Revolvers to Rushmore

In my previous post I mentioned there was a gun range across the street from our motel. Now, one of my biggest problems with this country is its weird fascination with firearms and its refusal to implement even the most sensible limits on the apparently inalienable right to possess anything up to and including a tactical nuclear bomb. If I could build a time machine, I’d pop back to the 18th century and suggest they clarify exactly what they mean about “a right to bear arms” and “a well-organised militia”, just to save some hassle down the line.

But, for $39 I could fire an 1873 Colt revolver, just like a real cowboy. Who knows when I’ll get a chance like that again?

It was fun. The revolver made a satisfying bang and punched neat holes in a target 20 feet away. When we first arrived, the shooting instructor asked us where we’d come from. She was perfectly happy with the ‘England’ bit, but visibly flinched at ‘San Francisco’. Bloody coastal liberals, coming over here and shooting our antique guns.

After an underwhelming breakfast featuring biscuits and gravy (for the benefit of British readers, biscuits are not biscuits and gravy is not gravy), we headed northeast into Montana, stopping en route at Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, a great big rock in an otherwise quite empty landscape that was visited by Lewis and Clark on their westward expedition. It apparently contains etched drawings from Native Americans, as well as the signature of Captain Clark: the only surviving evidence of their journey west in the early 19th century.

It is possible to climb Pompey’s Pillar to get views over the area, but as we arrived a thunderstorm drew in and climbing to the highest point for miles (in torrential rain) did not sound like a good idea. In the visitor centre, an old man spontaneously quizzed me on the colonial ownership of various tracts of American land. I passed the test and we moved on.

We checked into a motel in the town of Glendive, Montana. In the lobby, the front page of a local newspaper described how an escaped zoo kangaroo had caused a car crash.

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In the morning, we popped across the border into North Dakota to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It was so forgettable that, as I type this 24 hours later, I can remember nothing of particular interest about it, apart from the presence of lots of prairie dogs. The name suggests these are something like coyotes, roaming the plains looking to feast on British tourists on national park trails. They are, in fact, cute little herbivorous rodents who burrow little holes all over the prairies.

We travelled south, back across Montana and Wyoming to Devil’s Tower National Monument. I’ve never watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but this 265m high rock column was apparently the scene of an alien invasion. It is an extraordinary sight, like nothing else in the surrounding area. As the Anglo-American travel writer Bill Bryson noted in the Lost Continent, it’s impossible to imagine what else Steven Spielberg could have used if Devil’s Tower was not available.

Our destination for the day was Rapid City, South Dakota, which I had assumed would be a tacky town purely devoted to providing cheap accommodation and fast food to Mount Rushmore visitors. It definitely did do both of those things, but also had a pleasant downtown where we could eat pizza in a craft ale bar. Along the main street were a series of statues of American presidents on each street corner, like a Hollywood Walk of Fame for history nerds.

The 20 mile drive to Mount Rushmore was an entertaining case study in just how tenuously someone could attempt to profit from geographical proximity to this carved rockface. National Presidential Wax Museum? Check. Mount Rushmore Rollercoaster? Check. The American dream is truly the inalienable freedom to surround nice things with utter crap.

When you read about Mount Rushmore, reviews evenly split between “Wow, it’s everything I ever dreamed about and more, I will die happy” and “Smaller than I thought”. Our enjoyment was damped a little by the torrential rain, which gave Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln the appearance of crying big salty tears at the state of the union.

Which Roosevelt is it, did you just ask? Theodore, since work began before FDR took office. And since you asked, here’s a fun fact about the Roosevelt presidents. They are related, but quite distantly (fifth cousins), but are much more closely related through marriage. FDR married Eleanor Roosevelt, Theodore’s niece, making her married name technically Eleanor Roosevelt née Roosevelt.

The carving itself is very impressive. Though it’s difficult to get a sense of scale from the viewing area, each head is 60ft tall, so one of their presidential eyeballs would be about the height of a person. You could probably climb into Jefferson’s nostril and have a root around. Birds could nest underneath Roosevelt’s moustache.

Of course, the gift shop is filled with a dazzling array of utter crap, carved into the shape of something approximating Mount Rushmore by somebody who didn’t actually have a picture of it to hand. I bought a 3D fridge magnet and a block of shaped chocolate, which neither looked like each other nor Mount Rushmore.

About 15 miles away from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial. In the 1940s, as Rushmore was being completed, one of its sculptors, Korczak Ziolkowski, was commissioned by Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Oglala Lakota to carve a statue of Crazy Horse. In the more than 70 years since, only the face has been completed. Ziolkowski died in the 1980s, but his children and grandchildren continue the work. One day, it will be the largest statue in the world; the eyes alone are 5m wide.

For the next few decades at least, it will remain a building site. Visitors can ordinarily take a bus tour to get a closer view, though the wet weather meant that we had to make do with the view from the visitor centre. It’s impossible to get a sense of scale from that distance, but against the backdrop of a stormy sky, Sitting Bull’s disembodied face gazed serenely into the distance. The statue could have been completed long ago if they’d accepted the millions in federal dollars, but I think there’s something far more impressive about multiple generations working on a project that may never be completed in their own lifetimes.

Next time… the plain states.

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