The Griswalds. We seemed like the Griswalds. Was that the only family I knew from pop culture to compare us to? I guess so. My Mom ran a daycare and my Dad worked at the hospital. My older sister and I went to Catholic school and we lived in a quiet neighborhood with sidewalks, in a very normal, 3 bedroom house in Rapid City, South Dakota. My Dad planted a pine tree out in front of our house when we moved in. We had a dog, no cats. The backyard had a chainlink fence. There was a wood pile in the back that housed garter snakes in the summer. The house was on, the house is on, a street called East Liberty, which always seemed very intentionally patriotic when no one really asked it to be. Dad, Mom, sis, me, and the dog. The Griswalds, but hopefully not quite as ridiculous.
I’m not sure what exactly brought my family to Rapid City, but it was nice enough and I liked living there as a kid. I was born in Iowa and it’s a lovely place too, but the kinda place that makes you thankful you’re not still there anymore. Rapid had cold and snowy winters and mild summers with a pleasant spring and fall to space them out. It’s the closest decent sized town to Mt. Rushmore, the Badlands, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse, and Sturgis (where they have the big biker rally each year), and it’s not that far from Devil’s Tower. I’ll share some stories from those parks and places eventually but today’s is about my favorite park as a kid—and it’s not any of those.
In what seems like the middle of Rapid City is a mountain. Okay, it’s a large hill. Maybe it’s not even really that large, but it’s a hill and seemed like a mountain when I was little. This hill separates a few different parts of town. Our little house on East Liberty was on the same side of the hill as the Catholic school where Rebecca and I went and the hospital where my Dad worked, but some things, like the grocery store, were on the other side of the hill. I’m not sure why I remember the grocery store—Safeway—being on the other side but it was, along with what seemed like a bunch of other stuff like the dentist and my favorite pizza restaurant, basically the other half of the town as I knew it. On top of the hill are several really tall broadcast towers of some kind, and a park. Dinosaur Park.
No matter what part of town you are in, staring down at you from the top of that hill is a giant, almost life-sized, green dinosaur, a brontosaurus (or apatosaurus actually depending on how versed you are in paleontology). What is it made of? It seems like concrete or plaster but when I was little it always made me think of paper mâché. There are other dinosaurs at the park too, all made from outdated blueprints of what we used to think dinosaurs looked like—extra large lizards standing upright and leaning back on their tales. This early 1900s view of how dinosaurs were thought to be can be found all over the West in kitschy ways, from murals to Dino hotel signs, to many more statues like these. Modern, scientific depictions of dinosaurs are more like dinos from the movie Jurassic Park, warm-blooded and magnificent, with their tails definitely not dragging on the ground. But that’s one of the things that’s great about Dinosaur Park. It’s not trying to be a blockbuster.
To get up to the park you drive a windy road called Skyline Drive. There’s a gift shop and admission to the park is free. You’ll find statues of T-Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurs, and a Dimetrodon (not actually a dinosaur but whatever), and a few more. But the real star is the Apatosaurus up top.
Memories of that park bring back memories of my family at that time and that’s powerful. We weren’t as funny, clumsy, or thankfully ridiculous as the fictional Griswalds, but looking back, it was a time when we were, like them, nuclear—Dad, Mom, a couple of young kids, and a dog. Quaint neighborhood middle-class upper midwest. Eventually we would all leave Rapid as life naturally pushed us in different directions. Sis headed off to college, we moved back to Iowa (ironically), my parents split up, and I grew older, physically at least, and mostly abandoned my obsession with dinosaurs. But the park remains and it’s exactly how I remember it. It’s nice to know that a young family of four is probably heading up there right now to take some goofy family pictures and climb on the dinosaurs like we always did. ~Paul ETC
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