Just the Other Day: Wayside Parks

Coming home from the west coast, I stopped at the Dena Mora Lookout Pass rest area just inside Montana on I-90. What a beautiful area to wake up to in the morning. I took long, deep breaths of the cool, fresh mountain air, then hooked June’s leash to her collar. We would go for a walk but first I needed to drop some trash in the can just down the way.


There was a little boy on the sidewalk, holding a bagel in his left hand. He was mighty curious, but cautious about June. He finally asked, “Mister, can I pet your dog?” June was excited about the potential of a new friend, or, maybe it was the bagel. She lunged toward the little boy, startling him and causing him to jump back a few steps.  Equally curious about him, June strained against her collar, pushing toward him and again the little boy backed up. His dad was standing close by.


“You can pet her,” I told him, “but you better let your dad hold your bagel. I’m afraid she’s going to try to take it from you.” The dad took the bagel but the little boy, still skeptical, stepped away. Taking shelter behind his dad, the boy kept peeking around dad’s leg, showing interest in my dog. “Maybe you can pet her another time,” I said, “I’m going to take her for a walk right now.”


June and I usually walk down the shoulder to the end of the exit from the rest area, then back to the entrance. Near the end where we were going to turn around, we found an old road that went back into the woods. Naturally, we followed the road.


A short dirt trail took us from the asphalt down along the stream at the base of the mountain. We enjoyed the shallow water that babbled and splashed over the rocks. June stepped into the stream’s edge for a drink. There were wildflowers of all sorts and colors. Pinecones and other neat treasures were scattered about the ground below the tall pine trees. The road led to the backside of the rest area. June and I would cut through to get back to the car.


The dad and his little boy were in the picnic area, under a shelter. They were now joined by mom, a sister and two more brothers. I smiled and waved as we cut through. Still intrigued by her, the boy dropped his bagel in the grass to come follow June. One of his brothers and the little girl joined in line, trailing behind. They were all very curious about this dog, but caution kept them several feet away.


I wanted them to be comfortable enough to pet her.  I knew a way to break the ice and put them at ease. I went to the car and got a tennis ball.


Excited over the ball, June bounced and hopped backwards on her hind legs all the way to where the kids were. They laughed at her silly moves. I took her leash off and told the kids, “Watch this.”  I threw the ball a good distance.  June ran full speed to retrieve the ball, bringing it back to me. Then I threw the ball high in the air. June positioned herself under the ball, then jumped up to catch it. I faked as if I was going to throw the ball deep again. June ran down the grassy area in anticipation, then turned toward me. I launched the ball to her and again she jumped up, making a spectacular catch in the air, just like a major league baseball player in the outfield. The kids were all impressed by her skill.


I showed them how to position their feet in a V-shape, explaining June would drop the ball between their feet for them to throw it.  I warned them the ball would be slimy with dog slobber. They didn’t care.  The first little boy made a V with his shoes. June dropped the ball between his feet and he threw it for her. June gladly retrieved it.


Justin, the dad, told me their names were Gavin, Ruby and Samuel – back at the picnic table, looking on, were his wife Amanda and oldest son Jack. The three kids each put their heels together making V-shapes with their feet. Each time June came back with the ball, she would decide who to give it to next. It was entertaining for all and I was amazed how June would rotate turns evenly among the kids.


On one return with the ball, June stopped, sniffed something in the grass, then started eating it. It’s was Gavin’s bagel.


June hadn’t had breakfast yet. She was hungry and getting tired, but she won’t quit when the ball is out. I told the kids she needed a break and took her back to the car.  I gave her some water and let her rest while I fixed a bowl of cereal for myself, then set June’s bowl of food on the ground. Breakfast alfresco.


Gavin was coming closer to see if June was ready to play again. He was eating a fresh strawberry, holding it by the little green leaves. Each of the kids were eating fresh fruit. “Can June come play ball again?” He asked.


I answered him, “She just ate breakfast, Gavin. We better let her rest.” Munching on his strawberry, Gavin stood watching us – I suppose to see if I would change my mind.


I watched Justin and his family as they packed their coolers in the back of their car. The car was really full. It reminded me of when I was little and we would travel. We didn’t eat out in restaurants. Mom packed food for the trip. We stopped at wayside parks to eat our meals. Modern rest areas didn’t exist yet.


A row of short wooden posts with rounded tops and painted white, lined the edge of the gravel parking area. A rope or cable would be strung through them to keep people from driving on the grass. If you were lucky, the wayside park might have a swing set, a slide or an old merry-go-round with wooden seats and a bar to hold on to.  The kind that creaked and clanked as they went around.


The slide always had a shiny metal surface. You had to lift your legs to keep from touching the hot metal surface. At the bottom was a worn pit where kids landed. If it had rained recently, the divot would be filled with muddy water. If you were wearing shorts, riding down on your rump, leaning on your back kept your legs from sticking to the slide and slowing you down. One had to be sure to get enough speed coming down that slide to clear the little swamp. There would be trouble for the one who landed in the puddle and inevitably someone would. Mom would snap, “Stay off that slide. We don’t have enough clean clothes for you kids to be getting muddy!” We would move on to the next attraction.


Along with my brothers and sisters, we would take turns pushing the merry-go-round in circles. Some kids sat the way they were supposed to, facing the center. The more daring kids would stand on the horizontal hand bar, holding on to the vertical pipe that connected the seats to the top center pole. I liked to sit backwards, facing outward. When the ride got moving fast enough, I would push off and go tumbling and laughing into the grass. There was always a lot of laughter and complaining, because someone took someone else’s seat.


Eventually someone would start crying over a lost seat or a bad landing in the grass. That would draw Dad’s attention. “You kids get down from that bar. That’s not how it’s meant to be ridden. If you can’t use it right, then just stay off it.”


Mom would break the tension, “Lunch is ready. Come eat.” Sometimes we would have sandwiches, sometimes she had cold fried chicken. She almost always had a big yellow Tupperware bowl filled with potato salad. Mom made the best potato salad! She always brought apples that came from our apple trees. If we had dessert, it would be cookies Mom made at home – or generic chocolate and vanilla crème filled sandwich cookies. (If dad found them on sale at K-mart.)


After a picnic and some playtime, we would clean up the area making sure no trash was left behind.  We would also pick up any other litter or debris. “Leave it better than you found it.” Dad always said.


Sometimes, the wayside park would have an outhouse. If not, there was always a bush. If you had to do more than tinkle, a service station with bathrooms outside around the corner of the building would be the next stop. You could get the restroom key from the attendant.  We all piled back into the old Chevrolet Greenbriar van, to head back down the road.


It was fun to watch Justin and his family and reminisce about those olden days with my own family. Those seemed like better days. Of course, I have come to appreciate the bathrooms with indoor plumbing in the modern rest areas, too.


One of the nicest rest areas in Minnesota is just a mile from our house at Tettegouche State Park.  The next time our grandkids come to visit us on the North Shore, I think I’ll pack a lunch, with fried chicken and homemade potato salad but I’ll take them a little further up the road. Maybe we can find an old-fashioned wayside park with a merry-go-round.