The Big Trip: The Marvelous Corn Palace

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As I leave Pipestone, I say on the tape, “Ever since St. Paul I thought that everything was new and it was all beginning. It’s getting even newer as I, in a few minutes, cross into South Dakota. All the other states, I’ve been in or driven through before. This is new. This is brand new. I’m going where I feel no one has ever gone, yet it’s only me. I need to know what is true in me, I need to understand what it is I believe, and know what is eternal about what I believe—to know a little bit about the Red Road and know where my own road crosses it.”

The signs for Wall Drug are coming fast and furious now.

  • “Wall Drug of South Dakota—Then Mount Rushmore.”
  • “Horse ‘Twitches’—Wall Drug.” (I never did learn what horse “twitches” were.)
  • “Everything Under the Sun—Wall Drug of South Dakota.”
  • “191 Miles to Wall Drug.”
  • “All Roads Lead to Wall Drug.”
  • “Wall Drug As Told By The Aukland Star.”
  • “Free Ice Water—Wall Drug.”

It’s really amazing how I’ve always heard talk about wide open spaces—and now, seeing South Dakota, I understand what they mean. It sort of makes you love the country, love the space. I just can’t get over how terribly cramped the D.C. area seems to me now in my heart.

I took a detour into Hartford, population 1200. The sign at the gas station I stopped at proclaims they are “big on being small.” And two young boys on bicycles stopped and came over to me as I was filling up my gas tank, said hi to me, and asked where I was from. When I told him I was from Washington, D.C., he let out a big whoop of amazement. “Why in the world are you traveling through this town?” he asked. “Why are you on this trip? Where are you going? Do you know people out here? How can you be going someplace where you don’t know a soul?” He peppered me with questions, and seemed slightly mystified.

I found out that he and his family have lived in this town “ever since I came back from the hospital.” They’ve traveled a bit themselves, visiting relatives in Washington state (“it’s really nice out there”). I tell the boys my story, amazed at their friendliness, their unguardedness toward a stranger, delighted with their warmth and interest.

Things may have changed since 1991, but at that time there were six people per square mile in South Dakota, versus 320 per square mile in Connecticut.

As I pass Sioux Falls, a huge billboard proclaims, “Reject Animal Activists! Fair Game, Fish, and Wildstock Are Our Economy!”

I enter Mitchell, and head immediately to the famous Corn Palace. It’s an exhibition hall the size of a city block, topped with onion-shaped domes and covered with tens of thousands of dollars worth of oats, sorghum, barley, sudan grass, and of course corn. Yes, the façade really is covered in corn. White corn, red corn, brown corn, yellow corn, blue corn, speckled corn, splotchy corn—eventually pigeon-pecked corn, thus giving the Palace its nickname: The World’s Largest Bird Feeder.

The corn isn’t randomly stuck on willy-nilly, but each ear is skillfully sliced in half lengthwise with a powersaw, trimmed if necessary with a hand axe, and carefully nailed in place, according to large corn-by-number drawings tacked up on tar paper. They are arranged to make murals: largely Americana scenes like pastoral fantasias, wagon trains on the move, Indians at sunset, that sort of thing.

The Palace itself is a convention center, and hosts rodeos, high school basketball games, farm machinery shows, polka parties, and the annual Corn Palace Festival (usually mid- to late-September, when I arrive in town, and they stay open until 10 p.m., so I have my evening all mapped out for me. My expectations are naturally very high.

I pull up in front and . . . it is closed.

The Corn Palace is closed. Zeke’s Souvenirs is closed. The Enchanted World Doll Museum is closed. The Corn Palace Souvenir Shop is closed. Authentic Indian Crafts is closed. All when they should be open. The other tourists are as mystified as I am.

Pedro’s Mexican Food is open, however, though I don’t know why. It’s 7 p.m., and I’m ravenously hungry (on the tape I say, “I want to eat someone!”), but Pedro’s is just too depressing.

Mitchell itself seems pretty depressed, despite its tourist mania. It’s a small, disappointing place: tacky, very overwrought. The Corn Palace exudes the feeling of “Puh-leese give us some economy, give us some funds, we can’t do it on our own!”

I stay in a cheap motel, and start worrying about the rest of the week. The next day, Thursday, would be spent driving the length of South Dakota and seeing the Black Hills, and preparing for Friday’s ceremony on the reservation, assuming Vincent Blackfeather, the medicine man, would agree to see me. And I started worrying about the ceremony itself. What would I be told? Would he tell me I’m crazy? Would he give me a new name? Would I be able to dismiss it if I didn’t like what he said? Or would he reject me out of hand, or snub me, or laugh at me?

It wasn’t a comfortable sleep.

I woke up in the night with these words ringing in my ears, or at least in my mind: Embrace All. Accept All. Say Yes to All.

Next episode: The Badlands

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Categories: Shamanism, The Big Trip, Travel | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “The Big Trip: The Marvelous Corn Palace

  1. I kept thinking, “I’ve heard this before.” Worded differently but strikingly similar sentiments regarding Mitchell and the Corn Palace. I remember now it was in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America.

    I don’t understand Big Sky. In Austin I didn’t see it. Or, if it was there, if I did see it, I was not able to recognise it.

    Maybe I’ll get out there someday and look out and exclaim “OH, so that is what that means.”

    I am awaiting the next segment.

  2. indigo bunting

    I’ve always thought I’d like to see the Corn Palace. Did you ever find out why it was closed? I assume not.

    Ah, the Badlands. This’ll be good.

  3. Nope, never learned why. It was supposed to be open until 10 that night.

    I’ll have lotsa Badlands pix in the next post.

  4. Evanne

    The Corn Palace is….corny? I don’t know. I remember that there were interesting pictures of former corn palace murals, but they were mostly cool because some were very old.

    The Enchanted Doll Museum is much more enjoyable, if you like dolls.

    As far as big sky, I don’t know if you can get the same effect in the city…even in Lincoln the big sky is lessened by the buildings. Once you get out in the country it’s truly amazing.

  5. “Corny”? Bad Evanne, no more cookies for you!

    But you’re right about Big Sky. It wasn’t until I was driving down the highway from Mitchell to Rapid City that I finally got a glimpse of what it means. It overwhelms you with expansiveness, with presence, with sheer scope.

  6. Can one get the same Big Sky experience in the Everglades? Low, low scrub, if any at all, nary a tree and sky for 360 degrees as distant as one can see. Is tht what you are describing or is it more than that?

  7. I haven’t been to the Everglades (I know, I know—it’s a shandeh un a charpeh), so I can’t say for sure. But it’s the vast oppressiveness of the sky over a stark landscape that brought the meaning of the phrase home to me. I should think the scrub and swampland might still feel like they are surrounding you, so even though the sky overhead is unobstructed, it’s not quite the same as the vast stretches of empty land beneath an overwhelming sky that you find out west. It felt like the sky itself could crush you with its massiveness.

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