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Day 39 – I May Be Right (You May Be Crazy)

The sign at the motel in Rapid City suggested, “Remember in July when we wanted it cooler.”

Very good point, I thought. I normally try to enjoy the cold when it is cold and the heat when it is hot, and I like to have a fair variety of both.

It really was not all that cold, though. Since heading north, I had been in mostly sunny, unseasonably warm weather. The weather reports informed me that Oklahoma was once again in the middle of a winter storm. By going north, I had avoided a bad winter.

There was a chance of snow in the Black Hills forecasted for the late evening, though, so I set out early to catch the sights and then get on down the road.

The road down into the Black Hills was flanked by tons of what I refer to as “cheesy touristy stuff.” Slides and reptile houses and gift shops that sell mostly beads. Luckily, during the winter all of these places were closed.

I was heading to Mount Rushmore, of course. It is the one thing in South Dakota considered most worthy of putting on the back of the state quarter. I had been there before, on a family vacation in early childhood, but I could not remember anything about it other than the fact that it had happened. So, I figured it was worth going there again.

Mount Rushmore is such a popular sight, that pretty much everyone has seen the basic postcard shot of the four POTUS heads. Everyone is impressed by the entire mountain face that has been turned into a giant sculpture. Driving toward the monument, though, I was struck by how small the sculpture actually was, in comparison to the mountain it was on. When you stick some 60’ tall faces at the top of a mountain that is a couple of thousand feet tall, they don’t look quite as monumental.

The visitor center/viewing area is near the top of the mountain, giving that impression that the sculpture takes up much of the mountain’s face. An elevator from the main observation deck takes you down to an outdoor amphitheater, an indoor theater, and a small museum.

A video playing in the theater explained the history behind the sculpture, and how it was carved using mostly dynamite. For those who have wondered, it also explained why those particular four presidents were chosen. The government-funded monument was supposed to represent the founding (Washington), expansion (Jefferson), preservation (Lincoln), and the charge up San Juan Hill (Roosevelt).

All of this was interesting and fairly impressive, but it was dwarfed a few miles down the road by the Crazy Horse monument. Instead of carving one side of one top corner of a mountain, Crazy Horse workers are carving an entire mountain, and carving it in 3-D the entire way around. Instead of being funded by the government, Crazy Horse is private property and is entirely self-supporting. And instead of a finished work of art, Crazy Horse is merely 59 years into what will be a centuries-long project.

As I walked up to the visitor center entrance, I was greeted vocally by a grey cat. I stopped to pet him as he rubbed against my legs, and then he followed me inside as I opened the door. The man selling admission tickets told me the cat was his.

“If he lets you pet him, you’re in,” the man explained. “If he starts making yowling noises, that means he doesn’t like you, and you’re about to get bit.”

The cat had no problem with me, though, as he followed me around the large entryway. “What’s his name?” I asked.

“Thunder.”

That gave me a bit of a start. “His name’s Thunder?”

“That’s right.”

“We had about 17 cats running around the yard when I was a kid,” I explained, “and the reason we had 17 cats was mostly because of one mama cat we had named ‘Thunder’. I doubt it’s a real common cat name.”

Thunder cat in tow, I explored the museum they had put together there. In multiple rooms and buildings, they had a collection of everything from art to artifacts to a Crazy Horse chopper. Most items had been donated to help fund the sculpture taking shape out back. People donated items to the museum so that more people would visit and pay the $10 admission, which then went to pay for the dynamite needed to essentially blow away a mountain.

The sculpture itself, of Chief Crazy Horse riding a horse, was just crazy big. At 563’ tall, it is more than 80’ taller than the Great Pyramid. 8 million tons of rock have been carved away from the mountain so far, which is 16 times as much as the entire Rushmore project, and all they have finished so far is Crazy Horse’s head. The four heads of Mount Rushmore could fit inside the head of Crazy Horse—not to mention his neck, shoulders, arms, torso—oh, yeah, and his horse. It was amazing to think that, if finished, it would be the greatest of the man-made wonders of the world.

That is, if, or when, it is finished.

