It was also the most boring and featureless, uninteresting journey I have ever had the displeasure of undertaking – endless miles of Midwest prairie, where even a single tree would have been a pleasant distraction (at any point). The advertising billboards dotted along the stark road at 100 yard intervals did not improve the landscape: they were the landscape! This was the kind of undertaking that could have been filmed by attaching a miniature camera to the back of a snail and viewing their journey across an acre of tightly cut grass for a day (snailcam.com) – having said that the possibility of a ladybug interaction or a quick glimpse of an earthworm would have made it more interesting viewing.
For the last 200 miles of the journey I was teased and titillated by billboards advertising the wondrous delights of Wall Drug. This is a tourist attraction located in the town of Wall, South Dakota; The New York Times has described Wall Drug as a sprawling tourist attraction of international renown [that] takes in more than $10 million a year and draws some two million annual visitors to a remote town. On each advertisement hoarding I was promised another unique reason for stopping at this utopian destination: a giant dinosaur, shooting galleries, gold panning, Native American artifacts, a museum, gift shops, restaurants, the delights of animatronics singing cowboys, and all kinds of incredible and delightful attractions of awe and wonder – they just fell short of claiming a cure for cancer, providing evidence for the existence of alien life, and revealing that Elvis is alive and well and living in Des Moines. Bill Bryson wrote in his 1989 book The Lost Continent that Wall Drug is an awful place, one of the world's worst tourist traps, but I loved it and I won't have a word said against it. Unfortunately when I arrived I discovered it was closed for the season.
Water Water Everywhere
The hotel I stayed at was host to an adjoining water park - complete with slides, tubes and a lazy river. I changed into my swimming trunks quickly upon arrival, after the long punishing car ride, and took to the poolside with a spring in my step - due to the anticipated aqueous fun. It was during this perambulation that I realized how milky white and stereotypically pallid this Englishman’s skin actually was – especially after a long winter hidden from the weak Minnesota sun in the confines of a snowed-in cabin. This was exasperated by the painful realization that every family frequenting the busy site was either Mexican or Native American in origin. This resulted in every available square inch of visible flesh being substantially darker in tone than my own - the water park visitors should have smeared black anti-glare paint under their eyes to prevent the possibility of blindness.
I climbed to a dizzying height after six flights of steep stairs and poured myself apprehensively into the dark opening of the tallest water-slide. A minute later I hit the water below hard and stumbled around trying to find my bearings like a drunken astronaut wading through syrup, striving to work out which way was up; my trunks joined me 30 seconds later as the tube spat them out like a wet rag. A full nasal irrigation also rendered me disorientated as water penetrated every available anatomical space on my body; I have not heard properly out on my left ear since!
I now know how it feels to be flushed down the toilet (sentences you never thought you would ever write).
King of the Mountain
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore. Sculpted by Danish-American Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore features 60-foot sculptures of the heads of four presidents. The entire memorial covers 1,278.45 acres and is 5,725 feet above sea level. It attracts nearly three million people annually but due to the snow storm and prevailing blizzard I was joined by just ten other people on the site, six cold Japanese gentlemen and four chilled Dutchmen.
Home of the Cave
Jewel Cave National Monument contains Jewel Cave, currently the second longest cave in the world, with just over 157 miles of mapped passageways. It is located approximately 13 miles west of the town of Custer in the Black Hills.
Our elderly tour guide (a park ranger) used every cave tour cliché at his disposal: turning out the lights so we could experience the complete darkness, the heartwarming discussion on how nature always finds a way in a bleak inhospitable atmosphere - by pointing out the moss growing around a light bulb, and the majesty of the underground scenery in a religious context (was the beauty of the caves down to God’s very own hand as suggested, or was it formed by the precipitation of the magnesium carbonate hydroxide minerals – difficult to say).
Our guide also went to the same acting school as William Shatner, with overly dramatically long pauses and a quickening change of pace towards the end of each delivery for no apparent reason - Jewel….Cave….contains….all-thee….common….types-of-calcite-formations-such-as….stalactites….stalagmites….and-flowstone-and-frostwork.Being beamed-up would have been preferable for my knees and cardio-vascular system after walking up half a mile of steps back to the blinkingly bright surface.