"Staycation" has become the prime buzzword of media reporting on recession travel this year, gaining such currency Merriam-Webster endowed it with official status by including it in the dictionary. I predict coverage will shift in the next month or so, however, once the media notices the classic American roadtrip has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity--and not just with writers, photographers, or reality show producers. Considering the economic environment, some of the early indicators are nothing short of dramatic.
The Recession Roadtrip now has brought me to South Dakota, one of a handful of states that hasn't endured much of a downturn in the recession. The drive west from Sioux Falls along I-90 feels like I've joined a caravan of fellow roadtrippers, though my sparsely-packed little red Prius looks out of place in the stream minivans and SUVs crammed with luggage and children, often with a travel trailer hitched to the back or a car-top carrier on the roof. Even though I only know the chorus to "Holiday Road," I can't stop singing it on perpetual loop. These are the moments I realize it's probably best I don't have company on this trip.
Tourism had a $2.42 billion impact on South Dakota's economy and employed almost 34,000 people in 2008, making it the state's second largest industry. National Geographic Traveler named the Black Hills in southwestern South Dakota the "Drive of a Lifetime" in 2009, but its distance from major population centers would make it too long a drive for a recession vacation, if the advance predictions about this summer were proving accurate. Thankfully for South Dakota, that doesn't appear to be the case. With this notion forming in my mind while scanning all the out-of-state license plates crowding I-90, I decide that after two months on the road seeking out those who have endured a dramatic change in their lives because of the recession, I wanted to act like a normal tourist for a couple of days.
First stop: Mitchell, SD. I had to see what they advertise as the "world's only" Corn Palace. Constructed in 1892 in an attempt to encourage settlement by showcasing the richness of the area's fertile soil, various colors of corn-on-the-cob are the medium for murals covering the outside, with trim of thatched sorghum, rye, wild oats, and other grasses. The corny folk art contrasts wildly with the painted domes and minarets of the building's Moorish Revival architecture. The Whalen family of Poughkeepsie, NY echoes my own silent thought: "How bizarre," words that would recur many times during my tour around South Dakota.
Most summers, the Whalens spend a couple of weeks in a rented beach house somewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. Inspired by NBC's "Great American Roadtrip," the parents and three kids--ages 6, 8, and 12--decided they wanted to do something more enriching than just soak up sun and sea air this year. They plan to go as far as Yellowstone before turning back towards New York.
This journey marks their first real roadtrip, but it definitely won't be their last. Long hours driving in the car have already been spent looking at their map and discussing possible destinations next summer--thematic vacations, like a tour of Civil War battlefields or civil rights landmarks, are two options. "This roadtrip is making us realize that summer vacation can and should be something more than just relaxed family time," mom Melissa explains. "The kids--and us too--have been learning so much about the country, about Native Americans, about history and, you know, corn. We've decided we want to encourage that kind of learning, and squeeze in as many experiences like this before Chase (the oldest) goes off to college. We feel like we've already wasted so much time sitting on our butts at the beach that could have been put to better use."
Before hitting the road again, I ask a woman working the door how attendance has been this year. She reports that they anticipated business would be down because of the recession, but it has actually increased about 10% above average.
Rick Hustead, co-owner of Wall Drugs, has seen a similar rise in business. Wall Drugs actually hired 5% fewer seasonal employees for the summer, expecting that tourist traffic would be down, but July marked a 10% increase in business over the same month last year, which had its own strong performance despite high gas prices last summer. "So far, it has amazed us," Rick says.
In 1931, Rick's grandparents purchased the small pharmacy in Wall. Business exploded after Dorothy Hustead had the idea to advertise free ice water for those thirsty travelers driving across the hot prairie. Wall Drug Store road signs now line the full length of I-90 in South Dakota, and can be found scattered across this country and in foreign ones. That simple drugstore has now expanded into a sprawling mega-plex of shops, restaurants, historical displays of South Dakota history, the country's largest privately-owned Western art collection, and various oddities like a mechanical roaring T-Rex head, mounted and stuffed wildlife, and a 12-foot tall fiberglass jackalope saddled up for kids to ride. The eclectic development transformed Wall Drugs from its original iteration as a way station for roadtrippers en route elsewhere, to a planned destination for everyone passing through the area; 15 to 20,000 tourists typically visit the site every day during the summer months. And, yes, they still offer free ice water. It is as cold and refreshing as the cone of homemade butter pecan ice cream I indulge in before getting back into the Prius and heading for the Badlands.
The forest ranger manning the gate of Badlands National Park echoes the surprise I had been hearing about the number of people traveling this year. She reports their park attendance this summer has been about 20% above average--far exceeding expectations--and that the campgrounds have been regularly packed to capacity.
The primitive campground on Sage Creek doesn't have delineated campsites--or running water, modern facilities or RV hook-ups--but it seems almost crowded when I arrive there in the early evening. One family, the Nuncio's of Brooklyn, New York, have been hopping around free campgrounds in national parks since early June. John Nuncio was laid off from his Wall Street job last Fall, and sought new employment for many luckless months. "Our options were to stay tied down in New York while I pounded away at an obviously futile job hunt, or to use this as an opportunity to explore the far reaches of this wonderful, beautiful country," John explains.
The Nuncios have actually leased their Brooklyn townhouse under a short-term furnished arrangement for nearly double the monthly mortgage, which helps subsidize their travel. Considering how expensive everything is in New York, John figures they're even saving money by roadtripping around the country. They usually camp in free sites, though occasionally splurge $15 for a commercial one with showers. The fresh fruits and vegetables they buy at roadside stands cost less than half of what they would pay at a grocery store in Brooklyn--and all the children swear it tastes better. The Nuncio kids had always turned their noses up at zucchini, but now love it speared on a stick and roasted over the fire. "I know so many are suffering because of unemployment, so I would never want to sound arrogant or insensitive by saying that this is the best thing that could have ever happened to us," John says, continuing in a feigned whisper, "But, seriously, I thank god I got laid off."