Friday, June 4, 2021
It’s already sultry at six in the morning at The Raine Motel in Valentine, Nebraska. We’d arrived sometime during mid-afternoon yesterday and The Raine was a lonely place. Just us and one other car parked two rooms down. The Raine is another throwback motor court that we’re staying at during our four week journey. It’s the last and I suppose fittingly, the best of the bunch. What was an empty Raine yesterday is full this morning. Full of pickup trucks.
Nebraska is the land of pickup trucks, mostly beefy, burly ones. In our San Francisco Bay Area, a guy will buy a gigantic pickup, knowing that the most he’ll ever haul is a few sacks of groceries once a week. And that four wheel drive package he added on? Well that’ll come in handy for negotiating the gravel parking lot at the county fair. There’s a much more important convenience that comes with this pickup and that’s the aura of rugged manliness. Nothing says virility like an F350. Well maybe a gun, but that’s for a different post.
Not so in Nebraska and neighboring Iowa. Out here a reliable pickup truck is a tool. So are tractors. Driving through Iowa and Nebraska we’ve seen more John Deere and Case dealerships than we have car dealers. And why not? If you want to earn the scratch to buy a car you’re going to first need the tractor.
It seems that we never leave as early as I’d like to and today is no different. This was one of those days when I really wanted to get out early. The heat wave that’s hitting The Plains States is predicted to bring temperatures into the high 90s. It’s coming up to nine in the morning when we get out of The Raine.
Our ultimate destination is a cabin in Custer, South Dakota, but on the way we’re stopping at Badlands National Park and then The Wall Drug, a mecca for road warriors coming from all parts of these Great United States and, indeed, the world; travel weary tourists in search of the ultimate kitsch. Wall Drug, the capital of campiness made famous by the bumper stickers that read, Where The Hell is Wall Drug.
As if it wasn’t already famous enough, Wall Drug received a recent boost of notoriety when it was featured in the Academy Award winning movie Nomadland, in which Frances McDormand’s character Fern finds herself working in the restaurant of The Wall Drug.
Before The Badlands or Wall Drug though, the plan is to stop at the South Dakota Welcome Center to get a road map. Ever since lady Google threw us for a 50 mile loop back in Arizona, I’ve been on a mission to stop at each state’s welcome center to get the free map. It’s been a hit or miss, well, mostly miss proposition. In my map quest I’ve so far struck out in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.
In fact I’ve only been successful at the Arkansas Welcome Center. There, a nice woman offered coffee, pastry and little packets of rice (who knew that Arkansas is the biggest rice producing state in the country?). The packet didn’t contain enough rice to construct one small piece of sushi but, hey, it’s the thought that counts. The kind lady also doled out maps of Arkansas and Missouri and some friendly conversation.
Why maps? Not only do I fact check Ms. Google but I find that a map gives me the wider view that Google Maps doesn’t, and a real map often features places of interest that Google fails to show.
From Valentine it’s nine miles to the border of South Dakota. We’re passing through The Rosebud Indian Reservation.
The Rosebud is home to The Lakota Sioux, which consists of seven tribes; The Ogalala (“they scatter their own,” or “dust scatterers”), The Sicangu or Brule (“Burnt Thighs”), The Hunkpapa (“end of the circle”), The Miniconjou (“planters beside the stream”), The Sihasapa or Blackfoot (Not to be confused with the separate Blackfoot tribe), The Itazipacola (or Sans Arcs: “without bows”), and The Oohenupa (“Two Boilings” or “Two Kettle”).
It was The Lakota who clashed with U.S. soldiers in three major wars. These conflicts were the result of continued settler incursion onto Lakota territory and the breaking of multiple treaties by the U.S. Government.
The most famous engagements were the battle at The Little Bighorn in 1876, in which General George Armstrong Custer and 300 troopers were killed, and, 14 years later, the massacre by U.S. troops of up to 370 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee marked the final hostile action between The Sioux and the U.S.
We’ve been driving for a good half hour.
“Well, I don’t know when we crossed the border but clearly we’re in South Dakota,” I tell Cora.
“No welcome center?”
“I guess we’re not welcome. Maybe (Governor) Kristi Noem heard that I’ve been mean mouthing her for being a Trump acolyte.”
No map for you!
It’s a two hour drive to the eastern entrance of Badlands National Park. Much of the drive out of Valentine has been through rolling hills, carpeted with prairie grass and dotted with small ranches.
As we get further into South Dakota we see a change in the landscape. In the distance we can see a scattering of imposing buttes rising out of the prairie grasses. We don’t realize it yet, but this is the overture to the grand symphony that is The Badlands.
At the junction of Highways 83 and 240 we turn on to 240 to drive The Badlands Loop Road, a scenic drive of 40 miles that’s purported to take one to two hours. As we found in The Grand Canyon and in the Sedona, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico areas, scenic drives that are supposed to take one to two hours actually take three or more hours. And that’s not a bad thing. You’re here, the scenery is right there, and it’s magnificent. What, ya got a date or something?
