I have never visited Cosmos Mystery Area, a goofy “believe-it-or-not”-style tourist trap outside of Rapid City, South Dakota.
That’s not for lack of desire, nor lack of awareness, nor even lack of opportunity.
The relevant, ineffable lack was far more fundamental, interpersonal, and ultimately illuminating than anything else.
… Boy, that highfalutin beginning better have a decent payoff!
Like most of my tourist trap stories, this one begins with a billboard. It was the summer of 2011, and my ex and I were in her grandfather’s car heading from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills skimmed by my window, entrancing in their shadowy sylvan beauty.
The yellow-and-red words bloomed suddenly from the pines:
COSMOS MYSTERY AREA: See It. Feel It. Survive It!
What on this green Earth, I thought, is “It”?
I forgot the billboard almost immediately. The 23-mile stretch of highway between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore is lousy with billboards advertising everything from wineries to cavern tours to bison steakhouses. And once you hit Keystone, your attention is diverted entirely by thoughts of salt-water taffy, commemorative knick-knacks, and shootouts at high noon.
But I recognized a similar sign a few hours later, on the way back to Rapid City.
“See It. Feel It. Survive It!” I read dramatically, striking a theatrical pose in my seat.
“What’s that?” my ex’s grandfather asked.
“A billboard. For some tourist trap.”
“Oh,” he harrumphed. “Well, we’ve got plenty o’those.”
And South Dakota does. Tourism is an important economic force in the state, especially around national monuments, parks, and historical sites (not to mention the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which essentially doubles the state’s population for one week out of every year). On this visit alone, my ex and I had visited Mount Rushmore, purchased a truly disturbing amount of fresh fudge in Keystone, taken hokey-costumed saloon-style photos, hopped across the Wyoming border to circumambulate Devil’s Tower, attended a chuckwagon dinner show, bickered our way through the now-defunct Black Hills Maze, and explored Rapid City’s downtown “City of Presidents” statue series. And there was still more to do.
But something attracted me to Cosmos Mystery Area. Melodrama was certainly part of it. And I imagine the appeal of choosing my own adventure also played a role, as our activities so far had mainly involved being driven around by my ex’s relatives, who had each generously decided on sights to share but had also elected not to share their itineraries with us or each other (to near-universal consternation).
And then, of course, there was mystery. What in the world was It? Something to be seen, felt, and survived? What curious something was hiding out there in the Black Hills?
It could be anything. After all, there was gold in them-thar hills, and caves full of crystals, and entire prospector town set-ups, and lakes for waterskiing, and arrowheads, and wineries, and sundry abandoned structures, and inexplicably “out of business” cave systems for sale, and who knew what else.
That night, I took the matter to Google.
“Dude. This place sounds ridiculous,” I said to my ex. “I found reviews.”
“What is it?”
“No idea,” I answered cheerfully. “Some kind of weird like… optical illusion thing? Or something with magnets? I can’t tell. But the reviews are incredible.”
“No,” I beamed. “Good and bad. Evenly split. No in-between.”
I was not kidding. Half of the reviews gushed about what an unforgettable, worthwhile stop Cosmos Mystery Area had been. Five stars! Don’t miss it! A complete delight!
The other half were all furious indignation. Don’t waste your money! One star, and only because there’s no lower option! Horrible! Boring! Dumbest tourist trap ever ever ever in the history of mankind!
“I’ve absolutely got to go to this place,” I said, still scrolling through the five- and one-star rankings.
Something about her tone made me look up from my computer. She was frowning, utterly bewildered—and not in a charmed way.
“Because—” I couldn’t quite figure out how to put it to words. The answer was obvious to my thinking; so obvious as to defy explanation. The very question flummoxed me. “Because whatever it is, it would make a great story,” I said finally. “Either it’s amazing and interesting and cool, and it makes a great story. Or it’s a complete shambles, and it makes a great story. It’s a win-win. Right?”
She made a noncommittal sound in response and changed the subject.
And so we didn’t go. Instead, we went antiquing (which we both enjoyed) and visited the Black Hills Caverns (which was something my ex wanted to do). We chatted with relatives and ate fresh rhubarb pie and watched a thunderstorm rage over the Black Hills. We passed the Survive It! billboards several times. Then we went home.
“I like tourist traps,” I said in the middle of Wyoming. “The really weird ones especially.”
“There’s something very human about them. Maybe someday I’ll write a book. Like, a special essay for each place.”
The next year, our dear friend Andrew landed a great job in southern Wisconsin. He and one of his brothers decided to turn the cross-country move into an epic road trip, and Andrew started asking for recommendations for stops, determined to see as many marvelous treasures as possible.
“What states are you visiting?” I asked.
He was veering north, in part because he wanted to visit a mutual friend in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The route would take them through Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota. They were already planning to see Mount Rushmore.
“Okay okay okay!” I said excitedly, clapping my hands. “Okay—dude. Like fifteen minutes away from Mount Rushmore, there’s this tourist trap called Cosmos Mystery Area, in the Black Hills. You’ve got to go.”
Andrew brightened. “Oh? What is it?”
“I have no idea,” I said, still grinning. “I kept seeing billboards, but we didn’t go. It’s like some believe-it-or-not thing with like gravity, or magnets, or like—I don’t know, but it sounded awesome. It’s like See It! Feel It! Survive It! You know?”
“Sounds good,” Andrew laughed. “I’ll see if my brother’s interested.”
A few months later, a package arrived containing souvenirs from Andrew. Mine was a coffee mug from Cosmos Mystery Area, from one of those “find your name” gift shop racks. Andrew’d heard me complain about rarely finding Crystal spelled correctly, if I found it at all, so the gift combined several peculiarly personal themes.
The mug featured the dramatic tagline—See It. Feel It. Survive It!—and a stylized illustration of a crooked wooden house. This only deepened my curiosity.
When I next spoke to Andrew over the phone, I asked him about his adventure, and he couldn’t quite explain Cosmos Mystery Area, either. Not beyond what I’d already guessed, anyway. He’d email me photos. Cosmos was quirky, silly, an exemplary tourist trap with all the fixings. There were optical illusions and funny tricks of the light. He’d appreciated the recommendation: Andrew and his brother greatly enjoyed the stop, and they wouldn’t have chosen this particular destination on their own.
“You’d love it,” Andrew said. “It’s very Crystal. You should go if you’re ever in the Black Hills again.”
I haven’t been back yet. But I’ve thought a great deal about Cosmos Mystery Area, about the goofy billboards coloring the dark pine-scape, about the way my fascination didn’t match my ex’s. This one tourist trap wasn’t a dealbreaker, of course—no two people ever share the exact same interests. But somehow, Cosmos Mystery Area revealed a fundamental, unknowable difference between us. One I wouldn’t quite understand for years.
More importantly, the missed opportunity gave rise to a greater dream linked to a better understanding of myself. I loved tourist traps—the weirder the better. I craved a bone-deep sense of perplexity in the way horror fans craved well-curated fright.
I longed to chase curiosity and wonder wherever I could find it.
Have you ever visited Cosmos Mystery Area or any of the other tourist destinations scattered through the Black Hills? Or have you encountered a similar believe-it-or-not spot someplace else? Tell us about your experience in the comments below!
Cosmos Mystery Area now has its own website—check it out, and if you’re passing through the Black Hills, drop by and enjoy the ~*~mystery~*~!
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