Deadwood, South Dakota
This is a pretty cool town, set at the foot of the Black Hills. It dances up to the line of over-the-top cheesiness — but never actually crosses it, except in a few very short sorties. The downtown part is full of casinos and saloons. To get here, we had to drive across Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, and most of South Dakota. It was the latter that was the most grueling. Until you reach the Black Hills, in the western part of the state, South Dakota could only be more boring if Garrison Keillor were in the backseat explaining how beautiful it all is. [Click for Trip Pics]
It is flat. Flat and tacky — like the floor in the bathroom of the Dairy Queen in Mitchell, South Dakota. This is known around here as the “Downtown Dairy Queen,” and it thrives on the Corn Palace’s tourist traffic. Which means it relies on suckers like me. On the way into Mitchell, there are dozens of billboards advertising the Corn Palace. To be more exact, they advertise “the world’s only Corn Palace.” It is “A-Maize-Ing,” they promise. You can’t just “cornceptualize” it — you have to see it to believe it. Only the billboards for Wall Drug (also in South Dakota) and Pedro’s South of the Border (the natural home for Bill Clinton’s presidential library), in South Carolina, are more relentless in their badgering.
But the Corn Palace has something on all of them. It is an unbelievable rip-off. Even Wall Drug, outside the badlands, can occupy the most video-game-addicted 12-year-old for a little while. The Corn Palace is awful, made all the more awful because of the intense sales pitch on the flat, boring, endless highway. Remember how your history teacher used to tell you the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire? Or remember how, in the 1980s, Nation readers thought it was clever to say the Moral Majority was neither? Well, add the Corn Palace to the list. It is no Palace, and it’s not really made out of corn either. Instead, it’s a dull building with a few corn mosaics — or what I like to call, Maizaics (tell the Mitchell Chamber of Commerce they can have that for free!) — stuck to the conventional bricks-and-mortar edifice. In fact, there’s no reason to get off the road. Above the marquee are three vital portraits. On the left is what appears to be an all-corn Martin Luther King. On the right, a depiction of our boys raising the flag at Iwo Jima. And in the center — of course — Elvis Presley. I can’t help but wonder what the oldsters from the USS Arkansas would think of this aesthetic prioritization.
Once you get inside the Corn Palace, you don’t see even a kernel of corn. Instead, it’s nothing but a local sports arena, with a couple dozen venders selling cap guns and authentic Indian ashtrays. I have yet to check out their website, but you can at http://www.cornpalace.com/. Our disappointment with this Taj Maizal was even more acute because it compares so poorly with our three previous detours.
About 100 miles before we got here, Doug said to me, “We have to make a detour. If not for us, then for your readers.” Dixon, you see, is the childhood home (though not the birthplace) of Ronald Wilson Reagan. Dixon is a very charming little town, which even has a storefront office for the Democratic party. Alas, we passed it by about as fast as history has.
The Reagan home is very cool, and I highly recommend the detour if you’re in the area. (Though you should know that you break the nice old lady’s heart if you don’t watch the educational video.) The Reagan home was subdivided into apartments after the Reagans left, so most of the house is a restoration, rather than the actual original. Still, they took a remarkable amount of time finding the right period furniture and details. There is the Reagan dinner table where Ronald Reagan and his brother enjoyed another meal in 1990. When Reagan was a boy, he used to hide his money under a loose tile by the fireplace in order to hide it from his brother. When Reagan came back here in 1990, to see the restoration work, he insisted on restoring the loose tile and replacing four pennies. Outside, there’s a nice statue of Reagan looking at a few kernels of corn in his hand. I guess I would have preferred that the artist show him sweeping the Communist Manifesto into the ash-bin of history. Still, this strikes a nice, positive note. Also, it’s important to note that Cosmo did not bark at Reagan’s statue, as he did with Frank Leahy’s at the University of Notre Dame.
The Amana Colonies
Because readers have gleaned from my columns that I like cured meats, smoked meats, and various other forms of meat — mostly because meat tastes good — several recommended the Amana Colonies in Iowa. Settled by Dutch folk a long, long time ago (okay, so I didn’t read the little plaque), this place has a touch of Colonial Williamsburg to it. But it also has a huge supply of meat, so I can overlook that. Doug and I bought a pile of jerky, a jar of pickles, a loaf of bread, a couple hunks of cheese, some beef sticks (no silly jokes, please), and several different salamis. Cosmo waited outside. Why he couldn’t come into the meat palace is still a burning, grumble-inducing mystery to him. (“I like meat more than you jokers like meat. . . . What did they think I was going to do in there. . . . “) He continues to mutter from the backseat.
Anyway, we took these provisions to the one place in the world best suited for eating them: The Millwood Brewery. Cosmo, Doug, and I made little sandwiches using my Swiss Army knife, while drinking a pitcher of beer in the small beer garden out front. I know of few men who would need many adjectives from me to appreciate how much better this was than working.
Rube’s Steakhouse, Montour, Iowa
Not even three hours after our late lunch in Amana, we drove into Montour, Iowa. Again on the recommendation of some brilliant and wonderful readers, we decided we had to check out Rubes. Montour is a teeny-tiny farm town, and nothing about it would suggest it has a steakhouse that ranks alongside the Palm in Washington and the Homestead in New York. Indeed, from the outside, Rubes itself looks like a grain-supply building — or, at best, an old VFW hall.
Rubes is a grill-your-own joint. The steak is among the best I’ve ever had, and nobody who looked at me could think I haven’t had some steak in my time. You select, from the magical freezer of carnivorous tasty goodness, whatever piece of cow you’d like. Yes, yes, there are some marinated chicken breasts in there too. But I’m convinced the sheriff of Montour pulls the chicken-eaters over for a stern talking-to, when they try to leave town. The Bloody Marys at Rubes are served in old jars, and instead of a celery stalk, they have a pickle. They are excellent. Unfortunately, because Doug and I had only recently grubbed, we didn’t feel we could make a go at the two-ton Belly Buster. (You get a T-shirt if you finish it. I think they should give you an echocardiogram). So, we had the 8-ounce petite filets. They come wrapped around the outside with a thick cut of bacon because, well, bacon tastes good.
You may have noticed that I’ve stopped writing in strict chronological order. This is because time is becoming harder for me to measure. As I sit here in Cody, Wyoming, finishing this column (or whatever you want to call it), it’s difficult for me to figure out which day or destination or night is which (it’s also a lot harder to write at all). We’ve traveled 2,300 miles from Chevy Chase, Maryland — where I remembered to hit the trip odometer — and I’m having a hard time keeping everything straight (which is also why I moronically placed Mishawaka in Illinois in yesterday’s column).
One thing I do know is that this is a huge — I mean huge — country, and if you think it’s debilitatingly overpopulated, perhaps you should spend days driving through dozens of nearly abandoned towns and stretches of road, with almost no sign of human life for hundreds of miles.
There’s still lots more to report, but we’ve got to get on the road. Coming soon: The Badlands, Deadhorse Bacchanalia, Wyoming is Big, Cosmo sleeps through most of it.
Click here for Day 2.