Unheralded

CLAY JENKINSON: In Search Of America — ICBMs, Wall Drug And The Badlands

I made a false start, but only by a couple of miles, doubled back to gather a few items, then drove south from Mandan, N.D. No destination in mind, but I reckoned I might get as far as Nebraska, certainly southern South Dakota. The great luxury of this sort of travel is that you don’t have to barrel through. I like to have the freedom to stop whenever something interests me, within reason, to divert from my ostensible path, to rethink my destination. The Dakotas are so green right now that they seem unnatural. The Great Plains are typically tawny — tan, gray, rust, sagebrush green — but in the month of June, they can be Ireland green.

My goal, as always, is to avoid the interstate highway system whenever possible. The secondary roads are always more interesting. The pace is slower. The surrounding countryside is closer at hand. There is a retro-America feel to travel.

My first real stop was at the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile interpretive center near Wall, S.D. I was unable to tour the actual missile site — booked solid until October! — but I have been down into the one at Cooperstown, N.D., on a number of occasions. This one has a true interpretive center, intelligent, informative, clever. And a 30-minute film that attempts to put the Cold War into perspective with real respect to the ranchers and landowners of western South Dakota, under whose land those missiles were placed. I resisted the urge to purchase a range of books and souvenirs, though I did buy one book, Joseph Cirincione’s “Bomb Scare: The History & Future of Nuclear Weapons.” I read the first 100 pages over dinner in Hot Springs, S.D.

Nor could I resist Wall Drug. Who can resist Wall Drug? I’m writing about “roadside attractions” right now, especially those in North Dakota. Wall Drug is one of the true glories of roadside attraction. National and even international billboard advertising, schlock, cheesy gimmicks, faux western storefronts, jackalopes, statues of Indians, Buffalo Bill, saloon girls, and, of course, free ice water have made Wall Drug incredibly successful.

Dismiss it as the very worst of crap tourism if you like, but note two things. First, Wall Drug has the best western-themed bookstore in South Dakota — and beyond — though the Western Edge bookstore in Medora, ND, is outstanding, too. And the vulgar crapola of Wall Drug has created a critical mass from which several very good independent restaurants have radiated along the otherwise cliched main street. In other words, Wall Drug not only saved the town, but made it flourish as no small town in South Dakota has ever flourished. It’s very likely that the ICBM site benefits from nearby Wall, too. When you have stopped at Wall Drug on your way to the Black Hills, the utter vulgarity of Keystone (near Mount Rushmore) is going to be less upsetting, for the way has been prepared.

Then I drove through Badlands National Park. North Dakota has badlands, but they are sweet and gentle by comparison with South Dakota’s badlands, which merited their own national park. It is worth noting, perhaps, that many of the western National Parks were made possible by confiscation of lands belonging to Native Americans. In this case, the Lakota. If every acre of the National Park System taken from Indians were lifted up to Jupiter, many of the parks would be shrunken, fragmented, stunted properties. There is justice still to be done in this regard.

The South Dakota badlands were not bad enough this year. Normally they feel like a moonscape, but the heavy spring rains have turned all of the grass and foliage in the park a kind of garish green. I found this very jarring. The landscape seemed artificial, as if Disney World had been called into create a badlands theme park. I stopped a dozen times to take photographs and take short hikes. I met a couple from Ohio traveling the west with a Steinbeck-like truck camper (Lance), and quizzed them about it. Eventually, of course, they invited me in to take a look. We exchanged telephone numbers. They had been on the road for a month. They said they were not bored, but they were very tired. Eager to get home. They offered to sell me their rig. If I had had any money, I would have purchased it on the spot.

I spent part of the day listening to satellite radio per President Trump’s state visit to Great Britain. He was more than usually restrained and — for him — on good behavior. But then I heard an interview he did with Piers Morgan about gun violence in the United States. It is not hard to imagine what a rightist populist will say about this subject — it’s so formulaic as to be not worth the listening — but, as if often the case with the president, Trump’s brain got a little sidetracked on the Las Vegas concert shootist, and he wound up seeming to admire Stephen Paddock for his intelligence, his resourcefulness and his ability as a gambler. Imagine the families of the Las Vegas victims hearing the sitting president expressing a kind of respect for the man who killed 58 and wounded 422 innocent people attending a concert.

Today I will amble on toward Denver. My sense is that I will seek out the site of the Sand Creek Massacre (Nov. 29, 1864), but I have no idea how way will lead on to way, except that tomorrow (today) I must arrive in Denver. As I sit tapping out these words in the breakfast nook of my modest motel, four individuals are lined up at the ice machine with their giant coolers, filling them and depleting the machine. Even though the ice machine has a sign that says, “You must not fill coolers from this machine. Please be respectful of our other guests.”

America, America. I love America.





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