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4,367 Miles to Wall Drug

Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that’s that there’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!

So said Ted Hustead, founder of the Wall Drug store. He bought the store in 1931 in the “godforsaken” town of Wall, North Dakota. He and his wife decided to give it five years to make something of. There were not enough customers. In the final year his wife noticed the increasingly heavy traffic on the nearby highway and hit upon the idea of putting up signs enticing travellers with ice water. They started putting signs further and further along the highway. Now there are signs everywhere.

I imagine this story is well known to Americans. I first heard of Wall Drug from chapter 30 of the serialised web novel Unsong, a review of which I promise when it is finished.

After the sky cracked, the Wall Drug coordinate system started to impose itself more and more upon the ordinary coordinate system of longitude and latitude. Worse, the two didn’t exactly correspond. You could be driving from New York to New Jersey, and find a billboard promising Wall Drug in only thirty miles. Drive another ten, and sure enough, WALL DRUG, TWENTY MILES. Drive ten more, and you’d be promised a South Dakotan shopping center, only ten miles away. Drive another ten, and…who knows? No one has returned from Wall Drug in a generation. It’s become not only an omphalos, but a black hole in the center of the United States, a one-way attraction and attractor fed by an interstate highway system which never gives up its prey.

It is by Scott Alexander of the fascinating blog Slate Star Codex.

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9 comments to 4,367 Miles to Wall Drug

  • Alsadius

    I’ve also been reading it. It’s weird, even by Scott’s usual standards, but it’s also interesting, and there’s some quality terrible puns in there.

  • John Galt III

    If you drive West from Milwaukee or Chicago through Minnesota and then South Dakota you see the signs for hundreds of miles. I never stopped, because the Badlands exit preceded Wall Drug and to me is far more interesting as is the drive on 44 to Rapid City.

  • David Crawford

    It’s in SOUTH Dakota.

  • Watchman

    I’m now wondering whether a blog like this is a likely place to find a lot of concern about which Dakota a place is in. Or is that a stereotype?

    Or is it simply the fact that the original post claims Wall is in North Dakota whilst quoting an accurate piece that says it is in South Dakota (and according to Google Maps has the wonderfully named Wall Dump Grounds Road linking it to the town of Quinn…).

  • Laird

    David, North, South, what does it matter? They’re both in some out-of-the-way place where none of us is ever likely to go.

    I live in one of the Carolinas (I’ll let you guess which); people always get them confused, too (which, admittedly, can sometimes be a benefit).

    FWIW, I was in the army with a fellow from North Dakota. He was the only person I’ve ever met from that state. He was nice enough but a rather odd duck, although that’s probably too small a sample size from which to generalize. Maybe.

  • llamas

    I stop at Wall Drug allatime on my way To Sundance and environs. I once got, and accepted, an offer of a promotion from a payphone in the store.

    It’s hard to express just how remote Wall, S.D is. If it were not for I90 passing right through town, it would be just another Potato Creek or Wanblee, ie a wide place in the (dirt) road.

    The wonder of Wall Drug is that, even in such a remote place, every possible creature comfort and luxury is available, and at the same prices charged in big cities. Wall Drug is not just a drug store, it’s a vast department store where you can buy just about anything you could possibly wish for, from cartridges for your 8x60R to gold jewelry, snazzy boots to diet pills. I don’t recall that they sell alcohol, but that’s why there’s White Clay, NE.

    llater,

    llamas

  • Sigivald

    Here in the West (Oregon), even 1,300 miles away, I see a “Where the heck is Wall Drug” sticker fairly often.

    (And Unsong is the best, especially if you’re Alexander’s target audience, which I think I am.)

  • Paul Marks

    South Dakota – the lowest government spending (as proportion of the economy) of any State, or so I believe.

  • I’ve been to Wall Drug, and one of the joys is seeing the wall o’photos which shows people holding the Wall Drug sign while being photographed all over the world. (Full disclosure: I sent them a photo of myself holding the sign in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.)

    And for what it’s worth, Wall Drug’s shooting and camping gear is cheaper (and of the same quality, sometimes the same item) than that offered by the Cabela’s megastore in “nearby” Mitchell SD.

    If Wall Drug wasn’t in the middle of nowhere, I’d go there every year. It’s a wonderful place. And by the way, the iced water tastes as good as any premium bottled water (e.g. Evian).