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©John R. Turner

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September 1, 2013

Carving faces out of the rock at the top of a mountain may seem like a bizarre project. And when you consider that the most famous instance of the practice occurred not in some ancient kingdom as a tribute to the gods but in modern America as a tribute to making money, it gets even stranger.

Those were my thoughts as I drifted off to sleep the evening of August 23rd in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just north of Keystone, the biggest town of 327 people I’ve ever seen, which serves as the gateway to Mount Rushmore.
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Mt. Rushmore
The choice of the four subjects -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt -- I guess are fairly obvious, though I suppose some might quarrel with the final choice.

Some have reported that visiting the place charges them with patriotic emotion. Since feelings of that kind aren’t common for me, I didn’t experience anything of the sort.  But I did sense I was in the presence of something monumental -- though exactly what was being commemorated I wasn’t sure.  Maybe the audacity of the whole enterprise was the proper thing to drink in. I have to admit, it is intensely American.

My favorite scene of the whole morning came after we had left the park and were curving our way back through the mountains to a highway. Coming around a bend, there was a profile of Washington, alone, peering out into what might be coming. It was somehow both humbling and symbolic.

I had never had a driving desire to see the renowned carvings, but since we were in the Black Hills, we figured, “Why not?” So the next morning we drove five miles south and entered the massive parking garage (you can see the monument for free, but to park your car you have to pay twelve bucks).

I had expected to be most impressed by the curiosity of the phenomenon, but I confess that once I was on the ground, peering up at the well-known visages, the quality of the work caught me up. The faces are sharp, clear, and surprisingly vivid, more striking than you can tell from photographs or television screens.
The sculptor Gutzon Borglum may have had his quirks, but he knew what he was doing in transforming rugged rock into smooth, clear, 80-foot faces. The project took twelve years, beginning in 1927 and coming to a close in 1939.
The U. S. Park Service has done its usual excellent work in making the site easy and interesting for visitors. Trails have been constructed along the base of the mountain, so that you can view the carvings from a variety of perspectives. If you don’t mind walking up and down long staircases, you can see all four presidents as you seldom see them printed on tourist flyers.