America is a big country. Really big. And in the middle, the rolling green hills of the east give way to the seemingly endless plains, crops and occasional tractor until you hit the jagged edges of the Rockies a thousand miles later. But just as the landscape falls flat and your eyelids start to droop from staring at miles of straight, black asphalt, little gems of Americana make their appearance. Like mirages of a watery oasis, these “only in America” sights beckon you off the interstate and into a parallel travel universe.
The SPAM Museum, Austin, Minnesota
I did not grow up eating SPAM. I have no nostalgic memories of mom serving meat product from a can. In fact, I never even tasted SPAM until we veered off Interstate 90 and into the SPAM Museum. Here we were, lured in by the free admission and the opportunity to stretch our legs, tasting samples after viewing a movie on the glorious history of SPAM. Mostly, for those of you curious non-SPAM eaters out there, it tasted like salt. A lot of salt, with perhaps an undercurrent of ham.
The museum itself is actually very well done. There are many exhibits ranging from the evolution of the SPAM can’s packaging to a chronicle of SPAM’s advertising campaigns from the 1940s through the 1990s. There is even an interactive exhibit where you can test how fast you’d be on the SPAM assembly line, inserting a pink felt block into a SPAM can and then ensuring the proper label adheres. (Due to our poor performance, I don’t think either of us would be justified in pursuing this alternative career path.) The museum’s website claims that the “SPAM knowledge that you will gain is priceless.” Need I say more?
The World’s Only Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
We first heard about the Corn Palace from Keith’s mom, who showed us pictures of this ode to corn that is redecorated each year in a different theme. Seriously. This was something we absolutely had to see for ourselves. Just as the sun was sinking in the western sky, we arrived at what is essentially an indoor arena covered in murals made entirely of corn. In the middle of the arena, is, of course, the ubiquitous gift shop.
This year’s theme, “Through the Ages,” depicts different modes of transportation through time. From sailboats to segways, stagecoaches to snow mobiles, the exterior of the Palace is covered in murals handcrafted out of naturally colored corn, grains and grasses. Approximately 500,000 visitors each year come to this “agricultural show-place of the world.” And I bet you didn’t even know it existed.
Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota
Yet another gift shop cleverly disguised as a must-see tourist destination, Wall Drug is impossible to pass by without at least a look. For hundreds of miles, the interstate is littered with Wall Drug billboards, enticing the weary traveler to stop at “America’s Favorite Roadside Attraction.” Promises of free ice water and 5-cent coffee dot the landscape until it becomes inevitable that you will stop. And you will stop, along with thousands of other tourists.
And when you do, you will find yourself inside a massive structure filled with everything from candy and fudge to western belt buckles, spurs and hats. Galleries of western art and steer heads line the wood paneled walls. Stained glass, pottery, bobble heads and fool’s gold compete for your tourist dollars. You can easily get lost in this swirl of souvenir chaos.
We never did find the free ice water or the bargain coffee, but we did manage to brave the crowd for a few scoops of homemade ice cream before hitting the road again. Wall Drugs is not for the timid. But on a hot summer day with miles to put under your wheels, it is a spectacle of Americana most worthy of a stop.
What other great slices of American are out there for us to uncover? Please share in the comments below.