Taking the family stateside

Susan Flanagan
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Carved faces, quarters, casinos and other cultural pursuits

— Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore rises out of the Black Hills of South Dakota like the first iceberg of the year rises out of the North Atlantic.

You know it’s going to be there at some point; you’re not sure when to expect it. But once you clap eyes on it, there’s no mistaking it for something else. And there’s also no mistaking its majesty. The 60-foot faces of the four presidents carved into the granite of the Black Hills are infinitely better in reality than in photos or in movies.

It’s the difference between watching a humpback whale breach on a YouTube video and being out in a dory near Torbay Head when a humpback passes under your boat, circles and lifts its massive body out of the ocean just to show you it can be done. You’re close enough to touch the barnacles. The spray lands on your face. The rancid smell of digested caplin assaults your nostrils. Your boat rocks when the whale hits the water.

A hundred years ago, a South Dakota state historian had an idea to lure tourists to the remote and impoverished area around Keystone by creating a gargantuan sculpture. It was a build-it-and-they-will-come sort of vision.

A sculptor named Gutzon Borglum conceived the idea of carving the busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. Money ran out before the chests were complete, but it turned out the presidents’ faces were enough to draw a crowd. Every year more than two million tourists visit the monument.

We arrived at Mount Rushmore on a stinking hot day in July. I’m talking steam-rising-off-the-ground hot. Thirty-six-degrees-and-not-a-breath-of-wind-or-drop-of-moisture hot.

As the boys took turns posing at a distance, pretending they were picking a president’s nose, our only girl headed to the tent mister, which is like a car wash for overheated tourists — something we don’t often see around this province. Although, who knows, maybe they’re used in the Labrador interior in the energy-zapping heat of summer.

Once the children finished goofing around, I knew what would come next — what had become a ritual at each historical stop throughout the United States. They raced to the nearest vending machine. There was no sense protesting or thinking that one day might be different.

 I resigned myself to the fact that looking at monolithic faces carved in granite is not any more culturally enhancing than collecting quarters from 50 States. You see, they didn’t race to the vending machines to buy a drink, although for 27 days No. 3 always seemed to have a Coke in his hand. The children raced to the machines to exchange quarters.

Put a quarter in, press return change and a different quarter pops out. Magic, really. Do this until each child gets at least one 25-cent piece among the 50 collectible American quarters that came out between 1999 until 2008 (five per year).

The quarters are works of art. Alabama has Helen Keller; Tennessee has musical instruments; New York the Statue of Liberty; Arizona has the Grand Canyon; and South Dakota has, you guessed it, Mount Rushmore.

And it’s not enough to collect one complete set of quarters for the 50 States. No, no, no. Both major American mints (Denver and Philadelphia) issued the coins and the coin holders we had bought, at West Edmonton Mall of all places, held spaces for each set. You can tell in which mint a quarter originated by a tiny P or D engraved under In God We Trust.

After a few groans of protest we yanked our girl out of the mister and the boys away from the vending machines and headed down a trail to get a closer look at the presidents. We took turns getting our pics taken below the four heads. We visited exhibits explaining the history of the monument. And the conflict with the Sioux Nation, which has begun constructing its own monument of Crazy Horse over on Highway 385. We read about challenges, like when the sculptor died and then money ran out in 1941. We, and thousands of other tourists, were awestruck.

Did I mention a large percentage of the other tourists were motorcycle enthusiasts? The winding roads leading to Mount Rushmore are some of the best motorcycle roads in the world.

For more 70 years, bikers have been rolling into the nearby town of Sturgis for one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the United States. More than 700,000 a year. I wouldn’t recommend bringing your children to the rally, but don’t shy away from the bikers. They’re intelligent, kind, engaging and entertaining. Plus, many are travelling with their own children.

No matter where you stay or where you stop to eat, you and your preschoolers will be greeted by huge “Bikers Welcome” signs. We enjoyed sharing meals with big, bald, leather-clad bikers in sleeveless tees and vests. I think my husband daydreamed about being there alone on his Bonneville, with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face. Alas, to his credit, he enthusiastically climbed back aboard the Flanagan-mobile and headed, with the family he had created, into the Badlands of South Dakota.

