Impromptus

South Dakota Journal, Part II

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Yesterday, Jay Nordlinger began a South Dakota Journal. For that first installment, go here. His report from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation will appear in an October issue of National Review. The journal is a kind of accompaniment, or supplement.

For me, Hot Springs is indelibly Arkansas. But maybe not so indelibly: because there is a Hot Springs, S.D. Why not? A big, continental nation should have more than a few hot springs. And warm springs.

Hang on, is the water in Warm Springs, Ga., where FDR went, less hot than the water in Hot Springs — either Arkansas or South Dakota? Never thought of that . . .

Hot Springs, S.D., is in Fall River County. For me, “Fall River” has always meant Massachusetts — and Lizzie Borden. I trust that Fall River County, S.D., has kinder associations.

When I’m on the road, particularly in the West, I think, “Damn, is it a big country. A really big country. And so much of it is uninhabited, and untouched, by man.” All my life, I’ve been told we’re running out of space. But my eyes say it ain’t really so.

For the last 20 years or so — maybe 30 — I’ve seen a bumper sticker: “Save What’s Left.” I always wonder what they’re talking about. One reads that there are more trees today than in times of yore. Cleaner rivers, etc. I think that people, some of them, like to think we’re on the brink of environmental catastrophe.

They should see countries elsewhere in the world!

On the highway here, outside of Rapid City, there are some cute signs. For example, one for Reptile Gardens: Above a smiling crocodile — or is it an alligator? — are the words “It’s a jungle in here.” Later, you are invited to “bear right,” for Bear Country U.S.A.

I see a sign for Holy Smoke Lodge. I think, “Is that hate speech? Like the Washington Redskins? I mean, could you get prosecuted for that?”

How wonderful it would be to come upon Mt. Rushmore, if you didn’t know it was there. If you didn’t know such a thing existed. Can you imagine seeing those presidential faces, carved into a mountain, if you had no idea what you were in for?

I hope the presidential faces last — unlike the Old Man of the Mountain, in New Hampshire, which (who?) crumbled ten years ago.

But what that is material does not crumble?

I’m a little surprised to see that Mt. Rushmore is compact and tidy — neat and sharp. Maybe I’ve spent too much time in the Alps, but Mt. Rushmore seems small, appealingly small, and the presidents are so neatly and skillfully etched.

Rushmore is beautiful, really. (That said, I think Lincoln’s likeness is poor.)

Hang on, if this were North Korea, would we be aghast? Would we say this was leader worship? I think the two situations are different. In North Korea, the people are commanded to worship their leader (a dictator). In America, people worship God, by and large. And they admire, and appreciate, certain leaders.

Is that fair to say?

I am not anti-TR. Like many people, I have mixed feelings about the first Roosevelt, but I am not against him, and I largely admire him. Since I was a boy, however, I’ve wondered whether he belongs on Mt. Rushmore. I think he’s the odd man out. I don’t think he’s at the level of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln — particularly of Washington and Lincoln.

But I don’t begrudge his presence on Rushmore. For one thing, he’s so strongly associated with the West, particularly the Dakotas.

It is amazingly peaceful here at Mt. Rushmore, early in the morning. The atmosphere is almost church-like.

The smell of the mountains is part of the wonder of it all. Fresh, clean, lovely. (I ain’t in Manhattan no’ mo’.)

Walking through a forest, I have this thought — a funny thought: “I can understand why people want this scent out of an aerosol can.”

Mt. Rushmore, I must say, is superbly done. The visitors’ center, the pathways, the signs, the parking lots — everything. The Park Service, or whoever it is, has done a wonderful, tasteful, elegant job. Yay, America.

I tell Rick Brookhiser, “I’ve seen some friends of yours” — meaning Washington and Lincoln, in particular. He says, “What did they say about Syria?” I say, “They’re not talkin’ much.”

I think of a Pushkin tale: The Stone Guest. Based on the legend of Don Juan and written after the poet saw Mozart’s opera. (At the end of the opera, the Commendatore speaks. He is the “stone guest.”) (A Russian composer, Dargomyzhsky, wrote an opera from the Pushkin drama.)

There is plenty out here that is named after Custer: the town of Custer; Custer County; Custer State Park. I thought Custer was supposed to be a bad guy in American history. A black hat. Glad it isn’t completely so.

I enjoy one sign by the side of the road: “Cattle at Large.”

More proof that I ain’t in Manhattan no’ mo’: a big sign advertising switchblades.

In Custer State Park, I drive through a natural tunnel, a stone tunnel, tall and narrow. Reminds me of Petra, in Jordan (which was made sort of famous by an Indiana Jones movie).

Bear with me while I try to explain something — see if you know what I’m talking about: The Black Hills and the rest of the environment look so beautiful, from a distance. When you take in the panorama. But your immediate surroundings — not so much. The nature looks more beautiful from far away than at hand.

Is that all right to say?

In the park, there’s a big old rock, casting a shadow. When you’re in that shadow, it feels like the temperature has dropped 25 degrees. I’m sure that isn’t true — but it feels that way. I think of something Biblical, something from Isaiah: “the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.”

Speaking of things Biblical: On the way down a mountain, or a very large and steep hill, a father says to one of his children, “You’re keeping up so well, Hezekiah!” Interesting that kids are named such things these days. Joshua became so popular all of a sudden! When I was growing up, no one was named Joshua, except for maybe rabbis and a few hippie children.

I remark to someone, “It’s almost harder going down than going up” — trickier to get down the mountain than it is strenuous to get up. Yes, he says: “More people die in the Himalayas going down than going up.”

Well, there’s a have-a-nice-day thought!

Years ago, I went camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — place called the McCormick Tract. We saw no animals at all, except for a chipmunk or two. After hours of hiking in Custer State Park, I’ve seen no animals. And there appears one at the end: a chipmunk.

Bless the chipmunks, for showing up.

In a lodge-like eatery, the girl behind the counter is from just where you’d expect a girl working in the Dakota wilderness to be from: Serbia. It’s amazing, how people get around, vaulting continents and oceans.

Last night, in Rapid City, I met an Indian, who told me this: “In Pine Ridge, they’ll think you’re a social worker, a policeman, or an FBI agent. They’ll feel better when you tell ’em you’re a journalist.”

I don’t know about that. Anyway, thanks for joining me, friends, and see you tomorrow.