Family Vacation 2016, Cowboys and Indians
This summer my parents treated my son and daughter, ages 15 and 13, to a possibly once in a lifetime trip to Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. I was invited to come along, as long as I respected the fact that it was my dad’s trip to plan, not mine.
I had never seen that part of the country, and it was a chance for all of us to be together, so at the same time, terrifying. As the trip got closer and my dad shared more and more of the itinerary, it started to sink in that if we were going to cover three vast states, there wasn’t going to be much down time. The itinerary included visiting Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, spending the Fourth of July in Cody, Wyoming, visiting the Battle of the Little Bighorn, then on to Devil’s Tower, Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument in the Black Hills, the Badlands, and then back past Fort Laramie to Denver, our starting and ending point, in the span of twelve days. The image of the Griswold’s in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation, in the paneled station wagon kept coming to mind.
I began to anticipate that this was going to be one fantastic cliche tourist experience, where all our illusions of the west would be validated. Cowboys and Indians, the gold rush of the Black Hills, Laura Ingalls Wilder and her Little House on the Prairie, a museum with Plains Indians Head Dresses, the family selfie at the House of Sod.
Also in the backdrop of my psyche’s stage for this was a recent conversation I had with a colleague from South Dakota who was leading long term recovery efforts to flooding on the Pine Ridge Reservation; she shared that the Pine Ridge Reservation included the two poorest counties in the country. It turns out that kids from our home church were headed to South Dakota the same week we were in the area, helping to repair homes and build bunk beds for Native People on the Reservation, likely most of them Sioux. The rhetoric back home is along the lines of “going to help the Native People who are poor,” and I am always sure in my gut that there is a longer story. So, given all of this, I wondered what I would come home with related to Cowboys and Indians.
We started out an early Tuesday morning in late June, 2016, from my home to Philadelphia International Airport, with a flight direct to Colorado.
While we didn’t have a paneled station wagon, we did rent a luxurious and spacious Kia Sedona, and so the epic road trip was underway. By that time I got behind the wheel of the Sedona, I resigned myself to two things: 1) Practicing saying, “That’s a great idea, dad,” and 2) looking for authenticity, although I wasn’t exactly sure what I meant by that.
Soon enough I decided I knew what authenticity was when it was in front of me: Hearing my daughter laugh with my mom. Me and my daughter being reprimanded by my son for not appreciating my dad for his thoughtfulness, albeit veiled in a bulleted daily “to see” list, Stealing time for serendipity and curiosity with my kids in early mornings while my dad was busy sleeping or scheming for the next day. A great conversation with the guy from the Rock Shop about pretzels made in my hometown back in Pennsylvania. Hearing my son and daughter talk about watching otters play at Grand Tetons. Identifying new plants we saw along the way. Eva riding the jack-a-loupe. Aaron spending an evening at Old Faithful stalking his wild buffalo companion, Bill.
Authenticity also came in the form of my son sensing something awry in Cody, Wyoming. His intuition kept telling him something did not come close to aligning with his own world views and that he would be wise to keep his thoughts to himself there. Probably it was when a float came by in the Fourth of July Parade with an outhouse on it, and spray painted, “for transgenders.” I was glad he got a bad vibe.
Hiking to spots where cars could not go; jumping in the stream by Mystic Falls, those things felt authentic.
There was something that felt authentic beyond single experiences by our third or fourth day driving. Part of it was the thrill of the road trip itself. The getting up and driving and driving and driving, not knowing what to expect around the bend. And part of it came as my dad and I started to listen to books we bought from Audible. One was The Journey of Crazy Horse, by Joseph M. Marshall III, Sioux, and the other one was the story of Red Cloud called, The Heart of Everything That Is, by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, neither one native.
Between listening to these books, visiting the Battle of the Little Big Horn, recounting our family’s history in the Civil War and discovering just recently that one of my great great…grandfathers on my mother’s side, fought with Custer in the Civil War, the juxtaposition of being a tourist and enjoying time with my family, while at the same time riding through sacred grounds of various Plains Indian Tribes, kept making me more uneasy. When we were at the Little Big Horn, we took a bus tour run by the Crow Indians. The tour leader, a Crow woman, was pleasant and proud of her heritage. It was when she recounted treaties, most recently the Treaty of 1877, that indicated that white settlers were to not set foot in the Black Hills, including the land that we were riding through at The Little Big Horn, that the injustices of the past were obvious. Here we were, an air conditioned busload of white people riding right through these very lands. That struck me again the next day when we were at Mount Rushmore. Forefathers we are proud of as Americans, but carved right into the very sacred Black Hills in which the US government promised forever to the Sioux.
The tours we took, the Crow tour guide, the books we listened to, and the everyday people we met, at least encouraged my own curiosity and so I learned more about Crazy Horse’s illusive personality, how the plants I learned to identify were used for medicine, and the long story of Red Cloud eventually resigning himself to the Reservation system, specifically the Pine Ridge Reservation, and then further learning more about the current very sad state of affairs on that very reservation and the same one where the kids from back home were working. I wonder if the people who feel they are doing good by going and building beds, know much about the Sioux’s refusal to accept money for land that was never for sale.
So while I had my doubts about all this road tripping and togetherness, and while there were times that my father and I made each other crazy, I am glad for these memories with my family and that my kids will have them with their parents, and also for the chance to hold in tension my own family’s and own country’s history, for better and worse and for what I can take with me from that holding.