Of course, since last March, one of the most depressing aspects of COVID has, for many, been the travel restrictions. For me, I’m fortunate that my job with Mid-American Cleaning Contractors takes me pretty much all over the state and parts of Indiana, which does provide me with some different views of the world other than what my hometown provides.
However, as has been said, labor is surely not leisure, and I have indeed missed the joy of either taking flight or getting out on that highway in jeans, my favorite sweatshirt and ball cap, with Lady Jane riding shotgun and a full cooler of road-trip goodies in the back seat. COVID-canceled was our spring trip, often one across the Big Pond to check out another piece of Europe, and so were a handful of our summer getaways as well.
And, so it was that in October we decided to break out of the compound on an autumnal roadie after A+ travel agent Jane took care of the planning of the route and hotels bookings in a prudent and frugal way as befitting the way folks are raised on Mercer County farms.
As for the route, our destination was the wide open spaces of the Dakotas and Wyoming, the better for social distancing we thought, with the drive-through states after Ohio being Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. That would make it eight states in eight days, and by trip’s end, when I pulled back in my driveway, I noted that I was just 21 miles shy of having driven 3,000 miles in a no-longer-brand-new Equinox that had less than a couple hundred miles on the odometer when I started.
Following an en-route overnighter in Albert Lea, Minnesota, we drove in to South Dakota and used Rapid City as our headquarters for the first part of the trip. We checked out Wall and its famous drug store that appears on billboards that line up with the seeming regularity of telephone poles off Interstate 90. Of course we had to do the Badlands and the Black Hills, including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and the spectacular Needles Highway. Then it was on to Spearfish in South Dakota for the middle portion to ogle the wonders of Spearfish Canyon, the town of Deadwood where Wild Bill held that dead man’s hand of black aces and eights and then on into Wyoming to check out Devils Tower (don’t ask me where that apostrophe is because, like Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, it’s been reported missing). Then we headed into North Dakota and the Teddy Roosevelt National Park and quartered in the town of Medora for the last part of the trek before turning that Equinox back east.
Actually, our very first South Dakota adventure was a man-made site just past the Minnesota- South Dakota border in the small town of Mitchell, population, a few pairs of legs less than 16,000. The building we visited was quite unique, both in its name, the Corn Palace, and in its blend of functionality and agricultural artistic flair. Oh, and one other unique aspect is it was free!
The building was a sight to behold with its murals made of corncobs both on the outside of the building as well as inside above a very impressive 3,200-seat basketball arena that is the epicenter of the building, which explains, of course, why it’s called the Corn Palace. A most congenial box-office rep, Mary Kay Johnston, told me that the court is the home for both Mitchell High School and Dakota Wesleyan University as well as a frequent site for South Dakota tournament action as well as being used as an entertainment venue and community events center. She proudly pointed out that USA Today ranks it as one the 10 best places in the country for high school basketball.
Inside there was a wide array of photos on the walls of top entertainers that have performed there over many decades since the buildings opening in 1921, especially when they came to Mitchell as headliners for the Corn Palace Festival. The festival captivates the town every late August to celebrate a successful growing season and harvest. I saw photos of the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, Lawrence Welk, Jimmy Dean, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jack Benny, Andy Griffin and Red Skelton. Some photos were of more recent times, such as our 2021 Allen County Fair headliner Brad Paisley; Dierks Bentley; and Willie Nelson, who dropped in on Lima out at the fairgrounds in 1982 to put on a free concert, much to my delight and about 35,000 others that surrounded me.
Actually, Mary Kay told me that this Corn Palace was actually the third one constructed, with the original going up in 1892 and the second in 1905.
Despite the entertainers and all those round-ballers hooping it up and the entertainers who come, it’s the corncob murals themselves that are the real stars of the Corn Palace. And, thanks to Mary Kay, who represents what I’ve always believed to be the best aspect of vacation travel and that’s the people you meet, I’ve got what I think is a very interesting tale to tell you next week about those murals that cover both the exterior and the interior of the large building, so please stop back for what Paul Harvey would say is “the rest of the story.”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.