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

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?

Nursery School: Singing in the Rain


Photo by George Hodan. This child isn’t me, but it captures how I felt during rainy Corvallis winters.

The Willamette Valley is wet. That’s what I remember most about the winters when we lived in Corvallis, Oregon, between 1959 and 1961. As I am writing my current work-in-progress, I find it easy to write about winters on homesteads near Oregon City—I just think of my preschool days. Wet. Dark. Depressing. It isn’t a heavy rain, but it seems almost constant.

I attended preschool at Oregon State University, where my father was a graduate student. As a four-year-old, I didn’t know the particulars of how the school was organized. I didn’t realize until much later in life that the teachers were students learning about early childhood education and that my preschool (it may have been called a nursery school—I just thought of it as “school”) was a laboratory for these students.

This preschool was my first school experience—my first organized activity of any type. Before that, I had only had my little brother to play with, or an occasional neighbor or friend who visited.

When I got to my last school experience—law school—I discovered that one of my law school classmates had also gone to the OSU preschool about the same time I did. We might have been classmates then, too, although neither of us remembered the other.

I enjoyed preschool. When I started there, my brother was too young to go, so it was something I got to do by myself, because I was a big girl. Later, he went to the school also, but he went on different days and was in a class for younger children. That meant we developed different friends, and we each got some alone time with Mommy.

The preschool curriculum was typical. I learned all the usual songs and dances. I remember Ring around the Rosie, the Hokey Pokey, and Farmer in the Dell. I also remember quiet time, even though we were only there for two or three hours each day—we were supposed to rest, and I think we could look at books.

And every day we had a period of time for outside play. Even when it rained, which was often.

Some days none of the kids wanted to go outside. If all the children agreed, the teachers didn’t have to take us outside. But because outside play was part of the curriculum, if someone wanted to go out, the teachers had to accommodate us.

I have always hated the rain. I was born in the desert of Richland, Washington. That dry climate is still my preference, despite my early years in Oregon and my now 35-plus years in the Midwest. I’d really rather not go outside in the rain.

But one day at preschool, I wanted to be ornery. It was raining hard, and it was cold. Nevertheless, I insisted on going outside. I knew I had the power to make it happen. Maybe I just wanted to follow the rules. I can still be a stickler for rules, but only when I want to be. Now, I also ignore rules I think are stupid. And the rule that kids had to go outside, even in the rain, was really a stupid rule.

None of the other kids wanted to go outside. Sometimes the teachers made everyone go out, but this day, the teachers let the rest of the children stay inside. I and one teacher (a young man) went outside by ourselves. (Think of how unlikely an event that would be today—a teacher is not permitted to be alone with a student, if it can be prevented.)

I bundled up in my coat and mittens, and we went out. I rode a tricycle and I talked to the teacher. It was really a miserable experience being outside in the rain without anyone else to play with. I lasted about fifteen minutes before I agreed to go back inside.

But I had saved face and made my point. Even at four years old, I could make my case and stick to it. Even if I wasn’t very nice about it.

When have you been ornery?

Snow Days: A Recent Phenomenon

Maybe this is one of those “when I was young, we had it tough” stories. But when I was young, we didn’t have snow days. At least, I don’t remember my classes ever being canceled due to snow, nor for any weather-related events. It might have happened, but I don’t remember any such occasions. Hoping for bad weather so I could stay home was not part of my growing-up years.

My brother and me in Richland, when it would have been nice to have a snow day

My brother and me in Richland, when it would have been nice to have a snow day

We didn’t have a lot of snow in Richland, Washington, where I grew up, but most winters there were at least a few snowstorms. And we often had “black ice,” which those over driving age feared more than snow. I’ve written about my dad letting me drive his new Capri after one snowstorm—my choir practice was certainly not canceled that evening due to weather.

I remember walking to the bus stop during my high school years in the snow. Over unpaved paths, uphill . . . both ways. (Well, actually, my route was fairly flat, but it was mostly unpaved, cobbled with large river rocks uncovered when a bulldozer cut a path through what would become the rest of Sierra Street some twenty years later.)

Some school days I’d worn tennis shoes in the morning, and was surprised to find snow when I left school in the afternoon. I still had to walk home from the bus stop. There were no cell phones to call my mother to pick me up. If we didn’t have prior plans for her to pick me up at school, I walked.

