Seeing the sights along I-90 in South Dakota in the middle of high summer tourist season during a pandemic – what part of this statement seems wise? Exactly. I had the same thought as I stared at the throngs of people pouring in and out of the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, but I had to pee, and the Corn Palace was dog friendly, and it was too hot to leave the chihuahua in the car anywhere.
Driving across South Dakota was necessary to get home to Seattle from my Midwestern family visit and summer solace from crazy Seattle summer. Stopping everywhere wasn’t, and I could have driven across North Dakota again, but what fun is that? None, which is why I chose tourist-ville, and gawking at big things carved out of rock, or the natural wonders of Badlands National Park and the World’s Largest Prairie Dog. What I didn’t expect to find was a bunch of humanity in complete denial of the situation the United States is facing. In a way, I am not above my own judgment – here I am being a tourist on a socially distanced a road trip home to Seattle after traveling all over the Midwest and Colorado. The only difference was I am not in denial of the situation. My fellow Americans driving giant RVs on family vacations appeared, from my vantage point to be.
Regardless, my South Dakota itinerary was this. Corn Palace, other easy road side attractions, Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, Crazy Horse Monument, Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickock historical whatnot. This would take me almost 3 days if you count my night in the cornfield in Davis. Davis to Corn Palace, Big Prairie Dog, and Badlands in one long tiring windy I-90 run, Wall Drug, Crazy Horse Memorial to Tombstone, on the next day and then off to Wyoming.
Let’s talk about the Corn Palace. The Corn Palace is the result of some type of fair of industry that started around the turn of the century, and I think once upon a time it was actually built out of corn entirely. Now it is a gymnasium that is decorated in corn art annually. Each year it is a different theme. While I was inside the Corn Palace reading its history after my bathroom emergency was resolved, a woman came up to me in a bit of a state to ask (because I apparently looked I knew what I was doing) if I knew “where the corn palace was?” I told her, you are in it. The sight to see is on the outside, in here is just history and the Worldest Largest Gift Shop.
The gift shop is immense, and held many tempting things boasting that I had been to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. I chose a lovely set of postcards and a magnet gathered my freaked out chihuahua and left. We celebrated with a lunch provided by the Midwestern taco chain Taco John’s drive thru and made our way West to the Badlands.
I remembered from my last venture this way 24 years ago (a post high school girls road trip culminating in me licking a stack of dirt in the Badlands) that there were a lot of wacky roadside attractions. I found nothing this time. But I did find a beautiful giant statue of a Native Woman dancing before the crossing of the Missouri River called Dignity of Earth and Sky that was not there 24 years ago.
It is a magnificent statue – she literally looks like she is dancing in the sky. Her beauty outshines the engineering marvel that is also featured at this rest stop – the bridge over the Missouri.
The next thing to cross my path was a 6 ton prairie dog. I had great memories of feeding the prairie dogs the last time I passed by this place on the way to the Badlands, but that dream was put aside on this occasion as it was hotter than a blow dryer on high out, I couldn’t bring the dog in, and I just felt really weird around the people that were present. I decided to check in to the Badlands Motel (which was supposed to have a view of the Badlands, which it did sort, of) and call it night to relax with a meal from my cooler and a cold sparkling water.
As I adjusted to my tiny closet of a room that had no view except of a parking lot filled with too many cars, a heard someone trying to break into my room from the adjoining door. The dog went attack chihuahua and the pounding and banging and attempts to open the door continued.
I put on my mask and knocked on the door inches from mine. A man answered. To who I said “The door you are attempting to break through is to my occupied room.” He looked at me blankly, and replied “I was looking for the mini-fridge.” This was an odd response to being called out for attempting to expand your room. But I obliged him and said “You can find it under your TV behind the door that looks like drawers.” And then stepped back into my room to take a shower and wash the road and sweaty camping goo off myself.
The Badlands Interior Motel is well, a special place with a very sad campground. It does feature some wigwams that no one appeared to be camping in, and a bag of complimentary ice with a nights stay however.
So that was a plus. It is also, right on the edge of the Badlands, so the next morning Char and I could get our National Park on. Charlotte and I hiked the “accessible” trail so she could stay on the manmade path and neither of us would die falling off a jagged rock. We then enjoyed photographing everything from the safety of car turnouts, as far away from the hoards of park goers as possible.
We made it through in a couple hours, and it landed me at Wall Drug just in time to find a shady parking spot, a closed post office and a lunch rush inside Wall Drug’s famous restaurant.
I chose instead to find the bathrooms, run through the mall filled with too many humans inappropriately masked, snap a few pictures of jack-o-lopes and return to the dog with a beef stick for her, and drive thru Dairy Queen for me.
It was time to go see another big statue – The Crazy Horse memorial. 24 years ago just his nose was protruding from the rock, I figured by now he would be almost done. I was wrong, but his face is pretty much finished. Apparently, this is what happens when you get no federal funding. I donated, and bought a bunch of stickers, and mailed my Wall Drug postcards from the VERY expanded gift shop and other facilities.
I stopped for a snack in an outdoor cafe in the Black Hills with a view and a bowl of water for the doggie, then pointed my car in the direction of Deadwood. The contract of the Black Hills from the Badlands is amazing and happens in such a short geographical distance. Deadwood is nestled in the heart of the hills and still has the feel of an old mining town, an old mining town that has been turned into a casino.
I had one historical stop. The final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. It only seemed fair since I had visited Buffalo Bill’s grave so recently and my obsession with the horrible 1989 teen Western drama The Young Riders starring Stephen Baldwin as Cody, and the way more successful (who also kept his looks long term) actor, Josh Brolin as young hot headed Bill Hickok during their time “together” working for the Pony Express. If you are not familiar with the show, its probably because if you were alive and old enough to be choosing television shows, you were watching Twin Peaks or China Beach, I on the other hand was one of the “small, but loyal following of teens and young adults” who apparently watched it and now make pilgrimages to graves of the real people who were not accurately portrayed in the TV shows whose best accolade was words “it looked more like a film than a TV series.” I digress.
Mount Moriah Cemetary is a beautiful and eerie place holding the graves of a few other Wild West notables and a mass grave of children killed by epidemic. It has very steep hills to get to it, to walk up, but the main path with the tourist map is paved and at a medium incline so I did not have to risk stepping on or near anyone’s actual final resting place to get a peak at Wild Bill’s. The sun was setting so my visit was short, as it is not a place I want to be after sundown, even if the American flag flies over it 24 hours a day. Wild Bill’s grave featured a beautiful statue that was added later, and many a strange momento left for the fallen gunfighter.
I drove through town witnessing the beginnings of a motorcycle rally start to take shape (as Sturgis is not far away) and thanked the calendar that I was a week ahead of the disaster to come. People were already not making good choices. I was happy to be camping in the middle of nowhere somewhere 9 miles from Devil’s Tower/Bear Lodge, and leaving South Dakota behind me.