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In Patriotic Times, Rushmore Calls

On the plains of South Dakota under a sweeping sky, the profiles of four presidents and the vast countryside beyond are better than a history book for telling the story of America


CUSTER STATE PARK, S.D. — From the fire tower here, the visages of four American presidents on Mt. Rushmore, 20 miles north, look about the size of those on nickels and pennies. A bit to the west, you can see the face of the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse emerging from another granite cliff, and 7,242-foot Harney Peak, where Native American holy men sought visions to give them direction. The Black Hills surround the sights, man-made and natural, like a wagon train circled for the night. Beyond them in all directions stretch the Great Plains, where buffalo grazed and battles for America's destiny were waged.

After that, there's just sky.

Some places are better than history books for telling our stories. The Black Hills of South Dakota, out of the way and undiscovered by the trendy set, would be such a place even if an obsessed Danish American sculptor hadn't carved the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln on the southeast-facing flank of Mt. Rushmore.

Appropriately, perhaps, it takes a little effort to get to the Black Hills. Unless you drive to South Dakota, you have to fly to Rapid City, a town of about 61,000 that doesn't seem to have a building taller than 10 stories except for grain elevators. Its motels and attractions--petting zoos, go-cart tracks and the like--look as though they haven't changed since the '50s, reassuring to those of us who recall bygone family vacations in old-fashioned touristy places like this. When you scan a restaurant menu, you can expect plenty of meat, including venison and buffalo, served by people who seem so genuine that you start to wonder if they're putting you on.

For all those reasons, the next time a foreigner asks me what to see in the U.S., I'll say L.A.; New York; Concord, Mass.; the Grand Canyon--and South Dakota's Black Hills.

I thought I would never be able to look at Mt. Rushmore without Alfred Hitchcock sitting on my shoulder, reminding me of how Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dangle from the noses and cheeks of the presidents during the climax of the 1959 thriller "North by Northwest." I thought there was something vaguely kitschy about the massive sculpture. How could anyone improve on the sheer granite cliffs of the Black Hills, shot through with quartz and glinting with mica?

I was wrong on all counts. Visitors are bound to be impressed, no matter how they come upon Mt. Rushmore--whether on the grand ceremonial approach provided by U.S. Highway 16A from the ticky-tacky tourist town of Keystone; or from behind, where a hairpin bend in South Dakota Highway 244 presents a surprise profile of George Washington; or from the south on dauntlessly switchbacking Iron Mountain Road, which has tunnels that perfectly frame the cliff carving in the distance.

Close up, Mt. Rushmore National Memorial grounds don't look quite as they did in the Hitchcock movie, thanks to a $56-million renovation completed in 1998. A paved walkway lined with the flags of the 56 U.S. states, districts, territories and commonwealths takes visitors from the parking garage toward the monument, passing a cafeteria and large gift store along the way. The walkway ends at a broad stone terrace directly overlooking an amphitheater where nightly presentations are held, ending with the illumination of the monument by high-powered quartz and halogen lamps. Beyond it are ponderosa pines, 450,000 tons of rock blasted off the cliff during construction and now tumbled against the mountain's lower flank and, finally, the four presidents' faces.

They are silver in bright sunlight, at other times dappled by the shadows of clouds or all but obscured when the Black Hills are shrouded with fog. The visages are 60 feet high, eyes 11 feet wide, noses 20 feet tall, created on 5,724-foot Mt. Rushmore in about 14 years, ending in 1941, by 400 workmen, sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln.

The four were meant to represent the founding, growth and preservation of the United States. Washington, to the left, is the most prominent; Jefferson is to his right as you face them, though he was moved there only when a fault was discovered in the rock on Washington's other side, where the Jefferson carving was started. Next comes Theodore Roosevelt. He was a friend of sculptor Borglum, who included the 26th president despite critics who said T.R. didn't belong in such august company. Bookending the monument on the far right is a bearded Abraham Lincoln, a shoo-in, though Borglum deliberated about whether to sculpt the author of the Gettysburg Address with facial hair.

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