Uncharted: Together in the Black Hills

The first faint rays of sunlight revealed what happened overnight--6 inches of snow blanketed the city of Custer, S.D., on a late September morning. It was that morning--an unseasonably cold and wintry affair, more than 5,000 feet above sea level...

The Perkins family during a hike to the top of Little Devils Tower in late September in Custer State Park, S.D.
The Perkins family during a hike to the top of Little Devils Tower in late September in Custer State Park, S.D.

The first faint rays of sunlight revealed what happened overnight-6 inches of snow blanketed the city of Custer, S.D., on a late September morning.

It was that morning-an unseasonably cold and wintry affair, more than 5,000 feet above sea level-my family anticipated for more than a year. And so did the buffalo herd roaming Custer State Park. That morning, they would be guided to the ranch by a host of horse riders, all-terrain vehicles and SUVs in a spectacular stampede of more than 1,000 of North America's largest mammals.

The Buffalo Roundup, an annual event drawing thousands of spectators to perch atop hillcrests and take it in, was what prompted the first Perkins family vacation in about 20 years. The last time my dad Bob, mom Kim, sister Brittany and I traveled together, just the four of us, I moped around Universal Studios after Vikings kicker Gary Anderson missed the field goal-you know the one. So yeah, a long time ago.

At 32, I wasn't sure what to expect from my first trip with my parents as an adult. At a week long, it would be the most continuous time the four of us spent together since I left Crosslake bound for the Twin Cities and college life. It could go any number of ways: we could leave in matching T-shirts with a new secret handshake between us, or it could be a very, very long drive home.

OK so the T-shirts didn't happen. But you know what did? My sister, who spent much of her childhood finding agates and digging in the dirt, saw the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, S.D., and collected rose quartz on our way to the peak of Little Devils Tower. My mom experienced the Buffalo Roundup and marveled at the wildlife and dramatic views we came upon on daily drives. My dad took pleasure in photographing as much of our trip as possible with his new camera and took a rather uncharacteristic liking to wine as we toured a few of the area's breweries and wineries. As for me? I swelled with pride as my little pup Ansel navigated rough terrain and climbed rocks right along with us, and made it a goal to collect magnets from each of the places we visited-a surprisingly high number of locales we packed into our time out West.


We hit the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D.; descended into the earth at Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park; traversed the Wildlife Loop and saw elk and the small herd of infamous begging wild burros and nearly every animal we all wanted to see; meandered through the stark and stunning Badlands; and shopped in Keystone for souvenirs (Dad got each of us girls Black Hills gold jewelry).

Of all the moments we spent together-some tense, some joyful, most pleasant-I will never forget the lighting of Mount Rushmore. Each night, before throwing the switch to illuminate the four U.S. presidents immortalized in stone, a presentation covers the ever-evolving idea of freedom in the United States. A park ranger reminds the audience of the costs of freedom, and implores them not to take it for granted, as it has sometimes been in the past. Then, in the wake of the dramatic reading and film, and beneath the now-lit monument, military veterans in attendance are asked to come to the stage to be honored for their service.

My dad served in the U.S. Air Force in the mid-1980s. The period was transformative for him. He struggled a bit in high school-although incredibly smart, he fell off track and worked his way through a number of disciplinary issues, graduating later than planned. He and my mother, high school sweethearts, married at age 20 in a truncated ceremony, moved up on the calendar to accommodate my dad's orders to travel to a base in Germany. Following in the footsteps of his own father and two uncles by enlisting, my dad would be the first to tell you he came back from his time in the service a changed man.

So when the call for veterans rang out in the amphitheater that chilly night and my dad answered it, I watched as he stood among dozens of others who'd dedicated some of their lives to serving the country. Together, veterans and audience sang the national anthem and a few on stage worked together to retire the colors. It was clear how much it meant to Dad to be among those honored that night. It was emotional for all of us, and took on even more meaning as George, Thomas, Theodore and Abe looked on.

It's sometimes easy to forget those closest to you won't always be here. The fragility of life comes into focus when you spend time almost every day detailing the deaths of others in car crashes or drownings, or sharing the stories of tragic diagnoses, or even just glancing over the obituaries. But I still sometimes get lost in the day-to-day, worried about truly minor things in the grand scheme.

Watching my dad proudly accept his well-deserved recognition reminded me how lucky I am, to have the means to vacation with my family, to HAVE my family. It was one of so many first-time experiences on our trip I'll cherish, always.

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