Saturday, August 20, 2005

Four Faces

I got a short sideways look at the profile of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills, as we drove by on US 16/385, and it looked impressive indeed. A fine monumental project. Why didn’t we stop? Price for a carload of visitors: $24. I would have paid half that, I think. Whoever’s in charge of the sculpture needs to raise money, but I refuse to be gouged for the cause.

Besides, we were on the way to Mt. Rushmore that evening, and the sun was going down. We wanted to see the iconic mountainside by day, and then after dark, lit from below. Speaking of gouging—or at least nicking—parking at the Mt. Rushmore National Monument costs $8. Not that bad, but my brand-new national parks pass didn’t cover the cost. Grumble.

The garage looked fairly new, a lot like the parking structure next to a mid-sized regional airport. A couple of stairways out of the garage lead to fairly new-looking tourist infrastructure, starting with a walkway that leads to a building complex—including a gift shop, near a large bronze bust of Gutzon Borglum by his son—that leads to another walkway flanked on both sides by structures (too bulky to be poles) flying the flags of all the states in groups of four. Four doesn’t divide evenly into 50, so perhaps DC and Puerto Rico are included, but I didn’t check.

From there, you reach another building, which also includes a gift shop, past which is an amphitheater. All the way, though, the Mt. Rushmore sculptures are visible. Despite the fact that the Four Faces are seen in countless photos, drawings, cartoons and North by Northwest, the sculptures capture and hold the eye. Yuriko, who didn’t grow up with iconic Mt. Rushmore, was just as impressed, if not more. Later she said she used to wonder why anyone would deface a mountain in such a large way, but after seeing it she called it great art.

I hope Simon B. has had a chance to see Mt. Rushmore in person. He was an erudite young Englishman I knew in Japan in the early ’90s. I forget how it came up, but once he suggested that Mt. Rushmore was a vast act of vandalism. When I heard that—which sounds like a lump from the oatmeal of anti-Western Civilization diatribes, trying to pass as an idea--I decided I needed to shock him a little, so my comment was, “You know what? Even if it is, I don’t care.”

We sat in the outdoor amphitheater facing the Faces, along with hundreds of people, waiting for the lighting ceremony. By this time it was getting dark. An enormous bank of clouds loomed off to one side of the sky, dark and rumbling. Eventually, a park ranger—a woman no older than 30, I think—came out on stage and said the show was going to go on until it started raining. Rumble.

I wondered what the show would be. A laser show! A laser show to John Philip Sousa! A laser show, John Philip Sousa, and four presidential impersonators down on stage! No. The Park Service isn’t quite so showy. The young ranger talked for about 15 minutes, first about coming to see Mt. Rushmore as a kid, then telling the audience about the four presidents, as if anyone over about 10 didn’t know about them. Then again, maybe people don’t. Rumble. The clouds were a lot closer by now.

After she was done, the stage curtain opened. Rumble. Boom. BOOM. A Discovery Channel video about Mt. Rushmore started rolling on the amphitheater’s big screen. The beginning scenes were of the Dakotas, including a shot of distant lightning on the prairie. Off screen, real lightning flashed, and by this time the amphitheater was losing people, including us. Soon the video stopped, and it was raining. People shouted, “Light it! Light it!” for the Faces were dark by this time, except during lightning flashes.

Before long, the lights were on, and we were treated to a luminous Mt. Rushmore in the rain. Water traced down parts of the Faces, leaving dark streaks. In all the many photos of the monument I’ve seen, I’ve never seen it half-washed like that.

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