I made it to Colorado!

As I’ve mentioned before, my wife has been isolated in Colorado — bad timing, she was visiting our family in late February, and all the stay-at-home orders started crashing down in mid-March — so yesterday was the day I was finally free of other obligations to make the long drive down to bring her back home. So here I am. Yeesh, was it a long drive. 14 hours from my door to Longmont, Colorado.

I had something to entertain me, though. The dullest portion of the trip was several hundred miles on I90 in South Dakota, which ought to be embarrassing to South Dakotans, since it exposes the soul of the state. It’s nothing but billboards, big ugly billboards, and they’re all advertising garbage. The most frequent billboards along that stretch of highway are:

  • Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug Wall Drug. Every mile or two there’s another sign to let you know Wall Drug is 292 miles (or whatever) ahead of you, sometimes mentioning some feature you will find there…Western Paintings or Dinosaurs or Cowboy Boots, or to let you know they were mentioned in Reader’s Digest or the New York Times or People magazine.

    I’ve been there, once, almost 20 years ago. It’s a hole-in-the-wall in the middle of nowhere. It’s a rustic strip mall, splattered with kitsch. No, you do not want to visit Wall Drug, unless you have a burning desire for a plastic key chain with your name on it, or want to buy a bad cup of coffee for 5 cents.

  • 1880 Town. Never been there, but jeez they must be desperate. So many signs begging you to come see their blacksmith shop or kids, come get a deputy’s badge from the sheriff.

  • The Gutzom Borglum Story. Apparently, he has a museum somewhere near Mt Rushmore. It’s apparently very patriotic. I guess you could say the creator of that iconic eyesore is patriotic, if taking over native lands, appropriating a beautiful natural mountain, and dynamiting it until it looks like a quartet of politicians is a sublimely American version of patriotism. Been there once, too. Never again.

It does tell you what works in advertising, though. It’s not quality, or cleverness, or information — it’s just straight up mindless repetition. Drill your brand into people’s brains until they think it’s only natural to stop at Wall Drug and see what all the fuss is about. It’s awful. I hate it. It’s a blight on a lovely countryside, and I guarantee you that if those businesses didn’t have thousands of signs poisoning traveler’s brains, no one would bother to stop at those pointless places, and they would dry up and blow away. The demand is entirely artificial.

Which makes it amusing that as I got closer to each of them, their billboards started sporting “CLOSED” notices.

Also amusing: frequently, but with nowhere near the frequency of those tourist traps, landowners along the route started emulating the capitalist advertising policies and putting up their own little advertisements: “JESUS DIED FOR YOUR SINS” was popular. The comparison does not help their cause. It seems that repeating a meaningless mantra is effective at getting people to parrot it back, but it also cheapens it. Jesus is the Wall Drug of religion: cheesy schlock for the masses that is ultimately disappointing, building a following on empty reiteration of slogans.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    gotta ask since I’ve recently been binging this old show.
    Did you go through DeadWood. SD?
    Visit the Bullock Hotel?

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    The Gutzom Borglum Story. … It’s apparently very patriotic.

    Nothing screams ‘patriotism’ like involving yourself in a monument to traitors, as Borglum did at Stone Mountain, Georgia

  3. billseymour says

    “Lammert’s Cafe – the Home of Throwed Rolls”

    It’s a restaurant in Sikeston, MO; and there are billboards advertising it all over I-55 in southeastern Missouri.

    I stopped there once around lunch time just to see what all the fuss was about. The line was out the door, so I guess the advertising worked; but I didn’t feel like queueing up just to have a server throw a roll at me from across the dining room.

  4. flexilis says

    The redeeming factor of Wall, SD: it is the gateway to Badlands National Park, a unique and beautiful place with wide vistas, amazing wildlife, paleontology, and (compared to other US national parks) a lack of crowding.

  5. direlobo says

    Wall Drug: been there once too, 1984 I think. I was a mere pup and as you say, it was the signs. I sure didn’t need a cheap plastic keychain. WRT Rushmore: Lincoln. He wasn’t a traitor. Nor a slave owner (and sure, maybe slaves weren’t his primary motive) – and he did end it. But yeah, agree, a stolen mountain on a stolen continent. But whaddaya gonna do?

  6. davidc1 says

    We were travelling East along I90 during Sept 2005 ,saw some American Bison on the other side of the highway so at the next junction i turn back . There were in a place called “Cowboy Town 1880 ” at Buffalo Ridge SD ,very run down ,no i mean very ,very run down . Took a few photos ,one a very Americana type of a decrepit chuck wagon with a red amurican pick up truck on the highway in the background .
    One thing i did notice was the sun seemed to take a long time to set ,and it seemed to stay light for ages after it had set ,don’t know if i was imaging it .

