This is the end, beautiful friend
The Dead Presidents
As a foreigner, I can say Americans have a really weird relationship with their democracy and their presidents. The democracy they established back in 1788 was pretty unique in the world at that time, but things have moved a long way since then. Now, most of the world has fully functioning and effective democracies that have evolved with the times. In the US though, the whole political system seems to be frozen in time. Americans constantly refer back to “the Constitution” like it was holy rite. Meanwhile, the actual political process has become irredeemably corrupt and sclerotic. No one now looks towards the US as a model for democracy.
The contradictions within the US political system are no better displayed than the national reverence for their presidents. The president is, after all, just an elected official, but the position is worshipped in a manner more akin to imperial despotism. In this sense, Mount Rushmore is THE monument to presidential idolatry.
The idea was championed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum and commenced in 1927 and wasn’t completed until 1941. The sculptures, carved into a sheer granite rockface, are absolutely massive and are visible for miles. Each bust is 18 metres (60 feet high). Their size and the effort required to build them make them truly awe inspiring.
The original plan included more presidents, with space for future additions. It probably wasn’t long before the magnitude of the task led to a rationalisation of the plan. The choice of Roosevelt for the fourth bust is a little odd. The bio on site explains his claim to fame as ‘the youngest man elected president.’ Hmmm. It transpires that Borglum was currying favour here with the Roosevelt’s.
From Mt Rushmore we headed to the rival monumental sculpture – Crazy Horse. If Mt Rushmore was a crazy venture, Crazy Horse is utterly bonkers. Here an entire mountain is being carved into the largest sculpture in history. The sculpture was commissioned by the Lakota Indians in 1931. The sculptor, Korzcak Ziolkowski began work, almost alone on the monumental task in 1948. He worked on the project until his death in 1982. His family have since picked up the project and, against the odds, it actually seems to be making progress. But they certainly have a long way to go. Like the great cathedrals of Europe, this will be a multigenerational project.
We arrived at the site mid-week and one of the volunteers invited us to attend a blasting the next night. We would have loved to attend, but we had to leave. We had a plane to catch in Denver.
The plan and the reality
High Plains Drifter
It was a long drive from Custer to Denver, where a flight was waiting to take us home. When we picked up the car, so long ago, the hire company had specifically warned us hail damage was not covered in our insurance. We’d brushed that idea aside – Hail? Pah! As if….
Some three hours north of Denver, on the highway through a flat featureless landscape, I noticed some dark clouds gathering on the horizon. They were very far in the distance so I didn’t worry about it. But as we continued south, the clouds continued to gather. About an hour later, the clouds didn’t look quite so innocuous. They had taken on a distinctly tumultuous aspect. Shelly had been asleep in the car for some hours and when she stirred I pointed to the horizon. “What do you think?” I asked. Shelly looked concerned. “Does that look like it could become a tornado,” I posed? “What should we do?”, Shelly asked. We switched on the radio, assuming we’d hear something on the weather reports. There was nothing so we pushed on.
The closer we got, the worse the weather looked. About an hour outside Denver I became convinced the storm was about to become a tornado. Then the rain came in, hard lashing rain that windscreen wipers couldn’t cope with even at full tilt. We’d experienced this level of rain a couple of times in the US, most recently on the day we bumped into Bill Macy, so with visibility down to zero we pulled over to the side of the highway. Everyone else had the same idea. A moment later there was the tinkling sound of hail bouncing off the roof. We opened the windows and caught a handful of rice grain sized hail stones. Then, as quickly as it started, it was over.
As we set off we noticed that the road ahead was white. There was a strange crunching sound under the wheels too. We slowed down and pulled over. The entire road ahead was coated in a thick layer of hail. We picked up hail stones the size of marbles, then the size of golf balls, and then the size of baseballs. Then we noticed up ahead a row of cars and trucks off on the road verge which had been smashed and trashed by the hail. All their windows were punched out and their panels dented as if by a 1000 hammer blows. We shook our heads in amazement at our good fortune. Had we been driving a little faster we’d have been pummeled.
Our stay in Denver had been somewhat last minute and we’d booked a hotel online that morning. The hotel was part of a chain and described itself as ‘mid central.’ When we arrived we discovered that meant it was about half an hour from downtown in a very industrial area. Fortunately they were quite understanding and transferred our reservation to their mid-town hotel. The hotel was an older style motel with a new addition, but was pretty run down. Upon checking into our room we discovered the toilet did not flush. I opened the cistern and saw there was something blocking the ballcock. I went to reach in to unblock it but suddenly stopped. The cistern was blocked with needles and a plastic wrapped bag. Holy crap! We reported the matter and were moved to a new room, but needless to say we felt a little uncomfortable.
That night we cabbed into town and had some pleasant drinks at a champagne bar. We dined at a late night dinner – our last dinner in the US.
The next morning I dropped Shelly in town for some shopping and I headed to a car museum, then it was off to the airport and we were on our way home again.