Far worse than snow in Richland was the wind. I had less trouble walking home in wet, icy shoes than I did in a 40-mph windstorm. On those afternoons, wind gusts blew me back a step as I trudged west up the unpaved portion of Sierra Street.

I went to college in Middlebury, Vermont. Vermont has a lot of snow. But classes didn’t get canceled there either. I slipped and slithered up and down the campus hills from my dorm to my classes. The grounds crew did a wonderful job of shoveling and salting, but of course college students made their own paths from building to building and didn’t stick to the cleared sidewalks and streets.

Middlebury in snow

Middlebury College in the snow, before the students made paths across the commons

Most years at Middlebury, I lived in dorms without dining halls, so I had to bundle up to get to breakfast before my 8:00am classes. Not fun. Many students slept through breakfast on snowy mornings (and other mornings as well), but not me. I couldn’t last until lunch time without sustenance.

Then I had three years at Stanford. It only snowed once that I can recall in those three years. No need for snow days in Palo Alto, California.

Snow days didn’t become a factor in my life until my kids were young in Kansas City. I was fortunate that my children’s day care almost always stated open, despite the snow. Although their grade school closed due to snow a few days every year, the day care portion of the school stayed open. My kids were in the extended day program at the school, so I could still take them. They went, whether they wanted to stay home or not.

I only remember one day ever that the day care center called to ask me to come get my kids. It had already snowed six inches or so, and big fat flakes were still falling heavily around 4:00pm. I got on the freeway downtown with every other commuter in the city, inched my way over a bridge to the Northland where we lived, and made it to my kids’ school about the time we usually picked them up. What was usually a fifteen or twenty minute drive took me close to an hour.

The next day was a snow day for the school, but the day care center was open.

It wasn’t until my children were in high school that snow days became important for our daily planning. As were “late start” days—which was their schools’ nod at inclement weather that might delay students’ transportation plans but wasn’t bad enough to cancel classes. My kids and I watched the television on evenings when it snowed, hoping that school closings would be announced before bedtime. If not, we had the television on at 6:00am, my children still hoping for the good news of a day at home.

Of course, my husband and I had to go to work, no matter what the kids did.

It took several years after my youngest graduated from high school before I quit watching the school closings list on TV. Snow days no longer matter to me now—I can declare my own snow days, when I refuse to drive. I try not to, because I know I’m just being cowardly. But it’s not me I worry about, it’s the other idiots on the road. If I don’t have to deal with them, why should I?

What do you remember about snow days?

Distraction: Magnolia Blossoms in July

20150703_081751For the past week or two, the magnolia tree in our front yard has been blooming again. Not as many blossoms as in the spring, and not as noticeable because the leaves are fully formed. But still a treat.

I don’t know what has caused the profusion of blooms. Is it all the rain we have had? The changing temperatures?

Usually the tree blooms in March or April—one of the earlier harbingers of spring. Sometimes it is tricked by warm days in January, only to be cut short by the next freeze. Rarely does it have many flowers in the full of summer, even though it is supposedly a southern tree.

But the blossoms are welcome whenever they come. For me they are a symbol of abundance and promise.

20150703_081743So I sit this morning at my desk writing, and my view is full of hope. The fully-leaved magnolia obscures all neighborhood activity, though I hear a power saw across the street and a lawnmower down the block.

All I see are the huge pink flowers surrounded by gaudy green foliage. Occasionally, a bird lights on a branch, or two squirrels play hide and seek (or other games) and shake the tree. A profusion of nature in my suburbia.

And a welcome distraction from writing a blog post.

What distractions keep you from writing?

Snowed Out On My Birthday

Forgive me one more birthday story. After this post, I’ll move on with my year.

Forty years ago, on my 19th birthday, I was in my second year at Middlebury College. It was spring break, but I stayed on campus that week. I didn’t mind remaining on the almost empty campus. I had lots of course work to do. Plus, I checked a novel out of the library—something I didn’t usually have time for, because I had 1000 pages per week to read to keep up with my classes. I relished spending some down time around my studying.

