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  • January 7th, 2019

THERE’S GOLD IN THEM THAR HILLS

By Joel M. Vance

I was watching, fascinated, as I always do as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint clambered across George Washington’s face in the climactic scene of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest. In case you haven’t seen the movie, Grant and Saint are trying to escape the bad guys who are, themselves, trying to flee the country in an airplane which had landed atop Mount Rushmore where the faces of four of our most prominent presidents are carved— George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.

 

The Rushmore Monument was the creation of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants, born in Idaho territory. He also, uncomfortably, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and carved a bust of Robert E Lee on Stone Mountain in Georgia, which should endear him to the fans of Donald Trump, currently the nation’s Bigot In Chief. His vision for the mountain was a relief of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson.

 

But he got in a fuss with the KKK and left the granite version of the Confederacy to others in favor of the Rushmore project (which does, however, contain a couple of Virginia boys—and who knows what side they would have taken, had they lived long enough to be involved in the Civil War).  The carving of Rushmore began in 1927 and was not finished until 1941. Borglum died before it was done but his son, Lincoln, oversaw the completion.

 

By the way, there is no such compass direction as North by Northwest but it makes a hell of a good movie title.  And there is no landing strip nor rustic mansion atop this mountain. I know, because once I parked along a highway that skirts the monument, and, probably violating all sorts of federal law, skulked through the woods and emerged at a point where I was looking directly up George Washington’s nose. I can testify that our first president’s nostril was free of nasal boogers.

 

Also in the family photo archives is a picture of our two oldest sons, JB and Eddie, as little kids (they both now have cracked past the half century mark) sitting on a rock in South Dakota with the images of the four presidents in the background. The occasion was a backpacking trip into the French Creek Wilderness, long ago, and the memory of that experience looms large in my mind. It was a trip to remember, daddy with his sons on an Odyssey of experience. Just as pioneer daddies took their sons via covered wagon and headed west, we did the same with a secondhand Pontiac station wagon and our secondhand camping gear and, as long as the fast food restaurants littering the landscape did not vanish, we did not face the dangers our forefathers did, including starvation and attacks by hostile natives.

 

We stopped briefly to gawk at the Nebraska National Forest, that state’s Mount Rushmore, a tribute to the obsession of one man with the idea of bringing forested land to sand dunes never meant to entertain trees. It is 142,000 acres established in 1907 after lobbying by J Sterling Morton, a newspaper publisher (who also founded Arbor Day and whose son founded the Morton salt company). At one time the Nebraska National Forest was the world’s largest artificial woodland. Almost prophetically Morton died in Lake Forest, Illinois.

 

We also took a driving tour through South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Sioux reservation, a depressing revelation for anyone who has not seen the often degraded living conditions for modern Native Americans. For every tribe which has profited from casino gambling, there is one or more Pine Ridges wallowing in poverty and misery. The Indian, in smarmy and corny early Western literature termed “a noble Savage” all too often today is more likely a downtrodden relic of society.

 

Wounded Knee on the Lakota Pine Ridge reservation is where, in 1890, United States soldiers murdered more than 150 women, men and children in a massacre, one of many committed by the United States government against native tribes.  Perhaps it was revenge for what happened in June, 1876, In the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains in neighboring Wyoming where Gen. George Armstrong Custer led 268 troopers into an ambush by thousands of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe people. Custer, the arrogant Donald Trump of his day, ignored all the warning signs of disaster and marched over the hill into the history books and barroom posters depicting  “Custer’s last stand.”

 

We also made a stop in Wind Cave National Park where the boys romped through a prairie dog village. There is a photo of Eddie crouching in front of a prairie dog burrow, probably waiting for a prairie dog to pop up so he could surprise it. It wasn’t until later that I found that rattlesnakes often appropriate prairie dog holes. Thank goodness we didn’t find out the hard way whose surprise it would’ve been.

 

South Dakota currently is the repository of sculpted mountains. Not only is there Mount Rushmore showing the snouts of four of our most illustrious presidents, but 17 miles away is Mount Thunderhead with the unfinished visage of Crazy Horse, among the most famous Native American warrior chiefs (he was prominent among those who did in Custer).  Work on the tribute to the Lakota warrior began in 1948 and is far from completed. It is funded by contributions and is privately owned. Although it was originated by Native Americans, it is controversial with quite a few leading Native American leaders opposed to the idea. Russell Means, a Lakota activist said “It’s an insult to our higher being. It’s bad enough getting four white faces carved in up there, the shrine of hypocrisy.” The four white faces, of course, being the four presidents on Mount Rushmore.

 

Given Donald Trump’s propensity for shoving his face in front of his faithful mob of semi literate devotees it’s a wonder he hasn’t co-opted Crazy Horse in favor of altering the face of the Indian luminary to his own. Instead of Crazy Horse, we would have Crazy Horse’s Ass.

