In the summer of the year two thousand and ten (A.D.) my family and I set out to explore some of our few remaining unvisited states. Yellowstone National Park was the destination, but only after we'd seen the living heck out of South Dakota and Wyoming.
As if a three thousand mile camping trip with a preschooler wasn't challenging enough, a few additional obstacles presented themselves early in the journey...
1. I remembered that our atlas was still in the garage, carefully laid among a selection of supplies including jumper cables, first aid kit, and auto fluids.
2. Our phone stopped working.
3. We discovered that our van needed four new tires which cost us a three hour wait and roughly half of our vacation budget.
On the first day I took one photograph. It was of my wife tying my son's shoe near a dumpster behind a Wendy's. This occurred as we walked to lunch through the August Sun while our van was being serviced. I deleted that photo. Thankfully that was the extent of our misadventures, and throughout the following week I took over a hundred new pictures, happy ones, some of which I would like to show you now.
MITCHELL, SOUTH DAKOTA
The Corn Palace has been on my list of must-see tourist traps for many years. It was day two and we'd already traveled nearly eight hundred miles without a single frivolous stop. I was in dire need of a hefty dose of "offbeat." The sight of this sign for the Corn Palace Motel was soothing to my eyes, and the giant steer was just frosting...
It seems that this business has no affiliation with the actual Corn Palace. Ah, the blatant cash-in— a vital part of the tourism food chain.
At long last my eyes met the building made entirely of corn. Well, that's how I understood it before my visit. It's really a brick structure covered in a layer of corn. The walls boast huge corn murals, both inside and out. I was impressed to learn that new corn is reapplied annually, and the design follows a new theme each year. I was surprised to learn that the attraction does not endure daily bird attacks.
While I've seen numerous photos of the Corn Palace's exterior I had no idea what was inside. I was looking forward to uncovering this mystery first hand. Spoiler Alert: I'm going to show you what's inside. It is.... IT IS...
...a basketball court. To be exact: a gift shop on a basketball court. But when it gets too cold for tourists the locals play ball and there's even a stage for performing arts. Sheesh, why haven't I been jazzing up these captions with corn-related puns? Well it's too late now.
After investing in a squished penny and a commemorative spoon we headed across the street to find more gift shops and a fiberglass corncob with a face. Music played from speakers on the roof and I got especially excited when "The Gambler" by Kenny Rogers came on. It just seemed like the most perfect song in the world to listen to while taking pictures of millions of corn kernels.
Nearby are the ruins of the Enchanted World doll museum. Please, let's not dwell on it.
Everyone knows you can measure the worth of a community by the number of giant animal statues they have, and Mitchell has many...
The Thunderbird Lodge offers a well-kept saddled jackrabbit.
It's always nice to find a Sinclair station with enough class to display a statue of their cool mascot. Makes the Shell station across the way seem about as appealing as a funeral home.
Downtown Mitchell seems to be thriving and they have some great looking old store fronts...
But admittedly, the entire time I was there I was a bit antsy to get to our next stop...
WALL, SOUTH DAKOTA
I've seen "Where The Heck Is Wall Drug?" bumper stickers decorating RVs since I was a kid, but I had to wait until the late '90s to learn exactly what the heck it is. My copy of The New Roadside America by Doug Kirby explained that it's "a sprawling tourist mall that employs a third of the town's population." and he deemed it one of the "Seven Wonders of Roadside America." A decade after reading that, I finally made it.
This 80 foot dinosaur is the final effort to lure travelers off the interstate. His job is easy because by this point drivers have been primed for a visit by literally hundreds of signs spanning a cluster of states.
The dinosaur was built by Emmet Sullivan, who was also behind the Christ of the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, AR, Dinosaur Park of Rapid City, SD and the abandoned Dinosaur World that I'm so fond of. Thanks to this trip I've seen Emmet's entire body of work within the past year.
Practically the entire town of Wall exists to cater to visitors; there are dozens of gas stations, gift shops, and cool motels like this one...
Downtown Wall is reminiscent of many small American towns except that every storefront on one side of the street has morphed into a single complex and often 20,000 people shop there in a day.
Inside is a collision of all the modern facets of the tourism industry: restaurants, ice cream parlors, animatronic displays, coin-ops, photo ops, and specialty shops.
Rideable Jackalope—got oneAs legend has it, their entire empire is the product of a single draw— free ice water. It's still free and the "well" is on display...
Robotic singing cowboys—yes
One of these— check
T-Rex that comes to life every 12 minutes to terrify your son—and check
Robotic singing cowboys—yes
One of these— check
T-Rex that comes to life every 12 minutes to terrify your son—and check
Wall Drug is sort of like a mom and pop mall. My one complaint is that it's such a well-functioning operation; everything is up-to-date and closely managed. It's the reason they've flourished for so long. But my ideal tourist meccas are stuck in the past and virtually unchanging. Wall Drug certainly has its layers of history, but there's little chance of finding a box of back scratchers that were kicked under a shelf thirty years ago.
This was going through my mind right before our departure. But then I made a discovery in an out-of-the-way window that just about wiped away those thoughts...
This menagerie of deteriorating stuffed animals with bodies of children wearing vintage clothing is everything a vacationer like me hopes for.
You may bask in my haul of surprisingly affordable Wall Drug souvenirs. (Every family gets one free bumper sticker, additional stickers were ten cents apiece.) And I can't think of a better place in the world to buy a flocked Jackalope.
Speaking of buying stuff, one of the mysteries of the trip was this...
Why is the Plus cheaper than Regular? This was the case with numerous stations throughout the region. Is it some trick where people choose Regular out of habit and pay too much? (If so I fell for it at least once.) Is it something to do with ethanol? Why was it limited to the tourist areas?
