Sunday, May 21, 2000...
Greetings from Rapid City, South Dakota, a mere 400 miles from where I left US 20. When I detour, I make it a good one...
This being Sunday, I decided not to neglect the religious element during today's sightseeing. So the day began with a 10-mile detour north of US 20 into southwestern Wisconsin, home of the Dickeyville Grotto. The Grotto is a work of folk art constructed 75 years ago by a local priest with too much time on his hands. Next to his church, he assembled every solid, opaque item he could find -- rocks, pottery, shells, fossils -- added mortar, and formed the mass into religious/patriotic shrines.
But that wasn't enough! In Dyersville, Iowa, 25 miles west of Dubuque, I stopped for the St. Francis Xavier Basilica: a 212' high structure seating 1,200, in a town of 4,000 people. The informational brochure explains that a basilica "is often referred to as the Pope's church for his use in the event he should ever visit the area." Of the 33 basilicas in the United States, this is the only one outside a metropolitan area. Perhaps unnecessarily, the brochure adds, "it is not expected that the Pope will ever visit here."
Have a little faith, Dyersville! Remember when no one thought a non-Italian would ever again be elected Pope? Besides, the Holy Father might be interested in the miracle outside Dyersville, first reported in the 1989 documentary "Field of Dreams," in which numerous long-dead ballplayers suddenly materialized from a cornfield adjacent to a baseball diamond. The Vatican might also be useful for mediating the hilarious dispute between adjoining propertyowners at the movie site.
The farmhouse, infield and right field featured in "Field of Dreams" belong to Don Lansing. After the film opened, Lansing decided to re-create the baseball diamond on his property and let visitors play on and photograph the site. Left and center fields belonged to his neighbor Al Ameskamp, who returned his land to its original agricultural use. When he saw how many people were visiting Lansing's farm, and buying the T-shirts and other "Field of Dreams" memorabilia vended from a shed near the parking lot, he decided to get in on the action. A few years later, Ameskamp sold his interest to a group of outside investors.
As a result, there are now two Fields of Dreams, accessible from driveways literally five feet from one another. Each has its own souvenir stand, Website and toll-free number for merchandise orders. A sign at the edge of the Lansing property, the Field of Dreams Movie Site, advises visitors, "the property to the left is owned by an investment firm." The Ameskamp property, Left and Center Field of Dreams, sponsors regular appearances by the "Ghost Players," locals clad in replica 1919 White Sox uniforms who materialize through the corn for the amusement of tourists, and who are conveniently featured on T-shirts, photos, posters, plaques, baseball cards, and autographed balls available only on the Ameskamp side of the field. The Lansing side, which only markets "Field of Dreams" T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, jerseys, jackets, caps, coffee mugs, baseballs, bats, photos, pennants, a souvenir booklet and assorted metal trinkets, accuses the Ameskamp side of overcommercializing their property.
Dyersville has yet a third attraction: the National Farm Toy Museum. While I was playing with Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, my rural counterparts were collecting miniature International Harvester combines, John Deere tractors and Allis-Chalmers mowers. Many of these toys were made right there in Dyersville. The museum, established in 1986, recently expanded to include a Farm Toy Hall of Fame (that's one induction ceremony I can skip) and a second floor which, in the words of the leaflet, "offers a walk through the history of corn and grain harvesting exhibit depicting changes from ancient times to the present." Be still, my heart...
Unfortunately, Dyersville offered just about the only roadside highlight along US 20 in Iowa. "Boondocks USA," a fondly remembered mom-n-pop truck stop in the central part of the state, is no more. At least the local media kept me amused The headline in today's Des Moines Register proclaimed, "Sex in Prisons Costs Taxpayers" (all of the reported assaults involved male guards and female prisoners -- perhaps the male prisoners don't complain when they get a little action), while a radio station promoted a night of watching pro wrestling at the local Hooters. One strategically placed bomb could raise Iowa's average IQ by a point or two...
About the time I passed through Rockwell City ("The Golden Buckle on the Corn Belt"), I could no longer receive major league baseball games on the radio, my choices being reduced to the Cubs and the Twins. But as I neared Sioux City, a fire 'n' brimstone preacher reduced me to tears of hysterical laughter.
Did you know that Bertrand Russell and Margaret Sanger were among the "pied pipers of promiscuity" who have influenced millions of Americans into abandoning the Bible, to the point that the "fetid and putrid waters of immorality have infected the churches"? I didn't either, until Dr. James Kennedy enlightened me. I did, however, know that the highest rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock births and the other moral vices of such interest to Dr. Kennedy are found in the same Deep South from which most of his listeners hail. Who would have guessed that so many 15-year-old Mississippi mothers and 22-year-old South Carolina divorcees were reading Bertrand Russell?
After reporting that 56 million Americans are now infected with sexually transmitted diseases (that would be more than 25% of all Americans past the age of puberty -- c'mon, readers, fess up!) Dr. Kennedy cheerfully forecast that AIDS alone would kill tens of millions of these fornicators. He did not, however, discuss what God might have in store for those who lie on His behalf.
When 20 reached the Missouri River at Sioux City, I turned north. I'll return there tomorrow night to pick up the drive west, but the lure of South Dakota proved too strong.
I-90 across South Dakota is the ultimate road trip highway: 400 miles long, speed limit 75, with at least one mom 'n' pop tourist trap per hour and the Black Hills waiting at the other end.
First stop: George McGovern's hometown of Mitchell, where the World's Only Corn Palace has attracted throngs of gawkers for more than a century. The Corn Palace is an auditorium a full city block long, topped with multicolored Moorish minarets and displaying more than a dozen themed mosaics constructed by nailing thousands of corn husks to wooden panels. The themes change every year; for Y2K, the front of the Palace reads, "WWW.MILLENNIUM.CORN."
But that's not all. Ears of corn are painted on Mitchell's light poles. Its high school sports teams are known as the Kernels; some of their games are broadcast on local radio station KORN. As one of the billboards along the Interstate proclaims, "It's A-Maize-Ing."
Heading west, I decided to get as far as I could tonight, then loop back tomorrow. I'm now 25 miles from Mt. Rushmore, 40 miles from the Crazy Horse sculpture-in-progress, 45 miles from Badlands National Park, and 50 miles from free ice water. Tune in tomorrow for THAT story -- a South Dakota business that puts the Corn Palace's self-promotion to shame...
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