A Family Trip Across South Dakota

During Labor Day weekend, we took a road trip to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands of South Dakota — a caravan of two minivans, two five-person families, two Star Wars videos and a cooler full of snacks.

The trip fell right in the middle of the Republican and Democratic conventions, and as always happens during election time, I think in speeches. I start crafting the speech I would write for this politician or that one. I edit the ones the candidates give – he should have said this, or she didn’t say enough of that, or that made him look like an idiot.

So as we drove through South Dakota and hit several national parks and memorials, I imagined the speech I would write for someone seeking votes there. And it was all about how South Dakota’s history is a model for what it means to be a family, to stick by the ones you love, to follow in their footsteps, to carry on against the odds in the name of… family.

First, as we drove across miles and miles of brown prairie, spotted only occasionally by a small house, a barn and some old tractors, I thought about the approaching winter. I thought about the families who live in those houses and how they must not get out much. I thought about how hard winters must be on them. And then I wondered if anyone new ever moves in. Or are these huge ranches that feel like they are alone on earth stuck in the same family for generations? Do they change hands, or is there some familial understanding that the son or daughter continues to work the land of his or her parents and grandparents? It’s a different life from the lives and expectations of most of us these days – one driven by family ties.

And then I imagined the homesteaders traveling for miles with their families in search of land on which to build a home. They braved the brutal summers and bitter winters. They knew they might encounter those (beast or person) who would do them harm. They knew they might run out of food. But in many cases, a family came along in support of one person’s dream of owning a piece of land. And they battled the elements with the dreamer. Those who crossed South Dakota were certainly tested. Many starved. Many must have turned back or kept moving west.

The Lakota people who lived and hunted in South Dakota also battled a harsh reality in the plains. How they survived the winters, I cannot imagine. They must have been a hardy, resourceful people. And they must have depended on the strength and spirit of their families for survival.

South Dakota’s more recent history continues the story of familial ties. The creation of both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial were possible because sons and daughters followed in their sculptor-father’s footsteps, taking on the work their parents dedicated their lives to. A father-son team led the work on Mount Rushmore, and the wife and children of a sculptor are continuing to raise money and work on Crazy Horse.

The success of Wall Drug, the biggest drugstore in America, is another tale about a family finding home on the South Dakota plains. As the story goes, a young couple, preparing for the birth of their first child, wanted to open a pharmacy. They hoped to purchase one in a small town with a Catholic church. It was 1931, and when they found a pharmacy in Wall, the entire town was living in poverty, unable to recover from the dual hit of drought and the Great Depression. The baby was born, and a father worried that his young wife had given up her dreams of teaching for a lost cause in Wall. During the first weeks there, no one bought a thing. He was sure they were ruined.

But family sticks together in South Dakota. And his wife came up with an idea. Travelers along the barren, lonely roads of that state just had to be thirsty. And so she set her husband and a neighbor high school student to work making large posters offering free ice water. They put the posters up, and before the end of the day, their pharmacy was full. Thirsty travelers drank the water and then bought their supplies. More than eighty years later, Wall Drug is the biggest pharmacy in the country. The posters, now billboards, line the highways of South Dakota promising free ice water, five cent cups of coffee, homemade ice cream and pie. And it is still a family business.

Driving through South Dakota with my family, I kept thinking there is a lesson here in the fields that I should pass along to my boys. Stick together. Some winters of life will be hard. You will face challenges. You may feel like the road to your dreams is long. But you have family. And with your family, you can achieve great things. Two hundred years ago, you could build a life on the frontier. In 1931, you could build a lasting business out of a Great Depression. Today, you can honor a Lakota hero in the side of a mountain. With family.

I watched another night of politics last night, and I kept thinking that every story of success we hear from either political party is one of a strong family. Families making sacrifices for each other. Families working harder for each other. Families sticking together when times get tough. Families driven only by their dreams for their children.

Is there a better story to be told? Is there a more valuable lesson those politicians can teach us? The Republicans aren’t saying, “if you go it alone, and don’t worry about anyone but yourself, you can be successful”, and the Democrats aren’t saying “government handouts can make you successful.”  They are both up at the podium telling the story of the family who made them strong, the mother who worked harder, the grandfather who dug deeper, the father who showed them the way, the brother or sister or wife or husband who told them to go for it.  Every time they speak from either party’s podium, it is the strength of family that leads to success.  That is the American story.

So the speech will always really be about the spirit of South Dakota.

That is what I took home from my Labor Day road trip in a caravan of two minivans, two five-person families, two Star Wars videos and a cooler full of snacks.