Reflections on Mount Rushmore

My husband and I recently returned from a trip to South Dakota. I’d never been to the state before, and I wanted to see attractions such as Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, and the scenic roads and towns in the Black Hills.

My daughter scoffed when I told her we were going to Mount Rushmore. “I spent twenty minutes there,” she said. “That’s all you’ll need.”

But it took my husband and me two days to see it. Well, portions of two days. And we enjoyed every minute of the three or four hours total it took us to view the exhibits and memorial.

The first day we went, it was so overcast we could not see anything from the main observation deck. Not even George Washington’s prominent nose.

I overheard one tourist shout to someone else in her group, “Take my picture. You don’t get a view like this every day!” You certainly don’t—I’m told most days you can see something, but that day all we saw were clouds.

Still, we enjoyed the history of the place. We learned who conceived the monument, why these four presidents were chosen, how the sculptor Gutzon Borglum prepared his models and supervised the construction, how the workers did the blasting and jackhammering and finishing touches to create the presidential visages, and how the monument is preserved today.

The fog and mist persisted that day, through our leisurely exploration of the visitor’s center and even through lunch. So we decided we’d come back later in the week. After all, our parking pass was good for the rest of the year, and we were early in our trip to South Dakota.

The next morning was cool but sunny, so we returned to Mount Rushmore. As we drove back to the memorial, however, clouds rolled in and we couldn’t see the tops of the hills around us. “If we can’t see anything, we’ll move on to Custer State Park,” I said. I was hopeful we’d be able to see the memorial, but the morning grew more and more dismal.

We approached the parking area. “There!” I shouted, pointing at the four presidents’ faces. Though there was gray sky behind the memorial, the sculpture was clearly visible. My husband pulled into the line of cars waiting to park.

Approaching the observation deck, while the sky was still gray

Since we’d already seen the museum, we went straight to the observation deck, where we oohed and aahed and took pictures with all the other tourists.

View from the Presidents’ Trail, now the sky is blue

Then we walked the Presidential Trail under the memorial to the Sculptor’s Studio. Lots of stairs, but also lots of opportunities for pictures. As we walked, the sky cleared even more. The day remained cool, but we could see the memorial from many vantage points, blue sky behind it, as I’m sure Borglum envisioned.

Me at the Sculptor’s Studio, with Mount Rushmore in the background

I was impressed by the artistry of the sculpture and the monumental (pun intended) nature of the project. These four presidents were worthy of commemoration—George Washington as the father of our nation, Thomas Jefferson as a prime drafter of our core documents and architect of the Louisiana Purchase, Theodore Roosevelt as protector of the nation’s wilderness, and Abraham Lincoln as the leader who held the nation together through its darkest hours.

Borglum’s model, at the Sculptor’s Studio

Nevertheless, as I pondered the history of our nation and the difficulties of creating the memorial on Mount Rushmore, I wondered whether carving up a mountainside was the appropriate way to recognize these individuals. Why destroy a lovely granite cliff that nature etched over eons? Is human handiwork—even as majestic a project as these four figures—worthy of displacing what it took earth and wind and water millennia to form?

I don’t know the answer.

At some point, earth and wind and water will eat away this masterpiece of human artistic chutzpah. The National Park Service fills the cracks that develop today. But eventually they will lose the battle. It may take several more millennia, but over time our memorial to these four men will come to mean no more than the Great Pyramids of Egypt or Machu Picchu or the heads on Easter Island mean today. The significance of the memorial will fade with time.

Until then, however, tourists will ooh and aah and take their pictures with these four great men.

Weather permitting.

What National Park treasures do you like best?

P.S. Later we saw Mount Rushmore from a distance. The perspective changes—the memorial seems impressive, but no more so than the granite cliffs and forest.

Mount Rushmore, from Needles Highway

Blue-Tarped Roofs After Hurricane Katrina

As the news reports have shown pictures of the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma over the last few weeks, I’ve thought about my experience with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I wasn’t in New Orleans during that hurricane nor for over a year after it occurred, but what I did see taught me how long it takes for a community to recover from a natural disaster of that scope.

