A Midwest SPRING BREAK Epic National Park Road Trip!

Midwest to….still the Midwest…and a little South.

The Plan: 

To note…many of these trips were so very quick! This trip was quite easy, delightful and informative. Shelby, Indiana to St. Louis, Missouri (4.5 hours) to Little Rock, Arkansas (5.5 hours) to Hot Springs, Arkansas (1 hour) to Memphis, Tennessee (3 hours) , then back to Shelby (8 hours) + all necessary creature comforts and adventures.

The Sites:

City Museum

Gateway Arch National Park

Julius Breckling Riverfront Park

Central High School & the Little Rock Nine National Historic Site

Hot Springs National Park

Garvan Woodland Gardens

The National Civil Rights Museum

(Warning! This is a long blog – please click the links above to jump you to specific sections. Or, read the full contents of this heart dump knowing it was made for you – because it was and is.)

It probably would have been smarter to save “epic” for the summer…where both time and space are a bit more accessible. We’re not here for easy.

(Also, we did epic in the summer, too…) This trip was fast (until the slow parts), ambitious (with room to veer off the beaten path) and designed to endeavor upon more knowledge of our nation’s tragic (still working towards triumphant) history of civil rights and social justice…while visiting a couple more National Parks. Our kids were 9 and 11 at the time of the trip.

Hopefully, you’re NOT wondering why spend Spring Break thinking about real life tragedies and educating ourselves on arguably the WORST era of American history? Here’s why. Our kids are already surrounded. They’ve been practicing “lockdowns” in schools for years now. They hear the clips of school shootings, unarmed black men (often youth) killed, riots, looting, politics and more…and that’s just when their alarm goes off in the morning and blares our local radio station. (I’ve tried to change it to the classical music channel for wake up but they’re not having it!) These kids want to know. We want to know. What went wrong? What’s going right? This was our familial deep dive into understanding where, when and how social injustices started. And exploring what part do we play in helping equality and understanding grow?

Also…we planned to head to a couple more National Parks to dip our toes in the hottest of hot springs to remind ourselves that we have sensations in our feet…therefore we are alive. So, let’s live this day like it’s the last one we have and start our journey at the most “epic” place we know of and a full family favorite, City Museum, St. Louis. (Get ready to jump between guts and glory for the remainder of this blog. Trying to keep it as true to our trip as possible.)

Some of you may remember us returning from this trip with a kiddo sans the front halves of his front teeth after a run-in with a concrete structural art piece during a quick game of tag during lunch. I’m sure you can guess who won that literal “run-in.”

The place (aside from the often accomplished risk of physically damaging your body) is in a league of its’ own. It’s the most interesting, adventuresome, raw, beautiful, mysterious, scary, funny, quirky place to spend the day. If we get the chance to drive through St. Louis to go anywhere – we take it. And, we never miss a stop at the City Museum.

Our first National Park of the trip was the Gateway Arch National Park. We accidentally landed on a BEAUTIFUL day to explore the park and gardens around the Park. Truthfully, I could have stayed solidly on the ground given my state of nerves after enduring both the face crash at City Museum and an exorbitant amount of very tight spaces. Reminder to self again, the easy stuff doesn’t help you grow…here we go!

We took in the polished and professional state-of-the-art modern museum at the base of the Arch. Followed all the prompts in our Jr. Ranger booklet and learned about Colonial St. Louis, the Riverfront Era, New Frontiers and Manifest Destiny…among other things.

We played a solid game of “cameo bingo” that kept us hunting art works and exhibits for portraits of by-gone strangers that left their mark on our young nation.

The story most significantly of note for us was that of John Berry Meachum, he did the very hard thing of working to educate his children in a world where teaching both free and enslaved African Americans was illegal. (A recurring theme for this trip so get ready.) When the “what would you do” question was posed to our kids, their easy answer was honest…but it wasn’t right. “I wouldn’t break the law – I just wouldn’t go to school. Mostly, because I wouldn’t want to be arrested and I’d be too afraid of that.”

Their answer did prompt a learning moment to review a family virtue, never let FEAR stop you from doing the next right thing. Such an easy concept from the pedestal of adulthood. Hence, the necessary evil of moving onto the small enclosed box with a couple of strangers in the still very prevalent peak of COVID to heights that were…well, really high – commenced!

Up the elevator to the top of the Gateway Arch we went!

It WAS high, it DID both smell and feel like walking through the aisle of an airplane…but (thankfully!) with a good amount more space.

And, it was awesome. It was breathtaking and we were so very glad we made the trip.

Traveling with kids is like traveling with puppies. In addition to stopping for the bathroom, food and water. We plan our trips to RUN those little legs. Ideally, in a place we don’t mind taking in the sites or stretching our legs, too. Onto Little Rock Arkansas!

The Little Rock Riverfront Park checked all our boxes. It had a river, obvs. Lots of sculpture and beautiful landscaping. Most importantly, a hefty amount of both climbing…

and sliding areas.

We are the family that plays both tag and hide and seek even in parks that we are not that familiar with. (Eeek!)

This spot was great for that. It was also great for sitting on our butts with a hot tea in hand and letting them explore for an extended period of time enjoying some much needed EXPANSION required from being in close quarters for long periods of time.

We needed the mental and physical reset before moving onto Little Rock Central High School, a registered National Historic site and, most importantly, home of the Little Rock Nine.

