Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Good Ol'-Fashioned Americana

It's been all about AMERICA these last few days. Let's recap:

I hit up what may be my last national parks for this trip, Wind Cave and Badlands. After making my way through a number of cave-parks earlier in my road trips, wind cave was unlike anything else I had seen. This is mostly due to geology. I'll spare you my clumsy attempt at an explanation.

Badlands also featured large amounts of geology, with a special bonus ranger presentation on Friday night. The presentation was little more than a simple presentation showing the constellations of the night sky, but in a place like Badlands the stars take on an entirely different form. In the dark sky of rural South Dakota, the milky way makes an impossibly bright white band across the a field of millions of visible stars in the sky.

It was beautiful, etc, etc. Let's move on to something that might actually be entertaining.

Other things to see in South Dakota:

1. Minuteman National Historic landmark. During the Cold War, the US had as many as a thousand Minuteman ICBM's in launch tubes spread out across the country. A single missile could be launched within a matter of minutes, fly to just about any possible target in Russia, and vaporize a large city. South Dakota had several hundred missiles at the ready, sitting in unmarked launch stations surrounded by grazing sheep. While various ungulates were chewing their cud above, teams of air force missile technicians were sitting in underground bunkers performing the most stressful job possible and dreading receiving the coded message that could mean full-blown nuclear war. You can take a tour of the now-empty (the missiles were decommissioned in '91) silos if you so desire -- it's humbling to walk around a place that once housed the most destructive weapons ever known to man.

2. Wall Drug. It may not have thermonuclear warheads, but it does have a hell of a lot of billboards. Anyone approaching along the highway will have seen several hundred signs advertising the store, and will be forced to pull in to visit just to satisfy their curiousity, or more likely, because South Dakota is *very* flat and they're dying to do *anything* to break up the monotony of the drive. Wall Drug is the size of a Walmart, but it has grown organically -- it's clear that it was a single store downtown that bought up the adjacent buildings as it expanded and just cut doorways through the walls, creating a strange amalgamation of dozens of smaller stores that combine, Voltron-like, into the wonder and majesty that is WALL DRUG. Coffee is 5 cents, too, so that's good. Although I fear I may have overpaid, given the quality. Still... 5 cents!

3. The Corn Palace of Mitchell, SD. The city of Mitchell built the corn palace way back in 1892, the thinking being, it will be a tourist trap and put our little burg on the map, and besides, what else are we going to do with all this corn. The outer walls of the brick building (inside is a large auditorium that can serve as a theater or basketball arena) are decorated with massive, 40-foot high murals composed entirely from different-colored dried corn plants. Inside, the corn palace features photographs of the corn murals from previous years -- every year, the town commissions a local artist to design the mural and volunteers create the corn-art. The pictures provide a great picture of American history as viewed through the eyes of a small town in
the center of America.

4. The Song of Hiawatha Pageant. This isn't actually in South Dakota, but instead in Pipestone, Minnesota (which is about 5 miles from the Dakota border, so close enough). I had stopped by to see the Pipestone National Monument (having no idea of what it was, other than hey, it's along my route), and upon arriving was corraled into a field where volunteers were directing cars to park. Turns out I had showed up, less than an hour before it was set to begin, the final performance of the summer of the Song of Hiawatha Pageant. Every summer since 1948, this small town had put on the pageant, in which a narrator read of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Song of Hiawatha" as a cast of hundreds of actors pantomimed the actions of the story. The "stage" encompassed a small lake and the surrounding ground, featuring fights ending with the loser being thrown into the lake, lots of bonfires, and assorted pyrotechnics including a fire-breathing snake. The cadence of the poem is beautiful, and the colors of the performance are fantastic, but the ending pissed me off. The poem tells the legend of Hiawatha, a great hero of Native American folklore and mythology, and after he performs countless quests and brings wisdom to his people, the poem ends with a couple Christian Missionaries showing up and Hiawatha telling his people to follow their teachings. The idea that this is the final and greatest act of Hiawatha struck me as, well, insultingly racist, and after the entire poem focusing entirely on purely native legends, the ending seemed tacked-on and out-of-place. Apparently it is from the original poem, however, so it looks like Longfellow was the racist dick who couldn't help telling indian legends without cramming on some schlock about how european religion and culture was better and "saved" the natives. Nice job there, Henry.

I've also now gotten the full tour of Minneapolis and St Paul, the Twin Cities of Minnesota. My tour included all the sights: the new I-35 bridge being built over the Mississippi River to replace the one that collapsed last year (reinforced concrete box girder design -- it's a real beaut!), the Mall of America (it's really, really, really big. Also, they have a rollercoaster inside. And considering that weather in Minnesota is either *balls cold in the winter* or *crazy humid in the summer,* I can see how the climate-controlled mall is such a draw), the Hubert H. Humprey Metrodome (I got to see a Twins game, and after watching him make a couple of beautiful stops up the middle and banging out a triple up the right-field line, I have decided that Nick Punto is my new Favorite Second Baseman Who Is Not Dustin Pedroia), and the SCIENCE MUSEUM (because I do love my science. Among other things, it features the "Museum of Questionable Medical Devices," a sort of tribute to quackery, and a mummy (unidentified) from ancient Egypt that, according to the museum, was purchased by a St Paul couple in 1925 during a vacation in Egypt. Ah, those were better days -- back when you could take a cruise over to Egypt, see the pyramids, ride a camel, and then go to the bazaar and buy yourself a mummy). I also got my first taste of Ethiopian cuisine, which is delicious and is eaten entirely with your hands. I don't even think they have a single fork in the entire building. Also, Ethiopian beer is tasty.

Time now to head back out on the road, get my oil changed, and visit Iowa and Wisconsin. There's some Milwaukee brewery tours in my future, you can bet on that.


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