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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Mount Rushmore

As I start writing about my travel to Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park/Grand Teton National Park – that took place during June 2004 and lasted for a week - I still recollect our experience vividly with great awe and inspiration. I need to admit that this was one of the grandest tours I ever undertook so far. The areas we visited are among the greatest blessings of Mother Nature and God. We saw there the highest manifestations of HIS grandest blissful state. Some of this planet’s most daring evolutions have taken place here on this expansive field several hundred thousands or millions of years ago and its geological manifestations are there for everyone to see, admire, bewilder and enjoy even today. The mountains with its valleys, rocks, waterways, geysers (hot-springs), woods are all stunningly beautiful.

Our entire circular trip took us through three States, Viz., Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.

America is one country that has been abundantly endowed with natural resources and they generally take care of them very well. What I saw in these areas lend credence to my earlier belief that they also contribute a lot to conserving nature. They seem to be spending phenomenally on preserving their natural resources, providing and maintaining facilities for the visitors who throng to these places and, documenting their wealth for everyone to know in more detail. Wherever we went, we saw convenient visitor centers, information on places, well laid and maintained roads and, patrolling by police. Though most of these roads looked deserted, tourists could always move around fearlessly on those desolate places.

I have tried to narrate our tour as realistically as possible without trying to create artificial embellishment. My thanks are due to a number of brochures, literatures, publications and for the information contents and some of the images and through them I also understood in great detail about this region, their history, heritage, geology, animal world etc., My thanks are also due to Viji and Bala for their extensive research on this area for quite long for the trip and for the meticulous planning for travel, commutation and stay in this wilderness. And again, as usual, my grateful thanks are due to Lakshmi for her excellent company and food ideas during this trip.

I felt it is impossible to contain a report on a weeklong tour just in a couple of pages, especially when you have exhaustively covered different places of interest. Hence, I will be subdividing the report into two or more parts – one covering Mount Rushmore and the nearby areas and the others covering Yellowstone/Grand Teton National Parks.

Part I
Mount Rushmore

On 2nd June 2004, we – Viji, Bala, Lakshmi and me - departed Phoenix by an early morning flight to Billings(State of Montana) with a stop over and change of flight at Denver. Denver is a huge international airport with an underground train facility to move from one terminal to another. I was admiring the engineering marvel at the airport when we took the train to change terminal. This is one important thing that I noticed in America. They seem to be planning for big things and for a century ahead of time. Fortunately for them, financial resources do not appear to be a major constraint. I had a similar feeling when I first visited World Trade Center at New York during early January 2001. The World Trade Center with the twin towers appeared to stand over a mammoth three level underground train station. America has built some of the world’s biggest airports. For that matter, Sky Harbor at Phoenix is one of the busiest airports in the world. Every minute, a flight either takes off or is in the process of landing at Phoenix Airport.

We reached Billings at around 12.00 in the mid afternoon. Our travel from Phoenix to Billings took nearly six hours or so including our stop over at Denver. Viji and Bala had booked a rented vehicle for our entire trip from Billings for all the seven days. They approached the Car Rental counter. The vehicle we were allotted was a large Chevy Impala with plenty of leg space. Bala took the steering initially and Viji sat with her Yahoo and AAA (Automobile Association of America) Map opened up on her lap. We passed through the city of Billings located at a height of 3126 ft above the sea level in the Yellow Stone Valley, carved out of Yellow Stone River, which passes through the city. Two thirds of the city is in the Yellowstone Valley and the city is divided into the Valley and the Heights by the Rims, a long cliff, also called the Rimrocks – mostly sand stone cliffs of 300 to 500 ft high. Billings is surrounded by six mountain ranges - Beartooth Mountains on the South and Snowy Mountains on the North being most significant - and is the largest city in the radius of 500 miles.

The journey from Billings to Keystone (State of South Dakota), the town where Mount Rushmore is located, took about seven hours by road. On our way, we were passing through the Rimrocks, which presented tantalizing picturesque for our eyes. We reached Keystone at around 7.00 in the evening. We rested for the night after having the dinner we brought all the way from Phoenix. This was something, which I insisted – that we should make our own food during the entire trip to Mount Rushmore and Yellow Stone and avoid eating out. So, we brought some rice, puliyodarai mix, pickles, and a small electric rice cooker. Enough buttermilk or curd was available in many stores. We made plenty of salads, sandwiches with spread and cheese, cut-vegetables (with lots of green chili) and sauce. During the entire trip, hardly two or three times we ate out. The breakfast was complimentary from the hotels we stayed in and we generally ate sumptuous breakfast in the morning. We gained substantially in terms of food cost in the entire trip and we never encountered any digestive problems.

