Traveler contemplates the Plains

A look at Lower Valley life through the eyes of a local.

I spent the long hours of freeway driving reading to my children

the “little house” stories. Laura

Ingalls Wilder crossed the prairies as a child with her family in search of a new

life. The prairies are a windswept, God forsaken, patch of land that only

a rattlesnake could love. They only thing that keeps you from going insane

are the endless billboards.

Billboards are a dying American art form. I guess we don’t have

room for them in our “Martha Stewart, Pottery Barn” world. Good

billboards must show a complete lack of taste. The lower the better. Really good

billboard advertising campaigns rely on the merchant’s willingness to

maintain about a hundred of the behemoths. Ideal locations are in the middle of

a pond or high on a hillside, any location that says “How did they get

that there?”

The second goal of a really good billboard is to find something no

one really wants, like, say … five-cent coffee (this ain’t no Starbucks), and

then nag the passing drivers endlessly about how you have the “best” five-cent

coffee in the land.

Wall Drug in South Dakota is the most famous tourist trap with

endless signs. Their campaign centered on “free ice water” billboards,

many showing an old horse drinking out of a trough. Boy, that makes me want

to stop and have a cool one.

There are some so-called “Indian trading posts” that rival Wall Drug

in quality and quantity. My favorite is the “pet the real live buffalo”

campaign for a New Mexico tourist trap. Pet a big, hairy, smelly, fly-covered,

herd animal, trapped alone in a small pen. Come on honey! Get the camera!

Sarcasm aside, you do start to get desperate after the second or third day

of driving the flats.

My ever lovin’ tries to keep the magic in our marriage by pointing

out all of the different quantity and quality of road kill. Even that loses its

thrill after about 4,000 miles. It is just the prairies; they are so unendingly

dull that you lose your mind. So of course the ideal business in the middle of

the prairie is a really big gun store. Heck, even I was ready to shoot

something. Get out the Visa, we’re going to Cabella’s.

Cabella’s, to bring everyone up to speed, is a huntin’ and fishin’ gear

kind of place.

Most people on a trip across the country get to see the natural

wonders like the Grand Canyon. Not us! We got to see something bigger and

better: Cabella’s Super Store, the only place you can find patio lights made

with real shotgun shell casing! (I bought two sets.)

Located in Mitchell, S.D., close to the “Corn Palace” and Wall Drug, it

is 85,000 square feet of testosterone. The decor is Bambi meets the Grim

Reaper but leaves a nice corpse. The decor is accented with real fish in the

fishponds and real live maggots in the live bait wells. The walls are decorated

with replicas of every dead animal that has ever been shot, hooked or just

plain old clubbed to death. Not to be missed is the mutant deer display. Imagine

an altar to genetics gone haywire with deer that have 15 points on their

antlers. The men folk were surrounding it like a bar on “free beer day.”

Hey, at least the hunters from Cabella’s use a gun. Most

pheasants we saw were hunted with a Ford F-250 pickup. I understand the urge

to kill after just a few days on the Plains, let alone a lifetime. Maybe I am

being too harsh. I am sure there is a beauty in the sameness of it all. I am not

little Laura in a covered wagon; I am just a girl from the land of mountains

and water. I don’t speak the language of the Plains, but somehow I have

the feeling that those “shot gun” shell

patio lights will feel right at home in the Valley.

Kate Russell lives in the Lower Valley. You can reach her