Saturday, July 29, 2017

Mount Rushmore and our Common Inheritance

Mt. Rushmore at Minneapolis MIA/Nikles
Mount Rushmore, unlike the Crazy Horse monument, lives up to its billing. We stayed off the road, out in the woods on the western slopes of the Black Hills. “Dispersed camping,” they call it. We pick our spot anywhere, at least 300’ off the road, pull up the trailer, and we’re home. We woke up and got an early start with the sun. Completing the Needles Highway loop, we drive through a narrow one-lane tunnel cut into granite, and there they were, perfectly framed in the tunnel: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln (stage right to stage left).

Doane Robinson, South Dakota’s state historian, pushed hard to fund the art project. He correctly foresaw the tourist attraction it would become and the dollars this would draw to the Black Hills. From mid-Wyoming to Minneapolis and Chicago; from eastern Colorado and Nebraska to Iowa and eastern North Dakota, the Black Hills have been a draw ever since the Model-T came along. Construction of the monument started in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge authorized federal funding in 1929, and it was deemed complete in 1941, five weeks before Pearl Harbor. A remarkable 393,000 people visited the Black Hills and the monument in 1941, and after the war, attendance steadily climbed to more than two million annually.

It matters not so much who was chosen for the carving. It could have been John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, W.E.B. DuBois, Susan B. Anthony, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It could have been a host of others. What matters is that we bothered, and that we chose individuals around whom we can come together to tell an inspiring story. There is enough inspirational about the four who were chosen to serve our purposes. What matters is that when we walk up to this monument we can summon our better selves, our idealism, and our will to carry this experiment in democracy forward. To keep perfecting it. There is nothing commercial or base about this.

Mt. Rushmore, in that sense, is the anti-Crazy Horse. Rapid City, a town of ~70,000 (144,000 metro) in southwestern South Dakota has benefitted from the tourists drawn to the Black Hills for a century. It’s a college town that voted for Trump over Clinton 2:1. We had breakfast in a hip cafĂ© (Harriet & Oak), complete with a vintage VW bus, couches and bookshelves upstairs, and the best coffee latte art for 400 miles around. Bobbi struck up a conversation with Bob Hurd. He grew up in Rapid City, joined the navy and became a submariner, went to college on the GI bill and now travels across the West for a consulting business to inspire company leadership, and he regularly visits this hip coffee shop in Rapid City. He owns 40 acres up in the Black Hills, a true mark of local success. “What do you think about that Crazy Horse memorial?” we ask him. He paused, like we do when approaching a sensitive subject. “Ziolkowski (the owner-sculptor) had a bit of a reputation for philandering; he was a self-promoter,” he offered. He echoed the opinion of everyone we spoke to: “It probably will never be finished, but in the meantime, the family is doing a great job promoting it.” He admired the entrepreneurial spirit.

But successful memorials require the opposite of entrepreneurial spirit, they require collective vision and action; radical sharing. When memorials are successful, like the Statue of Liberty or Mt. Rushmore they inspire and unite. We could dwell on Jefferson's slave-holding, but at Mt. Rushmore we don't. When the negative and cynical outweighs the positive, memorials lose their purpose. It's why they've been tearing down statues of General P.G.T. Beuregard and Jefferson Davis in New Orleans. Despite all, Thomas Jefferson remains central to our vision of ourselves. Crazy Horse would make a fine memorial, but not as a 1/4 finished private venture.

Mt. Rushmore at dawn
Despite being surrounded by commercial ventures designed to profit off tourism, the non-commercial, welcoming nature of Rushmore—in marked distinction from Crazy Horse—helps to keep our cynicism at bay. A friendly young native American woman took our ten dollars to park the car. “It’s good for a year,” she said apologetically. “You can come back at night to see the light-show; you can come back anytime.” Mt. Rushmore leaves the commercialism to the merchants: Rushmore is for the people.

The same holds true of our great national parks and national forests. The National Park Service safeguards these magnificent lands for us with a welcoming air. It’s our tax dollars as a nation, our collective will, not our user fees, that protects these jewels and guarantees them to future generations.

State parks also serve a unifying purpose. They are our collective inheritance as citizens of the several states, and we open them up to visitors from everywhere. We gladly paid six dollars to stay overnight in a well kept South Dakota state park on our way to Minnesota. It made us Californians welcome in South Dakota, it made us feel at home. It made us feel like we share this great land together. 

Mt. Rushmore succeeds in uniting us behind a positive, inspiring, and unifying vision for the country. May it continue to do so for a long time; may it help to heal our wounds. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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