On day 2, i.e., on 3rd of June 04, we left the hotel after our breakfast. Our first destination was Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is located near the Keystone town at a short distance. This is a monumental granite sculpture located within the United States Presidential Memorial that represents the history of the first 150 years of United States of America with 60 feet sculptures of the heads of former U.S Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The entire memorial covers 1278 acres of land and is 5725 ft above sea level. The weather was excellent that day, bright and sunny and the air was a bit chilly and during our entire trip weather cooperated with us very well.

The entrance to the Memorial, the surroundings, the ambience everything was picture perfect. Near the entrance, there was a person who had dressed like Abraham Lincoln with his tall black hat and it was nice to take photographs with him with the entrance gate to the memorial and the sculputres at the back ground. He was so tall that Lakshmi was measuring hardly up to his hips.

I understand that the carvings on the mountain started in 1927 and ended in 1941 with few injuries and no deaths. Gutzon Borglum was the sculptor. He along with 400 workers undertook this historical project and when Gutzon died in March, 1941, his son Lincoln Borglum continued the project. The entire project costed a million dollar those days. Extensive visitor center, museum, sidewalks, the Presidential Trails have all been undertaken during the redevelopment work in the 1990s.

Mount Rushmore is controversial among Native Americans because the United States seized the area from the Lakota tribe after the Black Hills War in 1876–77. The Lakota consider the hills to be sacred, although historians believe the Lakota also gained control of the hills by force, displacing the Cheyenne in 1776. The Crazy Horse Memorial is being constructed elsewhere in the Black Hills to commemorate a famous Native American leader and as a response to Mount Rushmore. It is intended to be larger than Mount Rushmore and has the support of Lakota chiefs; the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation has rejected offers of federal funds.

So, our next destination was the Crazy Horse Memorial which was loacted a few miles from Mount Rushmore.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a mountain monument in progress in the Black Hills of South Dakota that when complete will be the world's largest sculpture. It is named after the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. The sculpture's final dimensions will be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. By comparison, the heads of Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet high; the head of Crazy Horse will be 87 feet high. It was begun in 1948 by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked on Mt. Rushmore under Gutzon Borglum, who claimed that several Lakota chiefs requested a counterpoint demonstrating a Native American hero. The sculpture portrays the warrior Crazy Horse, who led the Ogala Sioux (now Lakota) battle in 1876.

The memorial is to be the icon of a huge educational and cultural center that will include the University and Medical Training Center for the North American Indian and the Indian Museum of North America. The current visitor complex will anchor the center. The entire complex is owned by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, and Ziolkowski's wife and several children remain closely involved with the work, which has no fixed completion date. The face of Crazy Horse was completed and dedicated in 1998, with a view to aiding fundraising. The monument is being built with no public money and is primarily supported by visitor fees (more than one million people visit annually, bringing in millions of dollars). Much of the earth-moving equipment used is donated by corporations.

The US Federal Government offered $10 million to help fund the project but was turned down. This was supposedly due to fears that the Government would claim a stake in the project and its profits.

When we visited this place, very little work was going on at the construction site. One could see the gigantic face of the sculpture coming up even when one approaches from a distance.

We went around the visitor centre and tried to grasp the great efforts of the Native American Families in bringing up this memorial without governmental support. As we were extremely satisfied with the great view of the sculpture coming up even from a distance, we decided not to go inside the construction complex and we decided to hop on to our next destination, that is, Custer State Park.

Among other things North America is so much blessed with rain, soil, alternate water resources, and the resultant greeneries and forests. Every place looked uniquely beautiful on its own.

The lean, tall rocks rising from ground are called needles and when they rise in rows creates a fabulous view from distance.

Custer State Park is a state park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The park covers an area of 71,000 acres (290 sq. kms) of hilly terrain and is home to many wild animals like free roaming bison, Elk, mule deer, white tailed deer, mountain goats, sheep, mountain lions etc.The park is famous for its scenery, its scenic drives Needle Highway and the wildlife loop.

We drove around the park and the scenic drives. One or two sample pictures attached are sufficient proof for the scenic beauty of this place. We saw several bisons in the park and at one point there while driving, there were so many sorrounding our car that we had no choice but to stop the vehicle and allow the horde of bisons pass by. We had the pleasure of many close encounters with their faces when a few of them decided to stop by and tried to peep inside our car through the glasses.. It was almost evening now and we decided to return back to the hotel to take some rest so that we could visit the ‘Light and Sound’ show that was to be held in the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the early night time.