 

Or perhaps he could appropriate Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, given his propensity for interfering with national parks to serve his own selfish purposes. He could have his pet sculptors chisel his fat mug on the mountain, a curiosity to educate future generations as to the excesses to which a combination of sociopathy and narcissism can lead a powerful nutcase.

 

I dislike the descriptions “Indian” and “native Americans.” Early white explorers thought they had reached India. They were wrong by half a planet. And native Americans likely are an amalgamation of immigrants from northern Asia who reached what now is the United States by crossing a land bridge between Asia and North America that no longer exists and immigrants from Africa who reached what now is the United States by way of South and Central America. Why not call them what these long ago immigrants call themselves: “first nation peoples”?  That’s more accurate— they were the first nation in North America until northern European invaders immigrated (make that “invaded”) and took it away from them.

 

We met Foster Sadler, my best friend, in Custer State Park and an old bull bison ambled through the campground looking powerful enough to head butt Winnebagos but instead of targeting RVs it wandered off to do what bison do when not titillating tourists.  Foster was en route to Alaska during his summer vacation from high school teaching and hoped to make it there and back in time for the start of school–but it seemed like a good idea to stop off at scenic layovers along the route. Especially when I told him that French Creek, while not likely to result in a new gold strike, was supposed to be a blue ribbon trout stream.

 

We came at last to the trail leading into the French Creek natural area, a 12 mile one-way passage along the tiny creek which in 1874 was the site of a gold discovery during an expedition led by none other than George Armstrong Custer, who has a lot to answer for. The resultant gold rush into what the first nation peoples considered sacred land was one of the more egregious outrages against the folks who were there first.

 

The boys sported identical kid-sized backpacks. I had a two-piece ultralight fly rod made for me by a local craftsman which I was anxious to try in French Creek. And somehow I snagged it on a trailside bush that leaped out of the shadows and neatly snapped my fairy wand in two. What would George Armstrong Custer do in similar dire circumstances aside from getting himself killed? I was woefully short on Superglue but abundantly supplied with ponderosa pine pitch. I cobbled together a lumpy Band-Aid and proceeded to catch a couple of beautiful rainbow trout. Foster added another one or two and we eagerly anticipated a breakfast of fresh caught trout. What could be better? During the night, while we peacefully slept beneath the carpet of wilderness stars, the local raccoons dragged our stringer of trout from the stream and enjoyed a midnight snack.

 

While we were examining the carcasses of what was to be our breakfast, Eddie exclaimed “What are those?” There on a bald spot atop a hill, at least a mile away, was a herd of elk. They heard us talking and slowly ambled into the woods. It wasn’t such a bad morning after all.

 

En route home to Missouri we drove across Nebraska’s Western reaches on Highway Two, among the most scenic but also among the most lonely roads in the nation. At that time the speed limit was 55 mph, the result of a shortage of oil because Donald Trump’s current best friend nation, Saudi Arabia, and its OPEC neighbors had cut production and created a gasoline shortage of historic proportions. There aren’t many gas stations in the Nebraska Sandhills, but a squeezed off gasoline supply didn’t stop the Nebraska Highway Patrol from lurking.  God only knows where the trooper was hiding in that empty wasteland, but JB said “Dad, there’s a police car behind us.” Sure enough, in the rearview mirror I spied flashing lights. It was the only car I’d seen for many miles but it was an official one and equally surely I was exceeding the 55 mile an hour speed limit.

 

The trooper showed true Western hospitality and assured me that I could follow him into the nearest town (which, way out there, isn’t all that near) and pay my fine and be on my way. He found out how much money I had left and told me that was just enough to pay the fine with a bit left over for cheeseburgers and fries to get me and the boys back to the Show Me state.  They tell you not to leave home without your American Express card, but unfortunately I didn’t have one— although I did have American Express travelers checks and it turned out those were perfectly acceptable to the local magistrate who looked remarkably like Edgar Buchanan the old-time actor often featured in Western movies as a disreputable old reprobate.

 

So, I paid my fine, and the three of us continued on toward Missouri at 55 mph and the state trooper resumed his hidey-hole behind a convenient sand dune, awaiting the next unwary traveler. It’s uncharitable to gripe about a deserved speeding ticket, because Nebraska is a fine state, but I hope he’s still waiting, 45 years later.

 

Since that long ago road trip Foster has gone down a darker trail, destination unknown, with no return route. The boys have passed the half century mark and I have put a checkmark beside many another trail. But the memory of French Creek is as golden in my mind as was the gravel of that little waterway to those who tried the trail so long ago, bringing the white man’s grief to the citizens of the first nation.

 

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