My daughter attended Tulane Law School from 2007 until 2010. She and I first visited New Orleans to check out the school in April 2007—over a year and a half after Katrina destroyed much of the city. We returned in June of that year to find her an apartment, and in August 2007 we moved her to New Orleans. We visited her a couple of times during her three years there, and our last visit was for her graduation in May 2010—by then it had been almost five years since Katrina.

Blue Tarp City, by Gail Williams, taken on December 20, 2005, available on Flickr

On my first visit in April 2007, my daughter and I drove all around the city, trying to get a feel for the community. In every neighborhood we passed through, there were dumpsters in the driveways and blue tarps on the roofs.

“But this neighborhood’s fine,” my daughter said as we drove near the Tulane campus. “Check out the cars.”

Sure enough, there were late-model cars parked on the streets, indicating that the nearby houses would be repaired, even if they were in bad shape at that time.

In other neighborhoods, where the cars were older, there were more homes still boarded up, fewer dumpsters showing active rehabilitation, and more blue roofs that hadn’t been touched since the hurricane. Those neighborhoods still showed the storm’s destruction.

Blue Tarp Roofs Across the Street, by Bart Everson, taken on December 5, 2005, available on Flickr

With each visit to New Orleans, I saw fewer blue tarps and more repaired homes. The more affluent neighborhoods returned faster, the poorer neighborhoods continued to have many abandoned and boarded-up houses. But slowly the community fought its way toward normalcy.

What I saw in New Orleans taught me that Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida, and the other areas hit by storms this year have a long battle ahead. The immensity of the reconstruction must be overwhelming to residents at this stage.

But what I saw also tells me that Houston and the many other cities and towns devastated this year will come back.

The same drive to rebuild has been true after other hurricanes, after tornadoes and floods in the Midwest, and after mudslides on the West Coast. The restored communities won’t look exactly the same, and not all the same people will return. But the human resolve to reconstruct their lives will prevail. Again and again, if need be.

What experience have you had with natural disasters?

After Much Hype, Eclipsed by Clouds

Late last winter, another couple asked my husband and me if we wanted to “go to the eclipse” with them on August 21. We had nothing scheduled that far in advance. Although I’d heard about the coming solar eclipse that would pass through our part of the nation, it didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Sure,” we told our friends.

There was some vague mention of a road trip to St. Joseph, which is less than an hour north of our house in the Kansas City Northland. Then we thought nothing more about it.

I felt a growing sense of doom, however, when I read in the spring that hotel rooms in St. Joseph had been booked for months. I voiced some concerns about the need to plan our day, but we didn’t pursue anything. Then as August 21 approached, media hype over the solar eclipse grew.

As a good introvert and researcher, I investigated the eclipse more closely. I found maps showing the exact path of the totality. Our house was in it. I found a site listing the precise length of totality at every point along the path. Our house would have a full minute of total eclipse.

“We could just stay here,” I suggested. “Watch from our front porch.” (After the demise of our ash tree, our yard is pretty open.)

News reports grew more frenzied. There would be a thousand-fold increase in population in many small towns along the center path of the eclipse. Menard’s in St. Joseph was renting out its parking lot for $75/space for the day. Arrow Rock, Missouri, was worried about having enough porta-potties.

“Do we really want to leave home?” I asked.

Our group decided to abandon St. Joseph. We would go to Smithville, Missouri, where there would be over two minutes of totality, though not the full two minutes and thirty-eight seconds St. Joseph would have. My husband stores his boat in a garage near Smithville Lake, patrols the reservoir regularly for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and knows many of the backroads around the lake. He suggested several viewing locations with easy access to restrooms. As a fallback, we could sit in the gated storage area where his boat is housed.

Then we learned Smithville Lake had several eclipse-oriented events planned. Three of four people I talked to one day in my neighborhood planned to see the eclipse in Smithville. I worried the hype would cause the hordes to find our off-the-beaten-path locations.

And weather reports were mixed. At first, there was a 20% chance of rain. Then AccuWeather increased its forecast to 51% chance of a thunderstorm on August 21.

“We could always stay at our house,” I said again. “Is the extra minute of totality worth dealing with crowds?” I hate crowds.

