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On the final day of our recent family summer vacation, Sebastian and I visited Pipestone National Monument in southwest Minnesota. There’s a short, easy trail that surprises you. Since you’ve driven through lots of rolling cornfields to get there, you aren’t prepared for the beautiful red cliffs, the waterfall, the lovely creek. Even the views of the prairie are striking.

This is the location where Native Americans have long quarried the red stone used to make their sacred pipes. The exhibits tell these stories and include petroglyphs from the area. The visitor center also includes a large space where Native artists are working. You can watch and talk to them about their craft. One of the artists told me how he collects the dust from his work and uses it to create even more art. And what he can’t use, he returns to the Earth with a prayer of thanksgiving.

Back when Sebastian was two and we were on a family vacation to the Black Hills we purchased him a National Parks passport book. The books have information on the parks and sites and can be used to record your visits to them, by stamping your book with stamps provided at each location. Since then Sebastian has been very into the stamps and wanting to collect as many as he can. Sometimes when he might not otherwise be game to stop at such a spot, he’s at least interested in getting the stamp.

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And I’ve loved exploring National Park sites with him. This year alone we’ve been to the following: Harry Truman NHS, George Washington Carver NM, Brown vs Board of Education NHP, Fort Scott NHS, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Keweenaw NHP, and Pipestone. These visits have afforded us opportunities to explore nature and to discuss the history and culture of our nation and its people. Sometimes that has required difficult conversations: in Topeka at the Brown site I broke down crying while trying to explain segregation to him. While other times mostly fun: at the Carver monument he enjoyed taking pictures on the nature trail and playing in the science lab. We’ve had a few adventures too, such as encounters with snakes at Effigy Mounds and Fort Laramie (we still haven’t told Grandma that story).

His first visit to a National Park Service site he wouldn’t remember because he was only five months old and was asleep at the time–the boyhood homesite of W. E. B. Dubois in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. And he’s only been to a couple of the “big parks” on our Wyoming trip last summer. Mostly it’s been the smaller sites in our region.

He has figured out that I’m generally a sucker for National Park site gift shops, though.

It’s such a treasure to have these great public sites and the civic opportunities they provide. And I’ve enjoyed these last few years learning how vital they can be in helping to raise my son.

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First Central Congregational Church