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As 8 a.m. approached, I was driving a rented Corolla through the twisting roads of South Dakota's Black Hills. The many family-friendly roadside attractions, which at a later hour would offer chuckwagon dinner shows, trail rides, and gunfight reenactments, obscured the natural beauty of ancient pine forests and rock formations. I drove past the majestically clichéd Mount Rushmore, with the presidential heads bathed in the morning sun.
I was just doing my job. I'm a travel writer, and I had an appointment to meet the public relations director of the Crazy Horse Memorial—the region's other spectacularly extravagant mountain carving.
Back when I was a grunt copywriter I dreamed of assignments like this. What could be more wonderful than traveling to unusual locales on somebody else's dollar? I fantasized about using my self-aggrandized gift for language to inspire, educate, and even entertain. I read and reread Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad, his great travelogue, the way a precocious 10-year old would devour Tom Sawyer.
After years of pitches that had gone nowhere and writing for free, I started getting paid assignments. One job led to another and another. Although non-famous travel writers don't get to cover A-list destinations like Paris or Hong Kong, I did travel to obscure Caribbean islands with marginally functional sewage systems, spooky Eastern European cities attempting to style themselves the new Prague, and a few national parks I hadn't known existed.
I loved it. When fellow travelers asked whether I was on business or vacation, I often replied, "Vacation is my work," with what I am sure was infuriating smugness. Someone wise once advised find something you love to do and then find a way to make a living at it. I did just that.
Unfortunately, someone wiser said never do what you do for pleasure as your work, because the fun will become work and work is never fun.
By the time I got to South Dakota, my job wasn't fun anymore. Just like I had always planned, I was somewhere I had never thought of going, staying in a historic hotel, and being paid decent money (by writers' standards) for it. The convention and visitors bureau heard of my arrival and sent a goody basket filled with fruit, nuts, and bison jerky. At the bureau's request, the hotel had even upgraded me to the spacious Teddy Roosevelt Room.
Alone in that comfortable room, where my second-favorite president once stayed, I snacked on premium peaches and wrote my stories. I skipped the bison jerky but saved it for my dog.
I missed that dog. I missed my human friends. I even missed my family. For the first few years, I hadn't worried about things that went on in my absence. The folks at home might have outings to local pubs or to see the latest Rob Schneider offering, but that paled in comparison to diving in Bonaire or rafting the Rio Grande. Now I freakishly longed not only for the company of enviably successful school chums but for the awkward silences and passive aggression that characterized Marshall family functions.
I was also sick of B-list destinations. I wanted to see Mark Twain's Russia or South Africa. Instead I was in South Dakota, the only place in the world where the population does not realize "Dances with Wolves" is a melodramatic, wet blanket of movie. Work had even forced me to visit several of the film's sets and listen to the locals tell me—without a hint of irony—about Kevin Costner sightings. (OK, one of the Wild Bill Hickock impersonators in Deadwood made a joke about Dragonfly, but he was an exception.)
Also, unlike my literary idol, I was restricted to no more than 300 to 500 words about each destination. Space issues, editorial issues, and attention-span issues all conspired to keep me in a small literary box. I was lonely, far from everyone I care about, and writing glorified ad copy on roadside attractions. And people were encouraging me to eat bison jerky and admire Kevin Costner.
As I pulled into the Crazy Horse Memorial, I was seriously considering a job in public relations. At least then I could stay in one place for a while, spend time reacquainting myself with my friends and family. Perhaps find a boyfriend. I thought perhaps the flack I was about to meet would have some ideas about PR opportunities.
A mile in the distance I saw the half-formed, gargantuan Crazy Horse statue that when complete will dwarf Mount Rushmore. Fifty years into the project, only the statue's head is complete. It's an odd but impressive sight.
Once inside the visitors center, I met Rob DeWall, a short, hyperactive man who writes all the copy and takes all the pictures for the memorial. He has also authored several books on the subject, all of which are available for purchase in the gift shop. He tells me how his life for the past 25 years has been consumed with the sculpture and its adjacent Native American Culture Center.
He clearly likes his job. He tours me around and shows me the center's extensive collection of Native American art and artifacts. The Queen of England has several Woody Crumbo paintings in her collection, he says. He introduced me to several of the tribe representatives. Each person was so friendly that my loneliness and crabbiness dissolved away, completely forgotten.
Rob talked swiftly with broad hand gestures, pointing out debunked photos of Crazy Horse, J.H. Grabill prints, and the restaurant's free coffee. He explained how a Polish sculptor from South Boston (who resembled my Polish grandmother) had been commissioned by a local chief to memorialize Native Americans and how after he died his large family continued the breathtakingly ambitious (if quixotic) project.
He told me that normally visitors are not allowed near the statue. The engineers often schedule dynamite blasts at the last minute, so for safety and insurance reasons most people can go no further than the base of the mountain.
Then he said he would take me up to the top. I assumed Rob knew that no blast was scheduled, so we climbed into his battered blue jeep and drove to the mountain. As we passed a security area with the faded "Keep Out" sign, the dirt road became steep.
"Nobody gets beyond here unless they are press or a major contributor," Rob said.
Rob prattled on and on, outlining the facts of the statue's construction and the methodology for dynamite blasting.
Soon, we got out of the jeep and hiked. After passing a few mountain goats, workmen, and feral cats, I found myself standing beneath Crazy Horse's enormous nose—so enormous the jeep could have fit into his nostril.
Crazy Horse, as envisioned by the sculptor, stared sternly into the rolling beauty of Black Hills. In the distance, a forest fire billowed massive clouds of black smoke. According to Rob, it was under control but still ravaging the national forest.
I thought of the statement that had inspired the memorial. The defeated Crazy Horse, when asked where his lands were, pointed to those hills and said, "My lands are where my people lay buried."
A mountain carving may not be high art, but this one was, for lack of a better word, neat. Better yet, because I was press, I was getting a view available to only a select few. Just then, t-shirt shops and family-friendly kitsch left my mind. Isolation and artistic frustration were forgotten. I was caught up in the adventure, opening my mind to a place that I didn't know existed and never would have cared to see had I not been a travel writer.
As I left the mountain, I was happy. This is nice work, if you can get it.
Melissa Marshall is a freelance writer who splits her time between New York and Houston.