“Theresa’s not going to back out, is she?” our eclipse-party friends asked my husband.

“Nah, she’ll go,” my husband said.

When he told me of this exchange, I said, “Of course, I’ll go. But I’m just saying . . .” I would participate in the hype, but I didn’t have to like it.

We prepared to spend the whole day away from home—water, food, sunscreen, insect repellant, an awning, camp chairs—all the necessities for survival. We didn’t want to compete with the multitudes the media said would descend on the path of totality. We would be self-sufficient, prepared to stay off the grid if need be.

Our friends said they would arrive at our house at 6:30 a.m. They live in the south part of the metropolitan area, which was outside the zone of totality. On a normal traffic day, the drive from their house to ours was about 30 minutes. They worried 6:30 might not be early enough.

I mentioned again that we could always watch from our front porch if the traffic was too bad. But I knew none of the others would agree.

On Eclipse Day, our friends rang our doorbell at 6:10 a.m. I was just headed to the kitchen to pack our cooler. “Apple Maps showed heavy traffic. So we left early,” they said. “But we had no problem.”

At 6:19, the four of us left our house, caravanning northward in two cars because we had too much stuff for one vehicle. We reached Smithville in record time and inspected our potential sun-gazing locations. None was crowded. The best place seemed to be near Sailboat Cove—right on the lake, facing west for the best view, with well-maintained restrooms nearby.

Parking lot still had lots of space

We paid the parking fee and pulled into the mostly empty lot. A few people were there before us, but we still had a pick of picnic tables. We set up camp—spreading out enough food for a week and placing our lawn chairs to face the water. We got the awning frame out of the car . . . and discovered we’d left the cover at our house.

My husband drove home and returned by about 8:15. Again, no traffic. We raised the canopy and were ready for the show.

Our viewing location under canopy

With more than three hours until the partial eclipse began and four and a half hours until totality.

We ate. We read. We chatted. I did the sudoku and crossword puzzles from the newspaper. The sun streamed down, not revealing any sign of impending darkness.

Parking lot now overflowing, but lots of room for people

More people arrived at Sailboat Cove and the parking lot filled. Additional cars parked on the grass. But plenty of open space remained for viewers.

In mid-morning clouds churned in and blocked the sun. We held the awning in place through strong wind gusts. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled off in the distance. Then it rained. And poured.

The partial eclipse begins (shot through a filter)

About the time the partial eclipse began, the rain stopped and the clouds thinned. We put on our special eclipse glasses and stared upward. I got a few good pictures with my cell phone camera, its lens covered by another pair of the special lenses.

Dense clouds obscure the sun more than the moon does

Around 12:30 p.m. dense clouds rolled in again. The partial eclipse disappeared from sight. The sky grew dark—but how much was due to the eclipse and how much to the looming thunderstorm?

As 1:08—the time of totality at Smithville—approached, disappointment spread like a plague through the watchers.

I decided I wouldn’t be able to see the total eclipse, but the sunset in front of me would still be worth filming. I started my camera’s video mode, something I’d rarely used before.  I shot a two-minute video of a lovely midday sunset through a rainstorm.

Then oohs and aahs erupted behind me (you can hear them at the end of the video). The total eclipse flashed briefly through the clouds, and some people—including my husband—saw a glimpse. But because I wasn’t looking skyward, I only saw the sunset.

And so it goes.

After the brief climax of the astronomical show ended, we sat under our tent and ate some more. Then a true Midwestern deluge unleashed its power and threatened to overwhelm the weight-bearing capacity of our canopy. We shook off the water, and when the storm slackened to moderate rain, we packed up and headed home.

Along with all the other sun-gazers.

We drove south on the highway in bumper to bumper traffic before bailing onto county roads as soon as we could. But in trying to avoid the crowds, we encountered two flooded intersections requiring detours—one of which sent us right back onto the crowded highway, and the other sent us north instead of south. What that morning had been an easy 30-minute drive from our house took an hour and a half on the return.

The hype had hit us after all. We’d beaten it in the morning, but it bit us in the afternoon.

