All photos by Zoe Kauder Nalebuff
In Wall, South Dakota, there's little difference between an uncanny roadside attraction and the entire town.
A game I sometimes like to play with people is called Guess What Beyoncé Is Doing Right Now. I am reasonably certain I invented this game, which is actually two games. The first game is to guess what American celebrity Beyoncé (net worth ~$450 million) is doing at any given moment. The second game is to estimate the likelihood that your guess is correct. I believe I can predict with about 85% certainty what any of my close friends is doing at a specified point in time. When they are not working 9-to-5 office jobs, they are generally eating food (at home or in public) or using a computer (at home or in public). For Beyoncé, my certainty drops to about 4%. At noon on a Tuesday, you might find her on a private jet to Ibiza, or caring for Blue in one of the 14 homes allegedly maintained by her and Jay-Z, or up in the studio recording her next triple-platinum album. Maybe she's in an underground government lab testing a great new drug that's yet to be released to the public. Maybe she is sleeping. I couldn't possibly know.
More than 59 million Americans live in the areas with fewer than 2500 residents that the Census Bureau classifies as rural. On my 629-mile eastbound drive across Wyoming into Wall, South Dakota, I did not see a single one of them. If I can predict the daily routine of Beyoncé with about 4% certainty, I suspect my odds of guessing the current preoccupation of a rural-dwelling American are even lower. Statistically, citizens of the Great Plains either drill oil, farm corn for Monsanto, or do an administrative task that contributes to either effort.
Even knowing this information, I have no mental template for what their daily lives might look like. If you, like me, are a part of the 80.7% of Americans who did not grow up in an area classified as rural, then the drive into Wall is difficult to reckon with. First, there is the very blue sky, which is the same sky as any other American sky, except big. This Great Plains interstate sky is porn-knockers big, or cartoon-sandwich big, or any of the other types of overblown big which demand some skepticism about reality. The mid-grass prairie below is similarly uncanny, a shade of green so dense and bright I felt new sympathy for the ambitious projects undertaken by the artificial greens of lime-flavor and St. Patrick's Day and the plastic grass that garnishes takeout sushi. We are on holiday in a desktop wallpaper, and for half a day we point our car at 90 mph towards a horizontal seam between blue and green, for high velocity is the only sane way to make sense of such alien scale. The surface of the moon might have seemed more familiar.
If you miss your first billboard for Wall Drug (you won't), do not fret, for there are hundreds more. They populate the 650-mile span of I-90 that connects Montana to Minnesota, and each new sighting feels as thrilling as the last, a welcome commercial break from the stress of processing so much big. Sometimes the billboards ask, Have you dug Wall Drug? or implore things like DON'T MISS OUT. Other times they advertise amenities (Hot Coffee 5¢), or assert relevance (WALL DRUG as told by Good Morning America), or shout timely slogans out into the empty plains (YOLO Wall Drug). The first sign for the drugstore was erected in 1936 and advertised Free Ice Water to weary motorists. Before this sign, Wall Drug was a dying pharmacy in the dying town of Wall, South Dakota (population 326, and waning). After the sign, the store survived as a result of a geographic coincidence that happened to situate Mount Rushmore 76 miles to the west. The nationalist road trip pilgrimage site opened in 1941 and provided Wall Drug with a consistent stream of thirsty passers-through. Today, however, the megastore thrives as a destination in its own right, a 76,000-square-foot, self-sustaining monument to something, though the nature of that something is not immediately clear.
We arrive feeling not thirsty, but bitchy. The day before, a rock from a passing dump truck had shattered our sunroof, and nothing manufactures gratuitous resentment like having to yell for no reason over the flapflapflap of a duct-taped tarp in high-speed wind. With no rational recourse for our irritation, we drink the free paper cones of water curatively and set to planning our visit. First, we'll eat breakfast in the 520-seat Western Art Gallery Restaurant. Then, we'll part ways and wander the store's 20+ departments alone.
My first impulse was to understand the Western Art Gallery Restaurant as a sort of wild, wild counterpart to Cracker Barrel's gimmicky southern fare, but a survey of the menu makes clear that western modifies art gallery, not restaurant. On the eatery's walls you will find oil paintings of cowboys and Indians, as well as wooden plaques featuring local cattle brands; on the menu, you will find 75 food items, 68 of which feature a carbohydrate in the starring role. Of the seven non-carb food items, one is ice cream, five are side dishes (green beans, cottage cheese, garden salad, baked beans, cole slaw), and one is a crispy chicken entree salad. Though it is 1400 miles to the nearest ocean, the Western Art Gallery Restaurant proudly offers a fish and chips platter featuring deep-fried cod. Vegans, however, will be pleased to find a suitable garden burger. The point of including this list is not to play the part of an Evian-drinking cartoon New Yorker, but instead to illustrate two truths that would become increasingly evident as my day there progresses: 1) Wall Drug meticulously casts the widest possible net in hopes of capturing the interest of every conceivable American tourist, and 2) whatever Wall Drug commemorates, it extends far beyond the classical tropes of the American West.
