It only takes half a summer to forget how frantic the first week of a new semester can be, especially if you’ve got five courses (including two essentially new preps), a 90-minute commute to campus, and plans to have a good friend you haven't seen in decades come visit for a few days over the Labor Day weekend. It’s been a while since I have had any time to sit down and finish the story of our trip west, is what I'm saying. It was a fun and happy while - especially the "good friend" part - but now things are settling into their routine and I have some time again. So here it is.
We left the YMCA of the Rockies on Sunday afternoon, bidding farewell to our English friends as they headed south toward Santa Fe. Our plan was to head north, though the eastern edge of Wyoming, before turning right and bouncing off of every tourist attraction in South Dakota on the way home.
But first we went to Estes Park and walked around a bit.
We really hadn’t had much of a chance to do that, what with all the Natural Splendor and the Catching Up With Good Friends and the Down Time that otherwise filled our schedule that week, and it seemed a shame for us to be so close to an acknowledged center of tourism and not, as tourists, see what was there.
Shops. Shops are what is there. Shop after shop after shop, all of them selling sweatshirts, salt-water taffy, knickknacks, art, or some combination of all of them. And restaurants, because shopping is hungry work.
We split up as we wandered around, since trying to get Tabitha and Lauren to agree on where to do our window shopping was something of a lost cause and since we only planned to spend a short time there we figured it would be best not to spend it debating where to go and just go. So Tabitha and I headed one way, while Kim and Lauren headed the other.
Tabitha and I looked at a lot of rocks. She likes those stores that sell crystals, geodes, and the like, and that was the first place we landed. It was interesting, in a sparkly sort of way, and they had a cruncher that broke open geodes while you watched if you bought one. We watched a couple get crunched. We also found stores with knickknacks, sweatshirts, and art, though we skipped the salt-water taffy stores since they were full of other things we did not care to deal with. I’m not sure where Kim and Lauren went, but my guess is that it was a somewhat comparable experience.
After lunch – also in different places, since Kim and Lauren wanted to try the Mexican place (review: Excellent!) and Tabitha and I wanted to try to local diner (actual name: The Local Grille) – we found a shop that specialized in matryoshka dolls, those bowling-pin shaped painted wooden dolls that come nested one inside the other. They had Doctor Who matryoshkas, two different sets covering all thirteen Doctors. They had traditional Russian matryoshkas. They had sets that started at a yard high and went all the way down to dolls the size of your thumbnail. It was a fascinating place, really, and the shopkeeper was very nice. We were full up on our matryoshka needs, however, so mostly we just looked. We also found a Western store, full of things made of leather. It is amazing how many things you can make out of leather if you put your mind to it. Astonishing, really.
And then we were off.
Wyoming is America’s Empty Quarter. You head north out of Colorado on the interstate and pass by Cheyenne – the biggest city in the entire state, and one that would rank twelfth in Wisconsin – and then: nothing. Flat, open space as far as the eye can see. There are more people in Milwaukee than in Wyoming.
And then you leave the interstate and get onto the state highway and you re-zero your “open space” meter, because otherwise it would be pegged in the red the whole time. Wyoming makes Nebraska look urban.
We stopped at a highway rest stop somewhere in there, and it was surreal. It was a one-story brick shack, out in the middle of nowhere, roughly the size of a classroom. It had a chapel in the back. And that was it. The bathrooms, however, were clean and functional. So there was that.
We also stopped for gas in a town called Lusk. You stop for gas in Wyoming whenever you get a chance, because there might not be a chance later on. I think this is why pretty much all twelve vehicles in Wyoming were lined up at the pump ahead of us. So we waited, we bought snacks, and then we pressed on.
Eventually we found our hotel in Rapid City, SD – a very nice place, out on one edge of the city near a whole lot of mall sprawl – and bedded down for the night.
Monday was tourist day.
We started off with Mt. Rushmore, because who wouldn’t be impressed by the megalomania required to carve faces into a mountain? Tabitha, that’s who. She was pretty underwhelmed by it, at first, though eventually she saw the humor in the basic absurdity of the place. Mt. Rushmore is very funny if you think about it.
You slide very gradually into Mt. Rushmore. You go through the Black Hills, so you can cross that one off your list – they are hilly and from a distance they look black, and that’s all there is to say about that. The road down to the monument is much bigger and more well marked than it was the first time I was there, nearly two decades ago now, and there is a whole lot more kitsch than I remember there being. It’s like the Wisconsin Dells, only more so and spread out for miles along a highway. I think the roadside attraction that finally put me over the edge was the full-sized replica of Independence Hall, there by the highway in South Dakota. I suppose it made sense to someone at the time. It makes as much sense as Mt. Rushmore, anyway.
Eventually we showed up at the monument. If you’ve never been there, it’s part of that large category of things that are really cool for about half an hour and then you realize that they’re not ever really going to change or do anything and you move on to something else. Niagara Falls is in that category. So are mimes. Things like that are fun because you can see them and then get on with the rest of your day with a clear conscience.
We marched our way up the avenue of the flags to the observation deck and stood there, looking at the faces of the presidents. It was a beautiful clear day, and we could see them quite clearly. They looked back at us.
We stared at each other for a while. We continued to stare. We decided we were impressed by the way the sculptors managed Roosevelt’s glasses. And then we headed back down.
We stopped at the cafe on the way back to our car and bought a Fudgelo. It’s a buffalo-shaped cookie cutter filled with tasty chocolate fudge. Everyone should have a Fudgelo. Someone should write a song about that. There isn’t one now, to my knowledge, so I believe that opportunity still awaits if anyone is interested. Just saying.
