Great food and stunning sights from Nashville to Seattle keep a family-bonding trip rolling.

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I’ve heard of people leaving their co-pilot on the side of the road during a road trip. This is both more difficult and more feasible when your co-pilot is you mother.

When I brought up inviting my mother, Elisabeth, to come with me on my cross-country trip, my fiancé looked at me, both eyebrows raised, yet completely silent. “What?” I said. He turned around without a word and continued sipping his coffee.

But once the seed had been set, I knew she was going to come with me. It was a plant that had no choice but to grow.

Starting in Nashville

My mother and I started our trip in my former hometown of Nashville, Tenn. It was hot. It was really hot. Not just hot, but humid and generally unpleasant. My mother had visited me when I lived there, so we had no real desire to do the whole Nashville tourism gamut again. We swung by Edley’s, Nashville’s most delicious barbecue joint, for a brisket sandwich and left the next morning.

An adventure in St. Louis

The first stop on my mother’s Road-Trip-To-Do list was Mission Tacos in St. Louis. She’s a food explorer and had been talking about the place since the road trip was incepted.

Mission Tacos in St. Louis. (Mission Tacos)
Mission Tacos in St. Louis. (Mission Tacos)

The colorful restaurant was about half-full and full of excitement, as were we. I tried a duck taco for the first time, which was adorned with fried jalapeno chips. It was just what I needed before crawling onto the air mattress at our Airbnb and passing out.

The next morning, we left early to make it to the City Museum, a must-see when traveling to St. Louis. The space is housed in a converted shoe factory and is a historical landmark with a touch of Burning Man. The structure within the space is a surrealist playground with an entrance sign that proudly reads “No Maps.” Wandering through the space, it is not unusual to see a child pop out of hole in one of the cavernous structures, run across the room and disappear into another door leading into what could be either a passageway or a slide.

While my mother and I were not in good enough shape to fully spelunk our way through the space, we did find a 10-foot slide. After climbing five stories of wrought-iron spiral staircases, we found a small hole where an attendant nodded his head, signaling it was our turn to descend down the corkscrew slide to the sounds of a towering pipe organ playing gothic covers of familiar film scores. Here is a tip: Don’t wear a skirt. I did, and my butt is still feeling the consequences.

More barbecue, now in Kansas City

The author’s mother, Elisabeth, at Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City.
The author’s mother, Elisabeth, at Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City.

Rubbing my backside, we crawled back into the car and began our leg towards Kansas City, home of Kansas City barbecue. Of the many recommendations we got, we chose Gates Bar-B-Q. The cafeteria-style restaurant is bustling with tourists and locals alike, and the constant refrain of “Hi, may I help you?” is heard over the growl of empty stomachs. I ordered the burnt ends sandwich and melted into one of the bar stools in the dark-yet-welcoming lounge area. It was one of those experiences when I was all, “Oh, this sandwich is really big I don’t know if I’ll even finni…” and then BOOP, it’s gone.

On our way home from Gates, I fell on my face outside and practically destroyed my entire left leg. We couldn’t get our hands on any Band-Aids, but my mother told me “the wounds need to breathe anyway.” I threw myself into bed with the dramatic childishness evoked by the simple presence your own mother.

Discovering South Dakota

The next morning, we were back on the road, on our way to South Dakota. I want to preface this section with this: South Dakota is the most underrated state in the country. The moment you cross the border, things start to look very different. Out of the flatness of Kansas, the landscape begins to sing “For purple mountain majesties…” And by the western border, the landscape is an 80-piece orchestra with a bald eagle sitting atop the conductor’s shoulder. The place is rad.

Our first hotel shared a parking lot with a compound called Badlands Pawn. We were hoping to find some authentic king-of-the-road sights, but the space looked as though Guy Fieri got lost in South Dakota and impulsively opened a pawn superstore. I spoke to a clerk about a military uniform that I thought I could totally pull off with the right heels. I mentioned how much I enjoyed South Dakota and he told me how safe it was there. “Want to know why it’s so safe? Because everybody here has a gun.” Great. I grabbed my mother, who was busy asking a man what his chunky black anklet was for, and headed back to our hotel.

The next morning, we head over to the New York Times reviewed CH Patisserie in downtown Sioux Falls and load up on delicious croissants and macaroons for the road.

