Grand Summer Road Trip

Brisa Silva travels 4,000 miles through the western United States, expanding her cultural knowledge and uncovering a love for nature.


Brisa Silva

A few minutes after crossing the border into Idaho, my family and I took a break to stretch on the side of the road when it hit: living in a bulky vehicle for two weeks and traveling over 4,000 miles with three other humans, one a troublesome younger sibling, proved challenging. The sun scorched everything in my vicinity. For every second I lingered, the sunrays fed on my blazing skin. To my surprise, the dry vegetation nearby didn’t burst up into flames. I decided to stroll to the refreshing shade that my family’s RV provided and with every step a cluster of beige field crickets lept from the ground. It was plain to see that even they wanted a taste of the cool shadow. I hopped back into the RV and prepared for the lengthy journey ahead.

As much as my family and I all got on each other’s nerves at times, seeing seven states was quite the learning experience, especially learning about the Lakota Sioux tribe, also known as the Teton Dakota tribe. The tribe called themselves Lakota because it meant “friend” or “ally.” Their tribal territories were located in the northern Great Plains where they lived in homes made of wooden poles covered with buffalo hide. The Lakota were known for their strength. 

This trip seemed like it was more for my 12-year-old brother who wanted to visit Sitting Bull’s grave. Sitting Bull was a former chief of the Teton Dakota tribe, a fierce one, too. The chief was a political and spiritual leader who led Sioux warriors in the battle of Little Big Horn. He stood up for his people against United States policies during years of resistance. When my brother was in fourth grade, he did a research project about him and has wanted to visit South Dakota since. I didn’t expect much at first.

The first stop of this grand adventure consisted of visiting a small museum by a gas station. This looks nothing like a friendly museum, I thought. The building was covered in painted metal panels with no windows on the exterior. The parking lot was empty and the only person present was an older man mowing the front lawn. The place was so empty I thought a tumbleweed would roll by. 

It looked closed but apparently the man mowing the lawn was the owner and unlocked the door, leading us into a whole new world. In one room stood dozens of once wild, but now stuffed, animals made to look like they were standing. There were so many creatures: buffalo, moose, elk, wolves, and mountain goats. On the left side of the room there was a little store that sold Native beads, dreamcatchers, T-shirts, jewelry, and geodes. 

The owner walked over to turn on his speaker. The sound of Native American flute music filled the room. I strolled around and looked behind the glass case, displaying a headdress that held colorful beads and feathers. The man shared wondrous stories about his adventures. 

Never judge a book by its cover.

Days later, we arrived in Grand Teton National Park, totally crowded with people, both young and old. I had never seen so many different license plates. We started off on the trail to Hidden Falls. 

We walked on the rocky path that curved every once in a while. There were plants, flowers, trees, and small creatures around ev​​ery bend. I paid close attention to every small detail, taking mental pictures of the immense beauty. At one point, I saw a bright orange butterfly resting on a big leaf as its wings slowly fluttered in the warm sun. Next to it was a smaller chocolate brown butterfly that reminded me of how brown eyes look in the sun. We continued walking in the heat and eventually my brother grew tired. 

We stopped at a nearby boulder to eat fruit snacks and granola bars. I broke mine in half and shared it with my dad. I wanted to keep going. A stranger approached and asked, “Did you guys see the bear?” 

We responded, “no, we didn’t!” 

I was more jealous than afraid. I desperately wanted to see a bear from afar. We kept going and inched closer to our destination. The view was gorgeous, pine trees everywhere, and I looked, really looked. All along the edge of the crystal, blue lake on the right side of the trail, rocky mountains seemingly stretched out forever in the distance. Eventually, we arrived at the waterfall. The water from the top of the hill crashed down on the rocks below and flowed into a thick, rushing stream. We found a place away from the crowd to sit and eat more fruit snacks. One can never eat enough fruit snacks.

On July 15, we arrived at Mount Rushmore in the early morning, the air crisp and view mesmerizing. The sun lit up the former presidents’ faces. The four presidents were picked by sculptor Gutzon Borglum who believed they represented the most important U.S. events in history. Around 400 workers contributed to the memorial in a span of 14 years, between 1927-1941. Powermen would set off dynamite of different sizes, carving about 90 percent of the monument. Each day the workers would have to climb about 700 hundred stairs. Many of the workers’ names are carved on a granite display at the memorial.

 It was a quick stop, and then over to the Crazy Horse monument. We purchased tickets to take a tour bus to get a closer view of the unfinished sculpture. My bright green ticket read “Korczak’s Heritage, Inc. at Crazy Horse Memorial© $4.00 – BUS.” 

  I hopped on the bus and sat next to my brother, who quickly nabbed the window seat. Our tour guide was named Ash, short for Ashley. He was a Native, a passionate storyteller, who brought Crazy Horse to life. Surprisingly, for an incredibly important monument, it’s unfinished. All that was visible was Crazy Horse’s face and the outline of his arm pointing in the distance. Ash explained how 70 years ago they decided to build the monument to honor the Native Americans. Due to the fact that it’s a private project, the owners, the Ziolkowski family, don’t accept federal or state funding, relying solely on tourist funding. 

When the tour ended, I took a breather outside and realized there was a small stage and a seating area meant for performances. I read a sign that said there would be a Native dance performance  around noon. I sat down in the front row with my dad and saved spots for my mom and brother. 

The dancers consisted of a woman and her two younger daughters, one my age and one who looked about 4. The youngest girl wore a bright teal buckskin dress decorated with colorful beads resting on her chest. She performed a Native American hoop dance and everyone cheered when she finished. The mother and the older daughter wore more complex outfits, mainly pink or red with many different shapes and patterns. Each of their ankles were covered in bells, jingling with every step. They proceeded to dance. My eyes filled with tears.

I assume many people have different notions about Native ceremonies. Many don’t even think about what the Natives have lost since Europeans colonized their land. Their culture, language, history, to a large degree, have been lost. I thought of what it must’ve been like being a part of a ceremony practiced by the Sioux tribe. In the background, I could hear pounding drums. At that moment I realized, this is what I came for. 

The Lakotas educated themselves through the real world around them. In his essay “Nature” Luther Standing Bear writes, “the world was a library and its books were the stones, leaves, grass, brooks, and the birds and animals that shared, alike with us, the storms and blessings of earth.” For Standing Bear, the Lakotas connected with nature on a deeper level than most do today. He adds, “in sharing, in loving all and everything, one people naturally found a measure of the thing they sought; while, in fearing, the other found need of conquest.” 

He mentioned how other cultures tend to distance themselves from nature. The Lakotas, deep lovers of nature, were heavily influenced by the earth. They purposely sat in the soil to gather a deeper understanding. Now, I know why.