Please note, I am a 43 year old woman born and raised in Northwest Indiana. In both my opinion and statistically – all of my schools were great. From preschool to college – I’ve been provided the most awesome privileges of a good education. IF I ever heard of the Little Rock Nine…it was such a very small lesson that it never stuck. This story. This part of our nations’ history is not small. How could this have been left out?

Arriving at this place for me was like arriving to a different realm of reality. The stories were so vivid. The atrocities so magnificent. The faces so familiar…it was just like looking at pictures of family and friends when they were young.

Because then is now. Those people live in our world still. Yes, if they are here, they are much older. But we are their children carrying forward their stories. It was 1954 when Brown v. Board of Education happened. “The Supreme Court overturns separate but equal doctrine. Brown II (1955) mandates – though ambiguously – desegregation with all deliberate speed.”

All four of us tuned in and stayed here for hours. In a few short days, this crew visits the National Civil Rights Museum. This place, however. This was such a deep intimate look at 9 people that it was so incredibly personal.

The Visitor Center does an impeccable job of telling the story through media clips, first person interviews, photographs, timelines and more. So much so that you feel like you are back in time.

You are there, in that school – on that street, with these children just trying to get an education without fear of personal harm, harassment or death. This stop took our breath away. Conversation commenced eventually, but overall – it was a very somber ride to Hot Springs, Arkansas. These 9 deserve well more than our moments of silence. But we have the knowledge now…and to know better is to do better…so at least it’s a start for our crew. I am thankful you are reading this blog now. I am hopeful you visit this place. Can this be part of my part? Again, it’s a start.

In a whiplash of places and vibes, we made it to Hot Springs National Park.

In many ways, it was the perfect next stop. Our first stop was at the top.

We scaled the tower, shopped the (excellent!) shop and awed at the beauty of the Ouachita Mountains. We then settled into our hotel,

stopped by the Hot Springs National Park Visitor’s Center, picked up a VERY useful and fun Jr. Ranger backpack…

and headed all around and up and down the springs.

Once our water bottles were full of fresh and delicious spring water, we dug into our pack and found some handy tools to start our hands-on science.

We spent our day temperature testing,

algae touching,

tasting for minerals,

learning new science-y terms like “geothermal gradient” and “thermophili bacteria (a friend, not a foe!).”

After touring the lovely architecture of the famous bathhouses like the Fordyce, hiking the thermal cascade and (the Hairy One and I) taking a long-soak in mineral rich spring water at the Quapaw,

we headed to the Superior Bathhouse Brewery and drank some fresh water brewed brews. Those kids of ours are always on the lookout for a great place to kick their feet up and enjoy a pint of root beer. Fine, we’ll take you… 🙂

We did the sites

and climbs, including to the highest peak on Music Mountain in, it seemed like, no time at all.

Our impromptu wanderings led us Dryden pottery

where the owner (an odd delight and quick friend) moved us in…only a bit longer than we may have desired. He generously shared his stories and art. We leaned into the pause and ended up getting a behind the scenes tour,

a private little molding class and a point in the right direction to one of the most beautiful garden’s we’ve ever encountered (and we “garden” tons), Garvan Woodland Gardens.

This garden partners with the University of Arkansas and uses the experts from their school of architecture to design and deliver exquisite works of art and physics.

These building will wow you in both how they look…

…and how they are supported.

There were plentiful “safe-risk” play spots,

flower fields,

tree varieties,


wild creatures and other general wonders to keep us busy for well beyond the time we allotted.

There was also a well placed amphitheater for a much needed dramatic pause to feel our feelings.

Being in nature for extended periods of time…especially for kids…is as much for our brains as it is for our bodies. It got really real in that beautiful garden. The pictures are lovely. The stop was important. No adventure is without its trials no matter the optimistic tone of my blogs or smiles in our pictures. We “real life” all over the place. Speaking of…next stop: Memphis, Tennessee.

We planned this trip with two stops in mind. Hot Springs National Park and the National Civil Rights Museum, everything else was filled in around these two landmarks. Here’s what I knew, many of the podcasts I listen to or blogs I read often reference work done and displayed here at the Civil Rights Museum. The late great, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died here.

And, that I…we were going to encounter many (mostly buried) trials and terrors of black existence in America. Let the deep breathing commence. Similar to how I had never heard of the Little Rock Nine until my 40’s. I had also never (really) learned of Ruby Bridges until my 30s.

“To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.”

― Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

I won’t go into every detail about what we encountered. You owe it to yourself and kids to go here. I will say that information is available. All views of history are becoming clearer and more readily available…hence push-back from those living in fear trying to quiet full truths. Here’s what you might want to know: could our kids handle such darkness? If young black children lived it and survived (or not, sadly), then yes – our children can handle words and pictures at a museum.

They have to learn what happened then to continue to fix now.

Wounds don’t heal overnight, they take time and tender loving care. This is true for both individuals and nations. This is our effort to become tender. To stay loving. To actively care more – better – louder. Trust me, the sound of my voice as I type leaves me feeling very vulnerable. I’m flawed and actively working to continuously unveil my own biases and do the personal work that I need to do. That’s why I know I should keep pecking away. Even if the size of this blog ends up being longer than the whole of our trip (thanks for all that stuck it out!), these visits were important for us. Our children don’t need to be told to care – they need to see us caring.

They need to hear us sharing.

“I thought if I could open the door, then other people would be able to walk through,” -Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine

Published by dirtonkids

Let's play!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: