On July 21, exactly one week after getting married, my new husband and I departed on a road trip from Ann Arbor, Michigan to our new home: Seattle, Washington. This is my road trip diary.
West Des Moines to Rapid City
Day 2 was the longest and most strenuous of our planned drives. We hit the road around 7 AM again, on Central Time now. We didn’t eat a real breakfast and hadn’t had a real meal—save for dinner—the previous day, so it seemed like a good idea to stop for lunch. At an Arby’s somewhere in South Dakota, we encountered one of those pretty Midwestern girls Kerouac must have been talking about. She wore a cowboy hat on top of her long wavy hair; she couldn’t have been more than 18. She studied me as we gave her our orders, and when she crossed the counter to tidy up the dining room, she commented on my shoes. “My sister would kill for a pair of those,” she said, “she wants the sparkly ones.” She continued moving around the dining room, chatting warmly with the patrons. She teased an older couple, good-naturedly, saying, “Watch out, I bite!” to something the gentleman said. He asked her if she had a horse; she replied she just dressed like she did.
We were careful to fill up before hitting the Badlands. We were on 90 now, Neal having taken 29 up at some point along the way while I was sleeping. I imagined the Badlands to be an empty gray desert, with perhaps a bleached steer skull posed artfully in the sand just off the highway. If I had ever seen pictures of the Badlands before, I had clearly forgotten them. I was at the wheel. In order to see the Badlands, we’d have to exit 90 and take a slight detour, which would eventually deposit us back on the Interstate, near the town of Wall (more on that later).
Neal, my normally reliable navigator, took a look at this road through the Badlands on his online map and became concerned about its windy, switchback nature—we were pulling a trailer after all. So we passed the brown-and-white national parks sign, the arrow directing “This Way” and chose a different path to the Badlands: Big Foot Road. I pulled onto it, and about half a mile in, began to panic. “Is that dirt road?” I said, looking ahead. It was.
The car and trailer shuddered as Big Foot turned to dirt and gravel. I couldn’t turn around, so we just pressed on. In another minute, we saw not a skull, but an entire cow, dead, by the side of the road. I quickly calculated how much water we still had in our cooler, and wondered how long it would take help to reach us out there. We rolled on, seeing nothing but grass, dirt, and the occasional bird. (Vultures, no doubt, ready to feast on our remains.) After what seemed like an eternity, we met up with the road we should have taken in the first place.
But, the detour was worth it. The Badlands were gorgeous: great, red-and-gray striated peaks of rock—an area formed over 37 million years of geologic activity. We’d stop every so often at the designated viewpoints for photos; and pulled over on the shoulder at one point, to snap a picture of a lone ram grazing near the side of the road. At one viewpoint, an elderly couple and a group of four, middle-aged Harley enthusiasts gathered. I didn’t register the strangeness of it, but as we were about to leave the viewpoint, one of the bikers—a smiling blonde—crossed my path. “They locked their keys in the car. Can you imagine?” she said, shaking her head.
I looked from the old couple—talking to the tallest of the Harley bunch, a man in a Sturgis shirt—to the second woman, tall and thin, her hair covered by a bandana. She was rummaging in her bike, speaking on her cell phone to AAA, or perhaps even the police, attempting to give the location. We got to our car and reached into the cooler, and offered two bottles of water to the stranded couple.
The woman asked me, “How much?”
I told her free, of course, but she said they only needed one. I stood for a moment longer, considering this couple, who were probably somebody’s grandparents, who could have been my grandparents. But there was not much else we could do—it appeared the bikers had the situation well in hand, and help would be arriving, hopefully sooner rather than later. The temperature hovered in the 90s, though there was significant cloud cover, which made it feel slightly cooler. The old couple looked more embarrassed than distressed, so we went on our way, once again. Neal was right, the road was quite wind-y, but we made it through, thanks to my excellent driving, I’d like to think.
