This mountain bears the likenesses of some of the most influential people in United States history and took more than a decade to carve. It’s a striking and masterly monument, without question. But even more impressive, at least to me, is the other history tied to Mount Rushmore and the rest of South Dakota’s Black Hills.
From a geological perspective, some of this rock is about half the age of the planet. Some of it is the rounded and durable granite you see above. Other outcroppings have been squeezed and deformed, sometimes until the original rock layers are vertical, and sparkle in the sun with countless flecks of mica. All of it is topped with rugged pine and spruce that give the Black Hills their name.
As for humans, they’ve been living around here for at least 12,000 years. The hills are therefore heavy with myth and religious significance, including ties to Oglala Lakota creation stories. A holy man named Black Elk called this place the center of the world, and his people called Mount Rushmore The Six Grandfathers, referring to the earth, sky and four cardinal directions, which might make Rushmore something like seizing and then carving into the Sistine Chapel. The U.S. swore it wouldn’t take these lands but broke the promise because of gold. (The U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 ruled several tribes were owed compensation now worth more than $1 billion because of this, but they haven’t taken it, preferring to get at least some of the land back.)
Despite all of this, it isn’t hard to see much of the Black Hills as they have been for ages, even just around the corner from the monument.
(Note the climber there in the lower middle)
The Black Hills also hold more wonders hundreds of feet underground, and I don’t mean that gold. Wind Cave National Park, about 20 miles south of Rushmore, holds at least 150 explored miles of passages that could connect to several times as many unexplored miles, according to the National Park Service. Those passages are often brimming with formations called boxwork — tangled, glittering, translucent blades of calcite about the width and sturdiness of tortilla chips. I couldn’t photograph it adequately, but try to imagine this coating the walls and ceiling around you:
Some chambers feature calcite in other forms, like spiky frostwork and little rounded blobs called cave popcorn, or, in this case, both:
In the end, all of the Black Hills’ contents have something to offer. Just remember where you’re standing.
Thanks for looking,