Mt. Rushmore, a beautiful sight
Photo by Dorock

I just love the national parks. When I was a high schooler in Houston, Texas, my parents tried to get me to think about being a dentist when I grew up. All I seemed to hear before leaving for college was “Think about it. A dentist.” This was a routine plea from Mom and Dad. But every time I heard the word dentist, all I could picture in my mind’s eye was a ranger giving a tour at Yellowstone, or another ranger explaining the hiking perils at the Grand Canyon. I didn’t want to be a dentist; I wanted to be a ranger.

I never took my parents’ advice, and I never became a ranger either. But I never gave up a love for the park system.

On our Western Swing, Patti and I left northern Colorado, headed through Wyoming to South Dakota to visit Mt. Rushmore. As a reminder, one summer when I was 19, I worked for my father in Wyoming. On one weekend, Dad and I went to Mt. Rushmore and I loved it, so since we were somewhat in the vicinity, I thought Patti might enjoy Mt. Rushmore, too.

After we left Cheyenne, we headed north to Newcastle, Wyoming on a two-lane road that was about 250 uneventful miles to our hotel. And, yes, it was truly miles and miles of nothin’ but miles and miles. In fact, as we saw our gas tank get closer to empty, we went through 2-3 towns that did not have any gas stations nor any restaurants.

There were antelope everywhere. Actually, about as many antelope as there were cattle. And, on this particular road, Patti and I would top a hill and see about 20-30 miles of the road up ahead. At any given moment, each of us expected to see Tom Hanks dressed up in running shorts and shoes, filming a scene from “Forrest Gump” — with “Running on Empty” by Jackson Brown playing on the XM.

Roads and miles in the West just don’t seem to be the same as anywhere else in the U.S. For example, if I have a routine 30-mile trip along the interstate here in Texas, it’d probably take me 20 minutes, 30 minutes tops. Now, if I have a routine 30-mile trip to make in Colorado, it could be 45-minutes to an hour. Twists and turns, ups and downs in elevation are factors we rarely have to figure into our planning in lower elevations.

When we made it to Newcastle, we found our motel — the Pines Motel. Actually, it looked a bit more like the Bates Motel, and no Tony Perkins in sight, thank goodness. A hotel with 12 rooms all in a row, with your parking spot directly in front of your door. Ah yes, the good ole-fashioned western motel. Patti checked us in and we took the room. The lady who checked Patti in asked her if we wanted coffee in the morning and poured some coffee into a filter for us to use in the coffeemaker in our room. Very quaint and very small. It was the pride and joy of a mother and her daughter. The next morning when we were getting ready, I noticed one thing that I had never noticed in any other hotel. There were two thick, fluffy bath towels and two very thin bath towels. I never noticed this in Ritz Carltons or Four Seasons, but having two different styles of towels was nirvana to me. I like the thin towels and Patti likes the thicker ones. We both got our wish in this very small, charming, out-of-the-way hotel in Newcastle, Wyoming. I will never forget that.

On the road into South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore, we could see the impact of the tree beetle on the forests of the Plains. There were acres and acres of dead trees on both sides of the road. In many cases, residents hate storms because they worry that a lightning strike will start a fire that will spread like an infectious disease. But almost as dangerous were the tree beetles that would go through trees as if they were the mightiest saws. Again, acres and acres of blighted trees lost for a generation.

Crazy Horse memorial is showing progress
Photo by Dorock

On the way to Mt. Rushmore, we passed by a similar massive sculpture of Crazy Horse, key figure in the Plains Indians who figured prominently in the demise of Custer and his troops at the Little Big Horn battle. This sculpture is almost three times larger than Mt. Rushmore and celebrates the Plains Indians that occupied the Black Hills. At the Crazy Horse memorial, there is an impressive array of Indian artwork — very impressive.

Mt. Rushmore is one of my favorite places. When Patti and I arrived, we were both very impressed that the park was crowded. It is a very remote monument, built in the Black Hills near Rapid City, South Dakota, but it still is not really near anything. So, we were very pleasantly surprised to see quite a few people all around the site.

We both wanted to find the place where Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint shared a meal during “North by Northwest.” But the Visitor Center and Avenue of the Flags have undergone recent restorations. The columns with the flags that make up the walkway to the best vantage point to view the sculptures represent all 50 states.