So, in the night we went back to Mount Rushmore National Memorial to watch the Light and Sound show. The whole atmosphere at the Memorial was one of great quietness. Though thousands of people started assembling there, one could hear only the noise of the stillness there. We watched from an elevated open-to-the-sky balcony, the speaker addressing and so we had good view of the show. Plenty of seating arrangements have been made at the lower level. The speaker’s voice reverberated over the hills and rocks. He recalled the contribution of the Great Presidents of America in the early years of the formation, integration and development of United States of America. The speaker had deftly ornamented his address with weighty notes on patriotism and in the finale, with the grand music in the background, a number of celebrities and stars were invited to the stage for commendations. The whole crowd stood up and clapped and cheered. The speaker’s address, the depth of his voice, his voice modulations, the music, the light effects and the finishing touches to the show were all resonating in our mind for the rest of the night.

On the third day of our trip, i.e.,4th June 2004 we set out again early in the morning. The weather was very sunny, bright, and pleasant. We decided to go on the winch ride that was located adjacent to the hotel where we stayed, as our first activity. We bought our tickets and got into the open winch that took us to a higher elevation over a steep hill. We were dropped at the summit of the hill from where we had a great view of the city and also the statutes of the four Presidents. To get down from the hill, we had a choice – either we slide down a crooked path specially built for fun and adventure loving people or take the winch back to the ground. There were many who took the slide and it was funny watching them sliding down at terrible speed and hitting the ground. We could not afford to be adventurous and so we took the winch and landed back. The winch ride took about 10 to 15 minutes each side. There was also a helipad near the hotel and it took visitors for a mountain ride for a fare. We decided not to take the helicopter ride as we were not very sure whether the ride would be comfortable to us.

We then hurried to the Rushmore Caves not very far from the city as we would have to leave Rushmore immediately thereafter around lunch time, if we were not to be late for our next stay at Cody for the night. We were in a totally alien terrain and we did not wish to be stranded for any reason.

The beautiful Rushmore Cave was discovered by placer (Gold) miners in 1876. The miners were digging a flume (an inclined channel) into the mountainside to carry water to the gold mines below when they found the cave opening. The cave was opened to the public in 1927, just before the carving of Mt. Rushmore began. The Black Hills Region, to which the Mount Rushmore belongs, is home to some of the most unique caves – unique for its age, evolutionary history, rare formations and complexity -in the world. They share common bonds of their origin; each is unique in its own way. Located in a band of limestone rock called the "pahasapa limestone" the caves encircle the central granite core of the Black Hills. This limestone was created during the Mississippian Period, approximately 360 to 330 million years ago on the bottom of an ancient sea. The present day caves were greatly affected by a number of evolutionary stages they had gone through in their history of geological past.

I was trying to visualise the enormous difficulties the original miners might have undergone in excavating the place without damaging the naturally evolved limestone rocks that were hanging from the roof in different shape, dazzling in light everywhere, resembling in some way the solidified melting ice falling from the rooftops. While walking through the caves with the hanging limestone deposits all over, we also felt a bit frightened. The admission to this cave was not free and the price one pays is really worth.The tour guide who took us around the cave was a high school student working part time over there and he gave lucid explanation on the cave formation, it’s chemistry and geology, origin, age, etc and he meticululously showed us some of the very minute and most delicate formations using a torchlight. Even as we were appalled by the exquisite beauty of the caves, we were holding our breath throughout, imagining that the roof could just heavily collapse on us. We heaved a sigh of relief only when we exited the cave after about an hour completing the cave tour.

Immediately after the cave tour, we left Keystone after a brief stop in the market place to buy some souvenirs of the place. Our drive to Cody (State of Wyoming), where our night halt was planned, ended later than we anticipated. We had to retrace the route back towards Billngs and on the way took a diversion at Sheridian, a small town towards west. We again passed through winding roads, rising mountainous rocks on either side and also plains. Our journey to Cody took almost eight to nine hours and the roads were desolate with virtually no vehicular traffic. When night fell and it became pitch dark, I felt scared of the completely empty roads and suggested that we could change our plans and rest somewhere in between instead of driving through night time. The idea was vetoed by both Viji and Bala, who shared the steering alternatingly and we finally reached Cody in the state of Wyoming sometime around 10.30 in the night. We were all exhausted. The food we have cooked in the morning at the hotelroom in Mount Rushmore was still with us. We gulped them quickly and slept away.

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