Road Trip Days 3-4: South Dakota (Corn, the Badlands, and Stone Carvings)

After leaving Chicago, we did lots of driving before stopping for lunch in Minnesota at a regional chain called Culver’s. It took a little bit of time to get used to the 80 MPH speed limit! We ended up in Mitchell, South Dakota for the evening to make a stop that my husband had made on a road trip he took with some friends many years ago. The claim to fame in Mitchell is the Corn Palace. Which is basically a building decorated with corn. It was mostly a hokey touristy spot, but I will admit, the murals made with corn kernels were kind of impressive! At the very least, I bought an adorable stuffed corn cob for my niece.

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Camp for the night was at Al’s Oasis, a weirdly themed western kind of town with a shop, restaurant, and campground. We had called from the car to make a reservation but it really wasn’t necessary- lots of RVs but only one other tent besides ours! We couldn’t believe it was still light out at 10pm when we set up our site. There were bright lights and highway noise that made for a less than perfect sleep, but the new sleeping bag we purchase in Chicago passed its first test.

In the morning we headed for the Badlands National Park, a place I was super excited to see. It did not disappoint! The rock formations were so unique, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. We drove the main loop of the park, stopping at most of the overlooks and walk-outs. It was insanely hot but we were well prepared with proper attire and lots of sunscreen and water. After we had seen all we wanted to of the Badlands, we pressed on to Wall.

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The town of Wall, South Dakota is home to something called Wall Drug. Wall Drug was described by my husband as “the South of the Border of the North”. I am familiar with South of the Border thanks to many drives to Florida throughout my childhood. It is what I will politely call a tourist trap- it has way too many signs leading up to it and it is filled with cheap souvenirs. And therefore, my husband’s description of Wall Drug was accurate.

There were gift shops. There were hokey “historical” displays. There were more gift shops. There were themed areas depicting a romanticized version of the American West. And then there were even more gift shops. Wall Drug, ladies and gentlemen. We were hungry and ended up having lunch here. I don’t remember the name of the restaurant but I do remember that I ate the worst slice of pizza I’d ever eaten in my entire life. It might be an insult to call what I ate pizza, actually.

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Luckily, Rapid City, South Dakota wasn’t too far away. Stopping here next meant we were able to enjoy a cute downtown area and a sweet brewery located in a converted firehouse. We had snacks and beers here before getting on our way to Mount Rushmore!

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And Mount Rushmore was ever-so-slightly underwhelming. It was cool, don’t get me wrong, but it is so much smaller than I expected. The walkway leading up to it with all the state flags was really neat, and the film in the visitor’s center that detailed how it was built was very interesting. But all the famous photographs frame it a bit deceptively. I actually caught a glimpse of it during our drive to the parking lot and was certain I’d seem some kind of copy-cat. Nope, that was actually the real thing! The two photos below were taken at the same spot- obviously easier to appreciate with a good zoom lens!

One of the coolest parts of our visit there was seeing Nick Clifford. This adorable old man got a job working on the construction of Mount Rushmore when he was a young teenager. His wife has helped him write about his experience, compiling questions he often got into an interview-style book. We were happy to buy a signed copy and chat a bit.

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Non-zooming view from the visitor’s center. Photos below show a closer look at the progress.

Not far from Mount Rushmore is the unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial, a huge but incomplete stone rendering meant to capture the spirit of Chief Crazy Horse. The size of it is incredibly impressive, and it will certainly be amazing once it is finished. However, reading up on the history of this art-in-progress at the visitor’s center left me quite confused. A Polish-American sculptor by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski was asked to work on it, and to this day he basically refuses to ask anyone else for help!

Many of his ten children and twenty-something grandchildren help at the site in various positions, working at the visitor’s center, running the foundation, and of course with construction. But for many, many years while they were young, Ziolkowski would go up the mountain by himself to put in work on the memorial. No wonder progress is so slow! He refuses to accept any state or federal grants, which means the visitor’s center profits and the foundation are the only funding for the project.

We made it to Gilette, Wyoming before stopping for the night. Up next is two days of camping in beautiful Yellowstone!

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