Starting Point: Madison, WI
Ending Point: Hot Springs, SD
Approximate Driving Hours: 13
In spite of all the butterflies I had in my stomach last night I still managed to bang out a reasonable 4 hours of sleep. I resisted the urge to get coffee for as long as I could possibly stand; about two hours into my drive. Pulling off the I-90 at La Crosse, WI, I stopped at a gas station even though my tank was only half-empty. This is one of my few tried and true Pro Tips: always be in the habit of filling up on a half-tank, especially when you’re driving through the vast empty stretches of the American West. You never know when you’ll find yourself facing a sign that reads, “No Services for 120 Miles.”
After I filled one tank it was time to empty another. I joggled the handle of the men’s room but it was locked. I waited…
Seriously, I was standing there like a goofball for 10 or 12 minutes. This is not the way you want to spend time when you’re at least 10 hours away from your final destination. Finally I lost patience completely and burst into the Women’s Restroom (I mean seriously, why do we still have separate bathrooms in this day and age?).
My bold defiance of gender norms led me to stumble across this little souvenir:
How fortuitous! I figured it was only appropriate to swipe it; after all it might come in handy when I strike out into the woods tomorrow.
I’m still not used to the car I’m driving. Last year I wrote extensively about my 2008 Chevrolet Impala, the horse on which I gloriously rode for six long, incredible weeks. I’ve had my Impala for 5 years and taken it on 3 cross-country road trips. I was hesitant to put it through any more abuse and thus made the difficult decision to leave it behind and go with a rental car.
There’s nothing objectively offensive about the Toyota Corolla I chose. It gets good gas mileage (although the tank is pretty small) and it has most of the basic features I need (although the touchscreen that controls the audio panel has a tendency to freeze up). But man, it’s just not the same. The steering wheel is too small, the seats don’t feel right. My Impala fits me like a glove; it’s my home, my safe space. This carriage is gonna take some getting used to.
I was re-reading my post about North Dakota from last year. I forgot how angry I came across, how bitterly I reacted to the uninspiring scenery and the sheer length of the drive. And yet today, even though I made a similar drive (albeit in a different Dakota) I didn’t feel nearly as cantankerous. I don’t know if this reflects a small measure of personal growth, or if I was simply more prepared for the experience, or if the stars were just better aligned today. I left at 5 AM, ate granola and beef jerky, stopped only for gas and pee breaks (plus a quick excursion to Wall Drug, which I’ll get into momentarily). I listened to an audiobook, a few podcasts and a charming radio broadcast of a minor league baseball game (the Fargo-Moorehead RedHawks defeated the Winnepeg Goldeyes 8-2, just in case anyone forgot to check).
Not that I didn’t have a bad thought the entire trip. There were occasional moments where the scenery was a bit too placid, when the audio was paused for some reason or another, in short where I ran out of distractions. I thought of my siblings again and my worries bubbled to the surface. I called one and texted the other and when I didn’t get a response right away I instinctively feared nothing was wrong (as opposed to the perhaps more reasonable explanation that it’s Sunday and people have shit to do).
Of course eventually I heard from both of them, but still the anxiety lingers. Dormant for now, it’ll flare up when I least expect it. True story: at least 3 or 4 times in the past few months in the early morning hours I have snuck into my sister’s room while she’s sleeping. Why? Because I wanted to make sure she’s still alive. After watching both of my parents pass in their sleep my mind has trained itself to prepare for the worst. I know it’s dumb but I can’t help myself. Once or twice she’s caught me in the act and the embarrassment is catastrophic.
There was one attraction in South Dakota I simply could not avoid visiting. Anyone who’s passed through that state or even any adjacent state will have noticed the absolutely ridiculous, hysterical amount of signs for Wall Drug.
“WALL DRUG: ONLY 350 MILES!”
“COWBOY HATS: WALL DRUG”
“KIDS LOVE WALL DRUG”
“COFFEE FOR 5 CENTS: WALL DRUG”
“YOLO: WALL DRUG” (yes, that one was real!)
Estimating conservatively, I must have seen at least 30-40 of those signs on the I-90. It’s simply absurd. They don’t bother explaining what Wall Drug is, only imply that it’s something you cannot possibly live without seeing. Each new billboard seems to inflate this self-fabricated mythology, to gnaw away at your barbed wires of skepticism. It’s a war of attrition. You figure that there has to be something there. They wouldn’t put THIS MANY signs on the road if they didn’t have something to show for it, right?
In a way, it might not be dissimilar from how Donald Trump convinced half the country to vote for him.
So of course I broke down. Of course I took that exit. Of course I went to Wall Drug.
So what is Wall Drug exactly? It’s got a little bit of everything; a few gift shops and a restaurant and several galleries of cheap Western-themed art and those silly little machines that flatten your penny into a belt buckle or something like that.
In the end, however, it’s basically your run of the mill tourist trap. There’s something like it in pretty much every major population center, a place to attract overweight, sandals-and-socks tourist families driving Rav4s. It’s not a bad place by any means – hell the donut I bought there was actually fresh and quite tasty – but not nearly the roadside Valhalla it leads one to expect.
And yet, there’s something I genuinely admire about Wall Drug’s flagrant, over-the-top self-promotion. Having started my own blog and been forced to promote that as well as other content I’ve created (including my latest pet project, “Sergey’s Fortune,” which you should check out), I respect the game, I know how difficult it is. Wall Drug is clearly successful – the place was packed full even though it was like 95 degrees today – and must be a major economic boon for the town it’s in. In a state as large and thinly populated as South Dakota – where tourists such as myself are racing down the highway to get to the Black Hills as fast as possible – such egregious self-promotion is probably the only way such an institution stands a chance of success.
The lesson then: Go Big or Go Home.