We left Tea early in the morning, heading west on I-90. In the days before the Fourth of July, I-90 is a road dominated by campers and RVs, all heading west. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, traffic was sparse, and the exits were few and far as we rolled through the flat South Dakota farmland. Soon we reached one of the great outposts of roadside American kitsch: the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
It’s not easy to describe the Corn Palace to people who have never been there. You park in a parking lot, walk though the maze of shops and souvenir stores that seem to guard the building, and then suddenly before you is a building decorated entirely in corn. And what a building it is, too, like a fantasy castle with Kremlinesque onion domes, turrets, pillars, and arches. Who knows why or how such a bizarre contrivance was begun — but it sure feels right when you see it. You admire the intricate designs and the countless hours that must have been spent affixing the corn to the facade of the building. There’s not much to do inside, except visit the gift shop and look at the pictures of the prior designs of the Corn Palace. To the embarrassment of the proprietors, one of the designs — I think it may have been 1919 — prominently featured a swastika, and the management therefore placed a sign underneath helpfully, and somewhat apologetically, pointing out that the swastika was a symbol also used by native Americans.
We then got back on I-90 and rolled west, driving hundreds of miles past towns like Kennebec and Murdo, until we got to the Badlands. At about that point the farmland has ended, and you suddenly realize that you are in the American West, in all its majesty and mystery, flaring colors and curious rock formations and plant life. The Badlands is a striking introduction, with its dead and eroded hillsides reaching out to the traveler like fingers. After being cooped up in the car for hours you have to get out and explore, hike through the hillsides, and stand atop a promontory point and look out to the far horizon, marveling at the endless apparently lifeless terrain. The Badlands provides one of those sweeping western vistas that makes you feel small.
After that humbling experience it was important to reestablish our priorities, so we drove immediately to the legendary Wall Drug in Wall, S.D. After seeing endless acres of desolation it was important to experience endless acres of consumer goods and knick knacks. Richard bought a cowboy hat, we took good looks at other western paraphernalia, and then got back on the road to Rapid City.
Checking out Mt. Rushmore at the end of the day
As the sun began to set, we reached Mt. Rushmore. I visited there during the ’60s, on a family driving trip out west, but seeing it again really packed a punch. It is very cool to realize that we spent the money to carve the likenesses of four of our greatest presidents into the face of a mountain in the Black Hills, and that realization, and the mountain sculpture itself, stirs strong feelings of patriotism. How many countries would tackle such an outlandish project? In that sense, Mt. Rushmore not only recognizes Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, it also commemorates the big-thinking, roll-up-your-sleeves attitudes that have helped to make America great. After taking in the view from the plaza we walked on a path that winds underneath the face of the monument, which gives you some interesting perspectives on the figures and the challenges involved in carving them.
Our day ended in the foothills of Mount Rushmore. We stayed at a hotel that also was an RV park. After having a hearty dinner we walked the RV grounds in the gathering dusk, admiring the massiveness of the vehicles, the cookout awnings, and the general partying atmosphere.
Vacation Time: The Western Swing (Part I)