Happy Wanderer: Don’t underestimate South Dakota


HILLS NEWSPAPERS: May 28, 2010

In grade school my daughter chose South Dakota for her “states report.” It had never been picked, according to her teacher, and I’m not surprised. Most Californians haven’t seen South Dakota, home of the Corn Palace, Wall Drug and the world-famous Mashed Potato Wrestling Contest.

Yes, the state of my birth takes a back seat to no one when it comes to attractions. Consider Wall Drug, arguably the most famous drugstore in America thanks to its iconic billboards that can be seen from South Dakota to South Korea. Really! I even saw this sign in Amsterdam: “WALL DRUG — 5,387 MILES.” Not a bad ad campaign for a Depression-era drugstore that first attracted customers by giving away ice water.

Wall Drug has more trinkets for sale than most anyplace in America. But it’s not the corniest spot in the state. That title belongs to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. Built with brick and steel and 200,000 ears of corn, anyone who’s been to St. Petersburg will marvel at the Moorish domes and minarets, reminiscent of Czarist Russia. Since 1892, this attraction has been a testament to South Dakota’s fertile soil.

But while corn is the cash crop in much of the state, potatoes are king in Clark, S.D., population 1,285. This year on July 31, the townsfolk will honor the tasty tuber with their 19th annual potato festival and a messy little competition called mashed potato wrestling. Even Mr. Potato Head covers his eyes during this sloppy spectacle featuring adults writhing in a pit of squished spuds.

 Certainly potato wrestling has its fans, but only one place in South Dakota can claim 3 million visitors a year. It’s Mt. Rushmore, with its famed faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt carved in granite in the mountainous Black Hills.

Yes, I said mountainous. The Black Hills are an anomaly in what’s otherwise a pretty flat, grassy state. They’ve got real mountains and forests so dense, they appear to be black from a distance.

The towns of Deadwood and Hot Springs are my favorites in this region. Deadwood is an old western gambling town with swinging-door saloons and a boot hill cemetery, and Hot Springs boasts the world’s largest natural warm-water indoor pool. I love Evan’s Plunge, mostly because of those old-fashioned trapeze rings that hang over the pool. Every guy with muscles tries to tackle those rings — eye candy for the ladies.

The last town I’ll mention is the place of my birth. I once did some research, and there are 11 states with towns named Eureka — but I like to think this one was named shortly after my arrival on the planet. Eureka!

In any case, Eureka, S.D., was once the “wheat capital of the world”, according to a 1937 Life magazine article. The magazine’s photographer stayed with my grandparents, who were prominent citizens in town. Today, Eureka has two claims to fame — as the nation’s kuchen (a popular German custard dessert) capital and the home of the founder of USA Today, Alan Neuharth. Neuharth could probably live anywhere on earth, but in fact has a summer home in Eureka. His plans for the afterlife are even more telling. In a small prairie cemetery on the outskirts of town is a tombstone with his name on it — ready for the inevitable end date.

South Dakota may not be on everyone’s radar — but for some people, it’s heaven.

If you go there: South Dakota Tourism: http://www.travelsd.com/

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