We had been to the Alberta Badlands around Drumheller and climbed around on hoodoos, but the badlands in Badlands National Park were, well, more badlandish. It’s where “Dances with Wolves” was filmed. There’s no gas, no water, no quarter-exchanging vending machines for hundreds of miles. There are a few staring buffalo, however.

At one point we pulled in to a rest stop to climb around on what was, 65 million years ago, the bottom of the sea. The shale has eroded leaving church spires, deep gullies and even what looked like a giant happy face in the hill. We climbed around for about an hour, until in the dry heat we built up quite a thirst. Between the six and a half of us, it took no time to drain all our beverages. Yet our thirst was not nearly quenched.

When we started seeing mirages, we drank the melted ice out of the bag at the bottom of the cooler. Bits of sand and all.

Don’t know if we were hallucinating from dehydration, but shortly after we got back in the van a million prairie dogs popped out of holes in the dirt, just like at the games arcade or fair. Except we didn’t need a hammer. They just went up and down like magic.

Like seals in the St. Lawrence, prairie dogs thrive in South Dakota. You can hire a guide and go on a custom prairie dog hunting trip.

“Prairie dogs offer sportsmen countless hours of entertainment,” boasts one outfitter’s website. “Prairie dogs are small targets that will stand still; often times give you a few chances, and seem to replenish themselves as the day goes on.”

We decided to skip booking a tour but we did have fun running amongst their burrows.

When we finally reached a road stop and replenished liquids, we took a look at what was for sale. Camouflage clothing, guns of every size, hunting gear I didn’t know existed and pelts of hundreds of animals, from wolves down to mouse-sized weasels.

With the children singing “Weasel-stompin’ music,” we barrelled on across the border into Minnesota bound for the town of Marshall. Population 12,735, Marshall sits about 250 kilometres west of St. Paul, not far from the South Dakota border.

Marshall is my maiden name and my brother, whose nickname is Marshall, had passed through the town on his cross-continental trek a few years before. We hadn’t thought anything of the date being the 7th of the 7th, 2007 except to think of our friend Rourke, whose birthday we’d miss.

Were we in for a shock? When we rolled into the Marshall Inn, front desk clerks shook their heads and told us not to waste time checking any other hotels in town as every room was filled to the gills with wedding guests. Turns out that everyone and their uncle decided to get married on that day. If they weren’t getting married themselves, they were attending a wedding and staying in a hotel for the night following the party.

Seven, after all, is an auspicious number (if we hadn’t gotten married on a Friday the 13th, we may have considered the 7th of the 7th ourselves).

So, Marshall — billed as “Southwest Minnesota’s Overnight Headquarters” — had no room for the pregnant mother of four. My plans-free husband didn’t mind, but my ever-enlarging belly didn’t want to crawl into a sleeping bag that night. It wanted a bed.

Someone finally took pity and directed us to the massive Prairie’s Edge Casino near Granite Falls to the north, where we secured an indoor, poolside room. We can put up with sleeping in a casino for one night, I thought. After all, we had camped in Idaho on the banks of a majestic river. We had hiked in Glacier National Park; taken in the history at Little Big Horn, the site of Custer’s last stand. They wouldn’t mind staying in a fake environment for just one night.

We were tired and had comfortable beds. That’s all that mattered. After exhausting the children in the pool, we headed to the rubber-chicken buffet which was open till 11 p.m. to serve those returning from the slots and roulette. I was about to apologize for such unnatural and culturally demeaning surroundings when our girl, face and eyes into a chocolate sundae, piped up: “This is my favourite part of the trip.”

No. 3 agreed.


Susan Flanagan can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca. If you go to Mount Rushmore and would like to visit one of the caves, make sure you sign up as soon as you get there for the next day.

Otherwise you’ll be disappointed.

Susan also recommends the

Corn Palace in Mitchell.


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