5. The Scenic Route, Please

“There’s no sign that says you can, no sign that says you can’t,” is something I remember hearing my Dad say. 

We fully applied the ambiguity of this principle as we pulled up to the entrance to Mt. Rushmore. Not a person in sight. There was a sign indicating an $8 parking fee but the main gate was wide open.

“Should we just drive in?” We wondered. Our hesitation didn’t last long and we progressed through the open gate into a large empty parking lot. No sign of activity anywhere.

It was one of those mornings where you could feel the chill of the morning air while simultaneously feeling the warmth of the rising sun. The clouds slowly dissolved into the blue sky.

Mt. Rushmore wasn’t something that I was all that excited to see. It sort of felt like an obligatory tourist stop on our way to bigger and more exciting things. But as we walked through a tunnel of flags and I saw the morning sun shining upon the four presidents faces, I found myself suprisingly impressed.

I tried to picture what this small rocky mountain would have looked like hundreds of years ago. It wouldn’t have been anything special—certainly nothing to build a parking lot around and charge admission for. Like our van, this site seemed like an anomaly. It took 14 years  and roughly 400 people utilizing dynamite, jackhammers, and chisels to create incredibly accurate and detailed likenesses of four U.S. presidents. Wasn’t it only our ancient ancestors that built and carved such things out of stone? Yet here I was at the foot of Mt. Rushmore. I was intrigued.

The way I saw it was that the eastern U.S. represented the early American cities, societal development, and the industrial revolution; while the west represented the great untamed wild that remained largely untouched. Mt. Rushmore was a of blend of these two worlds—not completely wild or untouched; but also not made of modern materials or totally separate from the natural word. It was a visual representation of the geographical transition we were going through as we journeyed from east to west.

A wooden walkway led right up to the base of the mountain where we stood admiring the golden faces above us. About 30 feet off in the thicket a white mountain goat stood staring at us. And us back at him.

The loudness of Big Blue was even more obvious in the soft quiet of the morning. Something had definitely changed since yesterday. Before we went any further, we decided to take a few minutes to look the van over.

When I took a look underneath, the source of the problem was apparent. Toward the front of the van the exhaust pipe had completely severed. It was a bit of a relief knowing what it was. Now it was more a matter of annoyance than anything else.

Around 8:00am Big Blue roared into the quiet nearby town where we would stop to enjoy our first sit-down meal. We found a quaint little diner name Keystone House where we ordered stacks of pancakes and lots of coffee. Not being the typical morning customers, our waitresses were clearly curious about us, our van, and what we were up to. I remember laughing a lot—enjoying conversation with a full belly and warm coffee in hand. This already felt like a great trip and it was barely the second day.

There was a an incredible feeling of freedom that was rippling throughout the group. We knew our next official stop was Grand Teton National Park, we just had to decide how to get there. We opened up an atlas and determined that we would try to stick to the roads labeled “scenic route” as much as possible.

Before heading west on route 16 through Custer National Forest and into Wyoming we did a loop up a winding road into the Black Hills National Forest where we found some beautiful vistas. We couldn’t help but pull over to sit on giant boulders and soak in the beauty surrounding us.

We could still make out Mt. Rushmore off in the distance.

As we continued driving we came upon the first of three extremely narrow tunnels with signs that read, “Sound horn.” Big Blue roared through the tunnels while triumphantly sounding her air horn—a ruckus that reverberated off the mountain and into the valley below.

Nathan and I climbed to the top of the tunnel so we could get an “action shot” of Big Blue on the road. We were only standing upon those rocks for a few minutes, but it was one of my favorite spots. I felt free, on top of the world, profoundly aware of the beauty around me—the adrenaline of the trip still trickling through my veins.

I once heard that raising one’s hands in the air (even in primitive cultures isolated from one another where it hasn’t been learned or observed) is a sort of innate physical response to expressing feelings of victory, joy, and accomplishment.

I believe it.

NEXT – Slowly Going the Way of the Buffalo

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