BLACK HILLS, S.D. -- The difference between the Crazy Horse monument and Mount Rushmore is the difference between the quick and the dead.
I can't prove it, no more than Einstein could prove that imagination is more important than knowledge. But it's true.
Some patriots may disagree, violently perhaps, yet the red man is alive and the four white guys are dead.
I am no noodle-brained new-ager, but a good Catholic boy, grateful to be a second-generation American. And I am here in South Dakota to tell you that something is present at Crazy Horse and absent at Rushmore.
"The difference," said a 14-year-old boy selling ice cream in these sacred hills, "is what they represent."
It makes you think about winners and losers and how they often switch places over the long run.
The Rushmore carvings are among the largest on the planet, on a par with the mighty Sphinx of Egypt. The incomplete Crazy Horse -- 565 feet high by 641 feet long -- is the biggest of all man's sculptures.
With nearly 9 million tons of granite already carved -- and dynamited rock free for the taking -- the three-dimensional memorial to the Lakota chief will not be finished in my lifetime.
Mount Rushmore was unveiled in 1941, six years before a Boston Pole named Korczak Ziolkowski began blasting granite nearby. A relief made with the removal of 450,000 tons of rock, Rushmore would fit across the Sioux warrior's brow.
These monuments to mortal enemies -- settlers and the resettled, Americans all -- loomed before us on week two of our 10,000-mile summer journey across the United States.
Before hitting Rapid City, the coolest thing we'd seen was a vintage log cabin near the Fox River in Wisconsin painted lime green.
Imagine a log cabin on the parking lot of the Harundale Mall.
Taking the suggestion of those who had made the trip before, my son, Jake, and I visited Rushmore first to avoid being disappointed by the difference in scale. George, Thomas, Abe and Teddy exude the cold, gray and formal feel of our nation's capital and capital -- despite all the talk of liberty and democracy -- they represent. It was like staring at portraits carved from hard cash.
Still, the tourists I spoke to during an afternoon hail storm at Crazy Horse, which was created without a dollar of government money, were more moved by cowboys than Indians.
Rushmore, said Joyce Hall of Garland, Texas, "is what we have today, it's our freedom." Her husband, Robert, a transplanted Okie who drills for water in the Lone Star State, allowed that before last week, his wife would not have known Crazy Horse from Crazy Glue.
"It's interesting," he said of the testimonial to the man who vanquished Custer. "But Rushmore takes my breath away."
From Graceland to Memorial Stadium -- "Time will not dim the glory of their deeds ..." -- monuments fascinate me.
I am interested in the ego that builds objects that honor others, and Crazy Horse is as much a tribute to the passion, diligence and beautiful lunacy of its creator as it is to the man emerging from the mountain.
Korczak's name, his progeny and his creations -- including a Polish eagle carved from Tennessee marble that would look swell on the bar at the Polish National Alliance on Eastern Avenue -- are everywhere.
The sculptor, who died at age 74 in 1982, is buried in a self-built tomb on the mountain where he labored for the last half of his life.
Above him, upon a colossal steed, is Crazy Horse, his arm outstretched forever across the Badlands, declaring in granite: "My lands are where my dead lie buried ... "
The fun of a loosely planned road trip, knowing you will get from A to B but not always sure by which route, is stumbling upon things along the way.
Jake and I knew we would encounter a monument to a people who have survived to see brethren from Mexico and South America flood into a nation built atop their dead ancestors.
But there has been much we did not anticipate.
In downtown Sioux Falls, S.D., we discovered Zandbroz Variety, an old-fashioned store where the soda jerks still make Coca-Cola with syrup and fizz water and, in addition to crime novels by Charles Willeford, you can get one of those wind-up robots made of tin that Beaver Cleaver would have traded Whitey a stack of baseball cards for.
A dozen or so miles east of Sioux Falls on Interstate 90, I was reeled in by an improbable billboard advertising a Fatima shrine.
There, in the cornfields of Alexandria, stands the National Fatima Family Shrine in honor of the appearance of the Blessed Virgin Mary to a trio of Portuguese shepherd kids in 1917.
The statues and open-air chapels came with a blessing you can't get in cities like Baltimore anymore: the church, built from local granite between 1905 and 1907, was unlocked even though there wasn't a soul around.
My son and I were able to sit quietly in the sanctuary, thank God for our good fortune, remember our loved ones and move on to the next monument.
The Corn Palace!