The signs line up hundreds of miles before Wall, South Dakota. The tiny town about an hour east of Rapid City isn’t much different from most of the other highway-side towns along I-90, except, as the legions of signs unmistakably inform you, it’s home to Wall Drug. There’s even a Wall Drug sign at the South Pole.
The place is the Disneyland of South Dakota, with a full backyard of all kinds of spectacle and wonder. A giant jackalope sits in the middle, a blow-up brontosaurus stands out front. It supposedly has the largest private collection of Western art, some of which adorn the walls of wood-paneled dining rooms. Coffee is a nickel a cup.
The genuinely scenic Black Hills of South Dakota are interrupted by spectacles such as Wall Drug. Mount Rushmore is arguably the most famous but the work-in-progress Crazy Horse is around the corner, Jewel Cave is stunning and there’s plenty of hiking and camping and exploring, and then there’s also Sturgis a few miles north.
I reached Rushmore early one morning, one of the first cars in the multi-story parking garage. I’d been here before (we took a family vacation to the Black Hills about a decade ago) but it seemed bigger, more built up, more patriotic than I remembered it. A path led between a colonnade, atop each was a state flag. And at the end of the path, a short ways beyond and up a few hundred feet, stood Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt (Teddy), and Lincoln.
What possesses a sculptor to turn a mountain into a Presidential memorial, I wondered. But this sentiment occurred often to me in South Dakota: why this, why here, why? I took the short stroll along the boardwalk leading to the foot of the mountain and stared up at the four of them: they seemed equally puzzled at their situation. Was Teddy the only one who had actually been anywhere close to here?
I headed east that afternoon as the temperature steadily climbed above 90 and near triple digits. By the time I reached the Badlands, it was well into the low 100s but that seemed natural for a place this extraordinary: I’d finally found the real, natural spectacle of western South Dakota: Badlands National Park.
The road passes through the east entrance and soon is surrounded by tall buttes and spires, ridges and jagged peaks. The colors are soft in the bright sun, a light brown covering much of the surface with streaks of pinks and oranges that turn much brighter in the setting sun. The road continues like this for miles, dropping into an especially badlandish valley and then rising to a stunning viewpoint above.
That night, a storm rolled in, massive dark gray clouds blocking the sun at the end of the horizon. A brilliant sunset still erupted, glowing behind the storm wall but above the ridge walls. I went back to my campsite and watched lightning strike the valley far away, an occasional bolt the only light visible for miles. Wall Drug had nothing on this.
View pictures from South Dakota.