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Pride and Hype Along the Interstate

August 23, 2002

If you traveled this summer you probably saw something thoroughly dispiriting once or twice along the way. I know I did. There was, for example, my visit to Wall Drug. Tucked in between the sacred, scenic Black Hills and the arid moonscape of the Badlands is the little town of Wall, South Dakota, where the once modest drug store has long been a major tourist destination, thanks in part to the dozens of playful billboards that hype the place for hundreds of miles along the interstate. Cars from all over North America overflow a much-expanded parking lot, and the famous store now fills a whole block and sells such things as polished gemstones, plastic sun visors, rubber tomahawks, and t-shirts. There were shelves and shelves of the sort of cheap trinkets that wily Europeans are supposed to have used centuries ago to help sucker childlike Native Americans into handing over their valuable continent, only now they were being used to separate today’s North Americans from their cash. I bought my daughters a couple of small souvenirs, but I have forgotten what they were, and the girls have probably forgotten too. I have to report that the store’s trademark free ice water was somewhere between lukewarm and tepid when I tasted it. That may have been the saddest part of the visit, since the proprietor’s wet and wonderful idea of giving out free ice water saved the drug store from withering away there on the sun-baked South Dakota plains several decades ago.

You might defend the Wall Drug hype by saying that the owners have simply and even brilliantly played the cards they were dealt, and besides, what town on the interstate isn’t tempted by the lure of the tourist dollar? Why should all that money zoom down the highway into someone else’s pocket, when it could just as easily be theirs? It’s America, so let the buyer beware.

But hype or exaggeration is so pervasive these days that it’s hard to keep up one’s guard. In Austin, Minnesota, I came across something called the Spam Museum. That’s Spam, the canned meat product, not spam, the unwanted email. After I read the museum’s billboard with the disarming slogan, “Believe the Hype,” I wasn’t sure I could even trust my understanding of the English language any longer, and I wondered a little about the people living there too. There were banners proudly proclaiming that Austin was Spam Town USA. There was a little paddle-wheeler boat called the Spam Town Belle giving rides across the municipal lake for $2 a person. In front of the corporate headquarters, a life-sized statue of a pig stood in the shelter of a much more than life-sized, full-color replica of a can of Spam that ironically served as the pig’s home. Several blocks before we could see the Spam canning plant its (shall we say) forceful aroma announced itself via our car’s air conditioner vents.

At some point in the visit I started humming Monty Python’s Spam song and wondering how much of the civic identity had been ground up into Spam. Did they have a Spam festival? Did they find a beautiful girl and crown her Spam Queen? I’m happy to say that in spite of living near a factory that produces 7 cans of Spam a second, the good people of Austin appear to have kept their sense of humor. Check out their web site, spamtownusa, or the corporate site, spamgifts. You’ll find a beautiful picture of the earth from outer space, with cans of Spam orbiting around it.

Some businesses along the highway have more interesting products to work with or choose to establish a stronger, less hype-driven relationship to their home community and the people passing by. When I drove back to Michiana and saw billboards for older corporate citizens like the beautiful Woodwind and Brasswind music store or younger entries like the delicious South Bend Chocolate Cafe, I was cheered and felt a bit of civic pride. A musical instrument will serve as a creative outlet for many years, but even a fleeting cup of coffee and a chocolate dessert with friends can add something of value to our lives. And an honest, understated corporate relationship to customers and community is a thing of beauty. And then, orbiting around us all, there’s Spam.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired August 23, 2002 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.

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