Mount Rushmore

Having visited twice previously, Mount Rushmore was not a high priority for this trip. However, it would feel a little weird to skip it on a trip to the Black Hills. I read the evening lighting ceremony was interesting and driving over after a working day seemed like the perfect compromise.

It took a couple days of getting used to the Mountain time zone to make an attempt. Eventually I headed over on my third night in Custer. I ate an early dinner at the trailer and made it to the monument by about 6pm. This gave me plenty of time to do all I wanted.

There is no officially entrance fee to the park, however there is a parking fee. This means that National Park passes are not valid here. The sign did note that active duty military are free. The cost is only $10 per vehicle, paid via ticket at a kiosk like most parking facilities these days.

Aside from the mount itself, there are a couple interesting buildings on site. A museum tells the story of the the great engineering feat that was carving four faces into granite nearly a century ago. There are also exhibits dedicated to the presidents themselves.

A half mile loop trail allows for other interesting views of the carvings and gives a little sample of the nature of the region. It takes you past the artist’s studio which unfortunately closes in the evening.

The actual evening program begins at 8pm with the lighting taking place about 8:30. Of course, this time varies throughout the year to align with evening darkness. A ranger entertains the crowd intermittently from about 7:30 on. This evening, he shared famous quotes. The same ranger then kicked off the official program with some highlights of the greatness of the four men immortalized in rock, then a very patriotic movie again praising Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt and ending with “America the Beautiful”. Tip: if you are looking to capture the actual moment of the lighting, it coincides with the crescendo of “America”.

I think this is where I should say that I think it is tough to continue to interpret monuments such as this. At some point, we are going to have to reckon with the fact that no matter how many great things they did, two of the four men represented on the mountain owned other people. The entire monument is a celebration of the pioneer spirit that inspired hundreds of thousands of adventurous souls to embark into the wilderness to make a better life for themselves and their families. To paraphrase a line in the movie, “Westward expansion – great for America, but not so great for Native Americans”. It is hard to ignore that America exists on these lands today by way of genocide. At its essence, Mount Rushmore is literally a place where the United States dynamited sacred indigenous ground to build a homage to white men for the ultimate purpose of driving tourism dollars. So yeah, it is peak America, but not in the way the founders meant it to be. Now I am not trying to take away from anyone who enjoys a good patriotic celebration. I’m just sharing why I couldn’t dive all into the jingoism. I do think the National Park Service has some interesting work ahead of it as it attempts to interpret sites such of these with the full breadth of American history as we understand it now. To me, this is an amazing monument to where we were as a people in the early 20th century and I would love to see more context in the display. There is definitely a step in that direction, but still a long way to go.

Anyway, the program wrapped with an invitation to all those who had served or continue to serve in the US military to mount the stage for the lowering of the flag. For all my cynicism of US history, I was genuinely touched when a Korean War veteran folded the flag for the night. America isn’t perfect, but there certainly is much to be loved and this evening was about the same.

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