There is a place in the United States of America where if you happen to glance out your window as you drive past on the highway, you might see a metal sculpture of a skeletal man leading an equally skeletal T-Rex toward a small western town.
Skeleton Man and his pet live “between.” They’re in that hazy world between the place you left and the place you want to be. They are a part of the ride that you live through before you get to where you were really going.
There was a time when families used to leave home to vacation together in the ol’ family wagon (complete with wood side panels and painted in that hideous shade of Metallic Pea). The trip would take forever — but that was because everyone secretly knew that the trip itself was the destination.
There would be what felt like dozens of side trips to see the world’s biggest something. Eventually, there would be more souvenirs from the road than clothing in your luggage. And by the time you got to where you were supposedly going, it would almost be time to turn around and go back home.
Somewhere along the way all that changed, and the four-day drive turned into a four-hour flight. “Between” became “above,” and all the strangeness and frustration and wonder and beauty of those hours on the road was lost … but those forgotten places are still there. They’re still much the same as they were in their heyday and they’re still very much worth visiting.
Wandering off the beaten path
South Dakota is a large and wide-open state. There are only five states in the country in which fewer people live. That means there’s plenty of room for strangeness and shenanigans, of course!
So let’s just forget everything about all the touristy things you can see there for just a minute, and talk a little bit about that skeleton man. You can find him halfway between two towns that you’ve never really heard of — Murdo and Kadoka. They are right alongside the biggest east-west route in the state. Skeleton man is interesting all on his own to be sure, but he’s also interesting in that he appears to be walking toward one of the most fascinating little places in the entire state.
South Dakota is famous in part because most of Kevin Costner’s magnum opus, Dances With Wolves was filmed in various locations within its borders. There are a couple of places around the state that house movie memorabilia. But, the most unique by far is exactly the place toward which our skeletal friend and his prehistoric companion appear to be traveling.
The 1880 Town (population 170 ghosts, 9 cats, 3 dogs and 29,368,703,905 rabbits). Aside from hosting a sizable collection of movie memorabilia in its main building, it is also a place where you can find 30 authentically furnished buildings dating from 1880 through to 1920. It really gets cool when you join in and become part of the show yourself. For a few dollars, you can mosey on down to the Longhorse Saloon. There, they’ll dress you up in period costume as a cowboy or a showgirl and turn you loose on the streets to wander around, whoop it up or just to relax on “your” front stoop.
More dancing, more wolves
When “Dances With Wolves” was filmed, the location team went to some great lengths to get out to some of the most untraveled places they could find. After all, there were no McDonald’s franchises and fewer major highways to be seen anywhere in the the 1860s, so they had absolutely no place in this kind of period piece. In 1989, the place to really get away from it all turned out to be central South Dakota. Even today, Google has yet to bother with sending Streetview vehicles to map parts of this place.
The “Fort Sedgewick” location from the film was built on the triple U Buffalo Ranch in Stanley County where, at least at the time, the world’s largest herd of privately owned bison made their home. The area where filming took place is undeniably beautiful, but at the time of my visit, 20 years after the film had been shot there, it was almost impossible to tell that there was anything remotely interesting anywhere near the dirt driveway and the trailer/giftshop at the front of the property.
It was only when you walked to the back of the property and slipped through the gap in the fence that the stunning vistas opened up and allowed you to see almost clear to the edges of the earth. Interesting? I’m still not really sure. But wow! Those views!
Those stunning vistas and vast skies are part of the state’s persona, so it makes sense to find a way to really experience that aspect of its character. And it was fun to drive all the way out there to take it all in. Side note: this property is now owned by Ted Turner — yes, THAT Ted Turner — but the Fort Sedgewick tourist attraction is still there to be visited.
This is where things start to get corny
Fun fact: nearly one out of every three dollars generated by South Dakota agriculture starts in a cornfield. Can it be any surprise that the state is home to the legendary … Corn Palace? YOU HEARD ME. Established — if you can believe it — in 1892, this remarkable landmark plays host to about half a million visitors from around the country annually. All this for corn!
Although it’s mostly used as an event venue for festivals, farmers markets, circuses or any other affair that might be hosted in any other arena, the real highlight of any visit to this unique location will be the corn murals. Every year a different theme is chosen and the walls are decorated inside and out with corn, other grains and native grasses. This turns the structure into (and I quote) “the agricultural showplace of the world.”
Take the time to enjoy your visit (for free!) during the summer months. Go on a guided tour and learn all that there is to know about the Palace. Learn its story and get closer to South Dakota while you do it!
Now, here’s what you really came for
Wall Drug. Famous throughout at least part of the continental Unites States and in select places in Canada and other countries, all because of the ice water. In 1931, just after the Great Depression, the little town of Wall, SD on the edge of the badlands was known as the “geographical center of nowhere.” Wall Drug sprung up as a literal oasis for weary travelers going from this way to that with its promise of free ice water to anyone who cared to stop for a moment.
Truthfully, it was primarily a real apothecary-type drugstore, but the thing that really brought people in was those signs on the highway advertising free ice water. 326 people lived in that little town back in 1931 and nearly 100 years later the population has swelled to a massive total of about 800 year-round residents. They’re visited every year by up to two million people, some of whom are still looking for that free glass of ice water.
On a good day, you might find about twenty thousand people roaming around the complex of restaurants, gift stores, galleries and other amenities offered under its banner. But Wall Drug’s biggest treasures can be found in the backyard area. The 80-foot brachiosaur, the life-size T-Rex, the water show, the panning and mining experience and of course, the Giant Jackalope. The list is endless. Wall Drug is a must-see addition to any South Dakota visit itinerary.
Pack your bags and head to South Dakota
South Dakota is a big place, and although it’s wide open and empty, we’ve really only begun to scratch the surface of the places to visit and the things to see in this state. Maybe it’s time to get back to traveling the way we used to. Hop in the car and get to know not only the places where you’re going but also the stops along the way.
There’s much that’s so easy to miss when you take the quick and easy way to get from point A to point B. All I know is that never being able to experience everything in between — or at least some of the things in between — would be a real shame.
Editor’s Note: We welcome this guest post by Eustace James. Eustace is a cybersecurity professional and computer geek at heart. He’s also a hobby photographer of nearly 40 years who loves travel, live music and traveling to see live music. He makes his home just north of Toronto, Canada, but is more likely to be found in a dive bar in some North American city listening to oppressively loud tunes played by some band you’ve never heard of. You can find Eustace on Twitter and Instagram.