Mount Rushmore National Memorial has long been a bucket list thing for me. Those lists, allegedly compiled by people of a certain age, were, in reality, chiseled in stone decades ago by the dedicated work of elementary school social studies teachers, with the final flourishes applied in senior civics class and by a myriad of librarians and other educators in between.
After nearly half a year of Covid-19, compounded with the cultural devolution happening across the country, I shouldn’t have to explain what it was that moved me to make a solitary drive to Mount Rushmore the first week of August.
I didn’t know why, but I knew I had to go. Mount Rushmore became my American pilgrimage.
And, little did I know, Mount Rushmore is just up the road.
Simply drive to Levelland and turn north on U.S. Highway 385, which begins at Big Bend, Texas in the south and terminates at Deadwood, South Dakota on its north end.
Keep straight through the cornfields and stay on Highway 385 until you reach the Black Hills then turn left on Mount Rushmore Highway. The destination is on your left.
And unless you cheat and take the I-27 shortcut through Amarillo, maybe saving ten minutes, you’ll drive precisely one mile of interstate on this 835-mile trip. Dalhart is the last “big city” you’ll see so keep the gas gauge above 1/4 tank.
These are my people, and we are defined by what we choose to love, honor and remember.
It is a soul restoring journey right through the heart of America in five states. Uncontaminated by interstate highways, strip shopping centers or endless fast food restaurants.
Make the trek on a weekend and the traffic is light but most of the local eateries will be closed; drive it on a weekday and look for the places where all of the pickups are parked. It’s friendly driving; not a race. Plan to travel at a leisurely pace and allow a little extra time for the grain trucks. The road belongs to the commerce that paves it.
For most of the trip, you may as well be driving through the Panhandle of Texas. If you wonder what is the number one field crop in the United States, you’ll have no doubt it’s corn after this expedition. The road to Rushmore is a two-lane highway through millions and millions of acres of corn, interspersed with wheat and pasture. It’s miles of verdant farmland. Until you get to the Black Hills, you’ll rarely be more than 45 minutes from a John Deere dealership.
… one may commune with nature as well with George and Abe, and thank the God and Father who created all.
Leave early enough, and you can drive straight to the park just in time for the lighting ceremony. Check the times. The memorial is a photographic bonanza, but it’s not necessary to get fancy. Every photo in this story was taken with an iPhone.
If you don’t do the lighting ceremony first, you’re still in for a treat by making your first visit early in the morning. For a boy raised on the flag, the Constitution and service, it’s akin to going to church. At 7 a.m. there are only a handful of visitors and those in attendance are willing to allow the memorial the reverence it merits at that time of day.
In a gigantic outdoor cathedral one may commune with nature as well with George and Abe, and thank the God and Father who created all, for the blessings of this nation. The mornings also afford more privacy if you, like me, are moved to tears at its majesty and might.
It’s hard not to make it all about George, but in many ways, Mount Rushmore is all about George. As the father of our nation, his is the prominent position. And only George was given the hint of what might have been had the designer’s vision been completed.
On Washington’s extreme left, Abraham Lincoln’s sad eyes seek you out no matter where you stand.
From no vantage point does it seem that Jefferson meets our gaze. Or, perhaps more than the other three, we have not met his.
Theodore Roosevelt, as the latecomer, lingers appropriately in the background but if you stop at the pull-out on the road from Keystone it is Roosevelt who looks directly at you.
Thomas Jefferson stares into the distance over Washington’s left shoulder. It is Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who seems least engaged with us. Unlike the other presidents, from no vantage point does it seem that Jefferson meets our gaze. Or, perhaps more than the other three, we have not met his.
‘My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,’ Henry Standing Bear, 1939.
It’s the kind of place to experience, leave, and come back and experience again later in the day or at night. It changes through the day. When it was the most crowded, I sat and watched for an hour. Thousands had made this same pilgrimage and most for similar reasons. I was among Americans. Americans of every age, color and ethnicity and we were gathered in the same place with purpose. These are my people, and we are defined by what we choose to love, honor and remember.
And all it costs is to park! Your parking ticket is your family pass to the memorial, and, except for TJ’s (Thomas Jefferson) ice cream, a mandatory treat that rivals anything Ben & Jerry can produce, $10 is all it will cost you no matter how many times you return.
Fewer than 30 minutes away is the Crazy Horse Memorial. It is a work in progress, but just as memorable and educational a trip as Mount Rushmore. It costs a little more, because the Indians refuse government subsidy, knowing the true price of “government assistance,” but it’s worth twice the price of admission. These aren’t competing monuments and they do not try to be; but they are conveniently proximate and each tells its own story.
Ironically, it was at the Crazy Horse Memorial I discovered the message that was the Holy Grail of my crusade. I found it in the words of one of the members of the first great immigration to this country, Chief Henry Standing Bear.
Henry Standing Bear was one of the Sioux leaders who envisioned the Crazy Horse Memorial, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too,” he wrote in 1939.
Chief Standing Bear spoke wisely. It is the right of each to choose his heroes. Or heroines. And there is a lot to be learned about ourselves and our cultures from those choices.
You get to choose your heroes. But remember, please, you don’t get to choose mine.
For good and for ill, monuments are reminders, and no better or worse than the history and lessons we attach to them.
You get to choose your heroes.
But remember, please, you don’t get to choose mine.