More Roadside Attractions
1880 Town: Surprise hit! We had never even heard of this one; when we encountered it in the middle of nowhere it looked unimpressive and we would not have stopped had we not been hungry and looking for a way to photograph the ‘man walking dinosaur’ sculpture on the side of the freeway without actually pulling over on I-90. (There isn’t a way.) 1880 Town is a fantastic collection of authentic late 1800s buildings and relics. Most structures are remarkably well-preserved, some having been trucked in from all over the state. Visitors are encouraged to enter the buildings to check out the period-appropriate surroundings (and in some cases, the actual original contents from that exact home or barbershop or saloon). We bought sarsaparilla from a guy with a handlebar mustache and drank it in the cool comfort of the saloon while a pretty girl sang cowboy songs on stage. There is also a sizable museum of ‘Dances With Wolves’ set props and memorabilia, as the movie people rented quite a lot of artifacts from the proprietor to make their sets authentic. That wasn’t so interesting to us so we skipped that bit, but there is a ton of awesome cowboy and rodeo memorabilia crammed into every inch of the main building that was worth poking around in.
Incongruously, there is a ‘50s Santa Fe Train Diner on the premises. Burgers were passable, and we were starving.
Cosmos Mystery Area: “Have you ever experienced a place where the laws of nature seem to have gone completely berserk? Cosmos Mystery Area. See it. Feel it. SURVIVE IT.” Oh, hell yes were were stopping here. Weirdly, our first attempt at locating Cosmos was a bust: Charlotte, our GPS, had the attraction in her list of POI, but guided me repeatedly to the same little row of Stepford houses no matter how many times I verified the address. Could Cosmos’ power extend to scrambling GPS signals? We finally found a Cosmos brochure in a Rapid City pub, and we followed its ambiguous squiggly line map until we found actual road signs pointing us in the right direction. Some enterprising college boys constructed a cleverly-built cabin on a wooded hillside and started charging people for demonstrations of the area’s “awesome power”. Water flows uphill, strong men are reduced to weaklings while tiny women seem to have boundless strength, people change height, and things just look weird. I love these places. Pressed penny machine was broken, sadly.
Reptile Gardens: It was for this one attraction that I absolutely put my foot down and insisted we visit. I remember it being a glorious showcase of creepy and interesting things, and thirty years later it does not disappoint. The same family has owned and operated it for its entire 70+ years. They’ve made some really great improvements since my last visit (updated facilities for the animals, no longer permitting children to ride the giant tortoises) but none of the roadside attraction charm has been lost. There is still a huge pit of dozens of alligators, crocodiles and caymans that mostly lay motionless, piled in what looks like the most boring reptile orgy ever. Sometimes one will endeavor to heave his bulk over all his friends to get to the pool, which occasionally elicits a hiss from some gator who has been trod upon too heavily. The dome houses hundreds of varieties of exotic plants, snakes, lizards and frogs, plus a seriously big-ass crocodile named ‘Maniac’, who, at about 16 feet long and 1200 pounds, is among the top three largest in the world. The story and photos describing Maniac’s transport from Sydney to Rapid City are amazing.