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Monday, August 31 | The Bleat.

 

We crossed the Missouri, and were off on the next leg.  Next stop: Murdo, a town that just might want to rethink the name. Close enough to Mordor, close enough to Murder, somehow suggestive of a French word for crap, almost  authentically Western-sounding, but just . . . weird. Murdo.   It was lunch time, and we considered touring the auto museum – Elvis’s motorcycle, the Dukes of Hazzard car! I was captivated by something I saw in the back, left for junk: Two old Pacers. 

 

murdo1

 

 

murdo2

 

 

The blue one was the model I had; the brownish thing had my color scheme.  People dump a lot of hate on Pacers, but in an era of square charmless crapmobiles, it had a certain futuristic quality I loved. Yes, LOVED. I looked in the window, beheld the dash and the seat-cover patterns, and I was a young man again, speeding down I-94, smoking Barclays, doing a madcap 59 MPH. Oh, the 70s. 

 

 

 

We passed on the museum, but they did sell my wife a coupon book full of South Dakota bargains. “Fifteen hundred dollars worth of value,” said the man behind the counter. Well, it pays for itself, then. You’d be a fool not to take advantage, especially when you get 10% off the after-peak-hours admission to the Museum of Small Dead Things Stuffed and Put On a Shelf, or a two-for-one at the Great Sulfer Cave. 

 

Passed through a car-themed gift store . . .

 

murdo3

 

It’s like a transporter accident on the Transformers planet. They beamed him down into a display case, poor bastard. 

 

 

 . . . and sat at the counter in the “Diner,” where we ate another in an endless series of fried meals. That lettuce, does it come battered? “Yes. Everything’s battered.” But my coffee’s not battered. “You want I should batter it up for you?” No, that’s okay. Y”ou sure? Only take a second.”  

 

 

 

 

Back on the road. The next planned stop was the 1880 Town, a gen-u-wine Fron-teer village, recreated for your education and amusement. The billboards promised relics from “Dances With Wolves,” which was rather low on my list of things over which I would pour the precious liquid of mortal existence, but the idea of stepping back in time to a recreated village was attractive. I expected actors lounging on the wooden sidewalks, engaging in family-friendly acts like pantomime spitting and hat-tipping to the ladies, instructional dioramas, that sort of thing.  As we approached I saw a buckboard rattling up a hill towards a T-Rex skeleton made out of iron, and thought: this might not be historically accurate. 

 

But it was.   First you wandered through an octagonal barn, went upstairs to exam the Costnerbilia – it all smelled like the back closets of my grandma’s farm house, the place where old clothes and shoes and boxes and stuff was stored – then you pushed through a door in the back, and the effect was exactly as advertised. 

 

 

 

18801

 

 

 

 

It’s not a cheap movie set. It’s the real thing. Every one of the buildings had been rescued from a small town somewhere on the plains, trucked over, set in place. Everything was authentic. It just wasn’t fixed up much. This wasn’t so much 1880 as it was 1937 version of something built in 1880.

 

18802

 

 

 

18803

 

1880 didn’t look like that in 1880. Small quibble, though – you expect they’ll get around to rehabbing things presently, or maybe not at all, or whatever.  Doesn’t matter; either spiffed up or decaying down,it was fascinating. But the bar was totally refurbished, with a stage that featured the McNasty Brothers performing a quaint, well-practiced little song-and-patter routine. They got a few kids up on the stage, and Natalie played the whoop-horn. Here’s a short video. How can you NOT love  a place where two guys in a genuine old-Dakota theater play the Beverly Hillbillies song? HOW?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aside from the McNasty brothers, there wasn’t much strolling entertainment. Just like a real town, that is. Hot. Quiet. Natural light, no electricity. This, however, was jarring:

 

 

18804

 

 

 

 

It’s an authentic sign. An inverted, or reversed, fallout shelter sign.  

 

 

Back on the road. Next stop: Wall Drug.

 

 

You have to stop there. No one has any excuse not to stop there, unless you’re heading back. For some reason I expected Wall Drug to be in the middle of the journey; it’s closer to your destination, which makes it less an oasis on the endless plain than the first taste of the tourist delights to come. You see the signs the length of the trip, each promising something different – Western art! 5 Cent Coffee! As seen in Time! Chuckwagon Quartet! You wouldn’t pull off for one, and you might think about stopping for three, but after 37 signs, you know this is obligatory. It’s Rick’s in Casablanca. Everyone comes here, eventually.