Later I learned that the farther south one was in the zone of totality, the better—albeit shorter—the astronomical show was. In St. Joseph, north of us and our original destination, bad weather turned the eclipse into a bust. In Smithville, we had some nice views, though the critical two minutes were disappointing.

Near our home south of Smithville, I was told, the clouds parted and allowed viewers to see the total eclipse for the full minute.

Oh, well.

Though the total eclipse did not provide all the spectacle I’d hoped for, I had a pleasant day with friends in a beautiful setting on Lake Smithville. I got wet, but not uncomfortable because the temperatures remained moderate. I enjoyed the day and will have to accept it for what it was.

The part of the eclipse I saw will have to last me for a lifetime because I doubt I’ll travel to see the next U.S. total eclipse in 2024.

What did you see of the Great American Eclipse this week? Was it worth the hype?

National Senior Citizens Day Eclipsed

August 21 is National Senior Citizens Day. It’s a day set aside to support and honor senior citizens and to recognize their achievements and contributions to our communities. President Ronald Reagan began the day with a proclamation in 1988.

The definition of “senior citizen” varies from one group to another. AARP membership begins at age 50, but other organizations don’t recognize senior status until age 65 or even 70. The IRS doesn’t require oldsters to take minimum distributions from IRAs and 401(k) plans until age 70 and a half.

But supposedly the National Senior Citizens Day definition is age 60. Therefore, I qualify as senior.

Unfortunately, the National Park Service definition is age 62—that’s the age to get a cheap lifetime pass to the national parks. The price goes up on August 28 of this year from $10 to $80. ($80 is still a good deal, but not as good as $10.) My husband has his lifetime pass—in fact, he has two, because he forgot it one time, and it was cheaper to get another lifetime pass than to pay for a one-day admission to that site for two people. I’m a few months short of age 62, so I’ll have to hope he doesn’t forget his pass again. And that we always travel to national parks together.

I also qualify for $1 senior drinks at McDonald’s (which kick in at age 55), but I usually forget to ask. And I must not look sixty—only one McDonald’s order taker has ever volunteered to give me a reduced-price soda.

Suggestions on how to recognize Senior Citizens Day include several ways to spend quality time with seniors, such as

  • Starting conversations with seniors you encounter
  • Enjoying books, movies or games with senior loved ones
  • Undertaking a family history project with grandparents
  • Skype-ing with tech-savvy seniors
  • Visiting those you don’t see often

But don’t bother trying to connect with me this year. This year, all thoughts of celebrating Senior Citizen Day are eclipsed by . . . a solar eclipse.

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse is cutting a 70-mile-wide swath across the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. And the partial eclipse will be visible for a much wider stretch on either side.

Our home in the Kansas City Northland is in the zone of the total eclipse, though we only get about a minute of totality, instead of the 2 minutes and 40 seconds that the central path of the eclipse will receive.

Rather than sitting on our deck, however, some friends, my husband, and I have plans to head a little farther north to increase the time we’ll be under the total eclipse. Projections are that millions of people will be heading for places where the total eclipse will be visible for two minutes or more. We’re heading for a county park where the totality will last just over two minutes. But I won’t tell you which park, in case you try to head there, too.

As someone who hates crowds and heavy traffic, I’m wondering whether leaving our house will be worth it. Is a two-minute period of totality so much better than one minute? Is it worth the inconvenience of overwhelmed roads and port-a-potties to ooh and aah for an additional 60 seconds?

But then, such thoughts make me sound like a curmudgeonly old-timer. Like a senior citizen. Surely, I’m not there yet.

I’ll let readers know later whether it was worth it.

Do you have plans to see the eclipse? Post your post-eclipse comments here.

Random Photos: Going Home Again . . . A Vacation Remembered

My husband and I didn’t take too many summer vacations at my parents’ home when our kids were growing up. We saved our visits for every third Christmas. In addition, my parents visited us once or twice a year in Kansas City, and we sent our kids out to Washington State without us as soon as the airlines would let them fly by themselves.

But I recently pulled out a random envelope of snapshots my father had taken of one summer vacation we did take in Washington State at my parents’ house.

