July 14-21, 2017
Mitchell, South Dakota
We drove for 4.5 hours to get from our campground in North Dakota to our next destination in South Dakota, and the road only curved once. The vistas were miles and miles of corn fields and endless hay bales. But for the most part the roads were smooth and the farm implements driving down the road did their best to stay to the right so that you could easily pass them. The highway in front of us was a constant mirage, so the entire day we chased the ever-receding sea in front of us, always just out of reach. We passed a few small towns; one of them, Verden, boasted a population of 5, and Vilas 19. In the distance, instead of the church steeples of the east, the spires were the tops of distant silos and grain elevators.
We were immediately immersed in American cowboy culture with a night at the Cornpalace Stampede Rodeo, complete with public prayers scripted with cowboy flair, bulls with names like Second Amendment, and a few sexist jokes from the rodeo clown.
The next morning we watched the rodeo parade where we saw lots of farming equipment roll down the road, classic scenes from western movies reenacted on floats, banners about how “real cowboys trust Jesus”, and brought home more candy than a Halloween haul. (Didn’t we have to stop throwing candy during parades at some point in like the 80’s?) Even though I had mixed feelings about a lot of the rodeo weekend, it felt like an appropriate cultural experience to have in this part of the country.
The town of Mitchell’s main tourist attraction is the WORLD’S ONLY Corn Palace.
On our last evening in the area we drove to Porter Sculpture Park about 45 minutes away which was once on a list of Time Magazine’s Top 50 American Roadside Attractions. We often see these types of places but they don’t seem worth visiting. This sculpture garden seemed intriguing, but we were still expecting it to be mostly a tourist trap where people trade their vacation money for cheesy selfies. Instead, the experience completely blew us away.
“So you’re the artist?” we asked the somewhat awkward, grungy-looking guy sitting in the metal shed that had been turned into makeshift office and gift shop.
“Oh, my dog comes up with all the ideas; I just do the work,” he replied. He pointed at his blue eyed dog that was resting in the shade of an old beat up camper where the 2 reside all summer. The sculpture garden is on property right next to an I-90 exit, but he said his actual home and workshop are 120 miles away. “There’s nothing out there,” he told us about his hometown. “Towns out here…they just disappear.” The guy was quirky and odd, but friendly. We thanked him and began to meander through his art pieces.
The sculptures were enormous and colorful. Very eye catching and simple at first glance, but nearly all of them had an undercurrent of the macabre, presented in cheerful yellows and blues and red metals. As we passed the first poem which was making fun of the tourists that come to visit, we realized that we weren’t in for the mindless kitsch we expected. When we got to the sculpture and poem called “Fish Bowl”, we felt like we needed to sit down to process what we were seeing. At one point as we made our way through the exhibit, I told Brad that I needed a bench where I could sit down and weep.
After taking in all of these expressions of the human experience constructed out of welded metal, car parts, and other repurposed items, we stopped again at the metal building to chat with the sculptor.
“You’re poetry is amazing” we told him.
“Oh, the dog does all that,” was his quick reply.
It was after 8:00pm, the posted closing time, and the skies were starting to take on their evening colorshow, making all the cornfields stretching in all directions seem like a brighter green. But the art was beautiful, the poems were gut wrenching, and the artist himself was fascinating, so we found it difficult to leave.
We chatted with him about some of his processes, his current projects, and his children’s stories that he would like to put online. He told us about the giant horse sculpture that he’s working on currently, but he has no idea how he will move it to the sculpture park once it’s finished. He told us the animals scurrying around in the grass weren’t gophers as most people say, but were 13-lined ground squirrels and flickertails. Instead of trying to exterminate them as most of his neighbors do, he feeds them Hershey Hugs every morning when they come begging at his doorstep. It felt like we were talking to someone who was a deep trove of immense feeling and counter cultural ideas, but it was hard to do more than make small talk. I found myself wanting to get him to say more things, share his thoughts, or maybe I hoped that we could somehow convey to him that we loved his work, understood some of it, and wanted to connect with him beyond just being one set of tourists who crossed his path on this day. We had seen some of the inner workings of his mind in his art, and I had the desire to let him know that I have some of the same thoughts, so we were his friends, not just voyeurs.
“I feel like I’m on my own Gillian’s island,” he told us. “I have enough coconuts to get me through the summer. I have my dog instead of a pet monkey, and interesting people just come visit me all day.”
We signed the guest book, adding our names in the long list of other people who like us who had stumbled upon this magical place on their way to a different destination. I would like to think that he saw more in us than just mindless tourists. But in the end all there was to do was hand him our $16, say thank you, and walk away like kings.