Speaking of which, our next stop was...
RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
I was pretty impressed with this place. The downtown was very much alive and had some really great visuals...
The street corners feature a collection of life-size metal Presidents of the United States. I'm not sure why I didn't get a shot of those, but one thing I couldn't stop photographing was the most amazing storybook land that I've ever been to. It's called Storybook Island and it has more displays and playground equipment jammed into one park than I ever thought possible.
I've been to storybook attractions with shameful admission prices that contain a fraction of the stuff this one has. Admission to Storybook Island?... Free! There is a donation kiosk, but the park is run by volunteers and the Rapid City Rotary Club.
I recognized some of the amazing old playground equipment from here. (I've always known I'd eventually discover real-world applications for studying vintage catalogs.)
I recognized several fixtures from a trip I took ten years ago to Sparta, Wisconsin's FAST Corporation where the masters of fiberglass improve our world with giant animals, pirates and monsters.
All manner of licensed properties rub elbows here, from Hanna Barbera to Disney to Dr. Seuss. It's all accompanied by a soundtrack of Pixar and Dreamworks films.
There's a children's theater that's sponsored by McDonalds, thus it is adorned with three dimensional renderings of obsolete McDonaldland characters! (I recently expressed my fondness for them in this post.)
I was nuts about places like this before I was a parent, but the experience reached a new level of bliss as I watched my four-year-old frolicking in a froth of fun and childhood wonderment.
Topping a romp like this one seemed impossible, the only thing that might come close would be a gravitational anomaly where logic takes a holiday and all laws of nature are meaningless. The Cosmos Mystery Spot is just that, and the otherworldly phenomenon happens to be conveniently located on the drive to Mount Rushmore.
For some reason all mystery spot demonstrations culminate in wooden shacks (seen above) where chairs balance on two legs and water runs uphill. Note that it is surrounded by mysteriously bent trees which prove the spot's authenticity to even the hardest skeptic. Cosmos boasts an impressive double-shack configuration since there's too much mystery to be contained by just one.
The twenty-minute tour was nearly identical to the one I took years ago at the now-defunct Wonder Spot of the Wisconsin Dells. Multiple tours ran simultaneously which enabled me to preview our tour guide's canned jokes minutes before he told them. The Mystery Spot does not obey gravity and neither does my souvenir shot glass! (seen above) Oh, and my smooshed penny defies the laws of physics.
Having been informed by my son that "That was not fun like you said." we decided to up the ante– with some giant, stone presidential faces.
There it is, my first ever view of George, Tom, Ted and Abe. I can finally verify that it is not a hoax perpetuated by movies (...or is it?). We proved ourselves better than the other filthy tourists by avoiding the urge to photograph the column engraved with the name of our state.
And don't you hate it when this happens– you try to take a photo in one of our national parks only to have it obscured by a famous actress and musician...
That's Drea de Matteo (best known for her work on The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives) with her fiance Shooter Jennnings (singer/songwriter and son of Waylon) and their daughter Alabama Gypsy Rose.
No one else seemed to recognize them, possibly because they blended in among the many biker couples still lingering after the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally which had just ended that weekend. It was remarkably easy for me to take this shot undetected, as I was one of hundreds of folks pointing cameras in their direction; a paparazzi's dream.
Anyway, I know you've seen this thing before, but this is exactly the way it looked on August 15th, 2010.
Much rarer are photos of the amphitheater at the foot of the mountain, so here's a special glimpse of that for you...
We heard murmurs of some light show that would take place after dark, and the parking attendant confirmed this. We were surprised to hear about such a thing but curious enough to decide to return. So with a few hours to kill we explored the nearby towns. It seemed like a perfect time to find the Flintstones Bedrock City of Custer, SD which I'd just learned about thanks to a tip from Todd Franklin, the mayor of Neatocoolville.
Tripadvisor reviews portray the place as an outdated disappointment run by unhappy senior citizens. This only fueled my desire to visit. However, it did not disappoint on it's promise to disappoint– it was closed. I ventured as far onto the property as possible and took a handful of lackluster pics...
What self-proclaimed "theme park" closes at 5 p.m. on a weekend during tourist season? A disappointing one.
We'd heard that the Needles Highway was not to be missed so we drove it back to Rushmore. It really was incredible. The narrow road was often the only man-made thing that was visible. We flipped out when we found Bison blocking the road. Little did we know they would soon become a common annoyance after a couple days in Yellowstone.
If I knew how to use my camera you'd see a perfect view of Mount Rushmore on the horizon. It really helps you imagine what it would be like if the world were attacked by giants.
We had a hard time coming to grips with the notion of a Rushmore light show. I wondered just how low they would stoop. Would there be lasers and a contemporary soundtrack? What if they used laser technology to animate the faces!? What about fake smoke? What if they start to rap?! "My name's G-Wash and I'm here to say..." (FYI, every horrible faux-rap includes the line "my name's... and I'm here to say) What country-demeaning horrors awaited?
My son was growing restless and I actually found myself talking up this unseen spectacle. "There will be loud music and crazy lights!" My own snobbery was melted away by my hope to please my kid. But only those patient enough to sit through a lecture from a park ranger, an educational film, and a salute to our veterans would be rewarded with the show. We watched these patiently as I whispered "it's almost time." in regular intervals.
And finally, they turned on the juice!...
It started as a faint glow. Gradually the illumination intensified until... until.... the night lights were on. Yes, the "light show" could also be called "turning on the lights." I guess all that other stuff was the show.
Continued in Part 2