Highways of Horror – Day IV

Don’t look for a reason. Look for a way out.

Tagline – Cube

The way out of Sioux Falls is straight west via Route 90. End goal: Rapid City, South Dakota. But there are traps along the way, tons of them…

As I drive with the sun at my back and a real feel temperature of eight degrees (-13.3 Celsius) outside the Malibu, I traverse a vast ocean of taupe and white. Here, empty beer cans and used condoms don’t float upon the waves, but billboards. Hundreds litter the landscape on both sides of the interstate enticing tourists to choose one trap instead of the next. It’s like trying to traverse crackwhores on Frelinghuysen in Newark or fishing boat captains down the shore in Belmar. They all want a piece of you: your time and your hard earned dollar thanks to snake oil salesman marketing and bad jokes passing for wit. Worst still are the promises: “You’ll be amazed!” and “You’ll remember the experience for a lifetime!”

Route 90 has an 80 mph (129kmh) speed limit to help me run the five-hour gauntlet to Rapid City. But the pummeling of roadside signage makes me woozy. What was this drive getting me into? I could have gone a bit north to Fargo, where I hoped someone would have jammed an ice scrapper into the snow near a fence to play with the minds of Coen Brother movie fans. I could have visited something worthwhile, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder house, or even stopped off at Sturgis, the motorcycle mecca. But as the trapped group in Cube, I had to keep going and dodge boobytraps like these:

Corn Palace. Wall Drug. 1880 Cowboy Town. Wall Drug. Bear Country USA (with a wolf on the billboard). Wall Drug. Reptile Gardens. Wall Drug. George McGovern Museum (probably the size of a cubby hole). Wall Drug. Pioneer Auto Show (with the General Lee from “Dukes of Hazard”). Wall Drug. Wonderful Cave (“Rated number one!” amongst caves?). Original 1880 Town. Wall Drug. Al’s Oasis. Wall Mother Fucking Drug.

I was inundated with Wall Drug shit for over 200 friggin miles. But I knew I had to stop there. Once Ally brought the place up, I could actually hear through the phone that she and Patricia Eddy engaged in a synchronized eye roll worthy of an Olympic Gold Medal. Other than that, I’d have to bypass the cheese that clogged South Dakota’s major southern artery.

But in Vincenzo Natali’s 1997 sci-fi/horror, Cube, the occupants seemingly had no hope of escape. Isolation proves to be one of the most pertinent tropes in horror. We’ve seen this element occur many a time from Alien to The Shining, and from The House on Haunted Hill to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The notion of “no hope” remains cringe worthy, and keeps horror fans rooting for those one or two cool characters to somehow find a way to break free.

Sure, if I was with Ferdinand Burghoffer, Jonny Numb, Greg Palko, or John Eddy, I’d probably stop at every damn place just to make some kind of record for Americana’s sake – plus you never know if they’ll come up as “Jeopardy!” questions. But I had to drive on – at 95 miles mph anyway – because I did have a legitimate place on the road less graveled that was most definitely camera and discussion worthy – and it wasn’t Wall Drug.

As I motored on, The Pixies’ incredible “Doolittle” kept me up and rocking. Then again, I almost earned eight-hours sleep and felt pretty damn good. Almost. Although the motel was quiet and the room comfortable, for the past two months I’m somehow sleeping on my left hand and crushing it. I often wake from the pain of a hand that’s not asleep but in a coma, and now my ring finger’s starting to lock. Even worse, a jolt of pain moves through that entire hand as if I hit my funny bone – with Gallagher’s watermelon mashing mallet, which I’m sure is on display at Wall Drug.

Indulging in one ridiculous nature crushing signpost after another, as if I was stuck in “the heart of the Poconos,” I thought of Joey Santiago’s gift to music. As the guitarist for The Pixies he took the surf guitar sound and upended this entire rock subgenre by adding ripping waves akin to speed metal. The great Johnny Marr did something similar when he added extensive rhythm to his lead guitar work, joining both worlds. Then again, Rage Against the Machine’s and Audioslave’s Tony Morello pulled from both the power of Jimi Hendrix and the technical wizardry of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp to bring us some out of this world sounds.

