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Syncopated Family Travel: Wall Drug and the Dakota Badlands Food Poisoning

A weekly travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

South Dakota Family TravelFrom De Smet, South Dakota, we head west toward the Dakota Badlands. The roads are pretty vacant, not seeing much traffic outside of the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, which chokes the Interstate with more well-oiled leather than a fetish club.

Along Interstate 90, a regular sight is garish billboards calling on travelers to visit the Wall Drug Store where 5-cent coffee and free ice water await. Combined with the Theta-state highway hypnosis, the staccato of advertisements is eerily effective. By the time we reach Wall, South Dakota, we figure it is worth checking out.

More importantly, Wall is also a convenient launching off point to the South Dakota Badlands, just a ten-minute drive south. We check in at the Sunshine Inn, a strip motor hotel located just a couple of blocks away from the tourist area, largely taken up by the massive Wall Drugs. The Sunshine Inn is a budget motel, but the beds are comfortable and, most importantly, they have AMC—tonight is the Mad Men season finale I’ve been eagerly awaiting.

An unlisted perk of the motel is John, the proprietor, who is helpful in suggesting travel activities. For instance, he tells us that the Badlands National Park is open twenty-four hours and overnight camping is allowed, which makes it perfect for an amorous nocturnal coupling. When we ask for a good place for dinner, John steers us away from the tourist section to the Red Rock Restaurant where the locals eat.

The Red Rock is jam packed, but we manage to score a seat. I order a country fried steak, my wife a cod sandwich, and my vegan daughter has to settle for onion rings. The complimentary salad bar is shocking in its lack of offerings. In total, it amounts to four items: iceberg lettuce, spring onions, whole radishes, and shredded carrots. Tucked under the yellowing sneeze guard are some macaroni and potato salads that look like leftovers from the grocer’s deli.

When it arrives, my country fried steak is disappointing—equal parts charred and greasy, with enough salt to preserve the whole cow. If this is where the locals eat, I pity them. When the waitress’s back is turned, I pilfer some ribs from the buffet line instead.

Fed, for better or worse, we check out the (in)famous Wall Drugs. History tells the story of the proprietor who in 1936 attempted to revive the dying pharmacy by offering free ice water to thirsty travelers. The gimmick worked, and the drug store thrived, expanding to take up several blocks today. The free ice water is allegedly still around, but it is a task to find it through the great maze of souvenirs: magnets, t-shirts, postcards, sharks’ teeth, snow globes, salt water taffy, fake mustaches, puzzles, tiny spoons, whoopee cushions, fudge, geodes, garden gnomes, and more.

Occasionally you emerge from the tacky goods to be confronted with some sideshow spectacle like a roaring robot T-Rex or a giant Jackelope. Each has a crowd of tourists lining up for a picture to say, “Yes, we really saw that.” We manage to fight the spirit of commerce and escape the clutches of Wall Drugs, never having found the free ice water.

With the obligatory tourist trap braved, we head out to the Badlands National Park. At the northern entrance to the park, we purchase an annual “America the Beautiful” pass. It’s pricy, but cost-effective for us because it will grant access to other places in the national park system during our travel. Just clear of the gate, the Pinnacles Overlook offers an amazing introduction of the northern area of the park.

Here striated white buttes, spires, and pinnacles frame low-lying plateaus of mixed grass. Along the sloping edges, juniper and yucca trees are nestled between eroded gullies. It’s a breathtaking view. My daughter and I take a moment to climb out across the hard clay outlooks, while my more cautious wife lingers behind to chastise our hubris.

To the west, we take a short drive over the unpaved Sage Creek Rim Road, where along the way, the landscape levels out into flat grasslands. Out of our window, pronghorn deer and bison graze in the distance. We park at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, which is home to the park’s largest colony of prairie dogs. We enjoy watching the rodents as they scamper between their many burrowing holes. As I approach, they go into alert mode, signaling warnings to each other with high-pitched chatter. A lone bison lumbers toward us, and we snap some photographs, while keeping a safe distance from the shaggy, black behemoth. The park pamphlet reminds us that the bison are wild animals and capricious.

The sun begins to set as we backtrack to continue our drive to the main Badlands Loop Road, carrying us past other scenic outlooks. My stomach suddenly lurches in disagreement at our earlier meal at the Red Rock.

“Pull over,” I say to my wife, doubled over.

“Why?” she says.

“I need to go to the bathroom.”

“But there’s no—”

“Just do it,” I hiss through clenched teeth.

South Dakota BadlandsThe car bounces as she jerks the wheel over to the narrow shoulder. I don’t wait for it to fully stop before I leap out, grabbing some napkins. I’ll spare the details about what happens next, but it involves me defiling a national treasure. If there is a hell, I’m sure this will not bode well for me in the end.

With the sun setting, darkness rolls over the Badlands and night fades in, casting shadows over the jagged formations. We pull over at Panorama Point and wrap ourselves in blankets as we step out into the thrusting wind to wallow in the splendor of the glittering night sky. As I sip on a can of beer, I’m vaguely aware that the Mad Men season finale is starting, but who really needs that when you have a show like this?

In the parking lot behind us, a black jeep pulls up and a young man slips out, pulling tight a drab-green army jacket. The jeep seems to be loaded with all of his worldly possessions. As he nears, his flashlight settles on us briefly before he slips out of sight, down into the deep solitude of the carved formations.

I think about him and lament the fact that I never took the opportunity to disengage from civilization to wander the country. In that moment, my advice to the new graduate back at the Ingalls homestead doesn’t seem all that foolhardy. I look over at my daughter with her purple hoodie cinched tight over her head and the white wire of her iPod headphones trailing down to her pocket. Perhaps we should send all of our children out into the wilderness when they come of age.They’ll be mired down with homes and jobs and up-sizing flat screen televisions soon enough.

A gentle calmness permeates the air. No one dares to speak, as if our sounds are an unwelcome pollution. I breathe in slowly, as if tasting the cold, crisp air like fine wine. It’s damn good. I have a long way to go before becoming a devotee of the cult of the great outdoors, but I’ll admit that I’m starting to fall victim to Mother Nature’s love bombing.

 

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Anthony Mathenia

Anthony Mathenia (@armathenia) is a novelist and freelance writer. Anthony has appeared in various print and online publications and is the author of Happiness: How to Find It (2012, Curiosity Quills Press). During the month of November he volunteers as municipal liaison to the Southern Illinois region for National Novel Writing Month, an event that has helped hundreds of thousands toward reaching their goal of writing a novel. He grew up in a religious cult and sincerely apologizes for waking you up on Saturday mornings in order to recruit you. Find him at AnthonyMathenia.com and on Google+

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