In Sioux City, we departed for a time from the Missouri River as it turned west, but we continued north for the next eighty-five miles to Sioux Falls, South Dakota where we made a hard left turn.
Almost imperceptibly at first, the terrain began to change. We began the ascent we’d seen on the topo map back at the Western Historic Trails Center. I started visualizing the jagged twelve and fourteen thousand foot summits of the Rockies ahead of us.
“Didn’t you say we rejoined the Missouri at some point?” Jerry asked from the driver’s side.
For most of the journey, I occupied the seat of navigator. I checked the mileage. “We ought to be close.” In a moment, we topped a rise, and right before us lay the magnificent Missouri River valley. As we lifted our eyes to the west side of the river—the oddest thing came into view.
We learned later that on the east side of the river, the green agricultural endeavors were sustained by irrigation. On the west side, there was no irrigation but what seemed to be an ocean of black desert dirt. Now I know it’s Pierre Shale, a grayish black sediment that was a shallow sea bottom in prehistoric times. Ancient sea creatures including fish, marine lizards, flying reptiles, and sea turtles have been found in this shale. We were finally getting to the Great American West.
“It looks like a painting,” Aaron said awestruck from the back seat.
“Yeah,” we all said in wide-eyed wonder.
We ambled into a local eating establishment, Al’s Oasis, and sidled up to a table for our grub for the night. At the time, they still boasted five-cent coffee, and that was good enough for me. I was disappointed however when they didn’t serve it in a tin cup.
Windows overlooking the Missouri surrounded our indoor pool for the evening. We’d captured a five star view at a two star price. We’d not made a single reservation before we left home, but carried a book for RV owners, which listed lodging at all interstate stops across the country. When we figured out where we might end up at the end of the day, I’d start calling to get a reservation. Our first criterion was an indoor pool, then after that, it really didn’t matter as long as we could fit into the room. It was potluck as to what kind of situation we’d have. This time, we’d gotten prime rib.
Jerry and I sat in the hot tub and watched the kids splashing in the kiddie’s pool. “This is great,” he said slipping down a little further in the water.
“Did you know Lewis and Clark stopped almost at this very spot two hundred years ago?” I asked him.
No response. I don’t think he heard me, apparently lost in the sound of bubbling water.
Too bad he couldn’t hold on to that feeling the next morning.
“Battery’s dead,” Jerry said silhouetted darkly against the early morning light as he stood in the open door of our hotel. He closed the door a little too hard. “We left a light on in the van. Where’s the jump box?”
“It’s not in here,” I said. I’d already packed the room, and hadn’t seen it.
“Has to be,” he said as he moved suitcases and looked under the bed. “I always bring it in at night to recharge it.”
Jerry poked around a little, went to the van, and returned with the jump box. “I forgot to bring it in last night. It’s dead.” He dropped down on the bed and shook his head.
I felt for him.
Due to some problem, we had to run the refrigerator in the van off the jump box during the day to keep juices cold, and recharge the box at night in the hotel room. The one night we forgot to bring in the box was the one night we needed it to recharge the battery in the van.
“I saw a repair shop around the corner,” Jerry said. “I’ll walk down and see if they can help.”
He returned fifteen minutes later with another jump box just like ours. “Twenty dollars,” is all he said. But the tautness of his jaw told the rest of the story.
It worked great, though, and we were on our way in no time. I figured out it’d be best if I didn’t mention the jump box again, at least for the next ten years. That time has passed now.
As we crossed over the Missouri River into the bareness of Pierre Shale, I cracked open my Streams in the Desert Devotional as I normally did every morning. Almost unbelievably, the reading for the day was this:
God has His mountains bleak and bare where He does bid us rest awhile;
Crags where we breathe a purer air,
Lone peaks that catch the day’s first smile.
God has His deserts broad and brown-a solitude-a sea of sand.
Where he does let heaven’s curtain down, unknit by His almighty hand.
As I took in the view and deeply inhaled the South Dakota air, I turned and said to my children the first of at least a hundred times, “Do you know how blessed you are?”
They didn’t and for that matter, I didn’t either. I just had the strong impression there was something incredibly rare about these precious days we had together as a family. A few weeks later on a September morning, I’d have an even greater understanding of their significance.
Meanwhile, I was learning how refreshing a desert could be.
“I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19).