Here are some of the things for sale at Wall Drug:
Authentic Stetson brand cowboy hats in many styles; a wide selection of Levi's jeans; novelty yellow road signs featuring warnings like Prairie Dog Crossing and Caution: Wine Zone; several types of collectable hematite crystal; collectible Native American artifacts, as well as "collectible" "Native American" "artifacts"; a toy rubber band launcher in the image of an Uzi submachine gun; the $115.95 Kershaw Rainbow Leek three-inch spring-assisted knife (2002 Blade Magazine Overall Knife of the Year); Batman throwing stars; Spongebob Squarepants Band-Aids; an assortment of politically ambiguous one-inch buttons with sayings like MARRIED ONCE IS THE NEW VIRGINITY and Here's a hot stock tip: PRISON INDUSTRIES; Founding Fathers shot glasses featuring Mount Rushmore; original Founding Fathers shot glasses featuring four men in Native American dress superimposed on Mount Rushmore; a 10"x12" cast-bronze sculpture by American artist Frederic Remington (b. 1861) entitled Coming Through the Rye, which depicts four cowboys on horseback shooting guns into the air, which retails for $1100; Wall Drug baseballs; Wall Drug magnets; Wall Drug T-shirts; Wall Drug snowglobes; Wall Drug flyswatters (comically large); Wall Drug flyswatters (1:1 scale); a cookbook of Wall Drug employees' favorite recipes; 2mg Loperamide Hydrochloride anti-diarrheal tablets; a paperweight made from a tarantula encased in lucite; and fish scales excised from the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon rainforest, a comparably extreme biome located over 4000 miles south.In the department called "Camp and Trail"I buy a magnet, some postcards, and two plastic Wall Drug sun visors. The man behind the register makes small talk with a level of authentic-seeming enthusiasm that far exceeds the normal amount of affective labor you'd expect from a theme park employee, or from any employee anywhere. Salt of the earth does not begin to articulate his vibe; this man is MSG of the earth, he is Dorito of the earth, if I am ever diagnosed with cancer I will call him first. As he rings up my items, I ask about the legality of the various knives and sharp objects he sells.
"Illegal?" he asks, like he has never heard this question, or like maybe he has heard it one million times. "Everything is legal in South Dakota, except for maybe high-heeled shoes."
I am short-circuited by this show of folksiness. For most people over the age of 12, an enjoyable part of any tourist attraction is searching out the places where the managed experience breaks down. Certainly the Magic Kingdom is magical, but an even more magical adventure for me would be the chance to witness an in-costume Cinderella smoking a Newport out behind the Dippin' Dots stand. For the gently misanthropic vacationer, there is no greater souvenir than a condom in the lazy river or the memory of two colonial Williamsburg blacksmiths discussing MDMA. At Wall Drug, such seams are hard to come by. This is not to say that the store manufactures an airtight facsimile of the bygone American West, but rather the opposite:It is hard to tell which parts are real and which parts are for show. Is Wall Drug the Disneyland of the Great Plains? Is it the bootstrapped dream of two homespun pharmacy owners? Is it just a giant store?
Certainly, Wall Drug is a tourist trap, but it differs from other roadside attractions, like the World's Largest Ball of Twine, in that it makes no effort to hide its intention of separating you from your money. After all, it's a store, and a store by definition exists for the sole purpose of facilitating commerce. While the array of things to buy might be absurd and dizzying, prices at Wall Drug bear almost no resemblance to the $11 beer-type swindle we've been trained to expect at places where tourists tour. There is a satisfactory souvenir on offer at every price point. A traveler of average impulse control can expect to be on his way, thirst quenched, only $10 or $15 poorer. Wall Drug might be a scheme, but it's certainly not a scam. After wandering the various departments for an hour, and reading the myriad clippings from local newspapers that line the attraction's inner walls, I couldn't help but get the sense that the store was just an innovative answer to the question of how to survive on a plot of rural land that gold and oil forgot.
Differentiating Wall Drug from the town of Wall itself feels impossible. In 2013, the Census reported 876 permanent residents living in the town; a Harvard Business Review profile of the store estimates that in the summertime high season, as many as 1000 customers will pass through the restaurant in a single hour. This is not to mention travelers who visit but don't eat, or the seasonal employees who come from places as far-flung as China and Slovakia to work. These workers, typically students, pay $30 per week to live in one of the 28 proctor-supervised dormitories owned and operated by the store. I couldn't help but think of the paternalistic Pullman Company-type arrangements that organized rural economies in the early days of the railroad, and indeed Wall is a company town of this type.
Property records for Pennington County, South Dakota list Wall Drug Store, Inc. as owning 71 plots of land within the Wall city limits, but even the businesses that aren't owned by the company feel enmeshed in and even integral to its scheme. Across the street from Wall Drug, you'll find a slew of copycat operations willing to gamble on the existence of a person interested in visiting the second-, third-, or fourth-most popular tourist trap off a certain South Dakota interstate exit. These neighbors (Broken Arrow Trading Company, the Wall Discount Outlet, Dakota Mercantile, etc.) all mimic the faux-frontier façade architecture of Wall Drug, which itself mimics real frontier façade architecture, which itself was invented during the heydey of hastily constructed pioneer towns in hopes of mimicking the refined-looking streetscape of an organically evolved downtown.
But the thing is, Wall's downtown did evolve organically, only this evolution came as a result of a business model that hinged on selling tourists their own fantasy of what an inorganically evolved Western tourist trap should include. Did Wall constitute Wall Drug, or did Wall Drug constitute Wall? It's an unanswerable question. A three-hour visit to this wild, wild meme town was more than I could wrap my head around.
We reconvened in the store's backyard, in the shadow of a giant fiberglass jackalope, a mythical animal of regional folklore said to have the body of jackrabbit and the horns of an antelope. Having never seen a jackrabbit, nor an antelope, the idea did not seem so implausibly mythical to us, and for a few minutes we debated whether or not the animal actually exists. After a day at Wall Drug, it did not seem crazy that a thing cobbled together from so much randomness could somehow be real.
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