The tiny town of Keystone, the closest civilisation to Mount Rushmore, is a cheesy tourists dream. Populated almost entirely by budget motels and overpriced tat shops, you can spend a fortune there on junk before you even get to see the monument. You can take tours of the local caves, and even hire a helicopter and fly over the top of it. If only that business had been around when Cary Grant was there, it would have saved him a lot of trouble!
Anyway, I cruise on up to the entrance so I can park the Dream Machine and take a look at Abraham Lincoln (without hat!), George Washington and the other two that nobody ever remembers, and the troll at the entrance to the car park asks me for money to get in. I smile and flash my National Parks Pass, but then she tells me that it isn’t valid at Mount Rushmore. What? Mount Rushmore is a national monument, and the pass is valid for all national parks and national monuments. I added “you peasant” under my breath as I told her this. Well, it turns out that although Mount Rushmore is a national monument, which by the way is free to the public so you don’t need a national parks pass to get in anyway, the car park is privately owned and so I have to pay to get in there. What a rip off! In fact it’s such a rip off that many people must have complained; on the second page of the free ‘Mount Rushmore Visitors Guide’ that you’re given for your $8 parking fee, there is a lengthy article explaining why you’re being ripped off and why the national parks pass is not applicable at Mount Rushmore. Oh, and the picture on the front of this years national parks pass is – Mount Rushmore!
It turns out that Mount Rushmore isn’t just four faces chiselled out of the side of a mountain, it’s actually ‘The Shrine of Democracy’. It was started in 1927 and finished in 1941. The sculptor (although there were teams of people actually doing the work, he didn’t do it single-handedly) died a few months before it was completed, so he didn’t even get to party it up after spending fourteen years strapped to the side of the mountain. During the sculpting they got halfway through Abraham Lincoln before finding out that the piece of rock they were using was a bit dodgy, so they had to scrap it and start him in a different place. I wouldn’t have liked to have to be the one to tell everybody that they had to start him again!
There is a nice visitor’s centre where you can learn about the history of the place, you can wander around the bottom of the mountain taking millions of pictures from slightly different angles, and you can even have your picture taken with an Abraham Lincoln look-alike, who must have been seven feet tall even without his hat!
Crazy Horse, South Dakota
Still a bit upset at the White Man running roughshod over all their land a century ago, the Native Americans are building their own version of Mount Rushmore a few miles down the road in a town called Custer. The project has been going for around a decade, and even from a distance you can see it taking shape. It is called the Crazy Horse Memorial, and will eventually show the Indian chief on his horse leading his troops into battle against the paleface. Or something like that! I say that you can see it from a distance, because the project is privately funded and they are asking a fortune to go in and see it. And it’s not even finished yet. A car with up to three people in it costs $24, which is a bit excessive: even more excessive if there’s only one of you in there. So I stopped at the entrance gate, whipped out the trusty old zoom lens, and took a quick picture for posterity. I’m sure it will be very impressive once it’s finished!
Badlands, South Dakota
The Badlands, another national park, are strange to say the least. Stuck in the middle of South Dakota it is one of the most desolate places on the planet, pretty similar to the asteroid that Bruce Willis was stuck on before he blew it up and saved the earth. The area covers a few thousand square miles with a single road going through it, and as you’re driving along (hoping your car makes it to the other side, because you’re buggered if it doesn’t!) it’s a very weird experience.
The area is also very big on dinosaurs. There are exhibits of different fossils that have been found, and other archaeological bits and pieces lying around the place. Mildly interesting, but I was put off a bit by the fact that you have to walk around in the relentless baking sun in order to have a look at all this stuff, so it did lose some of its appeal. The Native Americans used to inhabit the Badlands as well, but of course they have all been shuffled off to a reservation a few miles outside the park and out of the way. And as you’re driving across the endless desolation, you occasionally see a dirt track with a mailbox at the end of it. So some people still live out here. There are no animals to be seen, so maybe they’re farming rattlesnakes or spiders. Quite why anyone would want to live out here anyway is beyond me.