Great Plains: A Journey Across South Dakota

By: investorpoet
August 10th, 2007

One of the first things you notice when driving across South Dakota is the desolation. Once you are past the two eastern cities, there is not a whole lot going on. There are farms and ranches and a few billboards scattered sporadically.

I know some refer to this portion of the country as the breadbasket, but the region is semi-arid, and often has hot dry winds in the summer that quickly evaporate precipitation. There would be very few crops in the region if that land was not irrigated or supplied with ground water pumped up from the Ogallala Aquifer.

Often when I’m traveling through a landscape, I try to imagine what the land would have looked like long ago. What did the wild grasslands look like before they were plowed under? What wildlife lived here before? In many ways, the Great Plains are unchanged. There are not huge skyscrapers, no vast parking lots, and no vast quantities of suburban homes. There are sky, fields, livestock, fences, and this highway running through.

Three hundred years ago, the fields were different. The grasslands had deep roots to survive the droughts and bitterly cold winters. The animals were different. There were no cattle ranches, and bison roamed the land. Bison are completely adapted for living in this environment, and can survive the harsh winters. The fences would have not existed 300 years ago, and there would be no interruption of highways. Finally there would have been people on the plains. Probably many more than are there now. They would have been following the bison herds. Maybe a bit idealized, but that’s what I was imagining as we raced across I-90 toward the Black Hills.

In the desolation, you notice the billboards. They are not obtrusive, but you can’t help but notice. You get the Wall Drug ones right away, even though Wall, South Dakota is over 300 miles away. You also see the signs for the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. With that great big sky, those empty fields, and few places to stop in between, we felt compelled to check both places out.

The Corn Palace is actually a civic center for the city of Mitchell. It was well over 100 degrees when we visited, so we enjoyed the air-conditioning inside. Outside and across the street are several western-style shops with a small park between. It was a great place to rest along our journey. The exterior of the corn palace is pretty remarkable. Every year they do a new design, all in corn. So if you are ever traveling across I-90 in South Dakota, you won’t be able to help yourself. The strange siren song of the Corn Palace will require you to stop and check it out.

Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

If you feel compelled to stop at the Corn Palace, Wall Drug is something completely different. In American Gods by Neil Gaiman, the author describes roadside attractions as places of power. At Wall Drug, you can feel that power. It is as if you would have to stop there even if there wasn’t a completely odd drug store located there. Wall, South Dakota is located at the northern edge of the Badlands, and it’s like the whole spiritual power of the Badlands somehow gets focused at that location. Maybe that power provided the inspiration for the creation that is Wall Drug. There can be no other explanation for this place.

A Jackelope in the Wall Drug Backyard

Wall Drug is a combination drug store, restaurant, cowboy-themed department store, and amusement park complete with eerie dioramas and actual sized mechanical dinosaurs. They offer free ice water, which is quite important in the arid, windswept plains of the Badlands. We enjoyed our meal at the restaurant, surrounded by western paintings that seemed almost alien in their quality. Our daughter loved riding the dinosaur-sized plastic jackelope in the courtyard. In fact, she really did not want to leave that place. Who could blame her? If you were wandering north of the Badlands 300 years ago on that empty plain, you would step on to the site that is now Wall Drug and you would feel like you had arrived someplace very important. Maybe you would sit and meditate for a while. What strange visions would come…

The Badlands of South Dakota across Interstate 90

Other Road Trip 2007 Posts
Harney Peak or A Journey to the Top of Black Elk Mountain


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