In Patriotic Times, Rushmore Calls
From the fire tower here, the visages of four American presidents on Mt. Rushmore, 20 miles north, look about the size of those on nickels and pennies. A bit to the west, you can see the face of the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse emerging from another granite cliff, and 7,242-foot Harney Peak, where Native American holy men sought visions to give them direction. The Black Hills surround the sights, man-made and natural, like a wagon train circled for the night. Beyond them in all directions stretch the Great Plains, where buffalo grazed and battles for America’s destiny were waged.
After that, there’s just sky.
Some places are better than history books for telling our stories. The Black Hills of South Dakota, out of the way and undiscovered by the trendy set, would be such a place even if an obsessed Danish American sculptor hadn’t carved the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln on the southeast-facing flank of Mt. Rushmore.
Appropriately, perhaps, it takes a little effort to get to the Black Hills. Unless you drive to South Dakota, you have to fly to Rapid City, a town of about 61,000 that doesn’t seem to have a building taller than 10 stories except for grain elevators. Its motels and attractions--petting zoos, go-cart tracks and the like--look as though they haven’t changed since the ‘50s, reassuring to those of us who recall bygone family vacations in old-fashioned touristy places like this. When you scan a restaurant menu, you can expect plenty of meat, including venison and buffalo, served by people who seem so genuine that you start to wonder if they’re putting you on.
For all those reasons, the next time a foreigner asks me what to see in the U.S., I’ll say L.A.; New York; Concord, Mass.; the Grand Canyon--and South Dakota’s Black Hills.
I thought I would never be able to look at Mt. Rushmore without Alfred Hitchcock sitting on my shoulder, reminding me of how Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangle from the noses and cheeks of the presidents during the climax of the 1959 thriller “North by Northwest.” I thought there was something vaguely kitschy about the massive sculpture. How could anyone improve on the sheer granite cliffs of the Black Hills, shot through with quartz and glinting with mica?
I was wrong on all counts. Visitors are bound to be impressed, no matter how they come upon Mt. Rushmore--whether on the grand ceremonial approach provided by U.S. Highway 16A from the ticky-tacky tourist town of Keystone; or from behind, where a hairpin bend in South Dakota Highway 244 presents a surprise profile of George Washington; or from the south on dauntlessly switchbacking Iron Mountain Road, which has tunnels that perfectly frame the cliff carving in the distance.
Close up, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial grounds don’t look quite as they did in the Hitchcock movie, thanks to a $56-million renovation completed in 1998. A paved walkway lined with the flags of the 56 U.S. states, districts, territories and commonwealths takes visitors from the parking garage toward the monument, passing a cafeteria and large gift store along the way. The walkway ends at a broad stone terrace directly overlooking an amphitheater where nightly presentations are held, ending with the illumination of the monument by high-powered quartz and halogen lamps. Beyond it are ponderosa pines, 450,000 tons of rock blasted off the cliff during construction and now tumbled against the mountain’s lower flank and, finally, the four presidents’ faces.
They are silver in bright sunlight, at other times dappled by the shadows of clouds or all but obscured when the Black Hills are shrouded with fog. The visages are 60 feet high, eyes 11 feet wide, noses 20 feet tall, created on 5,724-foot Mt. Rushmore in about 14 years, ending in 1941, by 400 workmen, sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln.
The four were meant to represent the founding, growth and preservation of the United States. Washington, to the left, is the most prominent; Jefferson is to his right as you face them, though he was moved there only when a fault was discovered in the rock on Washington’s other side, where the Jefferson carving was started. Next comes Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of sculptor Borglum, who included the 26th president despite critics who said T.R. didn’t belong in such august company. Bookending the monument on the far right is a bearded Abraham Lincoln, a shoo-in, though Borglum deliberated about whether to sculpt the author of the Gettysburg Address with facial hair.
Visitors spend their time snapping pictures or simply gazing at the monument from the terrace. Some venture down to the visitor center, dug into the hill that faces Mt. Rushmore. It has exhibits on the ways Borglum met the technical challenges of carving the monument, on its place in American popular culture (the famous mountain appears on mugs, license plates, key chains and even “Sesame Street”) and on how the National Park Service maintains the sculpture by filling newly discovered fissures with silicone sealant.
I walked the three-fifths-mile circular trail that winds through the forest past Borglum’s high-ceilinged studio, which has his plaster model of the sculpture and one of the jackhammers used to carve it. The path yields to a series of steps and decks that take you to the lower edge of the talus slope below the monument, so close to the presidents that it seemed as though I could tickle them under their chins.
As I made my way back to the visitor center, I rested on a bench, where I heard someone above me launch into a creditable rendition of “God Bless America.” She showed up on the deck where I was sitting a few minutes later, unembarrassed to admit she had been too inspired to stop herself from breaking into song.
