In his 1989 book “The Lost Continent,” Bill Bryson wrote, “It’s an awful place (Wall, S.D.), one of the world’s worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won’t have a word said against it.”
I was born in western South Dakota, yet I have only one adult memory of visiting Wall, just a stop on a road trip with a friend in about 2000 because she, a PhD in geography, simply could not believe I had not been to Wall Drug, and so she and I went there and had a good laugh about it all.
Once when I was a little girl, traveling across Wyoming, our car hit a deer that ran across the road in the dusk. There we were, broke down in the middle of nowhere. A Wyoming Highway Patrolman picked us up, drove a woman and a bunch of little kids to Gillette, where we checked into a motel. And that is my first memory of seeing a “Jackalope” head mounted on a wall. Of course, I knew about jackrabbits by then, and someone eventually explained to us that the mount on the wall of the motel lobby was a gag. But that is another story altogether.
When we lived at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota we traveled and camped in tents and mostly went to the Black Hills, where my father could fish and we could easily meet up with the North Dakota family members from Slope County. I doubt we visited Badlands National Monument, but we might have, for a day outing or a picnic or some such.
In any event, Jim and I have only camped at (now) Badlands National Park once, long ago, on a road odyssey from somewhere and back to North Dakota. We arrived at Badlands National Park on a hot day, the wind was blowing, and it was, of course, dusty in the campground and nearly impossible to cook on a Coleman stove on the picnic table. And there was the usual road construction on a section of the scenic drive, so we didn’t get to do that drive and we were tired and we wanted to get home to North Dakota. We know this in part because Jim has a NPS passport book with the stamps of the NPS sites he (or me or us) have visited.
So, it was that I found myself with a window of personal time for an early April road trip to get away from home, do some birding on my own (spring birds are arriving on the northern Great Plains), sleep in a motel, meet a thoughtful friend who lived and worked at Badlands National Park and then drive back to Bismarck. I know the blue highways and back roads pretty well, but I left with maps, a road atlas, some field guides and binocs and excitement that I would finally get some time to really see Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Yes, it was windy and there was snow on the roads, but I was heading to warmer temperatures and a deeper understanding of the landscape and human history of the South Dakota Badlands.
Along the way, I stopped for bird sightings, vernacular architecture sightings and historical signs along the roads while I followed the Lewis and Clark Trail highway signs (mostly) and the Native American Scenic Byways signs (frequently). I drove over the bridges of the Cannonball and the Cheyenne and other rivers that flow into the Missouri River. Up and down and back up again, mostly making up my timeline and route as I drove. When I began to see the Wall Drug signs, I laughed and made plans to go there for free donuts and coffee and remembered the Burma Shave signs of my youth, which my Mother and I talked about frequently until her final days.
And I arrived in Wall, safe and sound. And after checking into the motel, while I awaited my friend’s arrival from her Black Hills home, I went to explore downtown Wall. Wall Drug was closed for the day, but I went into the Badlands Saloon and got some supper. My friend arrived and we went in her Toyota to Badlands National Park, where she had already seen bighorn sheep, birds, prairie dogs, pronghorns, bison and more. She worked in BNP for eight years, before I knew her, and generously she taught me about the landscape, its human history, its natural history and a myriad of other topics. She showed me the geographical feature of the WALL of BNP and I thus had a light-bulb moment of OH — that is why the town of Wall is called Wall.
The next day, we explored BNP again, visited some nearby small S.D. towns and talked of what the towns looked like years ago and what they look like now. She taught me that South Dakota has the largest number of bison (at present) in the United States. Ironically, the night before I had ordered a bison burger, but the saloon was out, so I was happy with a burger and a local brew. We circled back to the BNP Visitors Center, where I got Jim’s passport book stamped for BNP, and then hurried to the Minuteman National Historic Site for an explore. We learned that the VC was not open Sundays and Mondays, but I contemplated returning the next day on my own. And somewhere in there, I spotted my very first white prairie dog, which my patient friend explained to me is the only place where one can see them.
In person, with a friend, we caught up on a number of common interests and friends and family members and issues and movies and books and birds and future travel plans, and it was joyful for me. I was interested in perhaps driving toward Ellsworth AFB before I returned north and east again, but that decision I would make on my own in the morning.
The last morning of my road trip, I did, in fact, drive over to Ellsworth and Box Elder and stopped at the South Dakota Air Museum and thought about our time living there when my father was in the military. There was a powerful front blowing in from the west and I was driving right into it, wondering if there would be snow and icy roads for my odyssey home. So, I headed back east and lo and behold, right to the Minuteman National Historic Site, where the VC was open and I made a brief trip down memory lane. It seems disloyal to North Dakota to say this (because I have visited the State Historic Site), but the interpretation of the era of the nuclear missiles at MNHS is supreme — which I would expect for a National Park Service site).
Having purchased some modest souvenirs (some stickers and not much else), I headed home, back on the blue highways, back across the rivers, up and down, where the wind was blowing so hard that the birds were scarce from my windshield view and flying during a high wind warning, and home. Where I could tell Jim about what I did and return his NPS passport book to him and stick my stickers where I want to stick them, write in my journal and blog. And catch up in person with what Jim had been up to while I was gone.
Home where the wind is blowing and there is some rain and the bird feeders need to be filled. And no, I didn’t see Teddy Meadowlark at the Badlands Saloon, although I asked if Teddy might be there.
And YES, yes, I ate a donut from Wall Drug. My Mother would have laughed at that! And yes, somewhere along my road journey I texted my siblings pictures of the Jackalopes on the wall at Wall Drug, and asked them if they were having as much fun as I was.