We left Mt. Rushmore and – because why stop with one megalomaniacal project when there are multiple megalomaniacal projects within easy driving distance? – we headed off toward the Crazy Horse Monument.
Crazy Horse, for those of you not fully up to date on your multi-generational mountain-carving displays of hubris, is an attempt to make an entire mountain (not just the top) into a carving. It has been going on since, well, forever, and it dwarfs Mt. Rushmore.
According to the promotional video that you watch in the vast gift shop/museum/visitor center complex that they’ve built since the last time I was there (and a very nice gift shop/museum/visitor center complex it is, really), the faces on Mt. Rushmore would fit comfortably into the cleared rectangle behind Crazy Horse’s ear. Eventually it will look like the top two thirds of the white sculpture that we found in the courtyard.
Like Rushmore, it’s really cool for half an hour and then it’s time to go, although the museum did attract Tabitha and Kim’s interest and Lauren and I hung out at the gift shop, where they had books for sale cheap and those little viewing telescopes that work when you plug a quarter in them. In Wisconsin terms, the museum bears no small resemblance to the House on the Rock in that every time you turn a corner there is a whole other room full of things that almost but not quite go together (and the occasional cat) and ultimately you just have to go outside and find your bearings because otherwise you’d get lost and starve.
From Crazy Horse we headed to Custer State Park, because obviously we hadn’t had enough Natural Splendor in the Rockies.
There are any number of roads you can take, and we decided to take the Wildlife Loop on the theory that we might run into some wildlife there. We were particularly interested in bison, which roam the park like large angry pot roasts looking for mashed potatoes to make their lives complete.
It turned out that the bison were on holiday, so we only saw a couple of them way off on the horizon. We did see a few prairie dogs, and when we stopped at the Wildlife Center there were antelope or whatever these things are.
And they were pretty cool. But no bison.
Fortunately, the good folks at Custer State Park are prepared for this. They know that wild animals keep their own schedules and are not concerned with impressing the tourists, and for that reason they keep some emergency backup animals in the park. They insist that these donkeys are wild animals too, and I suppose that is technically true in the sense that they don’t live in barns and wear saddles. But really? They’re pretty tame. And they’re the only animals in the park that you’re allowed to feed.
Not that you could avoid it if you try.
In fact, once they figure out that you have food, they can be pretty insistent. They will follow you back to your car, nose through your luggage, and threaten to encrypt your iPods unless you hand over the rest of your snacks.
Our next destination was Wall Drug, because it’s illegal to travel across South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug. Swarms of Harley-riding law enforcement will track you down and drag you back and force you to put bumper stickers on inconvenient locations if you try to pass by without seeing the castle of kitsch that is Wall Drug, and we couldn’t risk that. Besides, Lauren really wanted to see the place.
Wall Drug is a city-block of small conglomerated shops, all crammed under one roof. There’s an actual drug store where you can get useful medications. There’s a cafe. There’s a book store. There’s a leather goods store, three or four stores selling miscellaneous tourist items (they give the bumper stickers away for free, so you can put them on inconvenient locations yourself if you so choose), and a chapel that is about eight feet wide and a hundred yards long, or so it seemed.
And in the back there are jackalopes. So we all got on the jackalopes. We’re tourists, after all. That’s what tourists do.
Wall Drug sits about twenty minutes from the Badlands, which were actually the only thing in South Dakota that I didn’t want to miss. The Badlands are one of the most fascinating places in the United States, geologically speaking. At least I think so. They’re like negative mountains. You enter Badlands National Park on the little highway and you drive along, not really seeing anything and thinking that this is all a giant waste of time. And then you realize that they’re not above you – they’re below. You’re at the top of the Badlands, not the bottom, and they’re carved out of the land and you need to look down.
And if you go at sunset, they’re just gorgeous.
We walked around for about half an hour, as the sun set and the light slowly faded. They’re eerie, and they’re beautiful. Of all the Natural Splendor that we saw on this trip – and we saw a lot of really lovely places – I think they were my favorites.
We went back to Wall Drug after that, because Lauren hadn’t fully gotten her kitsch on, and we shut the place down. And then we headed off into the night for a couple of hours before finding a hotel somewhere in central South Dakota for the night.
It was quite a Monday.
The next day we set off fairly early, because we were all ready to get home by then. Fortunately South Dakota offers few obstacles for the determined traveler. It’s empty enough that you don’t have to slow down, and populated enough – at least along I-90 – that you don’t feel like the aliens have come along and stolen everything and you might end up running out of gas, carving a hut out of the topsoil, and spending the rest of your days subsistence farming on the plains the way you do in Wyoming. At least the way I did, anyway. So we made good time.
We did stop at the Corn Palace, because reasons.
The Corn Palace is somewhere north of the town of Mitchell, SD, which they don’t tell you on the highway signs because otherwise you’d never stop. You get off the exit, thinking that it must be right there by the off-ramp, and wend your way slowly through town and eventually, just as you begin to despair of ever finding the place, you see a sign for it and it keeps you going for another mile or two until there is another sign, and the process repeats until eventually – BOOM! – there it is.
It is the world’s only auditorium, basketball arena, and livestock pavilion all rolled into one, so far as I know.
The interesting thing about it – the only interesting thing about it beyond the events that might be staged there – is that all of that artwork on the facade and above the stage is made out of corn cobs and other crops.
Like Rushmore and Crazy Horse, it’s kind of cool for half an hour, and then you buy some popcorn (really, really good popcorn, as you would expect from the Corn Palace) and get back on the highway.
We drove through Minnesota, found Wisconsin, and by dinnertime we were home. It’s good to be home, with all of your stuff and your own bed. The goldfish had passed away in our absence - a year is a long time for a County Fair goldfish - but the cats, rabbits, and chickens were happy to see us.