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MidWest

I was pretty underwhelmed with my Yellowstone experience at the beginning. Driving in from the south, we went by the magnificent Tetons and then, as soon as we passed through the Yellowstone gates, were thrown into a Disneyland-like, pine tree-lined traffic extravaganza. All the way to Old Faithful, all I could see were pine trees and (you guessed it) RV’s. Starving and not willing to deal with the lines in the touristy new service center by Old Faithful, the hubby and I sat on a bench overlooking the main parking lot and ate our beef sticks, apples, and cheddar cheese, all while be heckled by a huge black crow. (Did you know that crows can cluck, and whistle, and gurgle, all in addition to making their normal crow-like sounds?)

Leaving our new friend crow behind, we ventured over to wander around Old Faithful and the other geysers in that part of the park. It was 1:30 and we had an ETA for Old Faithful of 2:24pm (+ or – 10 minutes), so we walked over to the Old Faithful Inn (beautiful log lodge built in 1904), purchased one of the airiest ice creams ever (vanilla only, because this late in the season everyone is just waiting for the food to run out so they can go home), and took a seat with a few hundred of our closest friends. 2:24pm came and, like someone turned on a switch, water started spewing 20 feet into the air. I’ll admit it was more of an awe-inspiring experience than I anticipated.

Luckily Old Faithful was the beginning of the good stuff. Bison filled  meadows, Artist’s Way on the canyon, and a little jaunt to the top of Mt. Washburn were all around the corner. Mt. Washburn was my favorite. After a two hour hike mostly above the tree line, we arrived at a fire lookout on top of the mountain. We could see all of the park, the Tetons, and the fires burning off to the east of the lake. Looking out over such a large and varied landscape was the first time that it really hit me why this piece of land had been the first national park.

In 24 hours I went from underwhelmed to enchanted. I think I’ll be back.

I have never camped in the United States, unless you count the time we slept in my girl scout leader’s back yard and I woke up with a kitten gnawing on my toes. I’ve done the Sahara, the desert in Rajastan, and the Himalayas if a sleeping bag on a wooden bench in a lodge with no electricity or running water is considered camping. Honestly, I never wanted to camp in the US. Being abroad and camping seemed exotic and adventurous. Here it just seemed, cold. All that changed the day I met my husband, the man who used to sleep in a tent in Antarctica because he thought it was cozy. (sigh)

In an attempt to expand my boundaries, I agreed that we should be primarily camping on the US leg of our trip. And where did we decide to begin this camping adventure but in the Badlands National Park in South Dakota — so inviting sounding, how could I resist!

Camping in the Badlands wasn’t quite what I expected. I had an image of sleeping in the middle of the desert, surrounded only by stars and rocks — isn’t that what they did in all those Western movies?Instead we rolled up right before sunset to a campground that looked more like an RV parking lot than secluded wonderland. (I think by the end of this trip, one image will symbolize Americana to me more than any other, the Recreational Vehicle.)

We drove around all three loops of the campground and finally settled on a place on top of a hill surrounded by creamy-white pinnacles. It was only a little before 7pm but the sun was setting and everything was painted a light orange. We pitched away and by the time the sun set and the sky was full of stars, I was enchanted.

By 8pm it was pitch black, save the millions of stars, and I was in the tent drifting off to sleep with the sound of coyotes howling in the background. I don’t know if those of you that have fallen asleep to the sound of coyotes would agree, but I found the sound strangely soothing. Perhaps that is due to my overly inflated faith that our little tent can protect us from anything, and the fact that the coyotes sounded like they were a mile away.

Next camping stop – the Black Hills. Not quite sure if I’ll have that same soothing feeling about mountain lion growls, even a mile away.

If you ever wanted to see a family run enterprise in full decision-making mode, come hang out at the Barten kitchen table on a late Sept/early Oct evening. Fran, my lovely mother-in-law, is the ever magnanimous CEO, CFO, COO, and president of Barten Pumpkins, with her 11 children and associated spouses filling in any other job requirement needed. Everyone has opinions, and somehow, they all get played out, listened to, and acted on in this cacophony of beautifully managed chaos. Pumpkin season at the Barten farm is one of the best run enterprises I have encountered to date.

Every Dozinky weekend the Barten family comes together at the family farm in Minnesota to begin the   pumpkin harvest festivities. Delegation and leadership abound. Ever hour is taken advantage of, because when it comes to pumpkins, there is always an opportunity cost for your time. If you take an extra long lunch and leave a load of pumpkins in the field at dark, a frost could take them out that evening.

Since my first Barten pumpkin season in 2008, the operation has grown in dynamism. There is an ever-expanding family fun day, regular games, hay rides, bonfires, and new this year a Pumpkin Palooza. If you need a break from the city, volunteers are always welcome, just come ready to work and with a good sense of humor.

Harvard Business School take note – I found your next case study.

Being married to a farmer has all kinds of benefits. One of those benefits being a brand new appreciation for harvest festivals (until 4 years ago, Thanksgiving was the only harvest festival I knew).

Main St in New Prague packed with onlookers for the 2011 Dozinky parade.

In my husband’s hometown of New Prague, MN, there is an annual tradition of celebrating Dozinky Days, a Czech harvest festival, at the end of every September. I have only been partaking in the tradition now for three years, but let me tell you, it is a sight to see. Main Street gets closed off and the whole town comes out for a party that seems to last non-stop for 2 full days.  Beer gardens, dumplings, sauerkraut, and klotckys (Czech pastries filled with poppy seeds or fruit) seem to be on every corner, while yodeling concerts take place by the chamber of commerce.

Barten Wee-Bee-Littles

To this Virginia girl, it is a true cultural experience made even richer by the fact that I am not just a bystander but a willing participant. Friday night at the festival consists of selling pork burgers at the Barten family stand, a tradition begun by my late father-in-law almost 20 years ago. Then Saturday morning we all venture back out to Main Street to take part in the parade. Orange Barten Pumpkin t-shirts go on (on me they go on over wool long johns, a fleece, and a scarf!) and off we go, handing out thousands of Wee-Bee-Little pumpkins along the way.