Sunday, March 18, 2012

Smoke and Black Hawks and history in the air over Mount Rushmore

We cruised up to Mount Rushmore National Memorial yesterday afternoon. It's a 27-mile drive from Rapid City past a weird assortment of tourist attractions -- sprawling waterslide parks, Bear Country USA, Reptile Gardens ("See Maniac, America's Giant Crocodile"), Old MacDonald's Farm petting zoo ("Pig races!"), Black Hills Maze, Sitting Bull Crystal Caverns, etc. Most are closed for the season. A few are closed for good.

Anyway, we got to Mount Rushmore. I've been there but my wife Chris has not. I took the kids there 13 years ago when my son was at Boy Scout summer camp near Custer. It's an impressive place. It took 14 years and 400 workers and a million dollars and tons of dynamite to carve the faces of four presidents into Harney Peak Granite. Why bother, you might ask. But therein lies the tale. Local promoters thought it would be a great celebration of American freedom and a terrific tourist attraction. They were right about the latter. The former is still being debated, which seems fitting. The ranger at the visitor center said there was a recent History Channel documentary that called Mt. Rushmore a "testimonial to white privilege." Or maybe that was "testament to white privilege." He seemed upset by the idea. But you have to admit that those are some big white faces up there on a mountain that is still claimed by High Plains Indian tribes. I'm not privy to the current state of white-Indian relations regarding Paha Sapa. But it's always been testy, not to mention bloody.

We took many photos. We walked the Presidential Trail. A beautiful day in the Black Hills. As we made our way from one interpretive placard to another, we heard the sounds of a helicopter. Looked up to see a Black Hawk hovering nearby. We wondered if it was some sort of spring weekend military demonstration. Or maybe a visit by a V.I.P.? A president, perhaps? But we would have heard about that.  

The Black Hawk dipped behind the trees, hovered, and the buzzed off. We forgot about it until we got back to our car in the parking lot and saw a plume of smoke on a nearby ridge. Uh oh. The Rapid City Journal's cover story Saturday morning talked about the extreme fire danger caused by unseasonably warm temps and high winds. On our return to Rapid City, we passed fleets of police cars and firefighting trucks blocking a side road. Smoke was in the air. So was a Black Hawk.

Good news. The authorities jumped on the fire and put it out quickly. The cause appears to be target shooters, as shotgun shells littered the charred ground and targets were affixed to surrounding rocks. Not sure what to say about that. There are many things one can do safely in a tinder-dry forest. Discharging firearms is not one of them. 

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