Seven years ago, when someone first suggested that my family and I embark on a recreational-vehicle vacation, I laughed. RVs, after all, were for footloose retirees, not for young families. And who wanted to travel like a turtle, carrying their home with them? That I’d never tried it and had based my reaction solely on misconceptions nearly prevented me from discovering one of the best-kept secrets in the world of great vacations. Fortunately, my husband, son, and two daughters had the good sense to embrace the idea with unbridled enthusiasm – so off we went.
Today, our five-some has traveled some 25,000 miles through 32 states in search of America. We’ve rolled along back roads and superhighways, taken in nature, history, sports, and adventure. And we have found exactly what we were looking for in the likeliest and the least expected of places. More than anywhere else, our journey through the Midwest in a borrowed, 31-foot motor home showed us what’s memorable, quirky, and moving about America and about traveling together as a family.
On the Road in the Land of Lakes
I shouldn’t have told Hutch, age five, that Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes.
First, recent surveys put the number closer to 14,000 to 15,000. Second, he boldly attempted to count them. Every one. Whether you believe the storytellers’ tale that the lakes were created by the mammoth hooves of Paul Bunyan’s companion Babe the Blue Ox or favor the geologists’ contention that retreating glaciers get the credit, it is easy to be seduced by the constant blue-and-green play of light on water across Minnesota’s rolling landscape. But few lakes awe as Superior does, whatever its prevailing – and ever-changing – mood.
Camping northeast of Duluth, we arrived on Lake Superior’s inhospitable shore during a gale-force storm. Not that camping in a storm is a problem in an RV. As we snuggled in our respective beds (our home on wheels had room to sleep seven), the storm outside fostered an inside sense of cozy togetherness and shared adventure that is unique to “RVing.” Still, the weather’s sunny turn the next morning was fortunate, for we had scheduled a kayak tour of the harbor with the Outdoor Program of the University of Minnesota at Duluth. By then Lake Superior’s waters lapped lazily at sandy beaches as though the raging the night before had never transpired.
Duluth is home to the world’s largest inland freshwater port and the massive cargo ships that slide under its aerial lift bridge turn kayaking into a humbling experience. Our half-day tour, however, won a unanimous thumbs-up, especially for its waterline view of the William A. Irvin, an ore boat and former flagship of U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes fleet. A smaller version of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the last great ore transport to sink on Superior (in November 1975, with 29 hands lost), the Irvin offered something for everyone: history for fourth grader Molly, big equipment (the anchor alone weighs three tons) for Hutch, a sense of drama for our teenager, Kira.
Snaking Though Iowa
What do we remember about Iowa? Snakes. Big snakes, little snakes, wrap-around-your-wrist snakes found by chance at Effigy Mounds National Monument, prehistoric earthen mounds set along 300-foot-high bluffs above the Mississippi in the state’s northeastern corner.
One of the great benefits of RVing is that it doesn’t tie you to hotel reservations. Unless you’re trying to get into a national park in high season, it’s likely you’ll find a campground to accommodate you – even on the spur of the moment. Which is why we felt confident enough to make a spontaneous detour 150 miles out of our way in order to reach Effigy Mounds. But before we could hike the trails to the mounds, we were waylaid in the Visitor Center by a National Park Service ranger who just happened to be giving a lecture about snakes. Reptiles crawled out of his pockets, sleeves, and shirtfront. The faint of heart paled and ran. We stayed and were offered our own nonpoisonous snakes to hold – several of the 27 varieties Iowa is blessed with. (Hutch created “living handcuffs” out of his.) It was a day to remember – a bit of serendipity on which lasting vacation memories are often founded.
In an RV, though, memories do not just come from the places you visit. They come from the travel itself, mostly because RV vacations give families something that’s all too rare these days – time together. Time to talk and time to eat dinner as a group every night. Time to sit long into the evening playing cards or searching the skies for constellations and planets. Time to just be there, adults and children, in the moment. Claustrophobic? Hardly. Close? Absolutely, in the best sense of the word – which is not to say we agreed on everything all the time.
Meandering in Missouri
In July, Missouri can be hot. Beyond hot. And to be honest, none of the kids wanted to go to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, in Independence. But Bill and I ignored the whining and forged ahead. And we were glad we did.
Molly and I lingered over the exhibition “Dear Bess: Love Letters from the President,” a collection of handwritten letters that follows Bess and Harry’s courtship and 53-year marriage. My children snickered at the idea that people once watched TV on a contraption like the box they saw in the 33rd President’s replicated Oval Office. Was that what it was like for you in the olden days? Hutch wondered.
I told him to ask his father.
Having left the Interstate behind, we passed through farmland and hilly bluff country along the Missouri River. It was in Jefferson City that we discovered Binder Park, a bucolic campground with friendly hosts and spacious, shady sites on 154-acre Binder Lake – a place that, like many RV campgrounds, offers a welcoming sense of small-town-America. Kira was happy with fishing in spite of the poor catch; Hutch preferred to stalk tadpoles. In the sultry Missouri afternoon, Bill and I plugged into the camp’s electric grid in order to air-condition the RV. Molly played with newfound friends from Arkansas. When they weren’t swapping stories, they chased blue-tailed lizards and collected and set free doodlebugs.
Lush countryside surrounds the town of Branson, 150 miles south of Jefferson City. Not that the macabre and whimsical institutions along the garish strip like Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum don’t appeal. Who could resist watching the video of a man pulling a truck with his tongue? Had we skipped our visit, we might never have learned that an early-1800s earthquake reversed the flow of the Mississippi for three days, a fascinating factoid my kids like to recall.
But our hands-down favorite activity was Ride the Ducks, Second World War amphibious vehicles that travel with a roar and a splash from traffic jams on Branson’s strip onto the relative tranquility of Table Rock Lake. Kids can try steering on the water and the fun-loving guides offer a perspective on this area, a vacation haven for Midwestern families long before it became a mecca for country music. Just off Branson’s bustling strip, the densely forested Ozarks beckon, as does the blue expanse of lakes that have brought families here to play and cool off summer after summer.
Which is just what we did. After nearly two weeks on the road, we took a weekend break from our motor home and cooled our heels at the Bradford Inn, a friendly B and B high on a hill above the action. The inn’s proximity to Silver Dollar City, Branson’s theme park, allowed us to simultaneously cool off and scare ourselves silly on water rides.
By the time we left Missouri, we had each found our own piece of America. It was in the chilly waters of Superior and the sweltering humidity of Branson; friendly campgrounds and family-run inns. It was in lazy afternoons fishing and playing with new doodlebug-collecting friends. It was about nature, and about history – Presidents, ore boats, and river traffic. Mostly, it was about something for everyone.