what I did on my summer vacation

My family recently took a road trip north to Yellowstone National Park and then east to Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. It was our kids’ idea. They are now young adults and they wanted to spend 5 days in a car with us! They are at that age where things change so fast and they will be gone before we know it. So of course we packed the car and off we went, after re-arranging a labyrinth of work and social schedules to find the days that would work for everyone.

I have seen plenty of national forests and have had the privilege of traveling overseas but this is the first time in my life I have seen Old Faithful and Mt. Rushmore, believe it or not. Old Faithful was fun to watch and we are all glad that we saw it but the geyser spurt was so brief that it had my son snickering. It didn’t seem worth the ride to him. We decided it could use some, um, Viagra.

Old Faithful before eruption

Old Faithful before eruption

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Old Faithful at its peak - sorry I couldn't make WordPress turn it upright

Mt. Rushmore, however, was truly a-mazing because of the sheer size and scope of the work. We had a marvelous tour guide. She was a Park Ranger who told us many stories. She mentioned that this monument was created on a mountain face that originally belonged to the Lakota tribe. The story goes that in 1868 the US government agreed to give the Black Hills (in which this mountain is located) back to the Lakota tribe as it had been their ancestral land. But when gold was discovered in them thar hills, the government broke the treaty and took the land back. This resulted in battles, ending with the Lakota ceding their land again.

In 1980 the Lakota won a settlement from the government of $122 million (if I remember correctly) but were offered no land. The Lakotas refused the settlement and the money has been put into a trust fund for them. Our guide says it is now worth over $900 million, yet the Lakota continue to refuse the money. They want their land. That says a lot about what these people hold sacred. Interestingly enough, our tour guide happened to be of Danish descent (which is the same as the Rushmore sculptor, Gutzon Borglum) as well as Lakota descent. So, she explained, she certainly had mixed feelings about it all. It felt especially poignant to hear her unique point of view.

Mount Rushmore, taken from just inside the park entrance

Mount Rushmore, taken from just inside the park entrance

She described the monument and the purpose of each Presidents’ presence on it. First there’s Washington, obviously, as he represents the birth of this nation and was the general of the continental army during the Revolutionary War. He was our first president and he refused multiple terms because he felt that it could lead to the abuse of power. He also refused to be crowned King, thus preventing this country from becoming a monarchy like Britain.

Jefferson represents the expansion of our young nation as well as the wisdom of the founding fathers, having written the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents. In addition he showed considerable foresight in the Louisiana purchase and other territorial acquisitions including the Panama Canal zone. (This heightens the controversy of this monument, as all 4 Presidents served during years of acquiring Native American lands. The Manifest Destiny and all. I am glad there are still conversations going on about this stuff.)

Lincoln (not in order as they are on the mountain) represents preservation of the Republic because of crafting the emancipation proclamation and bringing an end to slavery, thus keeping and expanding the values of “all men created equal”.

Roosevelt represents conservation, as this was a major focus of his administration. He had the foresight to create national parks and he advocated for the sustainable use of our natural resources. One historian writes, “Roosevelt regarded the land as an economic resource which must be conserved and managed to protect the long term economic and political strength of the nation.”

It was a great history lesson and it filled us with gratitude.

But then she asked us a great question. She asked us to gaze at the sculpture and ask ourselves, is it a finished work of art? She pointed out the obvious unfinished aspects that we had overlooked. We went into the sculptors studio to see the original model and saw that it indeed had many more features that are not on the mountain today. (Borglum’s untimely death had a lot to do with that.) But she added, we wouldn’t airbrush something into a piece of work by Picasso. So, is it finished? Well then, we all agreed, yes it is.

She said, “Let me offer my opinion if you please.” (We did.) “It is still far from the artist’s original vision. It is rough in spots and if you look close you can see deep fault lines. There is room for improvement and must also be carefully preserved. At the same time it is a beautiful monument to the United States. We are also unfinished, a bit rough in places and we have major faults. There is much need for improvement. However, given the ideals that are preserved in the monument, I wouldn’t take any other nation any day over the USA. So, the Mt. Rushmore sculpture is both unfinished and also just right to represent us.”

I couldn’t agree more. And it was so worth the trip.

So what did you do on your summer vacation?

The original model for Mt. Rushmore, preserved in the sculptors studio

The original model for Mt. Rushmore, preserved in the sculptors studio

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Showing 6 comments
  • Skip
    Reply

    Well,
    I didn’t get to see “Old Faithful” in all his impotent glory. Sounds like Viagara might be in order indeed.

  • Skip
    Reply

    But,
    here’s what I’d like to have done. This is my one desire in terms of travel in this world, to see the Southern Cross.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oZDXCWY8VLI

    • ellenharoutunian
      Reply

      I got to see the Southern Cross when in Mozambique and South Africa. It’s so amazing to look up and see stars that are unfamiliar – so different from home. 🙂 Come to Africa with us sometime!

      • Skip
        Reply

        Make it so Lieutenant Haroutunian.

  • phyllis
    Reply

    Dear Ellen,
    It warms my heart that you were so taken with Mt. Rushmore. I grew up nearby, in Rapid City, SD, across the street from the family that ran the concessions at mt. rushmore for decades. I worked there, played there – i recall several impromptu song and dance numbers my friends and i performed at the ampitheater in the middle of winter when i was in high school. of course, living so close i also took it for granted, complained about it, and rolled my eyes at the awestruck tourists that clogged the mountain roads and asked ignorant questions (we townfolk were soooo superior!). but i have to say i am still impressed and deeply moved whenever i visit. i’m glad you liked it.

  • lindy
    Reply

    Thank you for mentioning the Lakota and their integrity. 🙂

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