“There they are!” we both shouted simultaneously.
Chills and adrenaline ran through our bodies as we spotted our first glimpse of the presidents heads atop Mt. Rushmore.
The images of four Presidential faces carved in granite are among the most famous in the world. But, the icon stands in the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred North American Indian lands, which are pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
My friend Judy and I made a trip to Sioux Falls and decided it was the perfect opportunity to visit the state’s awe-inspiring Badlands and Mt. Rushmore. Teddy Roosevelt described the Badlands saying, “Nothing could be more lonely and nothing more beautiful than the view at nightfall across the prairies to these huge hill masses, when the lengthening shadows had at last merged into one and the faint after-glow of the red sunset filled the west.”
We spent one afternoon and evening among the deep desolate canyons, towering spires and rugged buttes. Sadly, that amount of time is not nearly enough.
The next day we drove the Needles Highway in Custer State Park seeing spiky mountain peaks and bison walking down the road. Rangers encouraged us to drive north on the Iron Mountain Road for the best approach to Mt. Rushmore. Little did we know the next 17 miles would turn into one of the most thrilling road trips.
Unlike its heavy, rigid sounding name, the Iron Mountain Road snakes around itself with a series of bridges, known as pigtail bridges, and through tunnels barely wide enough for one car. The term pigtail should not be confused with the hairstyle—think of a tightly twisted pig’s tail or a 720 degree spiral. The road’s construction, in the 1930’s, ranks as a marvel of engineering and has been termed “the by-way that couldn’t be built.”
Since Judy and I made a point of pulling over at each scenic overlook, we naturally stopped at the first one. Our car was the only vehicle in the lot and the landscape seemed non-descript, like an ordinary field. But then….way off in the distance we spied a tiny white outcropping on the side of a mountain. It included four heads! Woo-hoo, our first glance at Mt. Rushmore in person.
I leap out of the car as if pushed by an ejection button. I was truly eyeing a place I thought I’d never see. As we proceeded, the road continued to flirt with seduction, offering a sneak peek here and there. The views got better and better as we drove along. At one stop we caught site of George Washington through an opening in the trees. Further along, we squeezed our car through a one-lane tunnel which acted like a dramatic portal. Iron Mountain’s summit offered a stunning but still distant vista of the 60-foot tall carvings.
Eventually we arrived at the National Memorial and strolled down the Avenue of the Americas lined with each of the 50 state flags. We stared up at the immense work of Gutzon Borglum, his son and 400 other workers. The project took 14 years to complete from 1927-41 and cost less than a million dollars. We ogled and pinched ourselves; when an icon looks like this, nowhere becomes somewhere.