 

We headed right for the 5 cent coffee and the ice water. Better coffee from an urn I’ve never had; colder, crisper, cleaner water can’t be found. I had three cups of coffee and tipped the box a dime. (It’s on the honor system.) We wandered through the gift shops – well, no, let me rephrase that. We wandered through Wall Drug, which is a gift shop. The quantity of kitsch is astonishing, and if the entire complex was buried by a layer of volcanic ash, archeologists of the future would conclude we were a civilization based around the worship of wolves and lanky men in hats. Speaking of which:

 

wall1

 

 

 

 

The Chuckwagon boys. The fellow on the left seems to have had his lower jaw shot off in an accident. He’s based on an actor who was popular at the time. I was standing next to a fellow who regarded the Chuckwagon quartet with faint disdain, and I felt compelled to be Mr. Tourist Know-It-All.

 

“That’s Ronald Reagan,” I said. “At least that’s who they based the robot on. Seriously.”

 

The fellow looked at me without expression, then looked away, and I wondered if he thought I was some pinko librul weenie who assumed everyone hated Reagan because he was a cowboy, hyuk hyuk, but then his wife came up and they started speaking some language I could not possibly place. So all he heard, maybe, was blah blah blah Ronald Reagan blah blah. But he probably knew English. Which meant he was just a jerk, I guess.

 

Out to the backyard, much improved since my last visit 20 years ago. There’s a T-Rex – again with the giant dinosaurs – and an big “Mining” attraction where you can pan for tumbled rocks for just ten dollars. Three traces with running water, three mines, huge background paintings. It was deserted. I’m thinking that didn’t work out so well. By the time parents get here they’ve already spent a few dollars on tumbled rocks, which kids cannot resist, and the idea of spending ten bucks for a bag of sand with a few useless worthless rocks inside just does not appeal. Natalie preferred to run around in the patio where jets of water erupted at unpredictable intervals, and have her picture taken on the  giant jackelope. Did I ride the beast as well? Damn straight:

 

wall4

 

 

 

 

I have a picture of my Mom sitting with one of the statues that occupy the benches around the complex, and wanted to take a contemporary snapshot – but there was a very large man cradling a very small dog occupying the space, so no. One of the other statues seems to have seen hard times:

 

 

wall3

 

 

 

 

Pioneer verite.

 

 

 

tumble1

One more cup of 5 cent coffee before the final push to Custer. I wondered if I’d be back; wondered why I’d be back. It’s not as necessary as you think. Without a kid, I wouldn’t stop again. Unless I needed some coffee. Some good coffee . . . no, even then. Oh, sure, it’s a tradition, a venerable piece of South Dakota history, but the decades have added so many smothering layers of commercial sediment it’s hard to find anything genuine, anything that -

 

Hold on, what’s this? 

 

A signed copy of Tumbling Tumbleweeds by Bob Nolan, one of the Sons of the Pioneers. With an enigmatic inscription:

 

 

 

tumble2

 

 

However it was bad to him?  At that point I looked around at the walls, smothered from street to back with pictures and testimonials, thought of the laminated clips that lined the hallways, the old scarred statues, the signs that were old when I was young, and I thought, well.  Nine, maybe ten years, a fellow could get to the bottom of all the secrets here.


And even if you did, there’d be secrets long forgotten. People don’t know: back in the late 80s, there was a fifth member of the Chuckwagon boys. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

48 Responses to Monday, August 31

  1. From Pacers to Chuckwagon Boys. A wonderful way to get to here, from there.

  2. tobin says:

    I remember a stop at Wall Drug when I was probably about Nat’s age – and also remember my Dad coming to about the same conclusion you did about the stop’s necessity.

  3. Brian Lutz says:

    Over here in Seattle is where westbound I-90 ends and Eastbound I-90 begins. I’m actually kind of surprised nobody’s ever managed to stick a “only 1,192 miles to Wall Drug” sign up there yet. Then again, I suspect the actual Wall Drug signs don’t start appearing in that direction until you get well into Montana. I’ve only been in Montana going the other direction (came up North from Salt Lake to Yellowstone and was taking I-90 back.) Then again, the other direction’s pretty well covered by signs for the 10,000 Silver Dollar bar. which seem to start at least 200 miles out from the place.

  4. Ciaran says:

    With regard to “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, it’s the song that made Bob Nolan famous, but fame was not something he enjoyed. Hence it being both bad and good to him, I’m assuming, unless there’s a deeper story than I know.

  5. GardenStater says:

    That settles it–I’ve got to go to Wall Drug.

