I realized after I made the early morning pick up arrangement that I had been going east, so that made my pick up an hour earlier by body time, but it still gave me legal rest, so I'm glad I did it.
During the van ride up to Mount Rushmore, in beautiful sunrise light, I saw that it wasn't really tourist season yet. Many museums, campgrounds, horseback riding outfitters, and souvenir stands along the road were still closed for the season. There will be a lot to do here in a couple of months, and it's a nice, relaxing place to visit. You could seriously bring a family here for a week and have a good, albeit somewhat clichéd, vacation. Just don't come in the first week of August, during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Apparently every motel, hotel, campground and condo is full for a hundred miles around.
Today the road itself was pretty much empty. I know what I'm coming to see. It's the faces of four dudes carved in the side of a mountain. I catch my first glimpse as we go around a corner, but it's no surprise. It's a much lampooned monument, kind of a piece of American kitch, but it seems worth a trip. I'm emphasizing the "well whatever" aspect of my decision to visit this tourist attraction, because it contrasts with how I really felt after visiting it.
It was definitely worth the trip. I think anyone would like to come and see this. It is, to begin with a national park. Not as big, rugged or pristine as Yosemite, but still a park. Arriving from the parking area, or in my case the van drop-off point, you walk along a straight avenue of state flags, smooth paving stones under your feet and columns at the side proclaiming the dates of entry into the union of the various states. There's a kind of portico as you enter a terraced viewing area, and from there you can see the faces clearly. They are very white. Park employees clean and seal the rock regularly to prevent erosion by ice and plant roots.
If you come here, you have to arrive like this, by seven-thirty in the morning. It's quiet. Trees, mountains, fresh air, and only the sounds of a few birds and little sticks falling from trees. No one around is around but these four memorialized presidents. You can walk down the stairs from the viewing area and reach a boardwalk. They don't let you walk on the rocks themselves at the base of the mountain. I guess that goes to show how many visitors they get. I'm amused by the very precise warning about the length and difficulty of the trail. It's a boardwalk, less than half a mile long, described as "strenuous." I envision the people who aren't here with me today, elderly or unaccustomed to walking, who have made it down the avenue to the viewing area but are incapable of making it around the boardwalk. Nevertheless they have made a pilgrimage of sorts to this national monument. Maybe they venture out and discover they can navigate such a strenuous trail. Maybe such literal small steps will lead them to venture into more rugged parks. There's something inspiring about this place. The day before yesterday I was looking at giant Sequoias in Yosemite and now I'm looking at giant presidents at Mt Rushmore. How many people get to do this in such quick succession, ever?
Even if it's not part of your culture (I had to identify Jefferson by process of elimination (Washington is the big-nosed one with the square hair, Roosevelt wears glasses, and Lincoln is the skinny, bearded one), it's worth the trip. These were visionary men who are honoured here, and whether you are happy with the state of the nation now or not, their legacy shaped it. But it's not just a patriotic monument. It's an engineering marvel built with 1930s technology. That is, mostly by hand. It's a work of art. It's a human interest story of someone who spearheaded a ridiculous project, a monument that was supposed to draw visitors to the middle of nowhere, in an era before most people owned cars, and before the freeway network was built. He must have been a little bit mad. He did envision his work outlasting his civilization, and standing like the Sphinx or Ozymandias for future generations to wonder at.
As I finished my circuit of the boardwalk (yes, I managed the strenuous trek), park employees (in Smokey-the-bear style ranger hats!) were arriving, and at eight o'clock the buildings opened giving me access to a museum of information on the project, a bookstore and a gigantic gift shop. (They sold souvenirs from every state, so theoretically you could come here and "do" the whole nation. I thought that was pretty funny.) And it's still a fine park. Deer grazed beside the parking lot and along the road with utter unconcern for anything but the spring grass.
I would go back to see it again. I probably will. Also I owe a beer to the maintenance supervisor at the West Jet FBO. If you stop there, please buy him a beer and tell him it's on behalf of the stupid Canadian chick in the pink sweatshirt, the one who needed help starting her own airplane.