I was sailing across the Great Plains in a plastic schooner on a green sea, about eight hours into the slog from Madison to Rapid City, the drive was getting to my head. So I made a pit stop in MitchelI to catch some z’s and praise the local Corn God for my night sea crossing. I even took its picture:

I was in bad shape.

I had gone this same route with my family back when I was eight years old, fidgeting for hours in a backseat with no air conditioning on a 90 degree day, and was probably in no better mental shape then than I was now. The grownups in front probably weren’t doing a whole lot better, but my boredom had added extra pain: I was dying to see some real mountains, to finally discover the great West that I’d been watching in the movies, reading about in books and seeing on tv for years, on shows like Wagon Train, Maverick, Roy Rogers and Have Gun Will Travel. South Dakota was still looking flat as any Midwest prairie.

Now let me be clear, Mitchell is a respectable burgh, birthplace of Presidential candidate George McGovern and home of Dakota Wesleyan University, and its Corn Palace is stunning grassroots art. The murals are huge and cover at least two sides of the building. The walls dissolve into leaves and husks and silk as you walk toward them from across the street like the paint on the canvas, until the figure is unseeable. Step back and the painting resolves again. Pure impressionism.  Tired as I am, I force myself to take in the spectacle. But I was way too young back then to see more than cartoons on concrete walls, and I wanted the real thing. These days, I get it — the Palace is a genuine wonder, the real thing of its kind. The range and expressiveness of the many artists involved are beyond impressive. The art looks damned good, way worth the stop. An American original. WOW #50.

(to be continued)