grew up along Route 66 in Arizona. Interstate freeways arrived before
I did, but a few businesses catering to tourists still remained along the
old highway. These dusty tourist traps offered a glimpse of history,
the bizarre or the unusual. A few dollars bought you admission to
a dusty backroom where cheap wax statues of famous cowboys or cloudy jars
of formaldehyde with two headed goats awaited your inspection.
I assumed most of these tourist-fed businesses vanished leaving only
faded signs and strangely shaped buildings to remind travelers of a time
when hucksters tempted travelers with the unusual, gruesome and queer.
These places did
not vanish - they just moved to South Dakota:
Village and Campground (See Dino!), Christmas Ranch (Over 10,000 ornaments
every day!), Old McDonald's Petting Zoo (Pet the Animals! They're
Friendly!), Reptile Gardens, The Original Crazy Horse Crystal Caves (Closest
Cave to Mount Rushmore!), Thunder Mine (A Real Live Gold Mine!), Presidential
Wax Museum (From George W to George W, It will Renew Your Patriotic Spirit!).
The biggest of all the roadside attractions, the most over hyped bit
of gawkery, the item with the most promise and hence the biggest disappointment:
Rushmore. In the lexicon of American idolatry, it ranks right
up at the top. I admit, I bought the myth. I put it on the
agenda. I spent the night in Rapid City to see it. It is big
- but not as big as the gift
shop and ice cream parlor the Park Service constructed at the base,
or the parking lot ($8 per car, please), or most of the visitors who gawk
for eleven seconds before heading to buy their Monumental Cones with Presidential
course, if Mount Rushmore doesn't impress you, you can choose from any
of the options above, several casinos, two water parks and two miniature
golf courses, all within a five mile radius of the famous sculpture. So
much roadside kitsch concentrated in such a small area is like being force
fed a salad bowl of chocolate icing.
Having performed the requisite genuflecting before the sculptures of
past presidents (lest the Homeland Security Monitors detect my failing
level of Patriotic Fervor), I scurried to the parking lot, zoomed around
motor homes, SUVs and overweight children and headed south.
suppose had I a companion today with whom to make witty and biting remarks
about the tourist orgy, I might have been happier. However, I only
had myself and a bad selection of discs in the unreachable CD changer.
Nothing can be worse than Bette Midler singing "The Rose" as you pull away
from Mount Rushmore.
I pointed the MINI southward in search of Wind Caves National Park.
According to my Holiday Inn in-room manual, the caves promised mind-boggling
stalagmites, stalagmites and rangers in tight pants. Whether through
my own incompetence, Bette-midler induced psychosis, or South Dakota's
deliberately bad signage, the only caves I found were occupied by prairie
dogs. I was defeated. It was time to go back to the hotel.
rounding a corner at 35 miles per hour (not the speed limit but the speed
of the motor home in front of me), I saw it: a gleaming helicopter.
Sitting on a pad beside the road with its blades slowing chopping the afternoon
air, it offered hope for the day. I plunked down my money, climbed
aboard, and we soared above South Dakota. As Mount Rushmore and Crazy
Horse Mountain passed below, I thought to myself: "Drag Nun Killed
in Fiery Copter Crash: Pat Robertson says God Does Punish Queers."
God, however, filled all the waitstaff positions in South Dakota with
cute men with nice butts - and over dinner that can make up for a whole
lot of really bad sculpture.