Right around the junction of 83 and 240 is the Visitor Center for The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The center, in conjunction with the Delta-09 Missile Silo and the Control Facility Delta-01 are blasts from the Cold War past. These are former nuclear missile sites that are open for visits and tours.
I would love to visit and take the tours because I was a child of the bad old days of the Cold War. I still recall the nuclear bomb drills when I was in elementary school. The school alarm would sound and we’d get into tuck positions under our tiny desks with our hands laced behind our necks – because everyone knows that if you do that when the nuke goes off, you’ll be perfectly safe. As I got older the tuck took on the derisive description of getting under your desk to kiss your ass goodbye.
Unfortunately, Lexi is canus non grata at the Minuteman site and so it’s off the itinerary.
The area around the entrance to Badlands National Park is still largely prairie and grassland and on the way to the front gate we stop at a prairie dog town.
A prairie dog is a rodent about 12 inches long that resembles a squirrel. Prairie dogs live in underground colonies called “towns” that are characterized by mounds that dot the land. The mounds mark burrows in the ground that lead to a network of tunnels.
A prairie dog “town” typically covers about one half square mile, however the largest recorded “town” was found in the area of San Angelo, Texas. It was was about 100 miles wide, 250 miles long and was estimated to contain 400 million animals. Why in Texas? Because Texas prairie dogs know that everything is bigger in Texas.
A colony is typically made up of a number of family groups and the tunnel system is a sophisticated complex that can contain areas for sleeping, nursing young, storing food and disposing of the dead.
Above ground, the prairie dogs can be seen scurrying from mound to mound, stopping occasionally to feed on grasses.
I first learned about prairie dogs from T.V. Western dramas which occasionally portrayed the prairie dog as a nuisance and the “towns” as booby traps that would break the leg of an unsuspecting horse. This untimely accident would lead to an outlaw being stopped in his tracks and ultimately being caught by the lawman; or the hero being stranded in the middle of the prairie and having to walk miles through dust storms and hostiles to the nearest town, which of course was never very near.
Cora is giddy over the prairies dogs.
“Ohhhh, I want to take one home.
Show her a rodent in the wild and she wants to take one home. Find a mouse in the house and she’s filled with a mixture of disgust and blood lust.
Take one home? Not really a grand idea since the little critters can be carriers of the plague. Just what Cora and I need is to have our home be the epicenter of the next pandemic.
As with The Grand Canyon, the scenic drive in The Badlands is sprinkled with overlooks where you can park and take a short hike to take in the panorama. It isn’t long before we round a few bends to arrive at the first overlook, and the spectacle of The Badlands.
Colored spires and rock formations rise out of the emerald grasslands. It’s a place that alternates between flat prairie where bison graze and loll in the afternoon sun, and a maze of canyons where bighorn sheep defy gravity and scale vertical walls. (To learn more about The Badlands follow the link to the National Park Service website)
By now it’s blazing hot and we aren’t going to leave Lexi in the car nor am I going to fight an amped up Gordon Setter tugging and pulling me and maybe getting the two of us killed if she decides to chase a bird over a precipice. So as we’ve done throughout the trip, Cora and I take turns. One takes in the view and takes pictures and the other stays with Lexi in the car, with all the windows down and the front doors open.
This land can be both beautiful and foreboding. Standing on a paved overlook, surrounded by tourists with my car nearby, I can appreciate the beauty and not even consider the foreboding. But it’s at places like this that I wonder what it seemed like to the original inhabitants, the Native Americans, and later, the first white men to come upon these buttes.
Bad has long been a part of this land’s description. The Dakota Indians termed this area, Mako Sica (mako, land; sica, bad). French Canadian trappers called the present site of the national monument, le Mauvaises terres a traverser (“bad lands to travel across”).
On a searing hot summer day these “bad lands” must have seemed like a wondrous place, albeit one where you might be likely to lose your life.
We drive along the scenic loop stopping at some overlooks and passing others by. Cora opts to stay in the car at most, while I go exploring with my camera. At the entrance to one path a sign warns visitors to beware of rattlesnakes. That sign alone would have Cora huddled in the car with the doors sealed shut.
The road itself is a snake, twisting and curling, rising, dropping. At one rise in the road the traffic is stopped behind a single car. The driver has his phone out the window taking a picture.
“Really? You have to stop traffic to get your scenic shot? You can’t wait for a turnout?”
Finally the man drives on and as we get to where he was we see that he was photographing a bighorn sheep that’s standing on the side of the road. A little further up is a turnout and I get out to take photos. Something like this calls for the heavy artillery so I unpack the 600mm lens. From a nearby grassy knoll I see a small group of bighorns on the cliffs just the other side of a deep ravine. On the side of the cliff is one single male. I watch as he scales the cliff with the ease of someone riding an escalator. It’s absolutely stunning.
Meanwhile further along the same knoll a group of bighorns is grazing on the green grass, oblivious to me clicking away. I’d like to get closer and get their attention so they’ll look my way but not one of those who tempt fate by testing the patience of wild animals.
As we leave the dramatic formations behind, we lose the paved road to a dirt road. Over the course of this trip we’ve become accustomed to dirt roads. Closing the windows keeps out the bulk of the dust but it still permeates everything.
