South Dakota – who are you? I looked really hard and I tried to make out the shadow of a face but I couldn’t find your eyes and I couldn’t find your nose and there were no shoulders to be found not even the slight curve of a chin. Despite the men carved into your mountains, you I could not find. Maybe it was the fog and mist that clung to the car and clung to the landscape. We squinted, searching for beauty, searching for alien, searching for wonder. Instead all I found were tears threatening to burst, selfish tears of exhaustion, selfish tears worn down. In this dissonance, the true oddity and profundity of South Dakota popped a leg out from behind the mist curtain. Just so we knew it was there.
Our experience is bound by the demand that is the I-90. A stretch without a lot of sights inherently, Wall Drug seems to have created a norm of cutesy plywood Billboards, just reminding you of what you could see, if you make the right choice, at the next exit: the World’s Only Corn Palace, Wall Drug, and then, of course, the pièce de résistance, Mount Rushmore. The first two have been on our itinerary since the outset. We love the camp, the oddity, the idea. But first we have to find a place to stay. It’s Memorial Day Weekend, and all the state parks are both expensive and reserved. I’m calling, and getting friendly women’s voices on the phone, suggesting where to try next.
On the third park, I ask, “Where else is close that might have camping available?”
Without hesitation, she says, “Prairie Village.”
Prairie Village is a living history town. It says almost nothing about camping on its website, but it has a lot of info on the gift shop and an annual “Threshing Jamboree” in August, complete with tractor pulls. I call and am told we have a site waiting for us. We’re content. We drive on.
Past the pro-life billboards, under the light gray, darkening sky, straight on a road that isn’t dirt but is surrounded by it, we begin to get tired. When we pull up to the Village, we see RVs packed together, like the uneven teeth of the historic buildings. Our unease grows as we pull around to our site, which is occupied by half an enormous RV and walled in on the other side by a camper painted with a caricature of a hobo, topped proudly with a Confederate flag. It had been a few states since we’d seen that.
We drive past it, anxiety growing, and roll up the windows, mosquitoes and supremacists on the outside. We find a different site, but the mood has shifted and won’t shift back. The wind picks up and we finally search how to properly rig a tarp. Golf carts full of white families, boys with buzzcuts, moms with rhinestones on their jeans, roll by all night. We sleep (if you can call it that) as the wind still rustles our tarp and leave early, through the mud, past the gift shop.
The Corn Palace stands pristine in my mind. A touchpoint for something I can’t quite articulate or explain. A relic of a time past, but now the “WORLD’S ONLY” Corn Palace, it was decorated to commemorate the Military, with an image of Iwo Jima made of corn and corn husks on the front. We trod in, mostly to pee, deciding we don’t want to walk through a museum and we’ve seen the exterior already. I pee quickly, exit the bathroom, and see a flight of stairs. These stairs don’t seem to go to the museum, and the signs say they are toward the main event. At the top of the stairs, I enter into a sea of stadium seats, pointing forward toward a court in the center. And on the court, in the center of this massive arena, is a gift shop. A gift shop full of corn merchandise and shoppers. I want to sit in these stands and watch. Who are the opposing teams? What is the suspense? How will we win?
The Badlands are invisible and flooded. We’d been told they’d blow our minds, but instead we squint at the rocky mounds and try to picture them gleaming full color in the sun, glistening in the clear snow of the night. It’s a land of extremes, the brochure says, but it’s oddly neutral, monochrome now. Maybe that’s another type of extremity. We are reaching our very own extreme: paying too much for gas, underslept, peeing in another gas station chock full of America paraphernalia, and now facing a tent site full of slick wet grass, riddled with puddles. We can’t do it. We’ll just keep driving.
Picture a food court and a drug store in the style of an old saloon, but everyone there is walking through looking like they don’t know what to do next. An attraction with no activities. Kitsch purgatory. This is Wall Drug. We can’t find anything we can eat, and we make salad in the parking lot, burning out in real time, sitting silent in the car except for chewing noises.
South Dakota – who are you?? Why did you charge us $5 for a cup of coffee?? Even here??
We have to be gentle with ourselves. That’s what we keep saying. So we will get as far as we can and find the cheapest hotel possible in Rapid City. Half the online reviews talk about a room that smells like dog piss. We take it anyway. It doesn’t smell like dog piss, in fact, it feels like bliss. One big bed, a shower, the sheets of cold rain coming down outside. The woman at the front desk with blonde bangs and a throaty voice, who runs inside from smoking when I come back downstairs, doesn’t fall for my con when I ask if they have extra toothbrushes (a sign upstairs said “complimentary toiletries” so I thought I’d try). But she does tell me about her daughter’s cosmetology school, her custody battle which includes driving her kids off the res where her ex lives, her desire to start microdosing, and the three jobs she’s holding down after moving back from Florida. I am fascinated. Why is she telling me this? I keep wondering. It feels so personal, I can’t leave.
But leave we do, the next morning, still in the rain that smudges everything, including all four Greatest Hit Presidents’ faces, blasted into stolen mountains. I feel a surge of rage as we walk through an alley of flags. The parking attendants all look under eighteen, and I am almost positive they are international students. Are they getting paid? We feel obligated to visit this landmark. It is essential, and it was on our way. But for them to be mostly obscured feels right. There is something eerie about their faces clouded by mist, hacked into a mountain that was stolen again after being returned to the Lakota people for what was meant to be perpetuity. Maybe it would’ve felt more sinister to see them in broad daylight, gleaming white out of the Black Hills. We spend more time parking than we do at the mountain. Apparently we get a free refill of any large soft drink with our parking receipt. We are supposed to be proud of this place. I don’t understand. I feel further than ever from a sense of it, but I feel complicit. I want to wash my hands. I am worried we have a flat. Not here. Please. Not in these sacred hills that have been stolen again and scraped into the shapes of men in power. It’s embarrassing. It’s horrifying. It’s time to go.
We rush away, toward Wind Cave National Park. We do not go into the cave, we stay above ground. Driving through, right on the side of the road is a buffalo – so close we could smell him. I don’t ever want to stop watching. For me, this moment is special. In the Corn Palace, in Wall Drug, in the billboards along the road, in Wind Cave National Park, in Prairie Village, I see DIY Disneyland. A belief in something commercial, something fantastical, something royal, something cartoon, something disjointed. It all seems very important. But I can’t quite make out its shape.