Kids swimming, one with water wings, and the other with attitude

I can’t recall exactly which summer it was. The pictures were taken at the large house my parents had in the Meadow Springs development of Richland, Washington. They owned this home between the summer of 1986 and about 1991. I know this wasn’t our first visit there—we’d visited them at this house over Christmas 1986. My daughter looks to be about three or four in the pictures, with my son about six or seven, so I’m guessing it was the summer of 1988 or 1989, but it could have been 1990.

Nanny Winnie supervising my daughter

The house had a swimming pool, which our kids loved. My daughter couldn’t swim yet, so had to wear water wings. My son could swim, and most likely lorded his wing-less state over his little sister. My mother’s mother, Nanny Winnie, visited that week also, and she loved to swim. She was always happy to supervise afternoons at the pool.

Mitzi doesn’t know whether to bark at my son or the pool skimmer

My parents had a Schnauzer named Mitzi. Mitzi wanted to be a part of the pool parties, particularly when the pool skimmer was operating. The dog could swim, but she couldn’t get herself out of the pool. Later, my younger brother taught Mitzi to paddle to the stairs so she could climb out, but at the time of our visit, she had not yet learned this escape route. One time during our visit that week, I had to dive in after her and pull her to safety. She didn’t seem too grateful, and scrabbled and scratched to get out of my helpful arms.

Husband and son canoeing on the Wenatchee River

On the weekend we were there, when my father wasn’t working, my husband, son, father and I went canoeing on the Wenatchee River. We drove through the lovely mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, rented canoes from an outfitter, and put in on the river somewhere near Lake Wenatchee. Then we floated downstream through the alpine Wenatchee National Forest for a couple of hours. We stopped for lunch on a gravel bar, then took out where the outfitter had designated and awaited our pick up.

Lunch on the gravel bar

We had two canoes—my husband and son paddled one, and my father and I had the other. This was the first canoe trip I’d been on where I wasn’t in the same boat as my husband. I was used to relying on his skills to get us through any whitewater, but we decided our son needed a strong paddler more than I did. Our son was young enough that his paddling was more for show than power. (As was mine, though I at least had an intellectual understanding of what I should be doing.)

Me with wet shoes, and son

My father was definitely not as competent at paddling as my husband. Still, he and I didn’t have much difficulty until we reached the take-out point. There, even with both Dad and me paddling as hard as we could, we almost didn’t reach shore. I finally had to step out of the boat to pull us out of the current just as we passed the gravel river access road where we were supposed to meet our ride. Dad may have gotten wet also—there is photographic evidence of my wet shoes, but he was taking the pictures, so there’s nothing to verify his actions.

I was happy to find these pictures and to remember that summer vacation back in my birthplace—Washington State, and Richland in particular. In recent years, I’ve only been to Richland for my parents’ funerals in 2014 and 2015. There’s no one left to bury in Richland, and I sometimes wonder if I will ever go home again.

What do you remember of visits to your hometown?

Bloch Galleries at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

A few weeks ago I did something I’ve been wanting to do since March—I went to the new Bloch Galleries at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Actually, the Bloch Galleries are in an older part of the museum, but they have been newly renovated and new works displayed.

Henry Bloch of H&R Block fame recently donated a number of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in his private collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. Impressionist paintings are among my favorites, and I was thrilled to see an expanded collection in my local art museum.

I started with lunch at Rozelle Court—always a treat. After soup, half a sandwich, and a raspberry peach mousse tart, I headed to the Bloch Galleries.

It was a delight to see old favorites from the Nelson-Atkins Impressionist collection combined with the new works from the Bloch Collection. For example, one panel of Monet’s Water Lilies has been in the Nelson collection ever since I can remember. This grand painting still takes up a whole wall of one gallery.

Water Lilies, by Claude Monet

And I took a moment to wonder at Monet’s brush strokes.

Detail from Monet's Water Lilies (click on this image to enlarge it and see the brush strokes better)

Then I marveled at collections of old and new works filling other corners of the new galleries, like little gems gathered into a net. A new treasure in every room, around every corner.

A corner in the Bloch Galleries

And another corner.