The most easterly upthrust of the Rocky Mountains, the Black Hills are an oval dome of billion-year-old granite that covers the southwestern corner of South Dakota like an island in the prairie. This place was sacred to the Sioux, the most powerful tribe in the West when white explorers and trappers arrived. George Armstrong Custer, already an experienced Indian-fighter when he led an expedition into the area in 1874, reported that the hills were full of gold “from the grass roots down.”
These days, one of the things that makes the hill country precious is 73,000-acre Custer State Park, about 20 miles south of Keystone, which I liked even more than Mt. Rushmore. It was founded in 1919 by U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck of South Dakota, who also helped lay out Iron Mountain Road, which twists and turns to the park’s eastern entrance, and the Needles Highway, another scenic byway in the park that loops around the bases of huge granite spires like yarn around a knitter’s fingers.
Along these roads and the park’s 18-mile wildlife drive, visitors encounter buffalo, deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, bighorn sheep, burros and wild turkeys but no bears, which were eradicated from the area around the turn of the last century.
Even without the bears, Custer State Park is a little Yellowstone, over which conservationist Teddy Roosevelt can look from Mt. Rushmore with contentment.
I entered the park on Iron Mountain Road, where I saw my first bison of the trip ambling across the pavement in front of me, and scars on the hillsides left by the fire of 1988, which was started by lightning and burned nearly 17,000 acres. I was headed for the State Game Lodge on U.S. Highway 16A, one of four rustic resorts inside the park, with hotel rooms and cabins, restaurants, grocery stores and swimming, boating, horseback riding, hayrides and four-wheel-drive tours.
The State Game Lodge was the summer White House of President Calvin Coolidge in 1927. (Silent Cal slept in a four-poster bed, which is still in a guest room on the second floor, and did some fishing, unaware that the creek and pond nearby had been stocked with trout to ensure his success.) The lodge is a grand old stone and wood building set in a meadow, with rockers on a wide front porch, modern motel wings on either side and umbrella tables on the lawn below, beside which a bison was bedding down just as I drove up. I got a room with a sleigh bed across the hall from Cal’s.
I was dismayed to learn that the restaurant wasn’t serving dinner the night I arrived. Taking pity on me, the front desk clerk poured me a glass of white wine from the bar and took me to the walk-in refrigerator in the kitchen, where I loaded up on cheese and crackers. That’s the way of things at the park lodges, not perfect--the Cornish game hen comes to the table pink; rooms are cold, at least in early May, when I visited; and you have to be careful not to step in a buffalo pie when you walk across the parking lot. But all is forgotten because staff members try so hard to right the wrongs.
From the State Game Lodge I took a buffalo safari in a 10-year-old Jeep Wagoneer driven by Kathy Funk, who spends the summers introducing tourists to bison in the park and the rest of the year operating a tow truck. We took the wildlife loop south from the lodge and saw pronghorn antelope right away, but the buffalo herds, with spring calves, kept eluding us. Kathy drove off-road in search of them, to hilltop aeries pierced by the song of the meadowlark and canyons where 19th century homesteaders tried to settle. But it wasn’t until we turned back toward the lodge that we ran into a little herd of mothers with babies, their coats still orange.
Later I drove west to Legion Lake Lodge to visit the cabin of South Dakota cowboy poet Badger Clark, who lived from 1883 to 1957. He wrote such memorable lines as “Who kin envy kings and czars/When the coyotes down in the valley/Are a-singin’ to the stars.”
Then I climbed the fire tower atop 6,023-foot Mt. Coolidge, built in 1941 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There the unpredictable path of past forest fires is apparent, taking one tree but not its neighbor.
About five miles west, I saw the stockade built in 1874 by a party of gold hunters who sneaked into the region Custer surveyed, despite the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie, which had given the Plains Indians sole custody of the Black Hills. As miners started flooding in, the government couldn’t enforce the treaty. The result was battles between the U.S. Cavalry and Indian warriors like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse at the Rosebud and Little Bighorn rivers, where Custer died and the Sioux star blazed briefly.
Crazy Horse was killed in 1877 by a soldier at Ft. Robinson in Nebraska. The buffalo, on which his people subsisted, were near extinction. By the time Sitting Bull submitted to life on a reservation in 1881, the fight had gone out of the Plains Indians.
Near the stockade in the town of Custer, I stopped at Ken’s Minerals, where I found a 12-pound block of Black Hills rose quartz I bought to use as a doorstop. Then I drove about 20 miles farther west on U.S. Highway 16 to tour Jewel Cave National Monument, which has pristine formations of calcite crystals, 127.1 miles of passageway charted thus far, and a huge room I didn’t get to see called the “Big Duh.”