And by the time I pulled into that one place I had to see, I certainly felt as if I was out of this world.

Before Ally and Patricia took their drive west, my wife recommended I visit the Badlands. When I said, “Okay” and must have seemed as if I was brushing off the idea, Patricia approached me. She’s a great writer and caring soul with a lovely smile, killer hair, and eyes that always seem to sparkle even in the dullest light. And in every conversation her intelligence shines through and her multi-faceted frames of reference add great dimension to any topic. But this time, something was different, she glared at me and said, “You have to go to the Badlands.”


The Badlands, wild rock formations and mixed prairie grass, remained the hunting grounds for Paleo-Indians and the Lakota Sioux – until some wingnut emerged on a hill with a rifle in one hand and a bible in the other, and ruined everything. This is where traditional Ghost Dances took place, and near where the horrific Wounded Knee Massacre occurred.

Due to the bitter cold and ceaseless wind, my photography time would be severely limited. However, I still wish those friends of mine who enjoyed photography were there with me: Gillian Anne Gibson, Ann Thraxx, Melanie McCurdie, Betsy Mullenix, Ferdinand Burghoffer, Guy Ricketts, Vic De Leon, and Brad. (The latter would most likely be our guide to getting the best damn shots.)

The striations of the rock, as well as the textures and shapes, made me feel like I was part of a “National Geographic” special. After all, I was looking at what downpours and streams had created some 35 million years ago of an 80 million-year-old formation thanks to the disappearance of an inland sea. Holy Hell! Like most things that excite me to the point of swooning, as I write this, I can’t really remember what it was like to actually be there. At least I have the photos. Though the cold penetrated me to the point where I could no longer feel my camera, at least I didn’t drop it to the frozen earth. And once my memory card read “full,” instead of reaching for another, I made it to the Malibu to crank the heat. After visiting only three sections of the National Park in under 90-minutes, my stomach cramped from the stifling freeze.

But I do remember one thing quite well about the Badlands. When the wind would stop – completely – there was no sound. Absolutely nothing as if I were on the moon. And as the shadows of the rocks loomed larger thanks to a waning sun, I felt a different kind of chill.

I left the Badlands, wondering if they really were bad or just misunderstood, for a brief stop at Wall Drug. Of course, like the bulk of roadside distractions, it’s a tourist trap, though it’s simply a peddler’s village with an overabundance of old west flavor. But it’s also a speed trap. Once I got off the 80 mph highway, I had to crawl at 20 mph through the town of Wall, as the sheriff watched me roll.

Regardless, after a gazillion signs stretching for over 200 miles, I got there just in time to learn Wall Drug was closing early because of New Year’s Eve. So much for getting their “traditional five-cent cup of coffee” as advertised on at least twenty friggin billboards. Sonsabitches.

I let Richard Butler and the Psychedelic Furs carry me into Rapid City on the tunes from “Talk, Talk, Talk.” I made it through the gauntlet, and I’m happy to say I saw one stellar billboard for the Que Pasa? restaurant: “Mexican food so good Donald Trump would build a wall around it.” Now, that’s marketing!

So I made it through the gauntlet and the smothering of bad advertising, but you have to watch Cube to find out what happened to those hapless souls in one of Canada’s best low budget independent films of all time. There’s some snappy and poignant dialogue in there, and you’ll no doubt wonder what you’d do if you were in their boots. Now, what would you have done if you were in mine? Visit Reptile Gardens or stop at Al’s Oasis? Head over to Pioneer Auto or check out Original 1880 Town? I guess it depends on how you read the billboard.

Although I feel good about the day’s drive, tomorrow brings two new challenges as I head towards Butte, Montana: 8.5 hours behind the wheel and snow. So much for seeing Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, and although the Malibu is one smooth, fast, and warm ride, my back hates the driver’s seat. But pending weather, I might not have the chance to take as many breaks to stretch and recoup.

Then again, who knows what the road will offer.

Happy New Year. And don’t trust someone else’s signs. Create your own and define love, happiness, and success for yourself. Travel forward, travel safe, but definitely take some calculated risks because regret can be a heavy burden.

(Badlands photo from Billy Crash’s iPhone.)

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