For 50 years the giant faces of Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Jefferson have stared out over South Dakota's Black Hills, watching for a committee of VIPs which would formally dedicate Mount Rushmore to the American people.
The committee never came. One might have, soon after sculptor Gutzon Borglum's masterwork was completed in 1941 -- but Pearl Harbor was bombed less than two months later, and any dedication plans were bombed with it.
What with one thing or another, a formal dedication of the Mount Rushmore Memorial has been on hold ever since. But at long last, on this Fourth of July in its golden anniversary year, the Mount Rushmore Memorial will be officially ushered into our national park system.
It's being billed as "a media event," and I suppose I'll go even though I once had trouble with the idea of sacrificing a perfectly good mountain to commemorate four politicians. But I've mellowed a lot. For one thing, as politicians go, there couldn't have been better choices. For another, the project seemed a good idea at the time and we should try to judge events in the context of their times.
There's no denying that Borglum did a whale of a job. His clay models at the Sculptor's Studio near the visitors' center may seem crude, but the main work is highly refined. If the thing had to be done, it couldn't have been done better -- although it's difficult to understand how the money to build it could be found during the Great Depression, while the money to repair cracks in the carving is so hard to find today.
Mount Rushmore is the great public magnet of the Black Hills -- no doubt about it. Millions of visitors go into the heart of the Black Hills just to see those four faces, but then, after a sandwich and a trip to the restroom, they're back on the interstate. Too bad, for Mount Rushmore is just an added attraction; the main show is the Black Hills region itself.
Nowhere else did so many parts of the legendary West actually exist: forested mountains and deep canyons, treeless plains, desert, gunmen, cowboys, Indians, gold, prospectors, Custer's
cavalry, hell-roaring mining towns, buffalo herds. If there's anything on the sundown side of the 100th meridian that qualifies as classic West, this is it.
I was an expert in such stuff by my 14th summer, thanks to Zane Grey and the lurid yarns in Street & Smith's Western Magazine. That was the year I saw the Black Hills for the first time, and I wasn't disappointed. It was my first look at real buffalo, real mountains and Sioux Indians. The only let down was in Deadwood when I stood at the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok and thought of having been born 80 years too late and missing all the real fun.
Then I turned and saw a character right out of Western fiction: The last of the old Black Hills prospectors, Potato Creek Johnny, in the flesh -- a gnarled, bearded, ragged gnome of a man, no taller than I was, complete with burro and gold pans and happy to tell a 14-year-old kid about the half-pound nugget he found back in the glory days.
Potato Creek Johnny joined Wild Bill and Calamity years ago in the Mount Moriah Cemetery. They have passed on with Custer and Crazy Horse, but the setting they all knew is still there, as good as ever, a rich and genuine enclave of the real West that's within a two-day drive of Chicago.
Maybe Deadwood isn't the hell-roaring gold camp it was when Wild Bill came to town, but he still could find a little action. There's open gambling with slots, blackjack and poker -- and there are signs on the doors of many Rapid City businesses advising that knives and pistols aren't welcome on the premises.
South Dakota really consists of two parts:"East River" and "West River." It's a valid distinction, for the West really begins at the Missouri River. As you come out of the east on Interstate 90 and cross the Big Muddy, you'll be near the south edge of the Fort Pierre National Grassland, a vast reach of grass and sky of the kind in which the motion picture "Dances With Wolves" was made. This place -- where you still can see the wind dancing, if not the wolves -- is worth a short side trip.
A hundred miles farther west, you'll be skirting the north walls of Badlands National Park -- a moonscape still being carved from the volcanic ashes and clays of the Oligocene Epoch. Badger Clark, poet laureate of South Dakota, called it a place where "millenniums winked like campfire sparks/Down the winds of unguessed time."