Birthday Road Trip Leg 3 aka my birthday

Friday, August 5.  This was the day we have been waiting for.  It was Mt. Rushmore day.  The day started early because even though there was no set schedule, we knew it was going to be a busy.  We left our motel room by 9:30 with intentions of not returning for over 12 hours.

Our first stop had been highly recommended by a few friends.  Bear Country did not disappoint!  Although we were almost deterred because of the $55 car-load admission price we decided to give it a go anyway.  Everyone is glad we did.  Bear Country is a wildlife reserve with plenty of photo ops.  It did freak me out a tad to see so many bears – all surrounding me.  I was very brave and didn’t panic.  Although I did make sure all the windows were up.  Not to betray my home-state, but I saw a lot more animals (close-up even) than I did last year at Yellowstone.  We left feeling pretty proud of our choice to patronize Bear Country.

A few more miles down the road we stopped at Sitting Bull – Crystal Cavern.  Ooh, caves!  The clerk we bought our tickets from said, “I have to give you this disclaimer.”  I was about to participate in an activity that needed a disclaimer.  Cool.  “The cave has 187 steps down and 187 steps up.  You will get a full refund if you decide you are physically unable to descend the steps.  If you have a heart condition, it is recommended that you do not go down in the cave.”  A little jolt sparked inside me and wondered if that was how adrenaline junkies felt.

While we were waiting to enter the cave, another patron sat down next to Bubba and me.  He was from Maryland and on vacation with his two sons.  The youngest is autistic.  Tomorrow they were heading for Yellowstone.  At this point, Bubba was totally creeped out and was mentally trying to edge away from the conversation.

Soon enough, the tour guide showed up and pointed out a few things outside the cave.  A Native American tribe used to live in the entrance of a cave right next to our cave.  There are still black marks from their fires and little wooden pegs where they hung buffalo skin doors.  But the cave we were about to enter was behind a closed door.   The Native Americans didn’t know anything about this cave.  It was discovered in the early 1900’s by two young teenagers.  The tour guide opened the door and we stepped inside.  He told us to look at the stairs and make sure we could descend them before attempting to do so.  There was no backing out for us Lee’s – we were committed.

The stairs were narrow and steep.  My size 6 shoe wouldn’t fit full length and I stepped down at an angle.  We lined the steps single file and used the cold, metal railings more for balance than support because they were cold and wet.  If one person in our group fell it would cause a chain reaction and knock every person below down.  No pressure.  At this point, a three year old boy decided he didn’t want to be in the cave.  He started crying and he didn’t stop for the rest of the tour.

Once we got to the bottom my legs felt shaky.  I mentioned that to Bubba who replied in a very annoying way, “I’m used to the work out since I just finished track.”  Good for you!  Because the mountain went up while we went down, we actually descended 350 feet.  Different sections were called rooms and one in particular was called the “Chandelier Room.”  It got its name from the mother of the two boys who found the cave.  The boys’ father ended up buying the cave.  The roof of the Chandelier Room has clusters of crystals that the mother thought looked like chandeliers.  She even had a dinner party under the biggest one.  A bit odd if you ask me.

Meanwhile, three year old Screamy McScreamer was still crying in that non-endearing high pitched way.  We were shown different things in the cave but I couldn’t hear everything because of McScreamer.  Finally, it was time to ascend the steps.  All 187 of them.  I made the mistake of following Bubba who kept a steady pace.  As we neared the top I thought my legs were going to revolt and cease working for me.  But I made it.

It was almost noon when we left and we decided no more delays.  It was time to see the main attraction.  When I told people I was going to Mt. Rushmore, I got a lot comments and most were positive.  One person had told me, “It’s not as big as I thought it would be.”  She was right.  Mt. Rushmore really isn’t as big as I thought it would be.

We took a tour and learned a few things.  Here’s what I can remember.   The faces are each 60 feet long.  The noses are 20 feet – except Washington’s is 21 feet.  How embarrassing!  Was it necessary to make his longer?  And did Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses have to be added?  If it were me, I would have preferred no glasses (I take off my glasses for photos).  It took 14 years to complete and 400 men.  Despite the fairly primitive methods of blasting and dangling off the mountain, not one person was killed.

The sculptor chose the four presidents for various patriotic reasons.  Washington represents the birth of the nation while Jefferson the expansion of the nation.  Roosevelt embodies the progression of the nation and Lincoln the preservation of the nation (that last one makes me want to bust into a musical every time I say it).

The name of Mt. Rushmore comes from a New York lawyer sent to South Dakota to protect the bank’s mining interest.  He asked his excavating partner what the name of the mountain was.  Apparently he was told it didn’t have a name yet, so how about Rushmore?  I wonder what the lawyer thinks of his namesake now.  The sculptures came about for the sole purpose of attracting tourists to South Dakota.  Mission accomplished.

We spent most of the day at the monument and ate lunch.  I had an overpriced buffalo burger just to feel touristy.  The fries were dang-it good though.  We were exhausted by late afternoon and decided to leave for awhile before the lighting ceremony at 9:00pm.  Another place recommended to me was the Crazy Horse Memorial.  So, we made our way there traveling in the beautiful Black Hills Forest during an afternoon rainstorm.    We pulled up to the gate and found out this exhibit cost $27 per car load. My fiscally retentive self surfaced and I wanted to say, “No thanks,” and back out.  But we were pleasantly surprised with Bear Country, so we decided to give it a try also.

This monument has been in progress for over 5o years with promises to be the largest sculpture in the world.  Its plan is to be a Native American on a horse pointing in the distance.  Right now, it’s a head.  Not all that impressive considering we paid $16 more than at Mt. Rushmore.  Even the several museums couldn’t persuade us to be happy about spending that much money.  In all fairness, this exhibit does not receive any government money.  It all comes from donations and ticket sales (hence the reason there is only a head).  We did get to sit down and we were able to have a much cheaper dinner because of the snack place there.  So, it did have some perks.

Dad had met a friend (no surprise) when we were at Mt. Rushmore that told him to check out Custer’s battle site just to the south.   While at Crazy Horse, we decided to check into it so that we could go to that before we went back for the lighting ceremony at Rushmore.  Bubba and I went to the information desk and waited in line.

“Where is Custer’s battle?”  I asked the first available ranger.

The lady looked at me and her co-worker asked.  “You mean the Battle of Little Big Horn?”

That sounded familiar so I nodded.

“That’s about a six hour drive.  To Montana.”

“Oh,” I said suddenly realizing Wyoming’s educational system might need some tweaking.  “Are there any battle sites south of here?”

“No,” she said and asked another co-worker to confirm.  He thought that was the daftest question ever asked.

So, the overpriced Crazy Horse monument turned out to be quite educational.

The four tired Lee’s went back to Mt Rushmore.  It was only 7:00 and we had two hours before the lighting ceremony started.  We didn’t care.  We were the first to the amphitheater and chose to sit in the very back.  As far away from the stairs as possible.  And we waited.  It just felt good to sit and we didn’t move until we had to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance when the ceremony started.  And then it hurt.

But the lighting ceremony was worth waiting for.  I wonder how long do they keep the lights on the monument?  All night to keep planes away?  Would that give a pilot a heart attack to be flying in the sky at night and all of a sudden see a giant pair of eyes watching?

All in all a good day and a very nice way to spend my birthday.

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