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

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