How many people know that Mount Rushmore is named after a New York Lawyer? Or that the four faces carved into the mountain have a name – The Shrine of Democracy? Or that the idea to create it came from a project that was already underway in the South called the Shrine of Confederacy, and that the same sculpture who was working on it, Gutzon Borglum, was commissioned for the job? Or that the original idea for it was to carve out famous heroes of the West, including Lewis and Clark, Sacagewa, Buffalo Bill, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse? Or that once it was narrowed down to the four presidents the plan had been to show them to their waists?
Many people know that the Shrine of Democracy was caved on land that the sacred to the Sioux, but how many people know that the mountain had a name, the Six Grandfathers, four for the four directions on a compass, and two for the sky above and world below. To put a sculpture of four presidents right there went down as well as if the Chinese were to carve the face of Chairman Mao onto the Statue of Liberty. In 1980, it was formally recognized that the land was been taken illegally, and the Sioux were awarded 100 million, which they refused, wanting the land back, which had become known to them as the Shrine of Hypocrisy.
I don’t go there with any ideas about it or a political agenda. Like most Americans, I’d seen images of it my whole life and was just enthralled to be there in person. Perhaps, it was my fifth-or-sixth time visiting Mount Rushmore, the first time with my grandfather, in a helicopter that made him sick to his stomach.
If you see it on television, one of those grand panoramic views of it taken from a helicopter, you envision Mount Rushmore as this sprawling, expansive thing that covers the side of a mountain, when in reality, upon first sight of it, the faces seem rather small, huddled together in one corner. It is similar to arriving at the Pyramids in Egypt, only to discover that the famous Sphynx is not much larger than a trailer home.
The monument is free to get into. There is a parking garage you need to pay to enter, but that is about it. Outside of just looking at the faces from different angles, there is also a visitor center and gift shop and different trails that can be hiked. The presidents from left to right are Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln, timeless in a way beyond Roosevelt’s eyeglasses and moustache. As a young man I’d used a picture taken in front of Mount Rushmore, holding a beer with my eyes crossed out, as a flyer for my first concert. Now, I just turned and took a few selfies, like everyone else was doing.
The next stop was the Crazy Horse Memorial, which involved driving west about thirty minutes on the 244. Crazy Horse was a visionary leader of the Lakota Sioux. He was named Curly as a child but had a vision where he saw a warrior on a horse come out of a lake. The horse was able to float and dance in the air. The warrior told him that if he remained modest and unadorned no one from his tribe could touch him. If he took no scalps or war trophies, he would be invincible in war.
Crazy Horse saw bullets and arrows flying around him, unable to hit him. He witnessed a great thunderstorm. His people could not hold him back. Lightning struck his cheek and hailstones hit his body. That became his warpaint. He was a major player in both the Fetterman Massacre and the Battle of Little Big Horn. Finally, forced into surrender, he was killed by a bayonet during a skirmish at Fort Robinson.
The idea for the Crazy Horse Memorial came from Henry Standing Bear, an elder of the Lakota tribe, and the job was given to Korczak Ziolkowlski, and was started in 1948. Although the grand plan is to carve both Crazy Horse and his horse out of the mountain, to this date only the head and right arm have been completed. The visitor center is still worth the price of admission, with artwork and artifacts from a number of tribes, and on this day Native Dancers on a small outdoor stage.
After leaving the Crazy Horse Memorial, I drove back to Rapid City and headed towards Wall Drug on the 90 east. I knew I was going in the right direction because of the ubiquitous billboards for Wall Drug that run for hundreds of miles along the road. It started off as a roadside stop for travelers on their way to Mount Rushmore, offering free ice water, and went on to incorporate a pharmacy, art gallery, museum, and gift shop, in time becoming one of the greatest tourist traps in the land. I was excited to get there.
I found a parking spot on Main Street and walked toward Café Entry No. 1, passing signs for five cent coffee refills, and windows that contained black and white photos, a cowboy drawing his gun, and boots for sale. Inside was a menagerie of all things Old West, both real and make-believe, such as jackalopes, rabbits with small deer antlers grafted to their heads.
There was Old Pappy the Cook. Another shifty sidewinder with a slow-burning cigarette. Calamity Jane, the rough, tobacco-chawing spitfire of the plain. Wyatt Earp, lifting a pistol from his belt. Next to him was the fortune-telling Cowpoke. There were Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill, mounted elk, caribou, and deer heads, a shaman lifting a buffalo skull, a saloon girl, and tough old granny, chomping a cigar and keeping her cards close to her chest.
There was Wild Bill, the wagon train band, a snake oil salesman, a totem pole, George Custer, a giant Jackalope with a saddle, a buffalo, a grizzly bear. Heck. There was a frontiersman, a prospector and his mule, a recreation of one of the mines, complete with carts, stocked with minerals.
A covered wagon and horses? A bandit doing a shot? Another showgirl in a bowler hat? There was nothing they’d missed. It was the wildest place to shop in the land. The cash registers were ringing like Christmas bells.