Now In: Road Trip Oasis
Road Trip Oasis
Beaver Dam Daily Citizen
By Mickey Kaiser
Wall S.D. is the pot of gold at the end of the concrete rainbow. When that 80ft. tall dinosaur cracks the horizon it’s a sign from the road valkyries that Valhalla is near. Soon sensory deprivation will be replaced with sensory overload. Soon there’ll be buffalo burgers. Soon the memory of perpetual flatland will be washed away by nickel cups of coffee brewed from waters of the Ogallala aquifer. For the road weary, Wall (and its most famous attraction Wall Drug) is a little taste of heaven, a balm for the traveler’s soul.
Traveling from Wisconsin, Wall is about a 13 hour interstate drive. It takes you across the bulk of the Great Plains. If you make Wall the first day of your road trip, you’re guaranteed mountains on the second day. Two ranges in fact. 15 Minutes west of Wall you’ll catch your first sight of the Black Hills (Paha Sapa in the Lakota language). They’re actually mountains, and sacred to at least two Plains Indian nations. By the end of an easy day’s drive the setting sun puts you in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains. If you choose carefully, your path west can remain in sight of mountains all the way to Washington State.
That thought takes me back to the first day and how you get through it. Personally I dangle Wall and its drug store in front me like a carrot on a stick. There are only two outstanding sources of scenery on the first day. The first starts in Wisconsin with the Baraboo hills and stretches through the Mississippi valley and a few miles into southern Minnesota. After that you’re facing about six hours of dry flat land until you come to the Missouri River valley, near the middle of South Dakota. Stop at the overlook to stretch, you’re about half way through your first day heading west. Look out on the valley and contemplate the fact that this neighborhood was as far west as Lewis and Clark got in their first year.
Once you regain the interstate you face the fact that the scenery isn’t going to change much for the next few hours. When you’re within shouting distance of Wall, the Badlands rise in the southern horizon. Things are getting better.
You’ve made Wall, now you’re "out west" and that requires some celebration. Drag your ice chest into the motel room and crack a cold beer. Throughout my life I’ve met many people who’ve lived and died and never thought of seeing New York City, but I’ve never met an American that hasn’t desired a road trip west, it’s a cultural imperative.
The drug store is my prize, I enter it carefully. Like Dorothy stepping into Oz, it’s a different world. The southernmost door leads you into the Main Street of a Wild West town. The street beneath your feet looks like epoxied dirt, above is a faux night sky. The street is lined with vintage storefronts and benches made from halved logs. The benches are peopled with stock western characters (dance hall girl, prospector, cowboy, etc.) carved from wood. I like to sit down next to one of these greeters and let the drugstore envelop me. When the road frazzeledness starts to fade I head for the dining room.
If you drink coffee, or the world famous ice water, you can feed a family of 4 dinner for under $25, that’s not why I eat in the dining room. The dining room is pine paneled, slightly under lit, and houses the greatest collection of western art you’ll ever see for free. After dinner allow at least 30 minutes to tour the art collection. The only collection of western art that can eclipse Wall Drug’s is located in Cody Wyoming at the Buffalo Bill museum and they charge a fee.
Wall Drug is in actuality a mall. There are three stores that are after dinner musts for me: The art shop, the bookstore, and the western wear store. Allow another 30 minutes to browse the art shop featuring prints of Remington, Russell and Wyeth to name just a few. There are also western movie posters, reproductions of Native American artifacts and other western crafts.
The western bookstore is the largest single subject bookstore in the world. If you’re interested in western history or fiction you will find a supply of books that will rival Amazon for scope. The bookstore staff are as knowledgeable as librarians but never shush.
If your vacation involves being out in the western sun, the western wear shop is an economical spot to pick up a wide brimmed straw hat. Western winds being what they are I recommend one with a stampede string (i.e. chin strap). The most impressive thing about the western wear store isn’t its variety, which is staggering: Pendleton jackets, Tony Lama boots, and Stetson hats. The impressive thing is that the locals shop there. In other words they aren’t gouging you in tourist trap fashion.
When my shopping is done I like to find a bench near the entrance and watch the people come in. The road weariness drains from their faces, replaced with awe. Kids, released from backseat prisons, freak out as the spectacle of Main Street whacks them. For people watching, it trumps the opportunities of Wisconsin Dells, with folks from every corner of the world.
No matter where I’m heading out west, even New Mexico or the Grand Canyon, I plan my itinerary to include Wall, either at the beginning, the end, or if the trip allows both. A few years back I blew a tire out in the Badlands and had to buy a new tire in Wall. I was primed for a tourist rip-off. It never happened. At Midwest Tires, west of the drugstore, the tire was mounted and balanced for a price comparable to home. Many people go through Wall in a rush and miss the fact that this is a tourist town that doesn’t treat you like a tourist. On a road trip that is a great luxury.