The only difficulty was that the college food service was closed, because so few students remained on campus. I was making do with soup and cereal—things that could be made easily in a dorm room with no stove. At least it was cold enough to keep milk in my window sill. But still, I wouldn’t eat well that birthday week.

But I had one consolation—my father was coming to visit. He had arranged a business trip on the East Coast for the week before, and he planned to stay east for the weekend. My birthday, April 5, 1975, was on a Saturday, at the end of the spring break week. My dad promised to take me out to the best restaurant in Middlebury.

The small town of Middlebury, Vermont, boasted the usual soup and sandwich eateries and bars near campus where students hung out. But there were several good restaurants in and around the small town. Students went to these establishments only went when someone with deeper pockets (i.e., a parent) was paying.

My favorite was The Dog Team, which featured prime rib and sticky buns. The campus food service rarely served good beef. Steak and sticky buns would make my birthday special. I salivated over the thought of a good dinner after my week of soup!

Photo courtesy of Middlebury College. But this picture does NOT capture the grey gloom of a Vermont blizzard, only the pretty aftermath.

Photo courtesy of Middlebury College. But this picture does NOT capture the grey gloom of a Vermont blizzard, only the pretty aftermath.

Unfortunately, Vermont weather did not cooperate. A blizzard hit the Northeast on Friday. A foot of snow fell all over the state and beyond.

Imagine my horror at a blizzard in April! I had never experienced snow on my birthday before.

My father was unable to drive north on Friday night from New York or Boston or wherever his business had been. He finally made it to Middlebury late on Saturday—too late for that nice dinner I had planned.

I had soup again for my birthday meal. No cake.

He did arrive in time to take me out for brunch on Sunday, and we spent the afternoon in his hotel room watching a golf match. (His choice, not mine. But that’s how we often spent Sunday afternoons at home.)

That 19th birthday—forty years ago this year—ranks as one of my loneliest. But as I look back on it now, I realize how fortunate I was that my father planned the trip at all and that he continued it despite the inclement weather.

Now that he has passed away, I would welcome a brunch and golf match with him, even a day late.

When did someone go out of his or her way to visit you?

P.S. For Dog Team friends, click here for the recipe for their sticky buns.

Harrison, Idaho, and Summer Parades

Marina, Harrison, ID, on Coeur d'Alene Lake

Marina, Harrison, ID, on Coeur d’Alene Lake

I’ve written before about the idyllic summers I spent during my teenage years on Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho. Some of my memories are of boating to Harrison, Idaho, a small town across the lake from where my parents’ cabin was.

Harrison had the most accessible Catholic church on the lake. We could drive to the town of Coeur d’Alene at the north end of the lake or boat across to Harrison. Most Sundays, we boated to Harrison.

Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, Harrison, ID

Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, Harrison, ID, where we usually sat outside on the grass

Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Harrison had a small congregation during the winter, but in summer Catholics from all over the lake streamed into the marina and trod up the hill to the church. The Catholic crowd swelled so much that the congregation had to sit outside on the grass. It was better than kneeling. Except during rare rain storms.

On the Fourth of July Harrison had a parade. An old-fashioned cowboys and horses, sheriffs and cheerleaders parade. It ran the short length of the main street through town. The parade itself only lasted about half an hour, but to get a prime spot, people had to be there about an hour early.

We were rarely that early, but we got there in time to get bored before the parade.

The weather was hot and the kids cranky. Noses got sunburned, and we all wanted soda pop. Then bathrooms.

Harrison, ID

Harrison, ID, without the parade

I’ve never really liked parades. I thought they were tiresome and uncomfortable. Maybe that’s why I only took my kids to a couple when they were growing up.

If she reads this post, my daughter is probably thinking, “What do you mean a couple? I don’t remember any parades!”

My response to her: “Don’t you remember the Santa Claus parades the day after Thanksgiving in Marshall? You got candy.”

But if she doesn’t remember the Santa Claus parades, she got her fair share later in life—she lived in New Orleans for three years. Now New Orleans knows how to throw a parade. Many of them. Mardi Gras lasts for weeks in New Orleans.

Call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t see the fascination with parades. The time is spent waiting for something to happen, watching animals and vehicles you can see any day, and cheering for minor celebrities like the mayor and prom queen.

Give me a good book and an air-conditioned room any day.

What festivities do you enjoy? Which do you find boring?