An excerpt from my script review for Nomadland which will be available 03/01/21:
2.) Plot Stability
Fern visits places, meets new people, and works the odd seasonal job.
What drew me in?
South Dakota is considered a “flyover state” by most, but in reality is a unique and magical place.
Whether it’s Badlands National Park, the folklore of Deadwood, majesty of the Corn Palace, Al’s Oasis nestled in a picturesque river valley in the middle of the state, or 1880 Town, it’s the stuff road trip memories are made of.
The first trip through the state started when I moved west to be closer to my girlfriend at the time (affectionately known now as “the boss”).
We’re driving straight through to Washington along I-90 West on the second morning of our journey and suddenly a painted sign catches our eye.
Wall Drug X Miles Away.
(Apologies, as I couldn’t find the exact sign, nor do I remember 15+ years later exactly how many miles it said.)
Neither of us thought anything more about it, other than it was an odd place for a sign that far away.
But as we drove another fifty or so miles, another painted sign, and then another, more and more Wall Drug signs as we got closer, a fair portion of which were still in Minnesota.
Imagine seeing signs like this every twenty to fifty miles in fields along the highway?
Wall Drug is every bit the roadside tourist attraction you’d imagine it to be, and we had a ball there.
It’s one of the highlights of that trip, watching a young woman enjoy this silly, kitschy destination as much as I was.
At the time we didn’t know we’d be back.
(Nor did we know the history of the store and its signs.)
That was with my father a few years later as he helped me drive a moving truck full of belongings back the other way.
It was another straight through trip, leaving Northern Washington early the first morning.
He had never got a chance to see Mount Rushmore, and was hoping to, being it was relatively close (in terms of our total journey) to I-90 East.
It was my shift to drive and all I remember going through Wyoming and then into South Dakota were these large ominous shapes along the road.
Were they buffalo? Elk? Deer?
Still not sure, but all I remember was it was 4 a.m. and I hoped none of them wandered in front of this oversized truck as Dad slept soundly beside me.
We passed Rapid City around 6 a.m. or so, and winter hours for Mount Rushmore didn’t have it opening until nine.
Even having to close on our new house the next day, I told Dad we could wait.
He didn’t want to, so we kept on and arrived at Wall, SD, tired and stopping for breakfast at Wall Drug.
After, I showed him the backyard area, joking he could see Mount Rushmore there.
He laughed at the attraction, but it on the whole, it wasn’t his type of place.
Before we left, he did purchase a pair of Minnetonka moccasins that I still wear around the house today, having them on my feet as I type this review.
Even though it wasn’t the highlight of his trip, one of the memories I have from that time is how relaxed he was for the duration.
It’s in our family genes to lose our tempers at inanimate objects or situations, but Dad didn’t show any of that on this trip.
His contentment with our road trip stuck with me, and it wasn’t until I mentioned it at his funeral that I realized the source after my cousin spoke.
I underestimated just how much moving my family back meant to him.
Since then, we’ve made two family road trips out west, always seeming to find our way to Wall Drug.
The kids were little, enjoyed the shop’s sights, bought patches for their trip blankets, and used the facilities.
(Even during the occasional trip to Chicago for a tournament we’ll drive over I-90 and I’ll point west telling them, “900 miles to Wall Drug.”)
My most recent visit was last year, before Covid shut things down, I planned a trip for just my son and I.
South Dakota in the winter is not the destination it is during the summer, which was part of the appeal.
We got to see the Badlands in the snow. Stopped for lunch at Wall Drug.
But mainly, I felt I needed to right the wrong of getting Dad to Mount Rushmore, via sharing the experience of the national monument with my own son, and helping him understand just why this state and its kitschy little tourist trap means so much to his dad.
So we had our own relaxed little two day trip, where he didn’t have to rush to soccer, took a break from school work, and the two of us even enjoyed an indoor water park while snow fell outside.
Maybe this is what Nomadland wanted to impress upon us, finding our own Wall Drug with our friends and family, regardless of our situations.
Even if that’s a rock shop in Quartzsite, a campground near Badlands National Park, or simply a seasonal job where you see and make friends.
Ultimately aren’t stories supposed to connect with us? This one did for me, and I hope audiences will see the merit even if most don’t know what the hell Wall Drug is.
This yearlong darkness will come to an end sooner or later and there’s an amazing world with amazing people out there in it just waiting for us.
Yours truly is certainly looking forward to it.
So thank you, Ms. Zhao, for reminding me of a place…
Where I realized a certain someone was who I was meant to be with.
That symbolizes one of the greatest trips I shared with my father.
I continue to share with my family, in hopes that they’ll remember me even half as fondly as I do my dad.
So am I, Hustead family. So am I.
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