Hello from Mount Rushmore

So the focal point of the pilgrimage was at hand today, the momentous trip to…
Mount Rushmore!

Or as Justin would call it, Mountain Rushmore. We slept in a little this morning and got to the free continental breakfast by 8:30 or so. As luck would have it they have the same waffle maker as the other place, so it was waffles all around, then off to the monument, which is only about 15 miles from the hotel. Although most of the literature tends to downplay the amount of time you can reasonably spend there, I would submit that you could easily do most of a day, what with walking around the presidential trail, checking out the museum and the studio, the enormous gift shop and equally enormous cafeteria. We didn’t get out of there until after 2pm. Much of what there is at Mount Rushmore other than the mountain itself is relatively new, so it may be that if you’re going by old information you’ll get the impression that you just go, look for a few minutes, then leave, but that is not the case.

Beth was worried that the monument wouldn’t look as big as she expected, but as it turned out it was plenty big. In the weeks leading up to this trip, there were items in the news that the monument was being cleaned, which at first conjured up images of scaffolding all over the place, but various sources reassured that this was not the case, it was just people on ropes. Purely by coincidence, we arrived this morning to witness a small ceremony on the plaza with the monument in the background, announcing that the cleaning was finished, with presentations between the German company that did the job and the park service representatives.

We took a tour around part of the trail that takes you closer to the monument, so you can look up the noses of all the presidents individually. It was a clear sunny morning, so we got plenty of pictures. If we get ambitious we may return tomorrow evening to watch them light the thing up.

The only other item on the agenda was Crazy Horse, but needing a break from the heat and the whole giant sculpture thing, we took the scenic route along the Iron Mountain road that twists and turns through the Black Hills. This road goes through the Black Hills National Forest, and there were a couple of scenic overlooks where we could see Mount Rushmore from a distance, or else some of the other spectacular scenery of the area, ultimately working our way down to Custer State Park. Apparently the second-largest state park in the country, it’s more of a wildlife preserve, and for a small fee you can drive through the wildlife loop road where most of the animals are. We saw antelope near the road in ones and twos, and then a parade of donkeys that were tame enough to eat out of your hand, regardless of what you offered them. The real search was for buffalo, and given our track record at seeing wildlife, most recently exemplified by the futile search for green monkeys in Barbados, we weren’t optimistic. But towards the end of the drive, we saw a bunch of parked cars up ahead, that upon reaching them revealed to be observing an entire herd of at least 50 buffalo that were in the process of gradually crossing the road, and ended up blocking traffic for 10 minutes or so. You can’t get too close to these guys or they’ll run you over, but they got plenty close to us as they meandered across the street, so we got some good pictures.

Through the whole afternoon it was suddenly overcast and raining off and on, nothing major, but it was getting towards 5 o’clock and we still hadn’t gotten to Crazy Horse, so we got back on the big road and drove up there by way of Custer, stopping briefly to check out some fiberglass buffalo that were decorating the downtown street corners. The Crazy Horse monument is a work in progress, having started to take some basic recognizable shape just in the last 10 years, although work started in the late ’40’s. The scale of the undertaking is just ridiculous, and since it is a privately funded operation, it could easily be another 50 years before it is finished. But while looking at the monument itself requires some imagination, the rest of visitor’s area is pretty large, with an enormous museum, auditorium, restaurant, the sculptor’s home and studio, people doing Native American crafts. We spent a couple of hours there and didn’t see everything.

Scultping monuments out of mountains doesn’t seem to be done much in other countries, it seems to be a multi-generational type of project that requires enormous amounts of cash and some crazy sculptor with the vision to see it through. Mount Rushmore never was completely finished as the original sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, had envisioned, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Crazy Horse monument, which is a far more ambitious project, doesn’t ever quite end up looking like the scale model that is at the forefront of all the pictures. But just to make the attempt and create something that large and iconic is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The rain had cooled things off quite a bit and it was getting late, so we headed for home, stopping in Hill City for dinner at a local diner, imaginatively called the Hill City Diner. Like much of this area, it seems the key was to be as retro as possible, not by carefully constructing a retro look, but by just coming up with a look 40 years ago and never changing anything. The oddest thing were plastic bags of water hanging over the doorways. The waitress called them “redneck fire extinguishers”. The food was good, anyway.

Tomorrow we venture into and through Rapid City on our way to Badlands National Park, and the temperature is expected to be 97 degrees. But first, more waffles!