South Dakota is roadside sign country. They are the only distraction along the straight cornfield-lined highways and fall into one of three categories. You have the political adverts, usually in opposition to abortion, though rarely in agreement about how many weeks it takes for a foetus to develop a heartbeat. Then you have the adverts for attorneys, usually promising to get you out of a traffic ticket; my favourite of this genre was Motorcycle Attorneys, though it wasn’t entirely clear if they are attorneys that help motorcyclists, or attorneys that will arrive to meetings on motorcycles.
The final type is for specific businesses located up to 100 miles in the distance. Often these were for firework superstores, the prevalence of which seemed to be far in excess of the needs of this sparsely-populated area. Heading east on I-90 from Rapid City, the signs are almost all for Wall Drug, apparently a drug store that offers “5 cent coffee”, “Western wear” and a “Shootin’ range”. After about 50 miles of this, you’re worn down to such an extent that you pull off the interstate, if only to figure out where a pharmacy can find space for a gun range.
Wall Drug, it turns out, is a sprawling 70,000 square feet of shops, cafes and gimmicks, all themed like the old west, plus a large animatronic dinosaur. It was, in a word, crap.
A better reason to exit the interstate at the town of Wall is to visit Badlands National Park. Many of America’s national parks have the delightful quality of hiding their greatest treasures until you’re inside the park. Badlands does exactly this: the surrounding area and the approach roads are a continuation of the dull plain state scenery of flat cornfields. But, upon passing the entry booth into the national park, a ridiculous scenery of striped rocky mounds stretches for miles, before vanishing just as quickly as you exit.
Somehow, in such an otherwise empty landscape, this corner of South Dakota is not only home to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Badlands (and, lest we forget, Wall Drug), but also Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. During the Cold War, over 1000 Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles were spread across the plain states, ready to launch nuclear devastation on the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. The logic was that by spacing them out so much (and also maintaining nuclear bombers and submarines), the US would always be able to respond to a first attack by the USSR. Since the 90s, these sites have largely been dismantled, but a couple have been preserved and converted into this interesting museum.
Our route between Badlands and Minuteman was plotted by Google Maps but, as can happen in places like this, turned out to be along cut up, muddy, unpaved tracks through farmland. More than once we had to stare down a bull in order to proceed, and the car ended up covered in mud.
This was to be our longest day, and we were still 250 miles from our penultimate stop: Monowi, Nebraska. I had stumbled upon this article on the BBC website a few months ago, and we decided immediately that we should visit. Monowi is the only incorporated city in the US with a population of one. In the 1950s there were 150 people, but since her husband died in 2004 Elsie Eiler has been the only resident. She serves as mayor, clerk and secretary, as well as running the Monowi Tavern, that opened exactly 47 years ago, to the day.
Despite her isolation, she receives daily visits from both regulars and tourists alike. In the guest book, I counted 14 other visitors on that day alone, from across the US and the world. We had a quick drink with Elsie and then headed across the Missouri and back into South Dakota for the night.
After a night in the bustling metropolis of Wagner, South Dakota (population 1,566), we started out on what would be the dullest day of driving on this trip. The most exciting (and I use the term very loosely) stop was the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. This is a basketball and music events arena, decorated with annually-changing ‘crop art’. Inside, it stinks of popcorn and the café mostly just sells corn. Across the street is a gift shop dedicated to the Corn Palace and to corn in general.
Typing about the Corn Palace is deeply tedious, and I’m sure reading about it is worse, but just imagine how dull the landscape is that this is a popular tourist attraction, drawing half a million people a year. Across the street from the Corn Palace is Bible Land, a large stone castle containing a biblical gift shop. We didn’t go in but, according to the TripAdvisor reviews, you can get a discount if you correctly answer biblical questions. So, if you are into corn and/or god, Mitchell is the town for you. Otherwise, drop a little paint onto your steering wheel and watch that dry instead.
Next time: Mid-western cities