Journal Entry 3/2/96
Wall, South Dakota
. This place was opened in 1867 as a normal drug store
--a little opium
, a little aspirin
, a few pills and prescriptions. What happened after that could only happen in America
. Jonathan Stills, owner and operator for the first 37 years, decided that his city needed a saloon
. So he opened one in the back of his drugstore. Six months later he decided his city needed a clothing store. So he opened one in the back of his saloon. Another year and he opened up a bookstore on the other side of the clothing store and so it went. Wall Drug currently covers twelve city blocks and contains four restaurants
, three arcades
, nine clothing stores of varying types, two theaters
, a video rental store, two museums
(one of the Badlands and one--of all things--on gambling
), a gunshop
, a planetarium
and two whole blocks that somehow down the line turned into a sort of indoors fair
--complete with funhouse
of mirrors, spook house and an indoor train
. All of this is under one roof with dozens of separate rooms and hallways filled with statues and soothsayer
games. Stills never thought it would be like this.
We all clamber into the local diner--hash browns and bacon, side of toast, coffee with a spoon standing straight up in the center of the cup--and get the lowdown on the close down. Apparently Wall gets all of its power from the distant metropolis of Rapid City and about a week ago lightning struck one of the relay towers to the West of here. This particular line of wires supplied the power to the entire northern end of the town--which happens to be Wall Drug. The rest of the town pretty much depends on the sucker tourists driving through to get to the drug store and it now carries all the pretense of a ghost town. Pretense, I say, because ghost towns are cities that have given up being cities, they are cities that have lost hope. Wall, South Dakota, on the other hand, is a city that has nothing but hope - hope that the power will come back on and hope that the tourists will come back in. Wall has not given up. Wall is simply waiting.
According to the middle-aged waitress who serves up our strawberry-rhubarb pie (ala mode, if you will) what they are waiting for isn't going to happen for another week. Wall Drug's 1,000 employees are all biting their nails and playing solitaire through a two week sabbatical of day time television and most of them live in the next town anyhow. What's left here is pure local. Beat up Ford pick-ups with shotgun racks and something dead or dying woven into the grill, bib overalls and K-Mart work boots, a greasy, red bandana shoved carelessly into a back pocket, chewing tobacco and abandoned barbershops. These are the survivors of silver towns, copper towns, shit towns that sprung up out of nothingness and futility, these are the ones that stayed when those towns sank back into the muddy land, into what the natives called the 'mako sica'. The Badlands.
On the other side of the drug store lie The Badlands, over a thousand square miles of national forest and grassland. Red rock, black rock, gray rock and dust combined to form something in between a controlled apocalypse and just plain poor taste. There's a three foot white-picket fence about ten yards behind the back of the store, running the length of the town. It looks like a bad joke, as if that fence could keep out the nightmares and abominations that live in those lands; as if that fence could keep in the daydreams and
ugly spirits that live in this town. We'll see, I suppose.
I feel better today than I have all trip. We're all together, today, after being purified by ceremony and a few quick games of marco polo. We're of one mind, one mission. We flip a few Andrew Jacksons onto the table for the tab and head out to the bus. Chris sets the stereo for stun as the first few chords of 'White Rabbit' strain through the pta/school board speakers, bringing some nervous chuckles from the group and a rolling of the eyes from Rob. I send Bates to the hardware store for the tools we'll need to get into the fantastic Drug store, Scott begins mixing up a delicious batch of electric kool-aid in a giant punch bowl we pinched from some fandango wedding reception in Canistota. Strawberry flavor, of course.
This town was built on tourism but tourists we are not. We are travelers and there is a difference. I look up into the wide open sky, wide awake in America. I breathe in the sweet smell of freedom and possibility and a smile begins to stretch its way across my face...
" ... sometimes a person has to go a very long distance out of his way to come back a short distance
--Letters from a Savior; Offer for a few--