Tidewater Traveler April 2006 - George Sellers

South Dakota - A Family Destination

   Her furry underside is pressed against the glass just inches from my left elbow. The side mirror is being forced forward by the mass of her body. Scratching is heard on the painted metal roof. I don’t want to drive away for fear of harming her. What is she looking for? Popcorn oil! She smells the popcorn oil stains on the canvas cover of the storage trunk that is strapped to the luggage rack of the seafrost-green family truckster.
    It is the pre-microwave-popcorn era, and for evening snacks during our road trip we have packed a vintage, electric popper, dry popcorn kernels and popcorn oil (now museum artifacts). Trouble came the first day on the road; oil had seeped from its container, saturated the contents in a corner of the trunk and leaked out to soak a portion of the rainproof, canvas cover.
    We came here to see bears; just didn’t expect to see a bear close enough to inspect the shaggy brown hair of her chest and belly. Thank goodness for steel and glass. We had paid a reasonable admission fee, driven through the bear-proof gate into a compound where we were guaranteed to see bears. Never gave a thought to the smell of stale, sun burnt, popcorn oil stains.
    Bear Country USA offers a leisurely 3-mile drive through a fascinating and unique wildlife park nestled on 250 acres in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. If you do not see a bear, bison, elk or other western critters in the wild, you can be sure to see them at Bear Country USA.
    For years tourists have journeyed to the Black Hills of South Dakota to visit the national memorial at Mount Rushmore. Patriotism swells upon exiting our station wagon for there, within plain view from the parking lot, are the massive busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt.
    The walk through the admission area and closer to the prime viewing site is made a bit hazardous since everyone who is walking toward the massive sculpture is looking upward, attention captured, not really minding what is underfoot or immediately ahead.
    The panorama is captivating. No photograph or video images prepare one for the experience of awe. How big are they? I could have looked up the statistics, but let’s just say I believe a Volkswagen could be parked inside one of George Washington’s nostrils.
    Just seventeen miles southwest of Mount Rushmore looms the incredibly huge Crazy Horse Memorial – another sculpted mountain. I must admit confusion – political correctness has dictated for a few years now that I must use the term “Native American” when I describe the first known inhabitants of our great land. Yet Crazy Horse is called an Indian; the commemorative center is known as the “Indian Museum and Cultural Center.” Just wondering – is it possible that the purveyors of political correctness forgot to consult the American Indian population about what they prefer to be called. If you find yourself in South Dakota, don’t miss Crazy Horse, and the Indian Museum and Cultural Center!
    I have to wonder if Simon and Garfunkel were inspired here for their mid-century hit The Sound of Silence. My ears are assaulted with nothing.
We have walked away from the car, crossed over a dune and descended to a section of the floor of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park. Grayish, tannish striations of sedimentary rock display thousands of shades of color – well, not really color, just shades. It feels like having been captured inside and old sepia-toned, black-and-white photograph.
    Yet the visual imagery is not the most imposing sensation. My ears are empty. No sound of air moving. No sound of distant aircraft. No sound of trucks cruising the highway. No leaves to rustle. No water to gurgle. No birds to chirp. No sound. No sound. No sound. Even the kids are impressed by the aural emptiness and do not make a sound. It is the sound of silence. When you visit South Dakota, go and listen for it.
    Thinking on the other end of the sound spectrum, I will issue one caution. Unless you are a “hog” enthusiast, you may want to avoid South Dakota during the second week of August each year (The date varies a bit – check with your travel planner). Each summer since the early 1940s thousands, and now tens of thousands, of beefy motorcycles and their riders motor into Sturgis, South Dakota, for the well-planned, well-executed Annual Black Hill Motorcycle Rally. It is an orderly assemblage of bike families, but if you are intimidated by noise and leather, perhaps Palm Island would be your better choice during the week. (Where? Palm Island? See next month’s Tidewater Traveler article).
    One cannot visit South Dakota without a stop at the Wall Drug Store in Murdo, South Dakota. This is a marvel in highway marketing. Since 1931 the Wall Drug Store has been attracting visitors to South Dakota. There are signs around the world leading curiosity seekers to the quaint store in the small village of Murdo; most notably in London, Moscow and the South Pole. Each sing indicates the distance from that point to the Wall Drug Store, and most of the signs tout the offer of free ice water to all visitors.
    We are traveling east on Interstate 90. For over a hundred miles before nearing Exit 109 Murdo, we have been entertained by the messages on Wall Dug Store signs and we have been invited to stop by for some free ice water.
    Wandering around the store I wonder if there actually are any drugs here, the kind one would typically find in a drug store. In the back yard I see a full-sized Conestoga wagon hitched to plaster horses; a miniature version of Mount Rushmore, and a life-sized diorama of an Indian family around a tepee.
    The inside of the store there are patriotic pictures and symbols and it is punctuated by an occasional bison or elk head hanging from the wall. Clothing galore, especially western-style clothing, and Wall Drug memorabilia fill the aisles.
    But most important of all, Wall Drug is filled with tourists. It is unimaginable that anyone can travel Interstate 90 through South Dakota and not be enticed by the simple marketing of signage with cute sayings and the offer of free ice water. I have often wondered if those who teach and study marketing have considered the Wall Drug model. If you have the time and inclination to do so, consider going to www.walldrug.com on the Internet and read the history page.
    And then, if you have the time and inclination to walk through the front door of the Wall Drug Store along with about twenty thousand others on a hot summer day, consider a trip to South Dakota. The southwestern corner of South Dakota is hard to beat as a family vacation destination – Bear Country USA, Mount Rushmore, The Black Hills, Crazy Horse, The Dakota Badlands, The Wall Drug Store and so much more await.
    May all of your journeys be happy and safe!

  George Sellers and his wife Priscilla are Certified Travel Counselors and Accredited Cruise Counselors who own Travel Selections by Priscilla and George, Inc. and the popular travel web site www.sellerstravel.com.