chicago, so it was slow going. Around midnight we hit the border of Minnesota. Our oldest two got out at the rest stop and took pictures by the Mississippi River. They didn’t hate riding in the RV and were still excited. Winning.
Night one we spent in a rest stop parking lot for a few hours. No time to waste when we had Mt. Rushmore to get to! Around 4:00 PM the second day we pulled in to Horsethief Lake Campground. Peaceful, serene, quiet. And less than 2 miles from Mt. Rushmore!
Mt. Rushmore was absolutely phenomenal to see in person. To think of the man power and time to complete the project was mind boggling. The next morning we set off on a hike. Right from our campground was a trail head. Adam and the kids would hike while I would run ahead a few miles and then turn around to finish the hike with them. Running at over 7,000 feet elevation was slow and hard on the lungs. But the views and scenery made it a dream. I smiled the entire time. I couldn’t believe how lucky I felt to be jumping creeks, climbing rocks, and bounding the trails. After my running miles, I met back up with my family and we took our time exploring little paths off the side of the main trail. I could have stayed at that campground the whole week there were so many trails and places to hike and run.
But we had other adventures awaiting, so off we went! Cody, Wyoming was our next stop. This campground we found - Yellowstone Valley - would be the only location we stayed with actual showers. Therefore it was my middle school daughter’s favorite spot. The highlight of this stop was a true, genuine rodeo. Every night June through August there is a rodeo at 8 PM in Cody. It didn’t disappoint. The rodeo clown even made a joke about the Chicago Bears, which totally made my day as I am the only Lions fan in a household of Bears fans.
The next day it was finally time to enter the park itself. We found our way to Lewis Lake Campground in the southern part of the park and secured our first come site. We let the kids play an intense game of hide and seek (while telling them to actually seek bears that might be nearby) before we head out to enjoy Old Faithful.
Day 2 in the park was the attraction I was most looking forward to - Grand Prismatic. We hiked ¾ mile to see it from above. What a view! I took a ridiculous amount of pictures and then just sat and enjoyed the plethora of colors the Earth had to offer. The kids also spotted some elk off in the distance.
That day Madison Campground was our one reserved night in the park. We settled in and swam in the river adjacent to the park. It was that next morning I took off for a run before hitting the road; my bear bell jingling loudly. But after 3 miles of not seeing anything in the way of wildlife, I silenced the bell to enjoy the peace and some of the most magnificent views I could possibly imagine. With ¼ mile left of my five miles, relaxed and happy my feet and body were holding up well at altitude, I looked up and my breath came out of me as I found myself 10 feet behind a massive buffalo. I stopped in my tracks and slowly backed up. Thankfully the buffalo wasn’t interested in stomping a runner out for a leisurely Sunday run. He stared at me a few seconds then strolled on his way. My average heart rate on that last ¼ mile far exceeded my maximum heart rate. I now refer to the bear bell as a buffalo bell and won’t be silencing anything next time I run in bear/buffalo country.
We found another small campground just south of Mammoth Hot Springs for a third night in the park - winning the first come, first served game yet again. We marked our spot then headed to the hot springs. Walking to the top was quite the challenge in the 90 degree heat - but it was all dry air so it didn’t feel as bad as 90 degrees and humidity that presses you into the ground. The views were well worth it.
Leaving the park the next day we headed out the North gate. We would push through all of Montana, North Dakota and part of Minnesota that day. This meant the next day we got to spend in the UP enjoying the sunset on Lake Superior. We watched the sun set over our Great Lake before crossing the Mighty Mack the following day to finish our tour.
Since returning I have been asked my favorite part many times. Without question it was the connection we were able to make as a family. Traveling together, enjoying each others’ company, laughing, relaxing and just being us. This road trip couldn’t have come at a better time, when I feel like the kids are getting so old and starting to do things with their friends much more often.
A second favorite part was waking each morning in a different location, boiling water and enjoying a cup of freshly ground pour over coffee while taking in the mountain views. I know I’ll think of that part often when I return to school this fall: on the go from the minute my alarm sounds until I crash at night.
My last favorite part was running every day. Sometimes in the campgrounds because of the bears. Other times on the most magnificent trails where I would occasionally gasp in pure awe. We live in a beautiful country. And I am so very blessed to be able to enjoy it on my feet with the fresh air filling up my lungs. To run on the same land that the founders of the historical park one day long ago enjoyed was a joy. What a great life.
Prior to going on the trip I was nervous about things working out. How much money would we spend? Were the kids the right ages? Would they get along? Was driving an RV crazy? What if my lack of planning left us miserable in a parking lot instead of the beautiful park we wanted to visit? The list went on.
And while we did spend a lot of money - I was relaxed about it because this kind of memory making is why we work so hard throughout the year. Everything was simply perfect. The kids had so much fun they didn’t have time to even get in small disagreements. The RV met our every need. My lack of planning resulted in some fun adventures finding places to stay!
Maybe next time we take a trip things won’t be as perfect. But I certainly will risk it and take the trip. I won’t wait because I only had 2.5 months of planning or think twice because of the ‘what ifs’. We will take the trip and make the memories to last a lifetime.
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