Sunday, June 05, 2011

Days Twenty Two & Twenty Three: South Dakota's Black Hills, Rushmore & the Mammoth Site

After breakfast in Custer, South Dakota (an event with its own inherent adventure, see pictures...), we left our friends whom we'd camped with in the rain for two nights and struck out on our own again. We drove slowly through Custer State Park and the Black Hills, admiring everything from turtles to bison. I was beat and felt like I wanted to move about as much as the wildlife; sunning and chewing were approximately my speed.

Eventually, we ended up at Mount Rushmore. Mike and I had been through these parts in our original drive out to California 13 years ago on a very foggy day. We stared into the distance at cloud trying to make out a nose or a forehead. So, a matter of principal, we were going to see it this time. We'd already cast off the Crazy Horse Monument in the interest of time and energy; that one we'd managed back in the summer of 1998, and Isaac would just have to live with dead white men for his cultural lesson of the day.

So there it was: Washington prominently leading the pack, Jefferson tucked behind, Teddy Roosevelt with the artist's masterful suggestion of glasses, Lincoln with his deep set eyes emphasized in the afternoon shadows. Like so may things, natural and unnatural, even staring at it in person you can't really grasp the scale. Or, in this case, the purpose.

We caught the 14-minute video, where a much younger Tom Brokaw narrated the ins and outs of the monument's inception, the grand plans of those memorialized and those memorializing. There was much talk about men, and the rights of men, and the accomplishments of men, and what men should always remember, and men who should always be remembered, and damn if they didn't talk a bit more about menfolk. If I was weary before all this, I was downright ready to snooze now.

My interest in this little national rally is exactly that. I am interested in who the country is when it decides it will fund a 14-year long, dynamite-blasting art project. It runs through the Depression and into the time of World War II. It is the fervor of America as some kind of goal.

There could be a hundred different faces worthy of carving into a mountain. Or there could be none that warrant such a defacement. Two million people a year go and look and click and leave.

Here is the picture we made Isaac pose for.

And here is the picture Isaac asked us to take. I found it interesting that he wanted his picture taken off to the side, in the trees. He looks considerably more content.

We rolled into Hot Springs about an hour after Rushmore. Cranky from having belly cramped in the van, but jazzed by the lack of rain and cold and enamored of the lilac bush laden little town, I headed into the visitor's center.

There is just one woman who works in all of the visitor centers everywhere. You've met her: Coiffed grey hair, full make-up. No matter what the weather is she is wearing a hounds tooth blazer over a white turtleneck. Clip-on pearl earrings. Her drawn in eyebrows raise in delight as she greets you and asks where you're from. Then, only after you sign her book, she settles in to expertly circle attractions upside down, tells you how much your little boy with enjoy the Pioneer (or, fill in the blank kind of) Museum. And you watch her go on and on and the weariness and the trip ahead and the things behind, it all creeps into your bones until you have to lean hard on her plexiglass-covered map and how can you tell her that what you need is for her to come 'round the counter and clasp you in her arms. To hold you to her hounds tooth breast, right there, next to the displays of Mount Rushmore magnets and postcards of the Black Hills. And maybe that's just what she needs too – to forget for a minute about her kids, grown and flown, who don't call enough. To just be what she's best at being – a respite for the visitor. But she is smiling expectantly at you now and you figure you've daydreamed through something and so try to recover, come to the present moment.

She directs us to a campground just outside of town. What we find is perfect. Doesn't the van look happy by the non-flooding stream under the trees?!

The next morning we left early from our lovely camp and drove to the spot that drew us to Hot Springs in the first place: the Mammoth Site. A giant sinkhole that trapped dozens of Colombian and wooly mammoths some 27,000 years ago, it is now a museum and active dig site.

We did the general tour and then Isaac got to do a “junior paleontology” excavation. He uncovered the skull of a giant short-faced bear – what did YOU do today? The staff was great and I'm happy to say that the excursion with so much riding on it was not a disappointment.

All of the over 50 skeletons of mammoths they've uncovered so far (and they have at least another 45 feet to go) belong to males. After working around journalists for a number of years, I have learned that you just lay down the facts. That editorializing, although the heart and soul of blogging I suppose, is certainly not always necessary. Just lay it down. All male. Sometimes, however, one is still tempted to type sentences like, “Hey, dude. Wanna go check out that sinkhole?” “Rad, yeah, let's go!”


Susannah said...

I love your story of the woman in the visitor center, and the perfect camping spot to follow. It does look very lovely, especially floating down the stream on a giant inner tube.

And I also love the vision of the "all male" wooly mammoths doin' what they do...

Susannah said...

oh, and great photos too! especially the boots!

Mary said...

Hey Miss Kitty,

Thanks for sharing. I made it through your whole trip thus far. Sounds like quite an adventure. Dinosaurs, and pink eye and tortilla chips, oh my! Makes me want to get on the road. Hope you're hanging in there. Must be rough- almost 7 months. I've developed quite the waddle and my brisk NYC pace has slowed to a mellow saunter. As long as I get there. It is about the journey, right? Can't wait til Summertime. :P Yikes! Apparently our little one is practicing kick boxing already! Ouch! I'll check in again soon. Hope the rest of your journey goes well. Looking forward to the next episode.



Rita said...

Been forgetting to check in again, haven't I?
Yes, it surely is understandable you'd be wanting a respite clasped to an understanding woman.
Never knew bison could look quite like that picture.
We may be distinctly in the minority, but I really hear you about Mount Rushmore, all the more with the Black Hills being sacred to the Lakota. The kiddie shows really loved Mount Rushmore when I was familiar with them, and I wasn't the only one to notice. One Saturday morning a promo for the next cartoon showed the characters' pet monkey, in true Hollywood tradition, trying to tell them something. He lined up four little rocks and began putting coins on them. "Not Mount Rushmore AGAIN!" Mom exclaimed, and laughed and changed the channel.
Love you.

jaykaym said...

I have the white hair, although not well coiffed, and no blazer nor pearls - right now I'm in a tee shirt and old shorts because I'm taking a break from cleaning the bathroom floor grout - but I always have time for a virtual hug. You've spent so much time being a good mother on this trip you need a bit of mothering yourself. So put your arms around yourself, tip your head to your shoulder, close your eyes, take a deep breath, sway a bit and give yourself a hug from me. Namaste.

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