South Dakota Motels

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We've come to South Dakota to visit Wall Drug, but are delighted to find that this state offers some fine motels and plenty of friendly folks. Wall Drug, of course, is the sprawling gem of the Badlands that reminds the roadside tourist of South of the Border in South Carolina. Within its several blocks of storefront you can see a mechanical T-Rex, impress your significant other at the shooting gallery, ride the giant jackalope, and pose next to a faux Mount Rushmore. As the lefthand photo demonstrates, some of the animatronic displays are kind of scary. Selecting from the hundreds of postcards and literally thousands of knicknacks, it's hard to believe that this was once a tiny drug store in a prairie town of 326 people. In a pamphlet that tells the history of this incredible place, Ted Hustead (recently deceased) recalls that an offer of free ice water was the difference between survival and defeat for the struggling store: "It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that's that there's absolutely no place on God's earth that's Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!" Here's a postcard view (circa 1977).

[camera]Welsh Motel and Sands Motor Inn

Nearby, at the Sands Motor Inn, I notice a certain continuity to life in a twilight motel. Haggard looking dudes sling lumpy pillows over sagging shoulders. Moms and dads lug kids from crowded minivans and cramped compacts. Loners peak through crushed curtains as the sun sinks through amber clouds. Even in the middle of nowhere, humanity finds itself stuck to familiar rituals. Across the street at the Welsh Motel, Kelly reminds us of the significance of Wall Drug as a familiar point of reference: "I teach elsewhere in the state and every time I come back here, they say, "bring me back some of those [Wall Drug] donuts!"

Naturally, we cruise south toward the Black Hills National Forest to see Mount Rushmore. It's hard to tell whether this tourist attraction is a monument to presidential kitsch or is "the formal rendering of the philosophy of our government," as envisioned by builder Gutzon Borglum. 25 miles south of Rapid City, Mount Rushmore is certainly worth the drive. For seventeen bucks a carload (as of 1998), you can also visit the Crazy Horse Memorial (Slogan: "You cannot experience Crazy Horse Memorial by driving past on the highway"). The towering statue of the Native American hero has been under construction since 1948 and promises to be the site of a university, medical school and airport. Because the monument is built with the aid of private donations - with no state or federal assistance - there is no assurance that Crazy Horse will fully emerge in our lifetimes. That's kind of cool when you think about it. Departing the monument and heading into Custer, we stop by the Mile Hi Motel and the Rocket Motel. Eventually, we head back south toward Wyoming with a carful of pamphlets, trinkets, and tacky souvenirs.

[camera]Rocket Motel

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Last update: April 4, 1999. All photographs copyright © Jenny Wood. Text copyright © Andy Wood.