10 States, 2 Weeks, 5 National Parks, 2 Countries, 1 National Monument, a Cruise, and Food. (A Lot of food.)
Today it begins. Yesterday we spent time in the midwest, which is fine except that the midwest is our home. We crossed the Mississippi and are officially “west,” but except for an eerie amount of windmills, everything looks exactly the same: corn, as far as the eye can see. But today we’re going to hit our first National Park, today we’re going to South Dakota, a place none of us has ever been, today we begin here:
*sigh* Apparently we’re not quite free of our corn shackles yet. The Corn Palace in Mitchell is one of those places where everyone tells you that you have to go, but no one can tell you why. What’s so interesting about a Islamic-inspired building in the middle of nowhere? I don’t know. Perhaps after driving through a few million acres of corn, you’re ready to see it put to good use. In Mitchell, it is. The outside of the building is redecorated with new corn and a new theme every year. Perhaps more interesting than that, at least to me, is that the during the off-season, the building is used by a local high school as a basketball court. The best part of the corn palace is the cost: it’s free. The worst part is the amount of corn-products and kitsch targeted to truly desperate travelers. Who buys Corn Nuts just because they’re being sold in a palace made of corn?
Loaded with Corn Nuts, we pressed on.
As we headed west on I90, the landscape began to change from flat farmland to gently rolling hills and cattle ranches. The beauty and interest of western South Dakota took me by surprise. Just as we were growing accustomed to hills suddenly this happened:
Until you experience them, it’s difficult to convey what a delightful surprise the Badlands are. They’re barren, yet beautiful.
In addition to the newly fascinating landscape, wildlife abounded. We saw sheep, deer, coyote, birds, and these little fellas:
Prairie dogs as far as the eye can see, like a live game of whack-a-mole.
South Dakota has fewer than a million inhabitants, a fact that becomes increasingly clear as you drive across the state. Exits are few and far between, as are gas stations and restaurants. I’ve seen one grocery store on this trip. (Feeling a little panicky about the lack of food. Deep breaths.) The savvy traveler will keep the gas tank filled and the snacks handy because you never know when you’ll find either again. However, from Iowa on, we began seeing signs for one particular store, one that boasted food and fun for every age. (They had me at food.)
Wall Drug has a fascinating history. In 1931, a young pharmacist and his wife bought the store in the town of 326 hoping for big things. They didn’t plan on The Depression and the Dust Bowl. For five years they struggled to make ends meet and serve their new hometown when the wife had a good idea. During the middle of an intense heat wave, they offered weary highway travelers free ice and water. It worked like a charm, and history was made. Now on a good day, Wall Drug sees 20,000 travelers. It also has a cafe.
I ordered their specialty, the hot beef sandwich. It was standard cafeteria fare and overpriced, but the ambiance was grand and the doughnut I bought for dessert homemade. Wall Drug is an odd mix of cheap trinkets and original Western art. The walls are adorned with oil paintings by Wyeth and Sculptures by Russell and Remington. In short, Wall Drug has something for everyone. More important, there’s nothing else around.
We finally made it out of the corn. But just when I was beginning to feel smug, I saw this:
I’m starting to miss the corn.