As winter-holiday season arrived, the options swirled in our heads. The Mexican sun called strongly, as did the trade winds of the tropics and the beaches of the Caribbean. But with time and funds being in short supply, we reluctantly opted out of flight-requiring destinations and shifted into driving mode.
The idea of Minot surfaced on more than one occasion, but we weren’t sure if a trip to North Dakota would qualify as either exotic enough, or exciting enough for an authentic winter getaway. Cocktails in an ocean-side cabana would certainly not be an option here, and nor would days filled with sun, sand and surf.
However, considering the relatively short 400-kilometre driving distance and the low cost of a three-night adventure, we thought we’d roll the dice, put destinations like Las Vegas out of our minds, and head for the quiet comforts of this small American city.
I’d intentionally forgotten what it was like to be contained in a car for four hours with one husband and three kids, as the early years of such travel usually revolved around leaky sippy cups, Cheezies crushed into upholstery and the necessity of at least four potty breaks per hour of travel.
But with my son now being 13 years old, and a niece and nephew who were 10 and 14, traveling together and playing car games like 20 Questions triggered nostalgic memories of the good old days when families talked and laughed together, even when not prompted by the ‘LOL’ acronym.
The meandering road into Minot was surprisingly pleasant, with rolling hills rising up around us and spruce trees lining the corridor into the quaint city of about 36,000. Not knowing that this would be our last glimpse of daylight for three straight days, we eagerly checked into the Sleep Inn & Suites Hotel and used our noses to sniff out the desirable scent of chlorine. The hotel’s Splashdown Dakota Super Slides were high on our list of priorities. If we couldn’t be wading in an ocean, we could at least be careening down man-made slides that offered all of the thrills of rolling Atlantic waves and none of the risks found in navigating an undertow.
With the kids racing around the pool like they owned it, we nestled ourselves in the hot tub to watch. Considering that we had left our front door at about 10 a.m. and it wasn’t even 3 p.m. yet, the bubbling waters of the whirlpool were as comforting as any ocean-perched cabana could be.
Our next mission was food. If you’re like me, this is the starting point for all activity planning. My travel mantra goes something like this: ‘If plans can’t be worked into, or around, a meal, they’re probably not worth making.’ Hence our evening revolved around a family dining experience at the attached Grizzly’s Grill N’ Saloon where the burgers, pasta and grilled chicken felt exotic just because they weren’t cooked by me. We could have been 4,246 kilometres away in the Bahamas as far as the feeling of relaxation and escape was concerned.
The evening was reserved for shopping, as every other evening of this holiday would be. I’m not an obsessive shopper, as spending three days in a mall setting in Minot, North Dakota might suggest.
But, when the mall is attached to your hotel, and your hotel is steps away from never-seen-before department stores like Target, Herbergers and JC Penney, one begins to develop signs and symptoms of mall fever. On one particularly fun shopping run, my husband and I emerged from a store with two Santa-sized sacks in hand, having paid only $90 for a years worth or so of socks and sweaters.
“Start the car! Start the car!” spilled from my mouth, as I envisioned myself in an Ikea commercial. My niece developed shopping fever early on in our romp through the Dakota Square Mall, as a deal at Claire’s lit up her 10-year-old eyes in a way that reminded me a little of how Fred Flinstone’s eyes bugged out in his famous, ‘Bet, Bet, BET, BET!’ epilogue. When a pair of white fuzzy slippers priced at $20 rang in at $5, the sound of coins dropping from a slot machine may as well have started playing in the background. She was hooked, and I was too.
Any free time in the next three days that wasn’t spent swimming, or eating gourmet creations like peanut-butter-cup ice cream at the Coldstone Creamery and parmesan pretzels at Pretzelmaker, was spent shopping for all kinds of wonderful items that we had no idea we even desired.
When our feet became too sore to take one more step through the mall, we’d hit the movie theatre, which was again a short jacket-less walk away from our hotel room. Rejuvenated from an evening of butter-bathed popcorn, we’d return to the shopping arena and snuggle in at Barnes & Noble for some bedtime reading.
The kids were so enamoured with the freedom of being able to go to a movie on their own and shopping without parents, that even spending several hours reading at Barnes & Noble became their idea of fun.
After a morning of bliss on my own that involved an hour in the hotel workout room followed by a muscle-melting hot tub, I swung by the sprawling Barnes & Noble bookstore to retrieve the kids. A lady was seated right across from them, and was eyeing me suspiciously as I tried to get my son to stop reading (FYI – this has never happened before in the history of our household). As the lady approached me, it occurred to me that these dear sweet children, who were currently reading so innocently, may have done something mind-numbingly horrible while left unattended.
“Can I ask you a question?” the 50-something lady inquired as my mind feverishly worked to create a plausible explanation for why I had left three Canadian children in a USA mall for several hours on their own.
“What do you do to make your children get along so well – they’re just lovely and they treat each other so respectfully,” she declared.
A nervous giggle was all I could muster as an answer, along with a brief explanation of how they were cousins and not sworn enemies, as brothers and sisters of this age might be. She accepted my explanation, but reiterated how nice they had been to each other and how well behaved they were.
Even though only one of these angels was mine, my heart soared and it dawned on me that this might just be the perfect holiday. With or without palm trees, these three kids had found places under this one mall-hotel-theatre roof to satisfy their sense of adventure, to fulfill their need to explore, and most importantly to me as a parent, a place to exercise their independence responsibly – reading in Barnes & Noble.
While the smell of coconut sunscreen and the taste of a pina colada are still on my mind, a perfect winter holiday in Minot, North Dakota has erased all desire to board a plane for a warmer climate.
As we emerged from the Sleep Inn & Suites Hotel, not having seen the sunlight for four full days, we vowed to return to this place that had managed to give us a winter glow without the help of palm trees, steel drums or sunshine.