Once you exit Badlands National Park on South Dakota 240 north, the culture of the old west tilts abruptly and sends the senses tumbling. It is as if you have stepped out of St. Peter’s Basilica and into a medieval brothel. Scratch that analogy. The church-to-brothel two-step has never required such a nimble about-face.
In any case, the departure is jarring. The park is gone, replaced by a tourist wonderland with few rivals. You have entered the Black Hills, where Wild Bill Hickok and Rocky Raccoon got themselves shot and Custer’s boys discovered gold, thereby requiring us to break yet one more Indian treaty.
It all starts with billboards for Wall Drug, which descend upon you in dizzying succession as soon as you leave the park. P.T. Barnum, he would’ve loved Wall Drug.
The change in scenery served to intensify my appreciation for the National Park Service. Not that I don’t have a fascination with the absurd tableau of freewheeling commercialism.
Don’t know what to say about Wall Drug. I remember all those “Have You Dug Wall Drug?” stickers on all those VW buses. I had no idea. I imagined wall drug as something you tried on the road from mushrooms to acid. I didn’t know it was just another clever marketing campaign of the kind that elevated Ted Hustead’s humble pharmacy into a national icon.
We stopped in Wall Drug not once, but twice. Max said the whole thing freaked him out. That’s what he said, and I don’t blame him. We wandered from room to room, bought a few gifts and admired the vintage photographs. We even availed ourselves of the 5-cent coffee and the free ice water.
Not even wanton tourism can rob the Black Hills of its brooding beauty. The mountain pine beetle may be another story. The little insects have killed millions of trees and turned large swaths of the Black Hills brown. It is sad to behold.
They even brought an end to the annual Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza at Mount Rushmore, which tells you a lot about their destructive power.
The Black Hills has been a sprawling epicenter of money-lust since Custer’s expedition discovered gold back in 1874. This is Custer’s true American legacy, as much or more than anything that happened up the road at Little Big Horn. In this, I suppose, the Black Hills is as American as any place on the map.
At the heart of the madness sits Mount Rushmore. People travel the world over to view one man’s magnificent testament to his own towering ego, a massive artistic wonder we must interpret as a tribute to the twin gods of freedom and democracy.
Gutzon Borglum, the son of a Mormon polygamist, first gained national attention for the bas-relief tribute to Confederate icons Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis he carved into the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain. He did this at the behest of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and with considerable financial support from his friends in the Ku Klux Klan. Not that I’m down on Borglum or anything.
Out in South Dakota, state historian Doane Robinson was inspired by Borglum’s work at Stone Mountain and envisioned a sweeping monument that would feature western heroes such as Buffalo Bill, Lewis and Clark and Lakota Sioux Chief Red Cloud and inspire a legion of tourists to visit the Black Hills. He got the latter half of his wish
Borglum, whose work at Stone Mountain betrayed his nativist leanings, had different ideas. And thus delivered one last kick in the nuts to the Lakota peoples.
I wasn’t too enthusiastic about Mount Rushmore, but I saw it in 1995 en route from West Chester to Silverdale, Wa. It was paramount on Becky’s list, though. The girl’s so easy-going. I think she’s expressed two wishes for destinations on this five-month odyssey. She wanted to go to Mount Rushmore, and she wants to go to Chicago to visit her old friend Tim Appignani.
So to Mount Rushmore we went. And it went about to form. Even Becky was distressed to learn our national parks pass would avail us of nothing here. It wouldn’t even spare us the $11 parking fee. We negotiated the sea of people, tried not to step in front of anyone’s camera shot and admired Borglum’s considerable effort.
After yesterday’s Badlands debacle, I promised myself I would keep my cool while Max worked through his junior ranger booklet. And for the most part, I kept my word. We watched the park service film. The message was fairly clear: Freedom!
They made a perfect choice in narrator. Tom Brokaw, that insufferable champion of the “Greatest Generation” and intrepid defender of corporate privilege, informed us the one thing Borglum’s Fab Four shared was a belief in individual freedom.
Of course they did. Now, I’ll take George Washington and Thomas Jefferson over Tom Brokaw and David Brooks every time, but their passion for individual freedom was rather circumscribed.
We’ll pass by the Founding Fathers-as-slaveowners thing without comment. Hey, we’re complicated beings, and complication is to mythology what the pine beetle is to the Black Hills National Forest. A terrible nuisance at best.
Nothing to see here but man’s vanity and hubris and the ever-turning wheel of commerce. Eleven dollars, ka-ching. Mount Rushmore, where your annual parks pass will avail you of nothing. Get your camera out, baby, because you never know when those dead presidents might rear their heads.
Entire families clad in $20 Mount Rushmore T-shirts. It was like spending an afternoon in a major league ballpark.
Good news: Your parking pass is good for a whole year. Bad news: It is not transferable, and as national sites go, Mount Rushore is a bit of a one-trick pony.
You’ve seen it once, well, you’ve seen it. It’s not like George Washington’s going to turn to his left and smirk at Abraham Lincoln.
I’m not saying we didn’t have fun. We did. Max bagged one more junior ranger badge. We climbed on the boulders at the base of the Fab Four and walked the “strenuous” trail to Borglum’s workshop.
And in the end, $11 is a small price to pay to bring my reservoir of cynicism to a rolling boil. And, ain’t we pretty:
We drove past it again on Sunday, doubling back on our trip from Hot Springs to Wind Cave National Park. We could think of no reason to return.
We’d come, we’d seen, and we’d clambered up the rocky slope as far as you can nowadays. Max got his second junior ranger badge in two days, Dorothy Helder doing the swearing in.
If nothing else, it is an impressive spectacle. I won’t say it’s not. Borglum dynamited 450,000 tons of granite off the little mountain and spent 14 years chasing his own white whale, a chase that ended in his own death.
Give Doane Robinson and Gutzon Borglum this: They took a rather nondescript hunk of granite, a mountain the Lakota Sioux called the Six Grandfathers (The early white settlers gave the place a name more provocative, and maybe suitable: Slaughterhouse Rock.), and gave us a feast for thought.
Better still, it bears the name of a New York lawyer. Long after the white men had taken to calling Six Grandfathers Mount Rushmore, its namesake became the largest single donor to Borglum’s project.
What does it mean? Is it cool? Do I care? Why am I such a cynic?