Those Flyover States

Those Flyover States

Back in February of 2014, we adults started putting together our dream vacation trip:  Yellowstone National Park, with its close neighbor, Grand Teton National Park thrown in for good measure.  We’d see the geothermal rarities, we’d search for grizzly bears and moose, we’d ride horseback.

But the bottom line for the ease of traveling by plane was still shocking: $1700 for the rental car. $3600 for flights for the five people. “Well, I will visit family in Illinois anyway, and I was going to drive,” I said brightly to my husband.  “What’s a few more hours in the car?”  

A quick check with Google Maps showed a more accurate picture: 80 hours.

Without stops.  Without driving around to see things.

Ever the optimist, I said: “But we will get to the Badlands and Custer State Park in South Dakota! It will be fun.”

So, July 23rd, only an hour behind my original, hopeful schedule, I took off with my three kids, my sister and my three-year old niece.  (She was the only one who asked “are we there yet”–the first time in Searsburg area, only 30 minutes in.) We happily stopped at two colleges and a waterfall on day one, and included biking at beautiful state park on Lake Erie on day two.  We arrived into Illinois after the familiar “long drive” of 17 hours, through Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.  

We packed four days full with Midwest fun.  Family reunions and family photos. Celebrating Gramma’s birthday, together for the first time in 25 years.  “Cousin time”.  Friends’ visits.  Splashing at a water park.  Biking on flat ground.  Milking cows.  Shopping.  A “redneck water slide” (black silo plastic on a smallish hill, made extra slippery with dish soap and a running water house).  Eating corn on the cob, watermelon, hamburgers and “black cows” (root beer floats).  

Then we filled the car again, swapping my sister and niece for my just-flown-in husband, and we set off for Yellowstone, another two-day journey.  I continued making kids look up from electronic devices as we ticked down more states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming. We drove over an aptly named “Bear Tooth Pass”, whose mountains left me in awe of both their immenseness–and my husband’s calm driving skills when faced with sheer drop-offs and cliffs only matched in my nightmares.  

In temperatures of 37 degrees (on July 31st–I retract my complaints of Vermont’s “brisk” July mornings), we crossed over into the promised land of Yellowstone.  Listening attentively to a CD spouting information and history, everybody became a Wildlife Watcher.  It become our new normal: eyes glued to the windows, scanning for any movement, vying to be the first to see something.  

We had already seen elk on the way into the park, and some mule deer the night before.  We were not five minutes into the park when our middle son won the eagle-eye award: a grizzly.  Just miles down the road, we pulled off to join the throngs: wolf puppies, seen through scopes manned by the Park Rangers.  Another three minutes drive and our first buffalo appeared, napping right along the side of the road.  Then a mommy bear and two baby cubs… and it continued, through the Grand Tetons with bull moose happily posing for photos, and through Custer State Park in South Dakota, with two baby donkeys and their mothers begging for food, and prairie dogs nearly playing tricks for their peanuts… even through the Badlands, where we finally found the elusive bighorn sheep.  

We crammed in geology knowledge with the geysers, and marveled at glaciers and moraines as we passed them by on a float trip.  We wondered of the daring of Lewis and Clark on their mapping adventure, and the greatest land grab of all times, that Louisiana purchase made by Thomas Jefferson.   We discussed mining and homesteading, nation building and cultural clashes.  Particularly at Mount Rushmore, we were moved by the stories of the foresight and determination of the presidents in forming this country.

We also saw a lot of our nation, actually.  And we saw a heck of a lot of corn, soybeans, hay fields… dairy cows, beef cows, chicken barns and hog barns… Unbelievably, I longed for even more time in the car, to drink it all in, even if I did have to yank kids’ attention up and out of their electronic playthings to point it out to them.  

I’m still feeling badly that we did not include hours at the Crazy Horse museum, which flyers assure me tell the Indian story we’ve not spent enough time discussing.  I watched the “original prairie sod house” fly by my window with great regret as we pulled out of the Badlands.  I have now passed the Lewis & Clark Discovery Museum in North Dakota not once, but twice, without factoring in time to go in.

Along the way, a country song came on the radio, one by Jason Aldean, called “Fly Over States”.  It starts: “A couple of guys in first class on a flight, from New York to Los Angeles, kinda making small talk, killin’ time, flirting with the flight attendants, thirty thousand feet above, could be Oklahoma…just a bunch of square cornfields and wheat farms.  Man, it all looks the same, miles and miles of back roads and highways, connecting little towns with funny names, who’d want to live down there in the middle of nowhere?”
The singer’s voice became more poignant:  “They’ve never drove [sic] through Indiana, met the man who plowed that earth, planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me…Or caught a harvest moon in Kansas, they’d understand why God made those fly over states.”

Ah, I thought: maybe the legacy of this 5,000 mile long-haul trip will be an appreciation for all of our incredible country?  Will our kids remember the rolling views throughout the Finger Lakes of New York? The industry in Ohio and Indiana? The corn and soybean fields of Iowa and Illinois? The dairy cows in Wisconsin?  The rolling hills of Minnesota with its endless round bales?

The song continued: “Take a ride across the badlands, feel that freedom on your face, breathe in all that open space, meet a girl from Amarillo.  You’ll understand why God made–you might even wanna plant your stakes–in those fly over states.”

Did my three lift their eyes from their electronic screens long enough to appreciate the patchwork quilt of North Dakota, with its sunflowers smiling upwards?  The big skies of Montana? The grandeur of the Grand Tetons?  The long, dusty drive through Wyoming, with miles upon miles of prairie sage and pronghorn antelopes?  The vistas of the Great Lakes in Michigan?

I cranked the volume on the radio, and, inspired and undaunted by their sighs of complaints, I implored the kids yet again: “Look up.  Look out.  Look. At. This.”  

“Have you ever been through Indiana? On the plains of Oklahoma?

“Take a ride.”

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–this fall, only at the high school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board. Contact her at

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