Our eventual destination was Custer National Park in South Dakota. Stomach full of home made salad sandwiches – such are the travails of the modern explorer – I sat back as though on a stage-coach and let the scenery slip by. I thought back on the incredible heat of the Badlands, the tiny red flowers that somehow pushed up from grey baked clay, the razor edged labyrinth of wind sculpted rock where I almost got lost. That wasn’t my only scare, though I hesitate to admit it now; I mean, who else on God’s earth would mistake crickets for the sound of a rattler and jump ten feet high?
In the words of Milton Berle: ‘If opportunity doesn’t knock build yourself a door.’*
In December 1931, Dorothy and Ted Hustead did just that. They bought the only drugstore in Wall, essentially the capital of nowhere, and showed that even in the throes of Depression, money can be made from nothing. They offered free iced water to early travellers passing through the Badlands. Later in a burst of philanthropic madness they threw in coffee at 5 cents.
Thing is people stopped and bought all manner of junk also on offer – because there isn’t much else to do in Wall. Then they realised a marketing gem: the ‘cult of signs’ and so Wall became famous. I hadn’t realised how famous, I mean there're no signs in Newport, but there is one in Antarctica for penguins with money.
In South Dakota, there are signs all over the place, not so much subliminal advertising as pounding you into submission. Free ice-water yeah, got to have it – five cents coffee – you know it makes sense. Just as much sense as the giant dinosaur that tells you you’re almost there.
Eventually we reached our destination - Custer National Park - where we saw prairie dogs being fed by squealing girls, bears chasing food thrown from the back of a land rover, and bear cubs, pushing for space in food troughs provided. The wilderness themed.
Maria from Madrid made paella for us later and in return I washed dishes, some clothes and watched three half-hearted Indians dance. They were middle-aged, and one of them wore glasses. The hat went round but little was collected. A little boy’s dream struggled to make sense of it. Red Cloud wouldn’t have danced for tourists.
But worse was to come. Pam’s ‘Sing-along’. We huddled around the camp-fire and sang ‘Row, row, row the boat…’ Not enough gin in the world to make that one work; but then you can’t have everything.
* (Thanks to Diane J for that one :))
And this one's for Greg. Happy Birthday. She still asks after you.