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Experiencing Mount Rushmore National Memorial South Dakota

It’s good to know your country so we set out to visit Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

There was no map for sale in any Colorado or Wyoming gas station at which we called. There were maps from Kansas to Idaho, from Colorado to Montana, but none of South Dakota. Even the map of the Western States ended in Wyoming and the Central States were missing.

When we reached what should have been the border of South Dakota, just past Lusk, Wyoming, despite a change in road surface there was no sign for South Dakota. It was as if the state had taken the day off or had been cancelled for the weekend. We even considered at one point that it might have been annexed by Nebraska.

Still the scenery made up for the lack of a real state as we drove north towards Custer. It is lovely green rolling countryside with excellent roads that made up for the slight concern that we might be reaching North Dakota if the South had given up for the day.

However, Custer did exist and so did Custer Mansion, our bed and breakfast, although the Yahoo maps placed it a few miles away on the wrong road.

Custer is small, with less than 1900 population. Being very close to the Crazy Horse monument (4 miles), it specializes in tourist eating and sleeping establishments but it lacks the brashness and Disney-world atmosphere of Keystone, the town closest to Mount Rushmore. It also is home of the Purple Pie a small restaurant specializing in rhubarb pie and ice cream. Mmmmh!

I had visited Mount Rushmore 30 years ago when the facilities’ were the artist’s studio and a trail through the woods now it was my wife’s turn to be awed. We were both in for a few surprises.

I had imagined that the carving of four Presidents was the product of a dedicated and lonely man who made it his whole life’s work and left his son, Lincoln, to follow in his footsteps. I was wrong.

My wife had imagined that it was so large as to be inspirational. It was not. In fact my wife’s first words were. “I thought it was bigger.”

We learnt several things:

o The carving of the four heads was not by a man who dedicated his simple life to carving a mountain. A lawyer, Robinson, serving as Secretary of South Dakotan Tourism, conceived in 1924 a carved mountain as a tourist draw for his state. Original ideas for the monument were an Indian or a Lewis and Clark memorial then Robinson sought a contract sculptor.

o Guston Borglum was not the first choice as sculptor although he had good qualifications. The eventual design was in the spirit his Confederate Monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia, from where he had just been sacked. Borglum conceived and constructed the scale model images, and then supervised the work on Mount Rushmore. However, 400 paid laborers did all the rock carving. Borglum spent most of his time on funding.

o The US government has, in the last decade, constructed an enormous multi-level parking lot, auditoriums, bookshops, a restaurant, and an entry worthy of the Taj Mahal – all extolling America, Americanism and the fifty States they almost miss out South Dakota. These additions have reduced the carving of the four heads in size by comparison and diminished the site in value by making it just another Washington monument.

We came away feeling that the whole thing – an advertising gimmick to start with – was a sham, and that by making the memorial a symbol of “American values” the government has lessened its importance. It was now a political symbol. The original Mount Rushmore had gone.

After Rushmore, a visit to the Badlands, an expanse of almost impenetrable rock formations and spires, seemed appropriate. Unfortunately, this like South Dakota itself had disappeared. A three-hour drive along routes 40 and 2, most of which were “under repair” as seas of deep gravel, eventually destroyed our ambition of finding the southern visitors’ center. The lack of road signs and numbers fitted a state that had disappeared for the day.

We had kept the morning of the following day, our last of the weekend, to see the Crazy Horse monument. However, we found that what was left of South Dakota had been covered in a low cloud so dense that we couldn’t even see the mountain base let along the carved statue of an Indian. That was unfortunate because this statue is more imposing that Mount Rushmore because the government has not “improved” it.

Thus thwarted we headed back south through Nebraska to Colorado in heavy rain all the way. We still don’t believe that South Dakota really exists. From what little we saw it has been turned into an adjunct to Washington, DC.