On that first trip out West, our visit to the Corn Palace was a fast draw at some entertainment. It didn’t matter that we had learned about it just hours before, from a color brochure we’d picked up at a gas stop — by the time we were approaching Mitchell it was our starred target on the AAA map and all we could talk about. We were going to visit the “world famous” Mitchell Corn Palace! We’d finally get snacks and maybe gifts, the brochure mentioned stuff like cotton candy, hot dogs, post cards and indian arrows. The great West of my televised dreams was about to shine before me.
When I arrive back in Colorado, I sit out in front of my RV for awhile, facing the mountain that the Utes called ’Tava’ and the government changed to ‘Pikes Peak.’ Although I’m watching the approach of a spring storm, the day is still sunny and warm. Mama robins and thrushes are flying home to their nests. Their chicks are fluttering under the eaves. Stirred by sudden breezes, husks float from the branches of our pine grove. The world is at peace, right now, in the shadow of the Front Range — I can look out over ten thousand acres of land and not see a single cornfield, just a vast ancient grass plain dotted by cattle. I also see a strong line of dark clouds headed our way.
So I button up the RV and sit inside at my desk while the storm rages outside, ready to write about my recent trip, but that earlier trip keeps nagging at me. Authenticity! That was its lesson. Given the hype we’d built up in the car before reaching Mitchell, the visit had been a major disappointment. The Palace wasn’t built out of corn at all — it was just a big cement auditorium with cobs and cornstalks glued onto its face, standing all by itself in front of a strip of gift shops with a few tourists gawking at the murals while chatting over ice cream. The murals were pretty cool, of prairie schooners and cowboys, and they pushed my cowboy buttons. But the rest, for all its sunny face, just seemed shady.
It wasn’t what the brochure had promised at all, and it was certainly not in the grand and untamed Western spirit I’d come to idolize. I wore a Davey Crockett cap when it was cold, and he always told the truth. I spit like Jesse James, drew my pistol like Paladin. I was the defender of the Wild West! The Corn Palace was just a charade, and I felt greatly tricked. The rest of the family laughed at me, as though they’d known all along that a corn palace wouldn’t actually be built out of corn. My uncle was being cheery and reading from a gift store book. They were all having a great time, and I was left sulking on the bench that faced the cement faker itself. The brochure had lied. It wasn’t a palace, it wasn’t made of corn, and who cared if it was the ‘The World’s Only,’ the words tattooed in corn-print right on its forehead — my uncle gave me that insight as we were leaving town. Corn palaces once dotted the Great Plains, palaces way grander than this one. The enthusiasm for them had just shrunk to near zero. So much for honesty, I thought, not considering that it might be an honest appeal for the preservation of a dying way of life.