I drive through towns in South Dakota where junked cars outnumber the resident population by an order of magnitude. The highway runs off like a perfect expression of the Cartesian ideal. There's an unnerving geometric perfection to it, a line bisecting the entire visible world. I pass a sign that warns "Next Gas 40 Miles." If you squint, you can just make out the next station's lights, at the end of that long, perfect asphalt ribbon.
Thanks to a detour in Wyoming for more scenic splendor, It is close to midnight before I reach Keystone in the Black Hills. I obey the alarm clock's summons, and trudge off to meet my country's makers. I arrive before the parking garage staff, so I avoid ransoming my car to the concessionaire. Instead, I surprise a small herd of deer hiding out in the garage.
I climb the stairs and four familiar faces stare back.
Almost immediately, I start to see Mount Rushmore as a Rorschach, you see what you want to. Founding father or imperial hypocrite. The man who saved the Union or the bastard who crushed the flower of Confederacy. Genius of democracy or slave-shagging libertine. And can someone explain what the hell Teddy Roosevelt is doing hiding in the back?
But as I sit and think about it, maybe that's the point of democracy. You make what you want of it. You can see the country as the hope of nations or a tyrannical empire in decline. Or a bit of both.
The old men peer out of the mountainside as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa and as silent as the Sphinx. I guess we'll have to sort this out for ourselves.
I duly photograph the mountain, and then its reflection in the visitor center's windows. Looking for a different angle, I'm soon sprawled on the sidewalk, eye to the viewfinder and ass in the air. I hear tittering laughter and look up to see an Amish family looking down at me, before politely returning their gaze to the Presidents.