  6. Tim Hamilton says:

    The doorknob plate you pictured from the 1880 Town appears to be in the “Windsor” pattern from Reading Hardware Co. That pattern appeared in their catalogs in the 1880s and ’90s, and I’ve seen a lot of examples around the web (original pieces for sale, for refurbishing old houses). I just discovered this yesterday and found out that’s my desk’s pattern.

  7. If anyone can pull off white-socks-with-black-sneakers at age 46, Lileks can.

  8. Tim Hamilton says:

    Oh, meant to link to an example of the Windsor pattern. Huh–looks like it’s actually a slightly different pattern from another company, F. C. Linde. I’ve found the exact doorknob plate James shows in the picture above:

    http://www.ppcollectiblesandantiques.com/servlet/the-921/Antique%2C-Hardware%2C-Door-knobs%2C/Detail

    Cool!

  9. Suellen says:

    This was great. Natalie was very intuitive with the whoop horn.

    I think Murdo is a very old Scottish surname. Seriously.

  10. Blackwing1 says:

    The best thing about the T-Rex is the leash on which it’s being led by the miniscule human in front of it.

  11. rbj says:

    Ah, good old Wall Drug. When I drove out west for law school the signs were about the only thing to get me through South Dakota.

    Off topic:
    Mad Men last night.
    Augh! Now we are supposed to have our consciences raised because the show is going to take on drugs and racism? Feh! And double feh!! I would rather revel in the politically incorrect early 1960s than oh, see how bad they were because someone wore blackface back then.

  12. ColleenA says:

    We just did this route in July…on our way to Custer State Park. Didn’t you stop at “Al’s Oasis”?! It was pretty good. Thought the Missouri at Chamberlain was beautiful. We stopped for very expensive gas at the station by the 1880′s town, but since we had a tent to put up by nightfall, we didn’t go through it. Looks like maybe we should have!

  13. [...] Lileks, of course. On vacation. A small taste: I looked in the window, beheld the dash and the seat-cover patterns, and I was a young man again, speeding down I-94, smoking Barclays, doing a madcap 59 MPH. Oh, the 70s. [...]

  14. John says:

    I wondered if I’d be back; wondered why I’d be back. Of course you’ll be back, and the reasons are all immaterial because any one of them is good. “Will I be back” is a question I’ve never asked of South Dakota, which I haven’t revisited since 1994 but still think about frequently. I have, however, asked it, and very necessarily, five times of Slovenia. The answers so far: 4 yesses and 1 maybe.

  15. ajtooley says:

    You look almost lifelike!

  16. gmann63 says:

    Thanks for the early-Monday belly laugh – the Chuckwagon Boys’ performance with special guest really cracked me up.

  17. Lou Shumaker says:

    That’s a pretty good shot for 1988-era video.

  18. teach5 says:

    So that’s where Pacer’s went to die, huh? Who knew? Those McNasty Bros. are aptly named. It appears that you had a Disney trip without the Disney. Some really wild stuff.
    As to Mad Men, last night’s episode was a real yawn fest. The whole working weekend vignette was dull, and everything else seemed to have moved in slow-mo. Time to pick up the pace! Enough with the long stares from everyone-leave that to Kevin Costner, Dancing with cute wolves!

  19. Craig says:

    The Phillips head screw on the doorknob seems to sum up the juxtaposition of old and new. Phillips head (cross drive) screws were patented in 1936 and did not see widespread use until much later…

  20. RebeccaH says:

    Oboy, did that ever bring back memories of childhood vacations with the family. It’s comforting to know there are bits of America that are still the same after all these years.

    Anybody else notice the irony of the Pacer parked beneath a proud Old Toys! sign?

  21. KCSteve says:

    While we have no children, my ever-indulgent wife is from Taiwan so I get the fun of introducing her to things like Wall Drug.

    Although she did learn why someone married early in August should not go to the Black Hills for their anniversary. Well, unless they do it on a motorcycle.

    We had fun anyway.

  22. MikeH says:

    I wonder if North Dakota feels jealous about it’s neighbor to the south for having so much to see for tourists, the Black Hills, Wall Drug, Mt. Rushmore, etc.

    Wall Drug, want to go, want to go. My 6 yr old would love it, my 5 yr old would love to knock over everything in the place. I want those Pacers, even if it’s just to rescue them, pass them along to somebody who can fix ‘em up. Somebody please make an offer on them now while they are in relativily good condition.

  23. swschrad says:

    North Dakota is not jealous of those Southern pretenders.

