Wednesday, August 17, 2016
I woke early to the sounds of the RVs around me firing up their engines and rolling out. What was their hurry? I thought as I struggled out of my tent. It wasn’t long before all my camping neighbors had vanished. Leisurely, I stoked up the fire and cooked up a rather greasy breakfast of bacon and eggs.
After I packed up my campsite, I decided to go for another swim at the beach.
Once more, I had the place to myself. The water had cooled off during the night and I had myself a refreshing swim. For a time, I bobbed in the water, reveling in the quiet, and watching a variety of birds playing and fighting among the trees and rocks.
I almost didn’t want to leave. I could’ve sat in that water for hours contemplating my life.
Promises of further adventure finally coaxed me out of the water, and after showering, I was off again. Actually, there wasn’t a great deal of adventuring for much of the late morning and early afternoon. I did pull off at what was advertised as a “scenic lookout.” Although I didn’t see anything particularly scenic from the car, I pulled off, hoping to see something unique. I wasn’t the only one with this idea as quite a number of cars were parked in the lot. I got and looked around at…nothing. Well, almost nothing. There was a tree or two in the distance. I searched in vain for buffalo roaming, deer and antelope playing, prairie dogs doing…whatever prairie dogs do. Nothing but flatland. Meanwhile, people around me were snapping pictures left and right. I don’t know what I was missing, but after a few minutes, I got fed up and hopped back in the car. I pondered this occurrence as I continued my drive. I finally determined that all those people at the scenic lookout must have been vacationing from the west and that this was their first time beholding the Great Plains.
This was a question that had burned within me for many a year. Every time I spotted this bumper sticker on someone’s car, I ached to know: where the heck was Wall Drug? And then, on a sunny day in mid-August, I found the answer. Wall Drug was in…Wall. Not wanting to miss a most excellent tourist trap, I made a stop at Wall around lunchtime. In my mind, I thought Wall Drug would be this nifty, historically-restored little store with a small gift shop where I could buy my own “Where the Heck is Wall Drug” bumper sticker.
In truth, the entire main street was lined on both sides with Wall Drug-related shops and restaurants. Not having much time to explore, I decided to stop in at the Wall Drug Café for lunch.
The place was large and packed with people. The Café was one giant room attached to the original Wall Drug Store where people lined up for ice cream, sodas, and yes, their famous free water. Various stores and gift shops branched off of the Café where tourists wandered in and out. I must say, it was quite the sensory overload!
Addendum: Rather than adding my own history of Wall Drug here, I have included a passage from Bill Bryson’s travelogue The Lost Continent. In all honesty, I had not read this book prior to my trip, but I found his impressions of the town similar to mine, or vice versa:
… Fifty miles beyond Rapid City is the little town of Wall, home of the most famous drug store in the West, Wall Drug. You know it’s coming because every hundred yards or so along the whole of that fifty miles you pass a big billboard telling you so: STEAKS AND CAKES – WALL DRUG; 47 MILES, HOT BEEF SANDWICHES – WALL DRUG; 36 MILES, FIVE CENT COFFEE – WALL DRUG; 25 MILES, and so on. It is the advertising equivalent of the Chinese water torture. After a while the endless drip, drip, drip of billboards so clouds your judgment that you have no choice but to leave the interstate and have a look at it.
It’s an awful place, one of the world’s biggest tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it. In 1931, a guy named Ted Hustead bought Wall Drug. Buying a drugstore in a town in South Dakota with a population of three hundred people at the height of the Great Depression must be about as stupid a business decision as you can make. But Hustead realized that people driving across places like south Dakota were so delirious with boredom that they would stop and look at almost anything. So he put up a lot of gimmicks…Above all, he erected hundreds of billboards all along the highway between Sioux Falls and the Black Hills, and filled the store with the most exotic and comprehensive assortment of tourist crap human eyes have ever seen, and pretty soon people were pouring in…
I was hugely disappointed to discover that Wall Drug wasn’t just an overgrown drugstore as I had always imagined. It was more of a mini shopping mall, with about forty little stores selling all kinds of different things – postcards, film, western wear, jewelry, cowboy boots, food, paintings, and endless souvenirs.
I could have spent all day in Wall, but instead, I ate my lunch and moved on to the nearby Badlands National Park.
My visit there was another sensory overload of sorts. For about two hours, I drove through the park, ogling the incredible scenery. At first, I stopped off at every viewing station available, leaping out of my car (occasionally remembering to put it in park) and taking dozens of pictures of the same view.
However, as time wore on, the novelty began to wear off and at the end I stayed my car and cruised through the remainder of the park. It was a lot to take in, almost too much. I’ll probably go home after my vacation, look at the pictures I took and think, “Wow, I don’t remember this place at all!” I did get some good shots though, including a mountain goat standing along the side of a rock formation.
After all that, I was ready to move on, and I made my anticlimactic entry into Rapid City that evening. Unlike the night before, I chose the creature comforts of a hotel.