It’s just beautiful
Photo by Dorock

We also wanted to see if we could hike up behind the heads (answer: no way, Jose).But, with the renovations, there is a Presidential Trail that goes right up to the rock slag field that lay below the sculptured heads (don’t you dare try to steal a rock from the slag field). There are all sorts of very imaginative and creative things to enjoy at the park, including an audio tour, junior ranger programs, a museum and theater and daily ranger-led programs. We didn’t have the time to stay till evening, but the evening lighting ceremony is quite moving, from what others told us.

In the theater, the movie that shows the history of building of the monument is very impressive.

Here are a few facts about the monument:

  • Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, and his workers started working on the site in 1927 and it was finished in 1941
  • Each face is 60 feet tall
  • Each eye is 11 feet wide
  • Washington’s nose is 21 feet long — all other noses are 20 feet long
  • Washington’s mouth is 18 feet wide
  • Originally, Jefferson’s face was to the left of Washington’s on the mountain
  • 400 workers built the site
  • Washington was chosen because he was the first president; Jefferson because of expansion (Louisiana Purchase); Roosevelt because of development (Panama Canal and national parks); Lincoln for saving the Union.

And there is even space still up there for Patti
Photo by Dorock

If you are thinking of visiting, don’t forget the bookstore. Some of the photo books showing the construction of the monument are awe-inspiring, and the process that Borglum used to transfer the measurements from the plaster casts to the granite mountains is so dadgum impressive.

If you want more information about Mt. Rushmore, go to

One summer, when I was 19, I worked for my father in Gillette, Wyoming. Our home was in Houston at the time, but Dad was working on assignment as chief engineer for  an oil plant under construction just south of Gillette. At the time, the town was experiencing a real oil boom and it still is to this day. On our recent Western Swing, Patti and I  went through Gillette. I had hoped to find the house I shared with Dad when we were working there, but Gillette has grown so much, I couldn’t find it.

Heck, I didn’t even know where to start to look. However, I did find the steakhouse where one of Dad’s friends introduced me to White and Black Russians. And, I sure don’t mean Dostoevsky or Solzhenitsyn.

Shows how imposing the tower is to surrounding countryside
Photo by Dorock

While we were in the area, I wanted to take Patti to a truly outstanding geological site — Devils Tower. Dad and I visited the site the summer I worked for him. It was a hit for me then, and it certainly hasn’t changed over the years. It is just a few miles northeast of Gillette, but it is so daunting and imposing as you approach the tower from nearby roads. At this site in northeast Wyoming you can see every phase in the process of establishing a forest — from dramatic displays of bare rocks to thriving casts of pines.

The geological story is that about 50 million years ago, molten magma was forced into sedimentary rocks resting above the magma and the magma cooled. As the magma cooled, it contracted and fractured into columns. Over millions of years, erosion of the sedimentary rocks exposed the tower. The tower rises 867 feet from its base and stands 1,267 feet above the nearby river, and 5, 112 feet above sea level. The area at the top of the tower is 1.2 acres and the diameter at the base of the tower is 1,000 feet.

Columns are climbers’ challenges
Photo by Dorock

On the day Patti and I were there, three buffed looking guys arrived toward the end of the day with the intent of climbing the site. It is a regular attraction on the list of talented climbers because of the strength of the rock … and the challenge the straight columns of rock pose to the climber. Roughly 5,000 climbers scale the tower every year.

And, several Indian nations of the Great Plains share legends of how this monolithic butte came to be. The Kiowa people believe the following:

“Eight children were there playing, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly, the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly, there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them to climb upon it, and as they did so, it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper.”

To this day, it continues to be a religious site for several Indian nations in the area. Hikers are cautioned not to remove any religious artifacts that are left by Indians along the hiking trails around the base of the butte.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed Devils Tower the first national monument under the new Antiquities Act.

Many years later, Steven Spielberg used this ominous and imposing site in his movie about aliens called Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It figured prominently in the climax of the movie.

One beautiful landmark
Photo by Dorock

Patti and I did not have enough time to hike the trails around the park. There is a close route that takes you around the base of the mountain, and further routes around the butte but are further away from the mountain. There are numerous places to stop and take picturesque photos of the mountain from either of the main trails.

The other thing about Devils Tower I remember from my first visit is that on one side of the base there is one of the country’s largest homes of prairie dogs. These little critters crawl in/out of holes and wander endlessly throughout the massive village that surrounds a large portion of the park.

If you want more information about Devils Tower, go to

One of the tower’s local inhabitants — prairie dog
Photo by Dorock

Patti likes the big buttes
Photo by Dorock

That’s one big butte
Photo by Patti