    North Dakotans are content to watch the wheat grow, the blizzards roll, the other people come and go.

    until they change the freakin’ TV channels around again, that darn gummint, so you have to rescan them all.

    I don’t know about those Chuckwagon Boys, though. the Man in Black is real scary. was his name Dahmer?

  24. Too tired to attempt to be amusing. I have been to Wall Drug like any good American.

  25. Ron Ramblin says:

    Sometimes you eat the Jackalope and …
    Sometimes the Jackalope, well, he eats you.

  26. jeischen says:

    “it all smelled like the back closets of my grandma’s farm house, the place where old clothes and shoes and boxes and stuff was stored. . . ”
    Yup. That’s my strongest remembrance of every old building conserved as a tourist trap.

  27. Trogdor says:

    Come to Murdo, see the Merth Mobiles.

    Chuck Taylors can ONLY be worn with white socks.

    If North Dakota only had 1 reason for me to go there, I would. I always had a dream of visiting all 50 states…still, about 20 short…I think I’ll do a midwest tour of Hall of Fames and Roller Coasters in a couple years though.

  28. Seattle Dave says:

    I wonder how many bazillion Americans HAVE dug Wall Drug. Seriously. (I have.)

  29. Bill says:

    What? You didn’t stop at Al’s Oasis?!? (It’s the necessary stop for those of us who often have to travel between East and West River).

  30. Irritable Bear says:

    Irritable Bear has a Wall Drug sign in his den, right next to his jackalope. Irritable Bear has no idea why this is, but he knows how far away Wall Drug is.

  31. Sue D Nimh says:

    Went through SD on the way to (and from) Yellowstone. Before we left, Wall Drug was on the list of sites to see. After 200 miles of signs for it annoying the heck out of us, we drove into town, said “Tourist Trap” and left. The Badlands National Park was way cooler. Same thing with the over-hyped Mount Rushmore. The mountains themselves were way more impressive than the carvings, and the traffic annoyed me. Do go see Devil’s Tower and walk the trail at the base. Try to imagine yourself there before civilization got there. It felt like a cathedral to me when we walked it, and I was very glad we took an extra day to see it. If you like scenic vistas, take the Needles Highway. It was built in the 20′s–and is no wider now than it was then. Also, the old folks were tough, and didn’t need no stinkin’ guard rails. And that’s before you ever get out of South Dakota!

    Yes, I am a curmudgeon. Comes from years of living near tourist traps at the Dells, and being invaded by FIBs every year.

  32. Petronius says:

    I was in SD just last week, and Wall Drug is all you say it is. They did have a nice little book store on Western themes tho.

    I liked Mt. Rushmore, and I went to see the Crazy Horse Memorial. The guy worked on it for 50 years, and I suspect it will take 50 more at the rate they are going. It was odd watching the orientation movie and seeing pictures of the sculptor’s children handing him the dynamite to stuff in the hole to blow out CH’s left nostril. But I’m sure Natalie could handle it.

  33. Rob F. says:

    Who wants to bet me James was wearing the same kind of Keds when he last drove his Pacer.

    Maybe the same pair.

    Haven’t been to Wall Drug in over 35 years, but I bet the only thing that’s changed is that the souvenirs are now imported from China. At least I got the chance to buy genuine, American-made junk.

  34. Wramblin' Wreck says:

    Petronius :
    It was odd watching the orientation movie and seeing pictures of the sculptor’s children handing him the dynamite to stuff in the hole to blow out CH’s left nostril. But I’m sure Natalie could handle it.

    Every child needs to know how to use dynamite pliers. This should be passed from father to son (or daughter.) My grandfather taught my mother and she taught me. Dynamite – the perfect tool to remove stumps!

  35. Kurt says:

    The brown Pacer is a ’78-’80, as evidenced by its taller, less-attractive hood/grille. This was designed to accommodate the larger 304 V-8 engine that came in ’78. Just in time for the second gas crisis! AMC really couldn’t catch a break.

    I prefer the cleaner ’75-’77 front end (like the baby blue one has), when all you could get was a straight-6 (232 or 258), which most Pacer buyers preferred even after the V-8 was available.

    The Pacer is a bold design, hamstrung by corporate ineptitude. It was designed with the Wankel rotary engine in mind, which would have really been a space pod if it had come to pass!

  36. Noah D says:

    Wait, wait, waitaminute – they put a V-8 in a Pacer?!

