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Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the road, Part V: Living up to expectations

As the above title suggests, there may be times when famous sightseeing spots do not live up to the tourist hype. The Mannekin Pis statue in Brussels is very "meh". There's really no point in stopping by Piccadilly Circus in London other than to have your picture taken in front of Eros (and which isn't actually a rendering of the Greek god of love). And Sun Moon Lake isn't worth the trouble to visit, unless you've seen pretty much everything else in Taiwan. On the other hand, other places more than meet expectations. The Great Wall (at least the section I walked on) and the cruise down the Li River in China were fantastic. Yellowstone National Park also lives up to the hype, with the arguable exception of Old Faithful. And then there's Mt. Rushmore. Even if you've never been there, you know what it's going to look like, and yet after walking through the parking lot and entrance area, the first glimpse of the iconic monument didn't fail to impress:

There isn't much else to do at the Mt. Rushmore National Memorial except to gaze in awe at the 60 foot (18 meters)-tall granite sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln and marvel at the skill and artistry of the man behind it, Gutzon Borglum, who labored on the monument from 1927 to 1941 (and didn't live to see its completion). Even my wife was impressed:

The Presidential Trail offers closer views of the presidents, especially Washington, as well as providing an escape from the crowds (though nothing like the chaos that would prevail at similarly popular sites in China):

The trail leads to the Sculptor's Studio, where Borglum spent much of his time working on scale models of his creation. As you can see below, his original vision was for the presidents to be carved from their heads to their waists, but funding ran out, leaving the mountain in its current form:

Taking a snack break, Amber munched on vanilla ice cream supposedly made from a recipe by none other than Thomas Jefferson, who apparently could add the title of "glacier" to his already impressive resume:

The onsite museum provides a good overview of the construction of the monument. Over 90% of the sculpting was done through the use of dynamite; one fun exhibit lets you push the plunger and set off a blast from eight decades ago:

Just as at Yellowstone, the National Park Service rangers at Mt. Rushmore offer a Junior Ranger activity program for the kids to earn badges. Amber proudly shows off her second one of our trip (the first one was received at Yellowstone, of course):

The monument is clearly the center of attention in the area, but a drive around the rear of the mountain uncovered some impressive Black Hills scenery as well as numerous picnicking spots:

You can also get a view of Washington's profile:

There are other places nearby that most likely are worth checking out, like the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park, but our itinerary limited us to just this one day, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in Keystone, a historic mining town that has succumbed to the pursuit of tourist dollars. The Reuben sandwich I had at Teddy's Deli was pretty good, as the testimonials from the 26th president lining the walls attested to (and my apologies to grammarians everywhere for ending a sentence with a preposition):

Back at our hotel, a deer foraging in the hill behind our room looked at me looking at it. We saw other deer along Highway 16, as well as wild pheasants next to the hotel's parking lot:

The following morning (Wednesday, Sept. 2), we left Keystone and continued east along Interstate 90. You can't drive through South Dakota without stopping at Wall Drug. It can't be helped; there are signs hyping the place for miles along the freeway before you reach it. It's basically a shopping center that has been around since the 1930's; amazingly, the ice water is free and the coffee is only 5¢. I got what I paid for, though the donuts aren't bad:

Kudos to the state of South Dakota for their freeway rest stops. The one at Chamberlain has a museum on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as good views of Lake Francis Case (the explorers stopped there twice on their journey to and from the west coast):

We couldn't leave South Dakota without driving into Mitchell (population 15,000) to see The World's Only Corn Palace. It's a concert hall/gymnasium decorated with artistic designs and murals made from corn and other grains; the theme changes yearly, shown on the displays inside the building. Lonely Planet describes the Corn Palace as the "Taj Mahal of agriculture":

We had also planned to the see the waterfalls that give the city of Sioux Falls its name, but as we left I-90 to head to Falls Park, the oil lamp on the dashboard came on. Fortunately, it did so right in front of a large truck stop complete with a Denny's, so we had dinner while the engine cooled, then added several quarts of oil afterward. Unfortunately, it was getting late in the evening, so we skipped the falls and drove across the border into Minnesota, finding a room for the night at a hotel in Luverne (population 4800). We awoke to a bright and sunny Thursday morning in the Midwest:

We had a long drive ahead of us to Chicago, so we concentrated on motoring through the countryside of southern Minnesota (had we more time I would've tried to meet up with a friend from my days in Japan who lives in Minneapolis), stopping just before the Wisconsin state line to have lunch:

Crossing the Mississippi into Wisconsin (no photo ops, unfortunately), we drove on until the state capital, Madison, where we decided it was time for a break and stretch our legs:

The State Capitol is the largest capitol building in the U.S. after the one in Washington, D.C. Visitors can walk up to the observation deck for some good views:

It's Wisconsin, so it has to be a badger:

Freedom of speech in action: not every Wisconsin resident is happy with their governor, one of hundreds of Republicans vying for their party's presidential nomination:

A giant cow waits to be milked in the parking lot of an Arby's in the suburbs of Rockford, Illinois. You might ask "Why?". I might ask "Why not?":

We finally reached Chicago after the sun had gone down, but heavy traffic delayed our arrival at our downtown hotel by over an hour. It was the end of a long day, but at least we wouldn't have to drive for the next couple of days.

To be continued...

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