La Crosse, Wisconsin / Mile 4,382 -- Just so you know that our trip hasn’t consisted entirely dour and depressing stuff, here’s a few of my favorite screwball attractions from the last couple of days, all of them worthy of National Lampoon’s Vacation.
- Wall Drug. The Paris Hilton of roadside attractions, Wall Drug is famous for being famous. At one point it really was just a drug store. Its notoriety began when the owners, struggling with lousy business during the Great Depression, starting giving out free ice water to passing motorists. Since then it has grown into a tourist monstrosity, with dozens of stores and restaurants, mechanical dinosaurs, fountains, photography exhibits, and a player-piano-type contraption with all the instruments of a bluegrass band. Its notoriety rests mostly on the Wall Drug billboards that litter I-90 in both directions. (I saw one as far back as Montana.) The amateurish billboards advertise Wall Drug’s offerings of cowboy goods, 5-cent coffee, free donuts for Vietnam vets, and often just the glory of Wall Drug itself. The place is incredibly tacky, but you have to give it props for marketing genius. If it’s not in every business school textbook in the country, it should be.
- The Corn Palace. Erected to the greater glory of corn, the Corn Palace is a multi-purpose civic center in Mitchell, South Dakota, that has been decorated every year since 1905 with murals made almost entirely of corn. Each year, the murals follow a different theme, and the corn artists are currently transitioning to 2009’s theme of great American attractions. (Naturally, the place of honor belongs to the Corn Palace. Mount Rushmore comes in second.) How dominant is the Corn Palace in this community of 15,000? On the front wall of Mitchell’s City Hall, located right next door Corn Palace, is a large billboard advertising the hours of the Corn Palace—presumably so that it wouldn’t need to take up precious space on the palace itself.
- The Jolly Green Giant. As was the case in Wyoming, we did not spend a night in Minnesota and had no planned stops there. Since I-90 passes through a fairly uninspiring band far south of the Twin Cities, we were hard-up for a roadside attraction that would allow us to claim to be visitors to the Gopher State. Luckily, the travel gods arranged for us to get low on gas right around the wonderfully named town of Blue Earth, home to a 54-foot likeness of the Jolly Green Giant. We took some pictures with His Jolliness, and we also found an exhibit commemorating the completion of I-90. Much like the transcontinental railroad, I-90 was built from two directions at once, meeting on a gold-painted stretch in Blue Earth that was meant to evoke the golden spike. I was shocked to learn how recently the interstate was completed: 1978. We further burnished our Minnesota-visiting credentials by once again reading the state’s history from Lonely Planet, listening to A Prairie Home Companion from Samantha’s iPod, and listening to John McCain’s acceptance speech live from St. Paul.