Our family’s summer vacation plans changed three times over the course of the past few months. Initially my wife and I planned on taking our college senior daughter on a grand excursion to Glacier National Park, then hopping the northern border to sightsee in Calgary, Banff and Jasper.

We scratched that idea well before Canada told U.S. citizens to take off, eh. We started scouting campsites in southern Utah, where five National Parks dot the landscape. Unfortunately, as the time came to reserve our campsites, we saw Covid-19 cases growing in Utah and here at home.

Retreating yet again, we looked within the borders of the Sunflower State. While we don’t have any glaciers, nothing close to the Canadian Rockies or the cool dry desert nights, there’s still some cool things to see in Kansas. We settled on a day trip to see Castle Rock, Monument Rocks and Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park.

I figured this would be an easy, hassle free trip to the northwest corner of our great state. No need to do extensive research on where to stay or look up things to do. We had a course and generally knew the area. I had a lunch recommendation from our colleague.

We loaded into my wife’s car a little after 8 a.m. and headed west. We initially planned on having lunch first then getting to the sightseeing. Instead, the sign for Castle Rock beckoned from Interstate 70 and we decided eating could wait. This was the first mistake, but the second would soon become more apparent.

Generally, the best way to spot a tourist is they either have way too much gear or not enough. We soon found ourselves in the latter category when we turned off a perfectly suitable gravel road to something giving minimum maintenance roads a bad name.

The same process that eroded everything but Castle Rock and the nearby badlands is still in progress, and that includes the loop around the attraction. It’s compounded by vehicle traffic from looky-loos. For the better part of a mile we held our breath as we navigated over ruts more than a foot deep in spots. Again, we were traversing this in a car capable of getting high-centered on a speedbump.

While our vehicle was unsuited to the local conditions, we managed to avoid getting stuck in a chasm, powered up a steep incline as the tires shot gravel behind us and then we took a wrong turn. The “road” narrowed in on us as it traced the side of a hill so the driver’s side was lower than the passenger side. Then, 15 yards from flat, smooth roadbed we came to a small gorge.

My daughter is old enough she didn’t learn any new words during this adventure, but it’s safe to say the plethora of profanity built to a crescendo at this point in our journey. After surveying the gully cutting across our path, I shouted to my wife and daughter we needed to dig to level the road.

We started using a jack handle to scrap dirt into the crater, and after about 30 minutes of “digging,” another group came along on the “good” road, stopped and offered their help. A half hour of poking at the dirt with a metal rod had dulled any semblance of embarrassment at our self-inflected predicament. We gladly accepted.

Two of the men in the group grabbed a second jack handle from one of their vehicles and began flinging dirt. Within 10 minutes, we’d leveled the ground just enough to cautiously drive out to safe ground.

We thanked our helpers and headed back to the Interstate to continue on our journey, which didn’t involve any other hiccups. We took in the badlands at Little Jerusalem with a thunderstorm in the background. At Monument Rocks, we dutifully posed for photos in a keyhole between two spires and then began our trek home, only stopping for dinner and to see the Cathedral on the Plains in Victoria.

While the trip wasn’t jumping from a bridge into a river fed by glacial melt, or hiking through Zion National Park, it did remind me of the beauty and wonder within our state’s borders. Kansas is also a place where complete strangers will take the time to help, even if it means piling dirt with a jack handle. Still, if I had to do it again, I’d take a different vehicle and toss in a shovel. Just in case.