The Trail Home

Today’s post is 1240 words, 16 photos, a 6 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

Welcome back! And thanks for your readership. I appreciate your likes, comments, and suggestions for improvement. Keep them coming.

This week’s post is the last in a series of four articles from our late December travels in North and South Dakota. If you missed any of the first three, click here, here, and here.

An Alberta Clipper

After spending Christmas Eve with my mom (it was also her 94th birthday) and brother in central North Dakota, we headed to western North Dakota on Christmas Day for a visit with my Traveling Partner’s family. When we started out, the weather was clear and mild. However, that changed drastically after only driving nine miles. It started snowing and the wind was blowing at 30+ MPH out of the northwest. Soon we were driving in near white-out conditions. We were caught in a fast moving Alberta Clipper. Below is the only photo I took during our harrowing 70-mile drive. There were times when we couldn’t see more than a car length or two in front of us. It was scary!

I grew up in western North Dakota and experienced a lot of treacherous winter weather. The safest thing to do is stay at home or someplace safe. In our case, we were committed and there was no place on our journey to seek respite from the snow and wind chill. Besides that fact, it was Christmas Day, most everything was closed. I do remember people losing their lives when they were caught in a winter storm or venturing out for some unknown reason. I didn’t want us to be one of those casualties.

When we finally drove out of the storm, it had drizzled so the road was icy in places adding another hazard to watch for. And the sun was shining. We were ecstatic to reach our destination and feast on Christmas dinner.

Wall Drug

Fast forward a few days. We spend three fun days exploring the Black Hills as described in my previous posts. We left Rapid City headed east on I-90 with the plan to make the scenic drive through Badlands National Park. And if there was time, stop at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site on our way out of the park. But fate and snow closed some of the roads in Badlands National Park. That left us with few options, so we stopped at Wall Drug located in Wall, South Dakota.

This was not my first time at Wall Drug. In the summer of 1964, my aunt took my sister and I, along with my two cousins (her sons), on a camping trip to the Black Hills. We had a grand time seeing the sites like Mount Rushmore, the gold mine at Lead, and Evan’s Plunge at Hot Springs. We spent one day at the Badlands National Park and then stopped at Wall Drug for some free ice water and a look at the thousands of souvenirs and tchotchkes of great interest to boys of a certain age. I’m sure I checked out the rubber snakes, sling shots, jack knives, and key chains. I’ll venture a guess that I left the remainder of the spending money my parents gave me for the trip at Wall Drug.

During our recent visit, you might be interested to know that I found a jack knife with The Eldest daughter’s name in a box of discounted knives (see photo below). For the princely sum of $2.00 plus tax I bought her an early birthday present!

You might be wondering how and why Wall Drug became a beloved tourist trap. Here’s a short version of the story. It began when Ted Hustead bought the drugstore in Wall, South Dakota, population 231, in 1931. Business was slow but Ted and his wife saw cars driving by their little town on the way to Mount Rushmore. In the hot, dusty summer of 1936, they put up signs advertising free ice water to passersby. Their business took off when people stopped for free ice water, bought an ice cream cone, and shopped in their store. Eventually, it’s estimated they gave away around 20,000 cups of water a day during the summer tourist season.

To advertise their business, they also gave away bumper stickers proclaiming, “I’ve been to Wall Drug,” or “Where the heck is Wall Drug?” Many visitors also posted signs around the world announcing how many miles to Wall Drug. I remember seeing a photo taken during the Vietnam War of a post with signs to soldier’s home towns. Among them was a sign “12,301 Miles to Wall Drug.”

While our visit was during the slow season, all the stores were open including the cafe. There were people around, most were families traveling during the holiday season. While there, I had a cup of free ice water, it was refreshing. I also took them up on their offer to members of the military and veterans for a free cup of coffee and a donut. Coffee is normally 5¢. The others in our party had to pay for their mid-morning snacks!

I wandered around the huge complex checking out the bookshop, leather goods, and the four-for-a-dollar postcards which I bought. The whole place has a western vibe with cowboys and cowgirls ready to put their arm around you for a photo. There’s machines where kids can drop in a quarter to win a small stuffed toy or press a penny into a medallion. It’s easy to see why early tourists stopped here for respite from the hot summer sun.

Down the street from Wall Drug is the National Grasslands Visitor Center. Unfortunately, it’s closed during the winter season. We checked the outside display thinking this might be a stop for a future visit.

The World’s Only Corn Palace

After our stop at Wall Drug, we were back on 1-90 headed to Sioux Falls for the evening. Even though it was nearly 4:00 PM and sun close to setting, we took the short detour into Mitchell, South Dakota to take a look at the World’s Only Corn Palace. Yup, the outside of the building is covered with 325,000 ears of corn specifically grown in thirteen different colors. And it is changed every year!

During our brief visit, there was a basketball tournament in progress in the large multipurpose auditorium. We were able to see a few of the interior displays but there was more to see.

Historically, there were several corn and palaces scattered across the Midwest as a way to showcase the area’s agriculture and promote rural communities. Mitchell’s is the only survivor. The original Corn Palace was constructed in 1892 and replaced a couple of times, with the current building built in 1921. It has undergone several several renovations and additions since that time. The external murals made of corn began in 1948 with a new theme every year. The estimated cost to redecorate is $175,000 per year. The City of Mitchell considers this money well spent as it brings in about a half million visitors every year.

This photo is a close-up of the designs made with the locally grown corn. Nice, but a little corny!

The sun had set when we steered back on to I-90 and drove the last seventy miles to Sioux Falls. Later that evening we had another meet-up with my sister and her family. The last leg of our trip was on New Year’s Eve Day. We arrived back in Madison in time to usher out the old and celebrate the new.

Until next week, happy travels!