  7. billseymour says

    Once when I was riding Amtrak’s Empire Builder through Montana, the café attendant in the lounge car made an announcement on the intercom:  “Ladies and gentlemen, if you look out the right side of the train, you’ll see a house…”

    That was the whole announcement. 8-)

  8. Aaron Baker says

    Bad coffee for 5 cents? At that price, what kind of coffee would you expect?

  9. kenbakermn says

    On the other hand, on the drive back the Crazy Horse Memorial is worth seeing if it’s open.

  10. chrislawson says

    Reginald Selkirk–

    Any question about the motives behind Stone Park can be answered by the simple observation that as an act of commemoration, they chose to open the park for the first time on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

  11. redwood says

    In college I remember listening to many fundie Christians repeating Biblical slogans and it hit me that they all had rubber-stamp minds. Makes life so easy and so insincere.

  12. christoph says

    I read about a talk Aleister Crowley gave in the early 1900’s. An audience member asked him what he thought about Jesus-his answer was, “Personally, I hold the man blameless for the religion that was foisted upon him posthumously.”

  13. says

    A few years ago, I took a road trip with my daughter that most people would not consider. From my parents’ home in Kansas City, we took a meandering route through Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Yeah, there’s a bunch of flyover space, but there’s definitely stuff in South Dakota worth the trip:

    Wind Cave and Jewel Cave National Parks. These caves are both amazing. We went to both of those when visiting Mount Rushmore (yeah, never again), but we would definitely consider visiting those again.
    Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. We didn’t make it to one of the actual missile silos, due to it being closed for maintenance, but we did go down into one of the control rooms. I thought it was a good way to help my daughter learn about the Cold War.
    Badlands National Park. Scenery like nowhere else, and the visitor center is very informative as well.

    As all of the above are parts of the National Park Service (as is Mount Rushmore), one good way to enjoy them with kids is to have them become Junior Rangers. They’ll complete short activity books (usually an hour or so, depending on whether ranger programs or scavenger hunts are involved) and get a badge or patch for completion (some lesser visited parks give both, or other things like travel bottles and stickers, as well).

    Wounded Knee National Historic Site. There’s a Wounded Knee Museum in Wall, but I haven’t been there, so I cannot judge it, but Wall is about 90 minutes from Wounded Knee, so the museum is misplaced (granted, the museum that was at Wounded Knee was burnt to the ground in 1974, so…). There is a non-profit trying to buy the site from the former museum owner, so there’s not much at Wounded Knee itself, except for some souvenir sellers. When we were there, one old Lakota man had a binder of photos and articles about the 1890 and 1974 incidents and was glad to answer my and my daughter’s questions. We bought a few overpriced trinkets as well: Pine Ridge is one of the poorest places in the U.S., so I wanted to make an effort to leave some of my travel budget there. (When we did this, I planned it so we did Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming at dawn, then Wounded Knee in the afternoon, so we got to see the perspective from both the Army side and the Lakota side.)
    In Wall, the US Forest Service operates the National Grasslands Visitor Center. This is a free museum, with a short film and a natural grassland landscape outside where you can see wildflowers and natural grasses, depending on the season. They have their own Junior Ranger program as well. If you’re going to stop in Wall, you’re better off going here than Wall Drug’s home of kitsch.
    Due to time constraints, we missed Custer State Park, but it is supposed to be one of the best places in the world for wildlife viewing. I’ve been told that it’s National Park-quality despite being a state park. (I had a similar experience at Guernsey State Park across the border in Wyoming, where we learned about the CCC, which also did significant work at Custer.)

    If your objective is to just get through, yeah, it’s pretty boring. I’ve done I-80 across Illinois-Iowa-Nebraska, I-70 across Kansas, I-40 across Texas and Oklahoma, and I-10 across south Texas to know all about long, boring drives. On most of these, with planning and detours–if you have the time–they can all be fairly interesting.

  14. rpjohnston says

    I remember the Wall Drug nonsense from when I moved from Oregon to Virginia 21 years ago. We didn’t stop there, though.

  15. says

    Only one problem – I didn’t know Colorado was taking visitors. We are on “safer at home” which means not traveling except for food, essentials and exercise? Are you going to self isolate?

  16. davidc1 says

    @14 Hi ,and you must have heard of the wonderfully named town of Peculiar MO, south of Kansas City on the 49 .

