The West’s un-natural wonders

Sometimes we just can’t leave nature well enough alone.  Our day started with a gorgeous sunrise in Rapid City, as seen from the historic Alex Johnson Hotel.  (Howard’s less-ambitious brother?)  It’s been open since 1928 and there is photographic proof that Al Capone stayed there. (Good thinking, Al.  Who would look for you in Rapid City, South Dakota?)

Our first stop was a local curiosity from the 30’s – the Dinosaur Park made of inaccurate cement dinosaur figures, which have been looking out over Rapid City as it has grown. New science in the dinosaur field aside, these are charming effigies, and the park was amazingly uncrowded. Guess the other tourists confused it with a Sinclair gas station. The park had a great view of the city, and I guess that last dinosaur must be in awe of all the changes since he ruled the ‘hood.

The main focus of our day was – bet you already guessed – Mount Rushmore. It’s strange to see something that is so familiar an icon in its reality. It is a stirring evocation of American nationalism, and overall not as kitschy as I anticipated.

The sculptor was Gutzon Borglum, who started on the project in 1927, which was declared finished on his death and the start of the war in 1941. (Interesting sidebar:  Our friend Korczak Ziolkowski of yesterday’s Crazy Horse sculpture learned his craft by working on Mount Rushmore with Borglum.  And the Crazy Horse idea came to an Indian chief who wanted the white man to know that Indians had heroes too – after he saw the US Presidents carved into his beloved and ancient Black Hills.)

There is a new and massive viewing platform – thoughtfully provided by the Homestake Mine – which gives you a straight-on view of the monument.

I think a far-better view is the angle seen from outside the sculptor’s studio, which shows the heads in a more interesting way. He also had a great view from his studio window, which allowed him to compare it to the model of what was originally planned.

All in all, we were glad we saw it, and so glad that new additions which have been discussed (I shudder just thinking about the latest debate) have failed to be approved.

Then it was off to the town of Lead (pronounced ‘Leed’), to see the site of the Homestake Gold Mine, the largest, oldest, and deepest mine in the Western Hemisphere, and another contributor to the George Hearst fortune.  (You do remember him, right?  He was the father of William Randolph and the noble creator of the Anaconda smelter in Montana.) The Homestake pit has been closed since 2002. It is a huge eyesore and the mine tunnels have caused lots of problems in the stability of the terrain above ground. However, they will now be making good use of the old mine. It is being transformed into the Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, as deep underground cosmic rays won’t affect their experiments in particle physics, astrophysics, and other fields. We were able to barely sneak a peek at the pit, but everything else in town was closed up, even the Opera House, which is supposed to be lovely, thanks to Mrs. George Hearst. See? More unnatural wonders…

And then it was off to our final destination of the day – Deadwood SD.  If you’ve seen the HBO series of the same name or other cinematic recreations of the heyday of this gold rush town, you will know that it was one of the more lively and unsavory places in the West, known for several years for its lawlessness and violence. Wild Bill Hickok met his maker here, and Calamity Jane got herself spectacularly drunk most nights.  They are buried together here, and we’ll try to find their graves tomorrow.  In the meanwhile, we made do with the local museum – which, by the way, had its very own two-headed calf, but it was too moth-eaten to share with you.

Gambling is legal in Deadwood, and the town works hard to promote its tough and naughty image.  (The last brothels in town weren’t closed up till 1980.) There are slots everywhere and the overall effect is numbing and not so nice. It does seem to be a haven for heavily tattooed smokers, hard-drinking women and men with very bad beards, so maybe we won’t be making this a second home. But it does seem to be faithful to its past, so that’s a good thing, right?




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