Road Trip Day 6: The Road to Rushmore

Today was my longest-mileage day yet: I drove just over 400 miles. But it’s also the first day in which my starting and ending points were both in the same state. Such is the nature of the Great Plains states: large and flat.

My rate of travel was helped by the 75 mph speed limit, and the lack of any major cities to slow it back down. By and large, all I had to do was set the cruise control, listen to my audiobook (the South Dakota plains are no match for the long-windedness of Robert Jordan), and let the miles fly by.

I was in a hurry for another reason: I wanted to get to the Black Hills as early as possible, almost 300 miles down the road. The Black Hills are where the South Dakota landscape starts to get particularly interesting; they also hold Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

I gained some time by crossing from Central to Mountain Time in the middle of the state, and was in the Black Hills by early afternoon. The day was overcast and the dark gray clouds hung low over the landscape, but I drove on, hoping Mt. Rushmore wouldn’t be fogged in.

As I drove deeper into the Black Hills, I passed a seemingly never-ending string of colorful billboards, advertising all manner of resorts, casinos, hotels, and kitschy tourist attractions. The commercialization took me by surprise, although I suppose I should have expected it. It felt like what was otherwise a beautiful natural landscape had been invaded by some outcropping of Disney World. Certainly, the few towns I drove through were no more authentic than Main Street of the Magic Kingdom.

It was made worse by the fact that tourist season is over, which lent an air of bleak desperation to all the attractions. Many were closed for the season, although the overdone facades and garish billboards were still very much on display. I hated it.

Then again, I had to admit, I wasn’t exactly here to see nature, or authenticity: I was here to see sixty-foot faces of dead presidents carved into the cliffside. Would Mt. Rushmore itself be the ultimate kitschy tourist attraction?

To my relief, it didn’t feel that way. The monument itself had an air of gravity to it, the sort of gravity that can really only be attained by sixty-foot tall, stern-looking granite sculptures. When I first got there, the monument was socked in by fog, so I did a lap around the walking trail while waiting for the clouds to clear. Along the way, I happened upon a guided tour, where a park ranger was animatedly describing the history of each president on the monument. There’s little doubt that all four were great presidents, although Thomas Jefferson is probably my favorite of the group. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, after all, and it was a document powerful enough to change the world– I think any writer would love to write something even one-thousandth as powerful and enduring as he did.

After Rushmore, I headed a bit further south to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I highly recommend you read about (link) because the story of it is fascinating… and its size absolutely dwarfs Mt. Rushmore. It should be quite impressive when it’s completed in forty years or so.

Tomorrow I have another empty, flat state, and once again, most of the interesting stuff is on the west side of the state. Will I make it to Yellowstone National Park tomorrow? We shall see.