The Skin – A Trip in the Dakotas
Another Roadside Attraction, and another, and another…
South Dakota is full of roadside attractions, advertised with tempting billboards that tout the wonders of the Prairie Dog Town, Wall Drug, The Dinosaur Park…it goes on. As children, the three of us were whisked past one after another, with a parent issuing the dismissive, “It’s a tourist trap,” whenever one of us begged to stop.
This did not stop us from begging.
Both my mother and my birth father were born in South Dakota in the 1930s. No doubt they were repeating the highway mantras of their own childhoods. I doubt it would ever have occurred to my grandparents to stop at some dusty place on the prairie. The Depression and wartime budgets of the Odlands and the Zwebers didn’t include spending good money to see tunnels full of crop-eating pests. They had neither time nor cash to waste in an old storefront full of cheaply made souvenirs that would fall apart on the way home.
Still, from the backseat of whatever large American car we were riding in, these places looked like meccas of wonder to my sister, my brother and me. Wall Drug, with its endless roadside couplet signs offering free ice water and nickel coffee, especially beckoned. But the parents would roar past, shaking their heads. No time, no patience, no way.
When things change…
Divorce is a strange thing. It might be a source of lifelong trauma in the long run, but in the short run, it can be an enormous liberation. When my mother left an unhappy marriage after nine years, she entered a personal renaissance. She stood prouder, got a little slimmer, raised her hair to beehive heights, and traded in her glasses for something more fashionable. She moved us from Claremont (population 50) to Aberdeen (population 20,000). This was a considerable change. She re-enrolled at Northern and finished her degree. And she decided to take us on a vacation.
She had the best idea.
Mom would rent a trailer large enough to accommodate her, our babysitter Maryanne, and us three kids. We would tow the trailer behind our current car, a tank of a ’57 Buick (sky blue, white top, and chrome trim).
We would stay in a different KOA campground each night, and we would would stop at every single roadside attraction, except one. By group vote, we skipped the Bible park–as good little Christian Scientists, that would have been an overload of graven images, which were verboten to us. Aside from that, we would leave no billboard ignored on our quest to visit every tourist trap in the Dakotas. And each one of us received five dollars spending money.
In 1968, that was a LOT of money.
My impressions of most places are fleeting. The Reptile Gardens? That place smelled terrible. We walked on wooden paths through a swampy enclosure. I found most of the animals repellant and yet…interesting. Snakes and gators have never been my thing, but there were plenty of them. The Prairie Dog Town? With my love of small furred critters, you’d have thought this would have made an impression, but I have none. I don’t even remember seeing the gigantic cement prairie dog that still stands there today.
The biggest let down was the Petrified Forest. In my eight year-old mind, I expected, you know, a forest. We didn’t have those in the part of South Dakota where I lived, so I leaned on children’s literature. I was expecting something like the talking trees in The Wizard of Oz, but turned to stone, with stone branches and stone leaves. I didn’t expect them to talk, but I did expect the to be standing. But the “forest” was nothing more than a large expanse of dirt and gravel, upon which were scattered fragments and chunks of petrified wood.
But some attractions were GREAT!
The dinosaur park in Rapid City was fun and free. We have a few photos of us kids there, and we’re smiling. The dinosaurs were smooth and green, like the Sinclair dinosaur, so of course we assumed they were scientifically accurate. I have pictures of us somewhere and might add them, but not today.
In 1968, there was a gravel parking lot, a gift shop with a panoramic view of the memorial, and that was about it. That was plenty for me. I looked out the window for a while, recognizing and admiring three of the four presidents. Then I found a little naked souvenir doll more suited to Hawaii than South Dakota, and took her right up to the cash register.
The big finale!
On the way home, we finally stopped at Wall Drug. Back then, it was just a short stretch of Old West-appearing storefronts. To get your free ice water, you went behind the store to a little pump and helped yourself. I’m not sure where the nickel coffee was dispensed, but it was somewhere. You could smell it. I don’t recall any actual drugstore merchandise, as in home remedies or a pharmacist’s counter, but apparently they have always been there, too.
What I do remember is touristy crap galore. The store was a wonder. I wish I had photos from back in the day, but I took a few in 2015 when I went back. Taxidermy dominated the walls, hung with every dead animal you could imagine and a few you couldn’t, like the jackalope.
It even had animatronic tableau. I stood for too long in front of some weird looking robot cowboys doing rope tricks while their eyes spun. When I went back in 2015, these were still there and operational. Sadly I don’t have a video, but here are some stills.
I also remember putting a nickel in a slot so a robotic cowboy would say “Draw, Pardner!” and fire his gun at me. I couldn’t find him, but here is General George Custer.
Thrilling stuff. But not as thrilling as what I bought with the money that remained to me. I wanted a beaded necklace with a tiny Native American on it, but that was rich, and I’d already spent part of the five so I had to be discriminating. I selected an onyx egg, an onyx “worry stone,” a vial of agate crumbs, and a pure white rabbit pelt. That was the end of my five dollars.
I kept that pelt long after I let the rocks go. I knew it was the skin of some poor rabbit. Somehow that didn’t bother me. I loved how soft it was, how white. And then, in the eighth grade, I made it into a purse that eventually disappeared. But for years, it was my comfort. I would take it out and stroke it, soothing as petting a cat, and remember that trip.
It was our first family vacation, and our last. And it was perfect.