Back on the highway, it’s well over 90 degrees and we’re headed for Wall Drug.
I’m not sure what to expect. A friend of mine compared a visit to Wall Drug to an acid trip. If that’s the case, I’d rather not. The one trip that I took long ago was not a pleasant journey. In any event I’m full of anticipation.
The story of Wall Drug is a compelling one. In 1931 Ted Hustead and his wife Dorothy purchased the only drug store in the little prairie town of Wall, South Dakota. It was the time of The Great Depression and business was stagnant. By 1936 the Husteads had about reached the end of the trial period of their little enterprise when, on a hot summer day, Dorothy came up with the idea of offering travelers free ice water. The FREE ICE WATER signs went up and the rest, is Wall history. Dorothy had hit upon the tried and true marketing concept of the loss leader.
Wall Drug is big, and it’s packed. Wall Drug may have once been a simple drug store but Dorothy’s ice water germinated the seed that grew into a behemoth of a tourist stop. We drive down a block-long main road surrounded by shops and as I look around, the air starts to come out of the balloon of anticipation.
I feel like I’ve been here before. Not Wall Drug per se but similar places. San Francisco’s Pier 39 comes immediately to mind. Out of towners love Pier 39. Locals, except those who want to entertain their children for a day, know Pier 39 as a schlocky tourist trap. An expensive one; after all it is San Francisco.
If Wall Drug is a tourist trap, and the early evidence seems to point that way, then Wall Drug has done one hell of a job of baiting the trap. In fact Wall’s marketing department has set out a trap line that’s hundreds of miles long. Even before you’ve entered South Dakota the roadside signs begin to appear and increase in frequency the closer you get. And this doesn’t even take into account the bumper stickers that you’ll see on cars anywhere from Pierre, South Dakota to Seoul, South Korea.
It’s because of those stickers that I saw on the bumpers of Studebakers and Edsels, when I was a kid, that I wondered not only where the hell Wall Drug was, but what it was. The question has always remained.
Finally, half a century later, I’ve arrived. I started with the same hopes as the guy who travels through broiling deserts, over snow bound mountain passes and along narrow, precarious cliff trails to see the ancient one, the soothsayer of soothsayers. After parking the car and looking around I feel the same letdown as the soothsayer seeker must have felt when he found out the so called wise one was Lindsay, fucking, Graham. What a buzz kill.
I stash my camera out of sight in the van. I’m not going to bother lugging it around.
What must have at one time been a quaint curiosity of plains Americana has become a block of schlock. It’s a stretch version of a souvenir stand with all the usual trappings; t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, keychains, Christmas ornaments and every other trinket, gimcrack, or gewgaw that can be emblazoned with WALL DRUG.
Cora and I take turns sitting outside with Lexi while the other peeks into the shops and dodges parents who are down to their last nerve trying to corral amped up kids.
One of the more interesting features of Wall Drug is that there are a few shops in the complex that offer “The lowest price in the world on Black Hills Gold.” That’s odd since logic dictates that there can only be one “lowest price.”
Like Wall Drug itself, Black Hills Gold has been something of a curiosity for me. Where the hell is Wall Drug and what the hell is Black Hills Gold? Finally I looked it up and according to blackhillsgoldjewelry.com, Black Hills Gold Jewelry features a unique design of grape leaves, clusters and vines in tri- colored gold. By federal mandate, this style of jewelry must be manufactured in the Black Hills of South Dakota in order to be described as “Black Hills Gold Jewelry.”
My friend touted Wall Drug as kitsch nirvana and I suppose that there’s some campy stuff to be found. The problem is, you have to look high and low to find the camp that Cora and I never found.
You can still get free ice water at Wall Drug but you can also get an ice water out of the cooler in the trunk of the car. Sure you paid for it, less than a buck a bottle in the Walmart 24 pack, but it’s a damn sight easier than finding a parking spot and seeking out a glass of free water somewhere in Wall Drug. Some people will bite on anything when the word “free” is involved.
Somewhere in that mass o’ stuff, you can still get the free bumper sticker. It now reads, “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” which doesn’t sit well with my friend who calls it being tight assed. I call it a marketing decision. In the end, Avant Garde gave over to family friendly.
It seems that Wall Drug is like Paris Hilton. It’s famous because it’s famous. I suppose that if it’s right on the way to where you’re going it might be worth a stop, just to say you’ve been there. It was on our way to Custer and having been there it wasn’t so much something that I could scratch off the bucket list as wonder why it was on the list in the first place.
After Cora has a cup of ice cream we decide to cut our losses and head for our new home for three nights.
It’s about a two hour drive to our cabin in Custer, South Dakota. No restaurant food today. I’ll have to get us settled and then go find a grocery store. It’s going to be the first home cooking in three weeks.
Google girl leads us off the highway to a dirt road and I can feel Cora’s blood pressure rise. She’s not a dirt road fan and she’s particularly not a fan of cabins that are located on dirt roads.
About three miles in, situated in the pines, is our little one room studio cabin. It’s cozy and quiet and most importantly, it’s cool in the pines. And after a long day that’s more refreshing than free ice water.