HILL CITY, S.D. — Just south of Keystone, S.D., Route 16A winds through the Black Hills, traversing land blanketed with Ponderosa pines that stand straight and narrow, like rows and rows of arrowheads.
It was there, driving on a gently sloped incline one recent sunny day, that I first caught a glimpse of George Washington, in profile. He was gone in a flash, as the road curved away. Then, around the next bend, the full frontal view of Mount Rushmore -- all four presidents -- appeared. At that moment, I felt a little frisson of excitement and, yes, of uncomplicated patriotism. Which is exactly what the sculpture's creator would have wanted.
For some people, Mount Rushmore elicits nagging questions: Should the mountain, set on sacred Indian land, have been so "defaced" by man? Is the whole idea embarrassingly kitschy and jingoistic? Are the depicted presidents the right ones? Does their choice reflect a misleading and simplistic notion of American history?
The answers to those questions are eternally debatable. But on its own terms, my encounters suggest, Mount Rushmore is a colossal achievement, worthy of its place in the lexicon as a synonym for monumentality.
The man who made this mountain was Gutzon Borglum. Born in Idaho to Danish immigrant parents, Borglum had several sculptural credits to his name, including saints and apostles for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, when he was invited in 1924 by South Dakota's state historian, Doane Robinson, to create the work.
Headstrong and ambitious, he changed nearly everything. Rejecting the proposed site, the Black Hills' Needles peaks, as too fragile, he settled on nearby Mount Rushmore, which was far grander. It not only provided a solid block of granite but also faced southeast and thus basked in direct sunlight most of the day.
He also revamped the concept. As a way to draw tourists, Mr. Robinson had suggested sculpting into the Black Hills several heroes of the West -- Indian chiefs like Red Cloud and American explorers like Lewis and Clark. Borglum consented only to do something bigger. He wanted to create a monument to the American philosophy, a celebration of the American spirit. That, he said, could be done only by portraying the nation's greatest presidents, picked by him.
And so he did: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and, more controversially, Theodore Roosevelt, his personal hero. To Borglum, they were pathfinders who represented the founding, westward expansion, preservation and world-wide stature of the U.S., respectively (think Panama Canal on that last one).
Work began in October 1927. Borglum was 60. He and his team of about 400 men blasted away some 450,000 tons of granite, 90% by dynamite and 10% with jackhammers. They frequently worked hanging from bosun's seats strung up by cables to the mountaintop. They worked through troubles -- for example, Jefferson was originally on Washington's right, but cracked granite there forced Borglum to move him to Washington's left.
One by one, starting in 1934 with Washington, the faces were revealed and dedicated. When Borglum died suddenly in March 1941, only a few finishing touches were left to be added. His son, Lincoln, carried them out, working for seven more months, until funding ran out on the eve of the U.S. entry into the World War II. Congress declared Rushmore finished. All told, the federal government had paid $836,000 of the nearly $1 million total cost.
Timing and budgets may have saved Rushmore, aesthetically speaking. Borglum had wanted to carve full figures, not just the presidential heads. But the disembodied faces seem far more powerful. Though six stories tall, they seem intimate portraits. Even when seen from surrounding roads, they are remarkably close to viewers, and the government has taken full advantage of that, creating viewing turnoffs and tunnels that frame Rushmore.
For the full experience, you must go inside the boundaries of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is free except for the $8 parking fee. Experts recommend the nightly lighting ceremony, which begins with a "preshow" at 8:30 p.m. in the spacious outdoor amphitheater, a ranger talk at 9, followed by a film about the monument. About 9:30, lights slowly come up, revealing the four faces.
There is drama in seeing Rushmore that way. But daylight is required for better inspection. The National Park Service has created a Presidential Trail along Rushmore's base. It takes visitors close up and, at times, it exploits the angles of the mountain and the vegetation to isolate one or two of the faces.
Washington, fittingly, is the first, most prominent and most finished of the four. He stares straight ahead, serious, showing the weight he bears for the nation. Lincoln, too, seems troubled, his brow knitted slightly, perhaps weary of his responsibilities and of the human costs of the Civil War. By contrast, Jefferson seems to be looking up, maybe toward the Western land he acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. And Roosevelt seems almost to have a twinkle in his eye, unobscured by the traces Borglum carved to suggest his ever-present spectacles.
Granite is a blunt medium, not given to nuance. Yet these portraits do seem to capture the essence of each man.
Less than a year before he died, Borglum talked of the pleasure he experienced at Rushmore. "This is the work I love most, this intimate contact with the four men," he told the New York Times in August 1940. "As I became engrossed in the features and personalities of each man, I felt myself growing in stature, just as they did when their characters grew and developed."
Borglum believed in the bigness of America -- in growth, dreams, abilities.
Over the years, Rushmore has been called America's Shrine to Democracy.
Maybe. I see it more as a Shrine to Enterprise. Either way, it is a sight to behold.