Sunday, August 8, 2010


I left Chicago by train, the same way I had arrived - from Union Station in the heart of the city. The station's waiting hall set a properly All-American scene:

This was making me feel fairly patriotic

So, in this patriotic, all-American spirit, I headed for my one last destination: Mount Rushmore. Actually, I was heading to Denver, then driving to Rushmore, but it just plain wouldn't be an All-American adventure if there was public transportation available...

Mount Rushmore National Monument, in the middle of South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest. This was, incidentally, my first time in South Dakota too...

Rushmore is absolutely unique - I've been trying to think of something to compare it to, but there really isn't anything. The monuments are huge - the faces are each sixty feet tall, and they are carved into one of the tallest peaks in the park. There are, of course, other giant monuments around the world, but all the ones I can think of fall neatly into two distinct categories: religious shines (topped perhaps by The Buddhas of Bayman in Afghanistan... until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001), or pure cults of personality - my favorite is certainly the giant golden Turkmenbashi sun dial in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (Holy Crap - they are taking down the Golden Turkmenbashi!) Mount Rushmore, however, is neither religious in nature, nor was it constructed to immortalize those building it (or at least authorizing the construction), which, I think, makes it pretty uniquely American. The four Presidents depicted are (from left to right) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. I think it's safe to say these four were already pretty well immortalized in American history books by the time the monument was completed in 1939. In a related sign of an American oxymoron, accessing Mount Rushmore is free of charge (something that would be inconceivable just about anywhere else in the world) - the parking lot, on the other hand, is privately run and will set you back ten dollars.

In defense of my rather grizzly appearance I'll note that the previous two nights had been spent in a seat on board an amtrak train and in a tent in the South Dakota wilderness. Was starting to look forward to my Denver hotel room by now!

In a mildly ironic twist of fate, Mount Rushmore, this most iconic of All-American monuments is actually located on what has traditionally been Native American land - Sioux land, specifically. Perhaps as a result (or in response?), the tribes are banding together to erect a commemorative monument of their own, not far from Mount Rushmore - Crazy Horse. And you've got to give them credit - they are dreaming big! The mountain chosen as the site, is one of the few that's taller than Rushmore in the area, and, as planned, Crazy Horse will become the tallest monument currently in existence in the world. Now I say 'currently in existence' because they are nowhere near completion - in fact, at the rate they are going (10 workers at the site, not accepting any money from the US government to help with the construction), it is estimated that the monument will take another hundred and fifty years to complete... Nothing highlights your imminent mortality quite like being on a bus and being told that none of you on board, not even the youngest children, will live long enough to see the completed structure, assuming they stick to the current pace.

So far, we've completed Crazy Horse's face - this took about 50 years!

The envisioned model of the entire structure - just another 150 short years! I am a little curious about the slow pace - if money was the only obstacle, you'd think with all the money the tribal casinos are bringing in these days all over the country, that would be an imminently resolvable problem?

Assuming the final statue is eventually carved to the design originally envisioned, will it be the largest monument in the world when eventually finished? Hard to say - China and India currently have competing projects to erect the tallest Buddha statue, but neither reaches the projected height of Crazy Horse (560 feet, or about 171 meters), but what will happen over the next 150 years, assuming it really takes that long? Noone knows for certain... but unless the Taliban come to power in more parts of the world, I think it's safe to say there will be more statues getting erected, and given a century and a half, 171 meters may not be an entirely indomitable limit.

And so, after seeing the two monuments, each representing a different take on the notion of All-American, it was time to pack up my tent and head back to Denver. Now Denver is about a six hour drive from Mount Rushmore; the road passes through parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota along the way... and lemme tell you this ain't the most scenic drive you'll ever take! In fact, unless you are a big fan of vast, flat open spaces and really, really, really straight roads, you may grow kinda bored along the way - I surely did. At least the speed limit on the interstates in 75 mph - they clearly know just how straight, flat, and devoid of compelling scenery the roads are. The immediate area surrounding Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse is legitimately beautiful of course - the lush greens of the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Part, interspersed with a variety of lakes, rivers, and scraggy mountain ranges... But as soon as you leave those behind, you are left with, well, flatness. Some highlights:

An oil derrick in the middle of the prairie actually seemed like a very appropriate site

The town of Deadwood is within the National Forest - it's famed for its Wild West, Gold Rush days (as the HBO show of the same name reminded us), but these days its attraction is the legalized gambling...

Cargo trains criss-crossing Wyoming

A faint rainbow over Northern Colorado after a brief, but fierce thunderstorm. I later heard about golf ball-sized pieces of hail coming down around Mount Rushmore the following day... breaking windshields(!)

And occasionally, you see a big, seemingly incongruent tower of a mountain over the horizon

Actually, that last one wasn't exactly a random site along the way - that's Devils Tower, another National Monument, just across the border in Northern Wyoming. It probably added another hour or two to the drive back, but I figured as long as I was nearby, it would be a shame to miss it. Plus, it gave me a chance to drive along I-90 for some 30 miles, and that made it feel almost like home (I-90 proceeds all the way West to Seattle).

I don't know a whole lot about Devils Tower honestly - it looks like the neck of a big volcano... and it looks that way no matter how close you are to it, so I didn't see the point of paying to actually enter the grounds of the national park. I've since read that it's actually possible to climb to the top of the Tower, which would have certainly been cool, but I didn't really have time to do it anyway, so back to Denver I went! After snapping a few more pictures...

You don't mess with Texas and you don't mess with 386 meters of Wyoming's Devils Tower!

It's cowboy country, ya know!

One last bit of adventure on the way back from the Tower - I actually had to head North, in the opposite direction at first to find the nearest gas station (these are every bit as uncommon as you might imagine in the eternal flat emptiness of the Great Plains). After filling up, I turned out around, pulled back out onto the highway, and sent my little Hyundai on its way back South... Then things went into slow motion in my head - hey, there's a big white car parked on the side of the road - Crap! It's a cop! - Was I speeding? I wonder how fast I was going? I've no idea what the speed limit in the town of Hulett is! - Fuck! He's pulling out - lights on... So, I was speeding. Technically, if he had waited, he may have had a better catch as I was speeding up (probably not much better though, as I did notice him and slowed back down), but as it turned out, the speed limit in tiny little outposts of civilization (e.g. Hulett; population: 516) in rural Wyoming (is there another kind of Wyoming?) is 30 mph, and I was doing 41. Fortunately, I was polite, and the officer was nice, and after running my rental documents through his computer he let me off with a warning, thus not making this the most expensive gas stop in my life! I did make sure to inquire as to what exactly the speed limits were in future rural Wyoming towns... Fortunately, that knowledge would not be needed any more the rest of the day.

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