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.
Leica, Leica, Leica!
CW has been really wanting to upgrade his Nikon body to a D3 or D300 (don’t ask me what the difference is other than a few grand). While we were visiting his parents in Tanzania, his dad Charles took a keen interest in CW’s photography magazines brought along for the trip. One morning we awoke to find that he had evidently been up all night reading and researching the assorted pros and cons of both the D3 and D300, and before even a “Good morning” he declared “Chris, you should buy the 300 and use the money you save to get a Leica for Brenda”. I must have the best in-laws ever; I swear I had no hand in this whatsoever. End result: Leica for me! The whole tale involves some ingenious furtive planning on CW’s part to keep me from pitching a fit over yet another sizeable gear purchase as well as some impressive sneaking on the Leica acquisition itself, but as the whole thing is very complicated I won’t elaborate (not to mention that although I am absolutely certain that the wool has somehow been pulled over my eyes on this matter, I have yet to fully understand how exactly he got away with it).
It’s a model IIIa with a serial number indicating a production date of 1937, and came with an uncoated 5cm Wetzlar Summitar lens. This camera is gorgeous. Perfect. I can’t believe it’s over 70 years old. It works beautifully, fits my hands better than any other camera I own, and the sound of the shutter tripping makes the hairs stand up on my arm. So many reasons to love:
It has historical significance: The Leica screw-mounts were of monumental importance both in photojournalism and in establishing 35mm as a legitimate format.
It has a high difficulty rating: Loading is a bitch to get the hang of. Seriously. You need patience, faith, and scissors.
It’s portable: Being small or medium-format, all my cameras are portable but this one with its collapsible lens slips into a pocket almost as handily as the Perkeo.
It’s a rangefinder: Clear, flawless, smooth focusing.
It’s a looker: Chrome, chrome, chrome, and badass, hyper-precise machined bits all over the place.
Its a 70 year old Leica: Huge elitist pride factor here.
It makes great pictures: Still in the getting-to-know-each-other phase, but early results are awesome.
I love this camera the way I love my Thunderbird- with a curious, illogical, ill-defined affection and visceral pride that extends into a longing for its safety. When I fly, I hold the Leica in my hand for takeoff and landing because I think it will be safer there than stowed in my carryon in the event of a water landing or other untoward airline event. Also like my car, it has a name. I will not disclose it.
I must admit I do miss the monster 6x6 negatives, but because the little Leica rubs so many of my other camera love buttons I am sure I’ll have no trouble embracing small format.