  37. Mikey NTH says:

    You stopped at Wall Drug. Dave Barry said he didn’t, and his wife got into a huff about that. He also mentioned Stuckey’s pies. Are there any stuckey’s left?

    I recall the family trips to Florida and passing all the signs “See Rock City”. We never stopped at Rock City. Or Lookout Mountain.

    Never seen the ‘Mystery Spot’ outside of St. Ignace either. But Valley Camp is always worth a look if you are in Sault Ste. Marie.

  38. danup says:

    Dakota, Pacers, Child update, discussion of historical architecture and the way we view it is colored by the era in which it’s remembered, enigmatic video from the eighties… this entry has a remarkable number of prototypical Bleat elements.

  39. Sarah says:

    We took this trip ourselves this year. I have a lot of family in the Black Hills, it’s pretty much where I grew up. I love your pictures, I wish I could get a picture of my husband in the backyard of Wall Drug! He generally just walks through it quickly; hands stuffed into his pockets. If you’re going to Hill City I recommend the 1880 Train. If you’re going to Lead I recommend the Homestake Gold Mine tour.

  40. dcmatthews says:

    Wall Drug sounds like the “South of the Border” of the Midwest. SOTB (or just “S.O.B” as its water tower proclaimed) was this tacky tourist trap that sat just south of the North Carolina/South Carolina border (“South of the Border”, get it?) It wallowed in a faux-Mexican theme, complete with spokescharacter “Pedro” in sombrero, serape and Fu-Manchu mustache. Gift shops, restaurants, a few rides, a couple of motels – one building was even shaped like a sombrero (whether that was a restaurant or a gift shop, though, I can’t recall).

    The billboards for this place started at least 189 miles away, and when you got to about 100 miles (maybe even farther) away, they came at the rate of one every mile. Some of them were rather clever: one had a three-dimensional model of a frankfurter on it, and bore the slogan “You never sausage a place… You’re always a weiner with Pedro!” …okay, maybe not so clever :)

  41. DryOwlTacos says:

    “things over which I would pour the precious liquid of mortal existence”

    Henceforth this becomes my motto and catchphrase. Thanks!

  42. Kev says:

    Are there any stuckey’s left?

    There sure are.

    OK, i have to say it:: Did anyone else look at the statue that James called “pioneer verite” and think, “What was Michael Jackson doing in the Old West?”

  43. Ross says:

    “Irritable Bear has a Wall Drug sign in his den, right next to his jackalope. Irritable Bear has no idea why this is, but he knows how far away Wall Drug is.”
    Well, there’s your problem right there–all those tourists driving through the den would make anyone irritable.
    Sue D Nimh:
    “Yes, I am a curmudgeon. Comes from years of living near tourist traps at the Dells, and being invaded by FIBs every year.”
    YES! Finally, a legit excuse for one of us Wisconsinite Bleatniks to use the term “FIB”! Dasn’t let that term die out. That description of the Dells is why I probably will never find out if any of my childhood memories of it can still be matched up with present reality. Water parks, forsooth.
    I stopped at Wall Drug on a road trip to CA in August of 1977; had a good breakfast and a good laugh. That was before the marketing weenies convinced every place to carry the same krep, so the kitsch there was undiluted and specific(even kind of charmingly old-fashioned, like a gimme-calendar with ’40s-’50s outdoorsman art). I too wondered at the mysteries on the wall all those years ago.

  44. Shaky Barnes says:

    Do my eyes deceive me or is Jimmy looking pretty buffed up? Lileks been hitting the weights?

  45. Mark says:

    I watched the Buff Jimmy Chuckwagon Gang video, and all I could think was, “James Lileks: The thinking Man’s Peter Scolari.”

  46. Trogdor says:

    @Shaky Barnes
    He’s been lifting Gazeebos.

  47. Kurt says:

    Noah D :
    Wait, wait, waitaminute – they put a V-8 in a Pacer?!

    Oh hell, yes they did. Even better is a GREMLIN with a V-8 (smaller and lighter = ability to do burnouts and go fast).

    One of the few bright spots performance-wise in the ’70s was the willingness of Ford and GM to continue shoehorning V-8s into their smaller cars. The Ford Mustang II (a Pinto underneath) got a 302 V-8 in ’75, the Chevy Monza (a Vega underneath) got the 267/305 V-8s (and even the 350 V-8 in California and high altitude areas). They are pretty fast by ’70s standards.

  48. John says:

    I made the same trip west on I-90 two months ago. In Chamberlain, we stopped at the Anchor Grille. Their walnut pie was probably the best piece of pie I have ever eaten.

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