In the late 1980s I was freelancing for Better Homes and Gardens and its brand-new spinoff, Midwest Living. Somehow this came to the attention of the South Dakota tourism bureau, which invited me to baste in the splendors of the Coyote State. They offered me a choice of several itineraries, and the one I chose took me from a buffalo safari in Custer State Park to dinner with the founder of Wall Drug; from the Badlands and its splendiferous sunrises to a wild-horse ranch and its memorable owner, Dayton Hyde; and from a haunted B&B in the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore, where I was one of a handful of people that the Park Service allowed to climb to the top of the mountain and just wander around the backstage of history.
It was literally a mountaintop experience, but disorienting. We were playing the part of the mountain and looking at the world looking at us, instead of seeing things the conventional way.
I told my guide, Darla Bigler, that I’d write stories about the experience but couldn’t promise that anyone would publish them. Sure enough, that’s how it turned out. So in writing this, I feel I’ve paid my debt. South Dakota, Darla? We’re square.
In our current post-9/11 red-alert world I’m not sure if the Park Service lets people climb to the top of Mount Rushmore anymore. I hope they do. It’s an experience that doesn’t deserve to be taken away.
Mount Rushmore’s sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, originally planned to create a Hall of Fame of great Americans on top of the mountain, and even began blasting out and roughing in a couple of the halls. The plan was abandoned after Borglum couldn’t overcome the simple realities of logistics and money, but the views would have been amazing.
Mount Rushmore had been finished for around 50 years when I climbed to the top, and many of the tools used in carving and construction were still there, having been left behind when the builders cleared out. In talking with one of the guys who took a jackhammer to the stone, there wasn’t a lot of sentiment tied up in the creation of Mount Rushmore. It was a paying job, and they weren’t getting paid to clean up after themselves.
So here’s the money shot — and naturally, I overexposed it. But you can still get a feel for what it’s like up there, and the rawness of sculpture that looks far smoother and more finished from the ground.
When people ask me to sum up the experience of climbing Mount Rushmore, I put it this way: I wasn’t scared of heights before I climbed Mount Rushmore. I have been ever since.