The Corn Palace: It’s A-Maize-Ing!
We were on I-90, somewhere in central South Dakota. It was around noon and we’d been driving for a few hours. We camped in the Badlands last night and had breakfast at Wall Drug. A lot of the cashiers there were from Europe, which seemed strange. We took a picture next to a giant Jackalope.
It was my brother Andrew and two of our high school friends in my battered, but reliable 1986 Subaru. My brother and I are only two years apart, so we had a lot of the same friends in high school.
“Did we miss Rushmore?” Eric asked. He was slumped in the back, reading The New Yorker.
“Yeah, it was like 100 miles ago,” Andrew responded from the driver’s seat.
“I thought you’d seen it.”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Hey,” I said. “Raise your hand if you’ve seen Rushmore.” Everyone but Eric did. “Ha. We saw it as kids. It’s big, but not that great.”
“Hey,” Eric said. “Raise your hand if you think Michael is a stupidhead.” Three hands went up. I laughed
“Are they done with that Crazy Horse monument yet?” Grant asked.
“I don’t think so. It’s gonna be even bigger than Rushmore.”
“You know, he was a Lakota.”
“It was a nice gesture after we killed them and stole all their land to give them a bigger monument.”
“I bet he could kick Rushmore’s ass. All four of them.”
“Teddy was pretty tough.”
“Washington was a general.”
“I guess, but he’d jack the others.”
“Yeah, what’s Jefferson got? Hide behind his slave mistresses and tasteful Roman architecture?”
“They should do a loser’s Rushmore, like Johnson and Harrison…
“I love Taft. He got stuck in the White House bathtub.”
It was the fifth day of our trip. We left from Seattle on Saturday and have gone about 1,600 miles and hit six states, including North Dakota, which none of us have been to before. We had to go completely out of our way to do it. I’ve only got five states left now.
It was the first time the four of us were together in years. We all grew up and went to school in the wealthy suburb West Linn, Oregon, but we all live in different places now. Only I was still in Oregon. My brother had moved up to Seattle a year ago to manage an art gallery, Eric was going to grad school in Boston, and Grant was living outside of Los Angeles.
We tried to get together every year after graduation, but that didn’t last very long. There was too much to coordinate-different states, different schedules, different jobs, different frames of mind. Even though I’m the oldest (well, only by a few months), I feel like the youngest in some ways. I’ve made the least progress and have none of the tokens of adulthood. I just quit my job and haven’t been on a date in 10 months. My brother has a real job and just bought a house with his girlfriend. Eric’s getting his doctorate. Grant is married-his wedding was the last time we all saw each other actually.
I didn’t want this to be some kind of Big Chill bullshit nostalgia fest. I wanted us to do this because we still were friends not because we used to be friends. So far it’s been great.
“So what’s this thing we’re going to called?”
“The Corn Palace!” Andrew and I said together.
“It’s world famous,” he added.
“It’s the world’s only,” I said, sounding like a tour guide.
“We did this big trip when we were in middle school and our parents dragged us to it and we thought it was the dumbest thing ever, but I went back a few years ago and it was awesome. It’s like, now that I’m older something so cheesy has become pure, undiluted kitsch. You’re gonna love it.”
“Sounds much better than Rushmore,” Eric grumbled.
“Lighten up,” Grant said. “At this pace, we’ll be ear-ly! Get it?”
An hour later, we pulled into Mitchell and followed the signs. There was a Chinese restaurant on our right and Andrew lit up.
“Mike, that’s it! The Twin Dragon. That’s the restaurant where we ate when we came here.”
“No way. Didn’t you get sick from it?”
“Yeah, it was the worst Chinese food ever. I was so sick. I can’t believe it’s still here. Good times.”
We went a few more blocks and then, there it was. The Corn Palace.
We parked and walked around. It was dry and hot outside. In front of the palace, were two tour buses. A group of senior citizens was filing out of one. We looked up at the columns, Kremlin-like domes, and huge murals made entirely out of corn.
“It’s magnificent,” Eric said, with mock reverence.
The theme this year was Salute to Rodeo. We walked over to the side of the palace.
“Are those cowboys gay?” Eric asked, nodding his head at the mural of two cowboys with their backs to us.
“I’ll give you five buck to go inside and ask.” I said.
“I mean, you can’t see where their hands are.”
We went inside and explored with the other tourists, including a group of Amish people. It was also used as a basketball arena and convention center. A gift store currently occupied center court. It had all manner of corn themed products and knickknacks, from popcorn to shot glasses to corn holders to place mats. We all bought something. How could we not? We got a picture taken with our heads showing through large wood corn ears. It said “Feelin’ Corny.”
“I’m glad we came here,” Grant said to me.
“It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”
With our tchotchkes in hand, we walked down the main street, passing a sign for “The World’s Best Coffee Shop.”
“That’s got to be an exaggeration,” Andrew said.
“We’re from the Northwest, I think we know a thing or two about coffee,” I added.
“They should just be happy about the Corn Palace,” Eric said. “Isn’t that enough? Hey, did you know there’s been a Corn Palace since 1892?”
Back in the car, we settled in for the long drive to Chicago, where we were going to stay with some of Eric’s relatives and see a Cubs game. Grant was driving now, having changed into his red Corn Palace t-shirt. I was riding shotgun, messing with the iPod. Michael was counting how many license plates we’d seen.
Eric was still reading the pamphlet he’d picked up. “Hey, guess what their high school basketball team is called?
Eric shook his head and smiled. “The Kernels. Man, I would kill for one of their shirts.”
“Those wankwads totally picked the wrong new wonders of the world,” I said. “What’s the Taj Mahal got on this? Is it made of corn?”
We were close to the Minnesota border when Grant suddenly said, “Guys, I think I’m gay,”
“How do you know?” Andrew asked.
“Because I like having sex with men. In bathrooms sometimes.”
“Does Mona know?”
“She has her suspicions.”
None of us really knew what to say after that.
Though Grant’s revelation startled, even worried, us all, it didn’t detract from the day and as we drove on through the flat Midwest, the memory of the Corn Palace nestled warmly in our hearts like a kernel in hot oil.
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Portland Fiction Project
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