 

I could have stood for hours in each of these lovely corners. But a couple of small exquisite pieces from Mr. Bloch’s collection in particular caught my attention.

Georges Seurat, The Channel at Gravelines, Petit-Fort-Phillippe, oil on panel, 1890, gift from the Bloch Collection

 

Paul Signac, Portrieux, The Bathing Cabins, Opus 185 (Beach of the Countess), oil on canvas, 1888, gift from the Bloch Collection

 

As well as a painting that resembled one my grandmother had for many years (though the painting she owed was no Monet).

Claude Monet, Boulevard de Capucines, oil on canvas, 1873-74

After spending an hour or so wandering the Bloch Galleries, I went in search of other treasures. When I go to a museum, even one I’ve been to often, I usually try to go through a room or two at random to see what I might find. This time, I wandered through the American Galleries at the Nelson, hoping I might find some inspiration for my next book cover. I didn’t find anything that sparked my interest.

So I wandered into the Chinese Galleries by happenstance. I haven’t been through the Asian Galleries at the Nelson in several years, though the Nelson is renowned for its Asian art collection.

This time, I was struck by similarities between the Chinese art and the Impressionist works I’d just seen. I walked past two formal displays of furniture and paintings. I’m sure I’ve seen them in the past, but this time I noticed the fine details in a silk panel and in a small painting of a mountain, each of which brought to mind the delicate elegance of the Impressionist paintings in the Bloch Galleries.

After Lan Ying, born 1585, Mountain Landscape, set of twelve hanging scrolls, ink and color on silk. Displayed with furniture.

 

Detail from one of the Mountain Landscape scrolls

The Four Seasons, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 18th-19th Century, Dali marble from Yunnan Province (thin marble sliced into thin sheets and framed as stone pictures). Displayed with furniture.

 

One of the Four Seasons marble pictures

 Art spans the centuries and the continents. It is specific and yet it is universal.

Realizations like this are what keep me going back to the Nelson-Atkins Museum time and time again. Such realizations and the desserts in Rozelle Court. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

What do you enjoy most about at art museums?

Seeking My Roots in Copenhagen

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2007, my daughter and I went to Copenhagen to visit my niece who was studying there. I can trace one branch of my ancestry back to Denmark, so the prospect of visiting that nation appealed to me. I wondered if I would feel a connection there, as I did when I visited Ireland a few years earlier.

My niece and her roommate were busy most of the time, so my daughter and I toured Copenhagen on our own. We took a boat tour of the city. I loved the brightly colored buildings that lined the canals. They reminded me of the row house doors in Dublin.

From the boat tour

We saw The Little Mermaid statue, which was beautiful albeit underwhelming (I’d been warned it was quite small). I remembered reading Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story as a child. I’d never liked Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which seemed dark and horrific to me. I preferred the Grimms Brothers—as if those were a whole lot merrier.

The Little Mermaid

We climbed a church steeple for a panoramic view of the city. Gorgeous, though we then faced a long walk back to the apartment on tired legs. The view reminded me of Florence, Italy.

Copenhagen from the steeple

We went to museums, where all the signs were in English and German as well as Danish. I learned Danish history, including the very early Viking Danes who were the first Europeans to reach North America (unless the Irish Saint Brendan beat them by a few centuries).

And on one cloudy day, my niece took us to tour Kronberg Castle, supposedly the model for Shakespeare’s Elsinore in Hamlet. I’ve always had a thing for castles—probably because I grew up in a decidedly unromantic town built in the 1940s, which contained nothing remotely resembling a castle.

Kronberg Castle

We ate well. The Scandinavian penchant for fish at breakfast did not appeal to me, but everything else tasted great.

It was a wonderful trip. I loved Copenhagen and felt very comfortable there. What I saw brought to mind many memories, though none of them ancestral. I guess my Danish genes are too diluted (it was my great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Denmark to the United States). My other ancestors were mostly English, Irish, and Scotch, with a little German thrown in.

Still, I’m glad I went to Copenhagen, and I would happily go back. I may not have found my roots, but I enjoyed the trip.

Where are your roots, and when have you sought them out?