Sorry for the little gap in posting there. It’s been difficult enough to contribute to this blog while the family and I hang out at our cottage in Michigan (actually, what that really means is that, when I’m near my DSL at home, I spend way too much time online). But on top of that, for the last two weeks of July, we all took a road trip to the Black Hills in South Dakota.

That’s right, 3,300 miles with two kids in a station wagon with dodgy air conditioning that gave out halfway through. For those who don’t take real road trip vacations with their kids, I say, you’re a bunch of wussies. For those of you who only take a road trip if you can narcotize your kids with DVDs during the long stretches of Illinois farmland, you’re techno-wussies. With all the backseat fighting, bad songs, license-plate Bingo, Battleship games and utter chaos in the vehicle by the end, road trips bond a family together like nothing short of a infantry campaign.

I approached this trip reluctantly, agreeing to it mainly for the purposes of marital harmony. July in South Dakota sounded like a visit to the fires of hell without the interesting personalities. (On this, I was correct. When we visited the Badlands, it was 115 degrees, and even the park interpreters were wondering aloud what they were doing there.) But once we got a rhythm going, it was a wonderful time. Most nights we camped, by the side of gorgeous water like the Missouri River in Chamberlain, S.D., or the Little Missouri in Teddy Roosevelt National Park in Medora, N.D., or Horse Thief Lake a couple miles from Mount Rushmore. We did add a corollary to our rules of traveling. The first rule, as always, is:

1. Sleep national, eat local.

Now, the second one is just common sense:

2. If it’s over 100 degrees when you’re ready to pitch your tent, go find a motel.

We saw an evening pageant dramatizing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in DeSmet, S.D. Went to the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo in Mitchell. Hit Prairie Dog Town and Reptile Gardens (quite good) and Wall Drug (as tacky as you would expect, but certainly big enough to pass the time). Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (lots of alien trinkets for sale there, to cash in on the “Close Encounters” connection). The only drawback to the trip was not being able to stay in a campground more than one night (with the exception of Horse Thief Lake). It was exhausting to pack up the campsite every morning in the car top carrier and swing it onto the roof (did wonders for the finish), but there were just too many miles to cover every day.

Another part of my trepidation was related to the current political climate. In the past few years, all the talk has been about Red States and Blue States. South Dakota, of course, would qualify as a Red State. I thought we were venturing into Big GOP Country, b’wana, and would be forced to fend off creationists and flat-taxers around every corner.

But the pernicious effect of segregating the country like that is, it makes orphans out of the people who happen to disagree with the majority in their state. We met and talked with lots of people who lived out west, and they certainly didn’t walk in lockstep with anybody, left or right. They were all in violent agreement that they would never, ever, ever live in a place like Chicago (we figured out there were more people on the north side of Chicago than in the entire state of South Dakota), but other than that, we got along fine. There was a lot less flag-waving than I thought there’d be, even at the rodeo, and I saw a lot fewer yellow ribbons on cars. Maybe it was a function of population density, and in political discussions, density is always important, especially the cranial kind.

So coming back from the Great Plains, after hearing about Lewis & Clark and Gustav Borglum and the sculptor of the Crazy Horse Memorial and all the settlers, I came back with a renewed appreciation of our American heritage.

However, they still drink a lot of crappy beer out there. And buffalo meat can give you some farts that should be covered in an arms treaty.