South Dakota: the tourist trap state

A South Dakota tourist trap (Mount Rushmore) portrayed inside a South Dakota tourist trap (Mitchell Corn Palace). Tackception.

IF COFFS Harbour ever pulls a Detroit and files for bankruptcy, the subsequent sell-off of The Big Banana would probably see the oversized piece of fruit snapped up by the state of South Dakota.

Not because of any connection the Midwestern state may have with the tropical, allegedly evolution-debunking botanical berry, mind you; after all, South Dakota also boasts a Santa’s village and Scandinavian museum.

No, South Dakota would happily take the Big Banana off our hands because, at least from my observations criss-crossing the country, it appears to have the greatest concentration of tourist traps per square mile of any of the United States.

It’s probably not all that surprising for a state that boasts the faces of four ex-presidents chiselled into a mountain on its rego plates, but the sheer density of tacky roadside stops stunned even me, a misguided individual who actively seeks out these places.

In fact, on the 23-mile (37km) drive from Rapid City to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, you not only pass the aforementioned, geographically-confused Santa’s village and Scandinavian museum, but also a reptile garden, Old MacDonald’s Farm, human maze, Ranch Amusement Park, tee pee camping area, indoor mini golf and, most unsettling of all, the Cosmos ‘Mystery Area’.

The last of these ‘attractions’ has signs that either indicate you’ll have a fun, mysterious family adventure, or you’ll be shanked with a sharpened novelty miniature of Mount Rushmore and left to rot in the Black Hills wilderness (“Survive It! See It! Feel It!”).

Don’t cry presidents; you’re remembered for other things, I promise!

Even the grand attraction, Mount Rushmore, has been reduced to cheap and tacky marketing. Although the edifice itself is impressive and a marvel of human ingenuity, if not a monument to the complete disregard of indigenous inhabitants’ wishes, the souvenir shops that have sprung up around it are not. In fact, a hail storm was passing as we arrived, which made it appear as though the rain dripping down the stone was the souls of George, Tom, Abe and Ted weeping at the creation before them.

Have you ever wanted to taste ice cream made with Thomas Jefferson’s special recipe? What, you didn’t know Thomas Jefferson made an ice cream recipe? No, you still don’t want to try this ice cream now you know about it because, surely if it was as good as they’re claiming it is it wouldn’t be sold exclusively at one of the most zealously patriotic sites in America? Eh, fair enough then, away with thee! Spoil sport.

Of course, the Black Hills don’t hog the tourist traps. Perhaps the most notorious example of tack in the state is Wall Drug. Advertised on billboards which start several states away and grow increasingly and alarmingly frequent as you approach, Wall, South Dakota is infamous for the Wall Drug Store, which has turned this sleepy town on Interstate 90 into an, ahem, international destination.

One of the many, many, many signs luring the uninitiated into Wall, South Dakota.

Five-cent coffee, iced water and cake await you at this oasis on the edge of the Badlands. And hey, if you’re a veteran or newlywed unfortunate enough to be passing by, you get a discount! And if that’s not enough to force you off the highway, why not check out the animatronic dinosaurs onsite? Just don’t tell Clive.

Regrettably, we did not stop at Wall Drug. After an angsty debate, we decided the billboard-a-mile approach was too much like a lonely virgin screaming, “I’m such a nice attraction! But all the tourists just go for jerks who don’t appreciate them, like the Golden Gate Bridge”.

Instead, we stayed in the town of Mitchell, which happens to host the next best thing: not only the World’s Biggest Corn Palace, not only the World’s Most Famous Corn Palace, but the World’s ONLY Corn Palace!

Constructed from husks of the grain that is blanketed across that region of the country, this majestic structure rejected stone, marble and other mainstream castle mainstays to go it alone.

Eat your heart out, Versailles! Oh wait, you can’t, because you’re not made of food!

The result is a pragmatic structure that smells like a pre-microwave bag of Poppin’ and has various tasks for its small floor space; by day it’s a souvenir shop, by night it’s a basketball court. And the puns, oh my the puns! We Were Ear being one of many that will drive you mad with delight, or drive you as quickly as you can toward the Minnesota border.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the state. After all, we did visit it immediately after I fell in love with the wild, cowboy-like desolation of Wyoming. As the westernmost boundary of the Great Plains, South Dakota could never compete with the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountain states we’d just passed through.

But if ever you do pass through the state of stony faces, corny structures and, well, whatever the hell you want to call Wall Drug, prepare to leave with a sense of exhausted bewilderment and at least one small, pointless souvenir to share with the unenlightened folks back home.

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