Family vacations have always been a labor of love for me.
    When your vacations are few and far between, you work hard to pack in as much fun as possible. I know that we achieved this goal when our family of four visited the Black Hills some years ago because my wife had to take time off from her job to recover from our vacation.     
    As that long-ago summer family holiday wound down, I yearned for a way to slow time and experience the true spirit of the Black Hills. We were driving past Deer Mountain Ski Resort when I espied a roadside placard advertising trail rides.
    “That’s a sign,” I exclaimed, pointing at the billboard. “It’s showing us how we can experience the real Black Hills.”     
    My wife regarded me incredulously.
    “A trail ride? You must be kidding! The only horse you’ve ever ridden was the kind that took dimes and was parked on the sidewalk outside the Woolworth’s.”     
    Compromise is crucial for a successful family vacation. We compromised by deciding that our then 15-year-old son, Chris, and I would seek the true spirit of the Black Hills via a trail ride while my wife and our older son experienced the Black Hills by visiting nearby tourist sites.
    Chris and I sauntered, cowboy-like, to the corral to wait for the trail boss. I imagined that the trail boss would be a sinewy, leather-skinned, no-nonsense, tobacco-chewing hombre. I was expecting Clint Eastwood.     
    We were approached by a young lady, a tiny slip of a gal who couldn’t have been more than 18. She asked if we were interested in a trail ride. I said we indeed were. Could she direct us to the trail boss?
    “The trail boss?” she replied. “That would be me.”
    Yikes. Bad enough that we were about to ride large, half-witted herbivores across rugged mountain terrain, but to be guided by this callow cowgirl? But, I knew there was no way out of it after I had made such a big deal of it with my wife. I was trapped.      
    We were soon mounted on our assigned steeds. Chris was perched atop a humungous dun gelding named Goliath, and I climbed aboard a buckskin palfrey named Lady. Lonnie, the trail boss, took the lead on a wiry Paint called Orion.     
    Lady was true to her name. She was so ladylike that she didn’t want to leave the corral, obviously as concerned as I was about our trail boss. I eventually got her to go by using a tactic I had learned while dealing with those large, half-witted herbivores called Holsteins: I tapped her on the rump.     
    Lonnie chattered cheerfully as she led us deeper and deeper into the primeval conifer forest. She seemed totally oblivious regarding the suicidally steep inclines, the treacherous footing and the low-hanging branches. There’s nothing like being smacked in the mouth by a sappy pine bough to freshen one’s breath.     
    We had gone a considerable distance when Lonnie reined up. “What’ll it be?” she asked. “The easy way or the hard way?”
    I glanced around. There was no sign of a trail, so I shrugged noncommittally. A mistake.     
    “OK, it’s the hard way then,” declared Lonnie as she spurred Orion over what appeared to be a sheer precipice. I watched in horror as Orion half slipped, half stiff-legged it down the near-vertical slope. I was searching desperately for an easier route when Lady dutifully began to follow Orion.     
    Adrenaline flooding my brain, I tried in vain to rein in the dumb beast. It finally dawned on me that between the two of us, Lady was the only one who actually knew what she was doing. Once I accepted this and elected to simply hang on and let Lady do her thing, we got along just fine.     
    After traversing leagues of terrifyingly steep and heavily forested mountain terrain, I assumed we were hopelessly lost. But, then we abruptly broke into a clearing.
    “Here it is,” Lonnie announced. “This is the summit. Isn’t it pretty?”     
    Pretty didn’t begin to describe the utterly breathtaking vista. The slopes of Deer Mountain robed in their verdant summer finery reclined beneath our hooves. The rounded peaks of the Black Hills stretched off into the distant haze. A cottony cumulous cloud slowly dragged its shadow across a lush mountain meadow.     
    I was so enthralled by the beauty of it all that I could scarcely contain myself.
    “This is awesome,” I exclaimed. “Thanks for taking us here. I could kiss you.”     
    “Fine with me,” Lonnie replied. “But, I have to warn you, it’s been quite a while since Lady brushed her teeth.”
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.