  17. petesh says

    Dude! Talk about burying the lede: I take it you teleported very, very slowly. Or maybe the rules are more lax than round here, where the authorities are in the process of force-installing GPS kill switches that activate if your vehicle is more than 10 miles from home base. They did mine while I was having the car smogged last week. Next up: subcutaneous proximity detectors.

  18. says

    We’re still self-isolating. The only people we’re meeting is family, and then leaving. Don’t worry! No Minnesota germs are tainting Colorado’s pristine purity!

  19. larpar says

    According to googlemaps, the trip should only take 12hrs40min. Too many spider stops? : )

  20. numerobis says

    You passed up walk drug; after that, did you see signs for the testicle festival? I hear it was cancelled, sadly.

  21. says

    Throughout all the states surrounding Missouri are billboard after billboard advertising Merrimac Caverns. Of all the caves I’ve been in, it was the most disappointing. Shamelessly commercialized and touristy. Just ugly. If you see an “attraction” on 50 billboards within a 200 mile radius of said attraction, you don’t want to go there.

    BTW, I know it’s slower, but seeing the country on roads that aren’t interstates is much more satisfying.

  22. psychomath says

    I’m glad you made it there safely. Enjoy the time being with your family!

  23. machintelligence says

    No Wall Drug? You missed the free ice water. (Or isn’t that a thing anymore?)

  24. says

    Wall Drug is an institution,from the New York Times January 31, 1971:
    SOMEWHERE in Vietnam a couple of G.I.’s pose for a picture with a sign reading “12,301 miles to Wall Drug Store,” In Venice grinning tourists hold up a notice in the Piazza San Marco: “6,250 miles to Wall Drug Store.” A sign in the Paris Métro reads: “5,961 miles to Wall Drug Store.” One in La hore, Pakistan, reads: “Wall Drug Store 10,728 miles.”

  25. vucodlak says

    @ billseymour, #3

    “Lammert’s Cafe – the Home of Throwed Rolls”

    Lambert’s. I’ve been dragged there a few times by friends or family. If you like Southern food and packed-to-rafters crowds, it’s good. Personally, I find nothing appealing about passing around bowls of deep-fried greens and hog jowl with a table full of strangers. In fact, just the words “bowl of hog jowl” tends to dry up my appetite.

    The rolls are very soft and fluffy, so there’s not much chance of injury. If I remember correctly, they have molasses on all the tables for your rolls (or whatever else you feel like slathering the frightful goop on), if you’re in to that sort of thing. I prefer my rolls earthbound, and crusty enough to cause a concussion.

    Still, it’s maybe worth visiting once just for the, uh, charm.

  26. asclepias says

    The Sandhills of Nebraska are also worth seeing, but that’s a bit out of your way.

  27. publicola says

    I stopped at Wall Drug in ’76 while on a cross-country trip. The only good thing about it was that it relieved the stupifying boredom of I-90. However, the Badlands was definitely worth the stop.

  28. publicola says

    @30: And I thought there was nothing but cowshit and corn in Nebraska, (Iowa, too).

  29. redwood says

    @18davidc1–I grew up in south-central MO, mainly in Lebanon, not named directly for the country but for the town of Lebanon, TN, where the settlers moved from and which apparently had a bunch of cedar trees. Close by is my fav place name of Plato and not far away is Bois D’arc, pronounced Bow(rhymes with Toe)-Dark. My father was born in nearby Big Piney, next to Bloodland (now Ft. Leonard Wood). Lots of good, Peculiar place names in MO, IMO.

  30. davidc1 says

    @33 I am fascinated by place names ,i thought British ones were a tad strange ,there is a Bingham’s Melcombe ,and a Melcombe Bingham in Dorset for example .

  31. kaleberg says

    When I took that route across SD it was hard to miss the one sensible sign, the lone sign for Planned Parenthood. (We were going to spend a night along the banks of the Missouri but got caught in a snowsttorm near Mitchell. The storm was so bad, we missed the corn palace with its facade decorated with colorerd corn kernels.)

  32. tccc says

    F Wall Drug, they are a blight on the landscape.

    My TripAdvisor review says as much.

    Some folks like me who live there get pretty sick of seeing the signs.

  33. blf says

    Billboard? What’s a billboard? Whilst there is some roadside advertising here in France, at the moment (admittedly this is after some nice French vin, and also having not driven in many yonks), I cannot now recall seeing anything like that USAlien phenomenon. Certainly neither on nor from the TGV, albeit civilised travel is largely unknown in hair furoristan.