Reveling in Americana

My mother is a Swedish immigrant, and is generally excited by America and American History. So we were not about to bypass the most American monument of all: Mount Rushmore. The grounds of the site are tastefully curated and fairly accessible to people of all mobility levels. My mother was proud to find out that Gutzon Borglum, the creater of the piece, was the son of Danish immigrants. “See?! This could be you!” she said to me pointing at a bust of Borglum. She saw herself — and my future — carved quite literally into the very landscape of American culture. So, naturally, we got a bison hotdog — very American — and continued on our way.

Badlands National Park. (Thinkstock)
Badlands National Park. (Thinkstock)

Entering Badlands National Park, the mood shifted in the car from somewhat delirious and a little, well, ripe to serene and utterly in awe. You begin to see the formations about 10 minutes out from the actual park and, once you enter, you start to feel as though you have landed on another planet.

It may have been the result of utter exhaustion, but a few tears came to my eyes as my mother warned a small child to not get too close to the edge of the formations. As she held her hands over her eyes so she couldn’t see the children running along the crevasses, I followed their lead and ran out as far as I could. Though it looks as though there is an immediate drop (see: terrified mother), the declines from the peaks are not at all steep and one false step would be more embarrassing than fatal. Of course, my mother warned me, there are rattlesnakes.

Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. (visitrapidcity.com)
Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. (visitrapidcity.com)

As we continued through the park, we swung by the visitor center to stock up on souvenirs and well-deserved bathroom time. While I was deciding between a deck of cards and a bandana, my mother came out of what felt like nowhere, exploding with excitement, telling me to follow her. She led me to a small classroom lab where park rangers were actively extracting fossils from pieces of stone found in the park. “They are actually finding history” she said, pointing emphatically at one ranger’s station that was completely enclosed in plastic. “That is a horse!”

Leaving the Badlands was difficult. You can camp there, but we had not prepared for that and were forced to hit the road until we got Wall, S.D. The next morning, we knew exactly where to go for food, because we had seen billboards for it since Sioux City: the famous Wall Drug Store.

Wall Drug is the largest souvenir store I have ever seen, and I used to work in Times Square. Inspired by general stores of the Old West, the place is filled to the brim with any gift anybody back home could have dreamed of. We grabbed a cup of coffee and a few homemade doughnuts and were on our way, slightly overwhelmed and highly stimulated.

Rodeo in Wyoming

Our next stop was Cody, Wyo., where we went to see a show at Stampede Rodeo. I grew up in a city, so this was very, very exciting for me. Horses, goats and bulls ruled the arena and, out of the many things that peaked my interest, by far the biggest surprise was the brevity of the bull riding itself. And for good reason. If the bull wants you to get off THAT BAD maybe you should just fly off and make it look good.

The Stampede Rodeo in Cody, Wyo. (Stampede Rodeo)
The Stampede Rodeo in Cody, Wyo. (Stampede Rodeo)

After a good night’s sleep, we headed into Yellowstone National Park, the centerpiece of the centennial celebration of the National Parks Service. My advice on Yellowstone is this: Get some bear spray, find a trail and hike as far from the crowds as possible. Unlike The Badlands, Yellowstone is a very large, very developed park. It draws well over half a million visitors in July alone, and if you only stay near the attractions you are going to really feel that presence — as opposed to the majesty of the park itself. Not that we did that. We saw Old Faithful and became so overwhelmed by the swarms of fellow visitors that we left and drove a few more hours to Butte, Mont.

A piece of history in Montana

The Hotel Finlen in Butte, Mont. (Hotel Finlen)
The Hotel Finlen in Butte, Mont. (Hotel Finlen)

If you’re from Seattle, you’ve probably been through Butte. It’s a town that seems to be slightly stuck in another era, adds to its appeal. We stayed at the Hotel Finlen, a historic hotel downtown.

As I slowly drifted off to sleep, my mother recited the history of the hotel, including its notable guests, such as Charles Lindberg, John F. Kennedy and Theodore Roosevelt. I slept very hard that night knowing I was in such good company, and that soon I’d be home.

End of the road

You get to a point in a road trip when you really just need to get home. I did, at least. My mother could have easily stayed on for another week, heading down to California or up to Alaska. And I honestly wish I could have gone with her. However, the pavement was wearing on my sanity and, as lovely as some of the hotels were that we stayed in, I missed my bed.

So we soldiered on the final day and drove the entirety from Butte to Seattle. It took about nine hours, and by the end of the trip we were both happy to walk the streets of sunny Seattle.

I don’t think this will be my last road trip, but I doubt I’ll be taking another one any time soon. The memories (and photos) I got from this one were special, and to be able to share those with my mother made the trip truly unforgettable.