Anyone who has driven west on 90 knows of Wall Drug. I’d been aware of it, vaguely, before making the trip, seeing “Wall Drug” stickers plastered on cars: white, Western-style script on a black background. On the road, you can’t avoid it. I’d estimate there were signs every three or five miles, as far as 300 miles away from Wall (the name of the town as well as the eponymous “drug store”). Anyway, there is probably data on this, but I’m not interested enough to find out. It’s enough to know the advertising was excessive and effusive. The signs seemed to advertise a place that couldn’t be all it claimed to be all at once—a place with 5 cent coffee, homemade donuts, free ice water, and some sort of dinosaur on display. There were places for shopping, activities for kids, “As seen in People!” and “As seen on Good Morning America!”
Wall Drug’s over-exuberant marketing worked on one person in our car: me. How could I, I thought not at least see what all the fuss was about, a place that had advertised itself for hundreds of miles with giddy hyperbole? I had another motive too: I was hungry. (At Arby’s I’d had a side salad—I’d been dutifully ingesting iceberg-based based salads throughout our trip. It was often, woefully, the only source of vegetables available on the road—and a small curly fry.) But I wasn’t hungry for just anything; I wanted the Kerouac special, the “nutritious” (his words) and cheap meal he ordered at diners across the country as he headed west: pie with a scoop of ice cream. Some of the ubiquitous Wall signs had advertised homemade pie, an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up.
I’m sure Neal would have happily passed by Wall Drug without so much as a glance, but he humored me. My husband, who was fresh out of an MBA program and had focused heavily on marketing, wasn’t about to be taken in by such cheap tactics. “If this coffee is more than five cents, I’m going to be pissed,” he said, joking.
So here’s something about Neal and I—something our family members have likely complained about among themselves—we’re skeptics. Cynics, even. For example, we knew there was a 95% chance no matter where we stopped, someone would try to steal our U-Haul (more on this later). In the case of Wall Drug, the rationale was that there is no way the place could live up to the hype; it was a glorified tourist trap, and we were too smart too fall for it.
I knew this, but I wanted to go anyway. I wanted pie. But also, cheesy highway stops like this had been a mainstay of my childhood. I was a non-skeptic then, being raised by two non-skeptics, and we cheerfully stopped and saw the world’s largest crucifix, climbed to the top of the world’s largest Paul Bunyan statue, pulled of the highway at the Mystery Spot—a place advertised everywhere in Northern Michigan with only a deliciously vague yellow question mark on a black background. It could have been anything. I attempted to explain to Neal what it was: a house built on the side of a hill, constructed so that there were all sorts of visual tricks: a ball that appeared to roll uphill, a tall man appearing shorter than a short man, and so on. The science was never explained; the teenaged tour guides would only intone, “That’s just what happens here at the Mystery Spot.”
“That sounds pretty dumb,” said Neal, and I couldn’t disagree. It was; but I don’t regret having seen it.
Wall Drug was not really just a drugstore, but a whole street constructed to look like an old Wild West town. We did not see the dinosaur garden or whatever it was, we did not linger in any of the massive gift shops, we went straight to the café and ordered two coffees, cherry pie a la mode for me, and a donut for Neal. The pie, ice cream, and donut were all homemade and delicious. The coffees were only five cents each. We didn’t stay any longer than 45 minutes, and in that way we were both satisfied.
Day 2 was extremely long. We finally rolled into Rapid City, checked into the hotel, unhooked and locked the U-Haul, and headed out to see a real tourist destination—though arguably just a bigger tourist trap, depending on your perspective—Mount Rushmore. I don’t have too much to say about this destination, though I’m glad we saw it. That something so massive and detailed could have been constructed in the 1920s and 1930s is impressive. The grounds are kept beautifully. And it’s interesting to think about how a project like this would never be undertaken today by the federal government. Could you imagine the outcry if a 60-foot-tall bust of George W. Bush, or a giant likeness of Barack Obama were proposed?
After a long day of driving and sightseeing, we were grateful for sleep, and to leave South Dakota in our rearview the next morning. It was a pretty fun place to visit, but we were ready to get out of there.