Back in the state park, I had dinner at Blue Bell Lodge, just south of the watchtower: trout caught in nearby French Creek, accompanied by the ubiquitous baked potato and side salad.
After three nights at the State Game Lodge, I moved to Sylvan Lake Resort, another Custer State Park hostelry set above a man-made lake surrounded by granite pinnacles. Frank Lloyd Wright suggested the setting but didn’t actually design the building. It’s still a beauty, especially the bar, where stuffed bighorn sheep and elk look down on guests.
Instead of staying in the lodge, I took one of the resort cabins built of log and stone high above Sylvan Lake. It had two double beds, durable carpeting, curtained windows and a rock fireplace. On my first day there, I followed the trail to Harney Peak, thinking of Sioux shamans on their vision quests. It rained the next day, so I stayed in my cabin, reading and feeding the fire.
About 10 miles west of Mt. Rushmore, another monumental cliff carving is taking shape. It will depict the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse and is the work of sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who died in 1982 after carefully planning the monument but seeing little of it done. His wife, Ruth, and 10 children have continued on. Now a private foundation manages the monument, and a crew of eight workmen labors over it, including two Ziolkowskis. At the rate things are going, some say it could take 50 more years to finish.
Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski in 1939, asking the sculptor to give the Black Hills a carving of a Native American hero to go along with those of the presidents. When Ziolkowski arrived, he had to start a dairy farm to finance work on the sculpture, which began in 1948 with the first of what would be many dynamite blasts.
I arrived at the Crazy Horse Memorial, just east of U.S. Highway 385, in the late afternoon, in time to tour the museum, which has an excellent collection of Native American art, vintage photos of Sioux leaders and memorabilia like a saddle used at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. Then I took the last bus trip of the day to the base of 6,740-foot Thunderhead Mountain, where the face of Crazy Horse, 871/2 feet from chin to forehead, was completed in 1998.
It’s like something out of a vision quest, altogether stirring, partly because visitors get to see the blasting and carving, and partly because the sculpture is so dynamic, judging from the model in the museum. No one knows exactly what Crazy Horse looked like because he spent his life avoiding white men and their cameras. But already the sculpture does him credit. When finished, it will show him on an Indian pony riding south, his hair flowing behind him, arm outstretched, index finger pointing south, toward the heart of the beautiful and eloquent Black Hills.
Guidebook: South Dakota Sights
Getting there: From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Rapid City, S.D., the closest airport to this area, is available on Delta, United and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $222.
Most major car rental companies are represented at the Rapid City Regional Airport.
Where to stay: There are motels and cabin compounds in Keystone, Custer and Hill City. But my favorite places to stay in the Mt. Rushmore area are the four lodges in Custer State Park. The State Game Lodge & Resort is near the east entrance to the park. It has 21 cabins, two motel wings and seven rooms in the historic main building; rates for lodge or motel doubles $75-$225, cabins $80-$350.
Legion Lake Resort has 25 cabins beside a lake, a general store and a deli-style restaurant; $85-$135.
Blue Bell Lodge & Resort is in the ponderosa pines south of Legion Lake and has 29 cabins around a log lodge, where there’s a restaurant and bar; $99-$175.
Sylvan Lake Resort overlooks the granite needles that surround Sylvan Lake in the park’s northwestern sector. It has hotel rooms and rustic cabins; lodge doubles $75-$225, cabins $80-$300 (for a 16-person cabin).
For information or reservations, contact Custer State Park Resort Co., HC 83, Box 74, Custer, SD 57730; (800) 658-3530, fax (605) 255-4706, www.custerresorts.com.
Where to eat: The restaurants in the lodges at Custer State Park specialize in steak-and-potato sorts of meals and in local game such as pheasant and buffalo; dinner entrees about $15-$25.
I also liked Rockin’ R Saloon & Steakhouse, State Highway 79, Hermosa, (605) 255-4220, where entrees range from $8-$13 and a prime rib dinner goes for $10.95.
The Sage Creek Grille, 607 Mt. Rushmore Road (U.S. Highway 16), Custer, (605) 673-2424, has more sophisticated fare like salads and pasta. Dinner entrees run $12-$18.
For more information:
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, P.O. Box 268, Keystone, SD 57751; (605) 574-2523, fax (605) 574-3103, www.nps.gov/moru.
Custer State Park, HC 83, Box 70, Custer, SD 57730; (605) 255-4515, fax (605) 255-4460, www.state.sd.us/sdparks.
South Dakota Tourism, 711 E. Wells Ave., Pierre, SD 57501; (605) 773-3301, fax (605) 773-3256, www.travelsd.com.