Another video explained the history of the Crazy Horse monument, which was the craziest part of all. Some Sioux chiefs saw Mount Rushmore being sculpted on the side of one of their sacred Black Hills, and decided they wanted their own mountain statue for “white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” A sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski, who just so happened to be an assistant on the Mount Rushmore project, entered a bust in the 1939 World’s Fair and won first prize. Some Sioux chiefs saw this sculpture, and decided that Korczak must be the best sculptor available to create their monument.

From the story told in the video, I can only imagine how this encounter then took place. Korczak, a young Polish guy, is approached by an Indian chief—an old-school chief with headdress and peace pipe and all. Through an interpreter, the chief explains what they want Korczak to do; namely to carve that mountain over there, which looks nothing like a man on a horse, into a sculpture of a man on a horse.

Korczak is honored, and perhaps a bit ambitious, so he agrees to take on the job, and probably asks about his pay. The chief has to explain that it is not actually a “job” they are offering, but simply an invitation—they are inviting him to build a sculpture for them. So, they would not be paying him, or even providing any funding for the project to speak of.

So Korczak—sweet, crazy Korczak—says OK to the project. Sure, he says, I only have $173 to my name, but that should be enough to get started on the biggest monument in the history of the world. Of course, it will take a while. He had worked on Rushmore with dozens of other workers for umpteen years, so he had to know—he had to know—that he would come nowhere close to finishing the project in his lifetime. He must have realized that this was a centuries-long project, and that there might not be anybody willing to finish it after he died. Yet, he agreed to do it anyway. He made the decision to devote his life to building this monument to honor the native Indians—even though he was a Polish immigrant who technically was one of the people taking their native land. He felt bad about this fact, though, and took on this project to make up for it.

So, in 1948, he headed out to the mountain, by himself, and set to work. He decided, first things first, it would be useful to have somewhere to live. So, that first summer, he chopped down trees and built a log cabin. That much accomplished, he bought an ancient used compressor to power a used jackhammer. Since it was a 4-ton compressor, he couldn’t haul it to the top of the mountain, so he parked it at the bottom and strung up nearly a quarter-mile of hose to reach the top. He then built a stairway, with over 700 steps, to the top of the mountain. Every morning, he would turn the hand crank to start the old compressor, pick up his 100 pounds or so of tools and dynamite for the day, and start up the 700 steps. Often, about halfway up, he would hear the old compressor sputter and die, so he would go back down the stairway, start the compressor back up, and climb back up the stairway. He would get to the top, start working, and hear the compressor sputter and die again. So, he would walk down the 700 steps, re-start the compressor, and walk back up the 700 steps. He did this as many as 9 times a day, by himself, for several years.

At some point he got married, and his wife gave birth to the first of their 10 kids—presumably because he needed the help. So it was now Korczak and his 5 sons who climbed the mountain each day to work, while his wife and 5 daughters ran the visitor center they had built to fund the operation.

That’s right—he figured out a way to pay for all the dynamite and supplies and eventual hired workers by selling admission. Admission to see a statue that did not exist yet. And since he was such a huge believer in private enterprise, he twice turned down offers of a couple of million dollars in government funding. If you think that is an easy thing to do, I’d like to see you turn down $4 million that is offered to you, just based on principle.

So Korczak worked for 34 years on his mountain, and then he died. He never saw a single finished surface of the sculpture, or even the start of a finished surface—work on the head began 5 years after his death. His life was spent just clearing away the millions of tons of rock that had to be removed before the real sculpting could begin.

But, the work goes on today, thanks to his surviving wife and 7 of their 10 kids. And, you know, I believe that they will finish it someday. Not soon. Not in my lifetime, unfortunately, and likely not any time soon after that. But, I figure in, about 200 years, someone will actually get it finished as designed. And white man will know that red man has great heroes, too—namely, a Polish guy named Korczak Ziolkowski.


On the way out of the Black Hills, I passed by the geographical center of the U.S.

Not through the center, but by it. The actual center is enough out of the way for just about everyone that they don’t even bother to put the historical marker up there. Instead, it is more conveniently located in Belle Fourche, South Dakota.

I would have driven to the actual center point, but was assured by a couple of sources that it was simply a red pole unceremoniously stuck in the ground. Instead of driving the extra 40 miles or so to get a picture of a red pole, here are some other red poles that can be used as a substitute.


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