Sunday, March 20, 2016

Seeing Mount Rushmore

At the end of summer 2014, I made a drive across the country from my old life in Baltimore, Maryland to a new life in Corvallis, Oregon. I took it for an opportunity to cross off states from the ever-shrinking list of ones I hadn’t yet visited, and a chance to fulfill my curiosities about sites hitherto unseen like Yellowstone National Park and The Iowa Literary Walk.

And Mount Rushmore.

It’s difficult to say exactly why I was so adamant about seeing Mount Rushmore. I’ve never felt an inordinate patriotic fervor, nor considered myself a history buff. And yet something about seeing those four dead presidents’ faces carved into the side of a mountain captured my imagination, and felt like essential part of the cross-country trek.

All that, and I struggled to imagine why else I’d find myself in or around South Dakota, and with little desire to do more than see the memorial, it hardly seemed justify a trip of its own.

Heather and I pulled into Keystone at around ten o’clock at night. I’d reserved a room at the Presidents View Resort, an $80 a night lodging that touted its view of the presidents’ faces from the foot of the mountain. I had hoped I that I might be able to see everything I was interested in right there from the hotel parking lot and be on my way.

We arrived late enough that we wouldn’t catch sight of the mountain by daylight, but I imagined it might be lit up and we’d have the benefit of seeing it in spotlights upon our arrival, a different view by daylight, and then we’d be on our way.

I was partially correct. The monument was lit and we could see it from the hotel, but it turned out the best view we had was from the parking lot and the best the angle had to offer was a profile view of George Washington—and he looked awfully small from there, too.

I had spent ten hours behind the wheel, the final two of them clutching the Budget moving truck’s steering wheel with white knuckles against the winding road and complete lack of streetlights or businesses. I told Heather she didn’t have to come with me, but that I wanted to see Mount Rushmore head on that night.

We set off together, not in the truck, but on foot, downhill and down the road into a strip of village a little shy of a quarter mile from the hotel. I felt convinced we’d be able to see the faces of all four presidents head on from the vantage point of that village but as we made our descent, the mountain and the glow of light became less visible and despite my insistence to the contrary, did not come into clearer view when we reached the small strip of businesses (or, ten minutes later, when we had reached the opposite end of it).

So I resigned myself to the idea that we wouldn’t see Mount Rushmore in all its glory that night. We wandered past businesses, taking pictures with a ceramic mule and not entirely racially sensitive portrayals of Native Americans outside old west style saloons, convenience stores done up to approximate old apothecaries, and a slew of smaller outfits peddling t-shirts and snowglobes to commemorate the location.

On my phone, I had programmed a different song to play to wake us each morning of our trip--Counting Crows’ “Omaha” in the eponymous city, Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight” to close the final sleep of our journey. In Keystone, South Dakota, we woke to P!nk’s “Dear Mr. President.” After a breakfast buffet and showers, we reloaded our suitcases into the back of the moving truck and allowed our smart phones to navigate the way toward the mountain.

Not unlike the little village we had stayed adjacent to, everything about Mount Rushmore itself was artificial and conceived for the benefit of tourists. After we had parked the truck amidst a mismatch of RVs and moving trucks even larger than my own, we zigzagged on foot through a maze of people shooting family portraits or selfies with the presidents in the background--a set of obstacles that we, admittedly, contributed to, as we took our own pictures. At a dull moment, I read about the history of the place on my phone. That Native Americans had called the mountain Six Grandfathers, and it had been renamed when New York lawyer Charles Rushmore traveled through the area and appropriated it for himself.

We ventured closer and closer the mountain as the presidents’ faces grew clearer and larger--far closer to what I had imagined of the monument than the miniature version that appeared from outside the hotel. We settled at the edge of an amphitheater where we had a clear shot of the mountain and could see the edges of trails that would lead us closer and closer. We took more photos there and took turns holding up pennies next to Lincoln, quarters next to Washington, posing with index fingers in the air as though we picked the presidents’ noses.

And we were on our way.

I don’t regret my visit to Mount Rushmore. The experience was not revelatory, as I’d hoped it might have been for my inordinate excitement to see the space. But I’d also had enough experiences to know that so few measure up to our wildest dreams or ill-defined intentions. I think I would have regretted not seeing it, and thus the stop was worthwhile if for no other purpose than that.

So, as we rolled on toward our next stop in Wyoming, I left Mount Rushmore not unlike I had left behind Baltimore and the life I’d lived there, a shave disillusioned, but more thankful the experience. More important than any of that, ready for the next destination.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Siren Screams

When I first moved to Baltimore, my girlfriend visited and asked me, “Why are there so many sirens?”

The question was largely rhetorical as we lay in bed, about to go to sleep, hearing the fourth round of sirens since her arrival four hours earlier. The reasons were obvious enough. Baltimore was the homicide capital of the United States. The setting for HBO’s violent historical fiction/social commentary masterpiece The Wire. A place where, when researching apartments online, I’d ruled out the runner up choice because the reviews opined, “A nice Chinese man who never hurt anybody got beat up and had his wallet stolen last week. It’s not safe here.”

“You could be that nice Chinese man,” she had said.

That girlfriend and I had grown up in similar small cities in upstate NY. The kinds of places where police, fire department, and ambulance sirens were abnormalities because such services weren’t called as often, and when they were, there might not have been enough traffic to justify turning on a siren to clear the way.

“The sirens mean people are getting help," I said. "It means it’s safer here.”

This idea that a preponderance of sirens meant safety rather than imminent danger became an inside joke.

By that night, a month into my tenure in Baltimore, the sirens had become a normal part of the backdrop and they remained a presence in the years to follow. That’s not to say I heard them every day, but it wouldn’t be unusual to for them to fracture the normal night sounds--to pierce through the screams of the neighboring children, or the idle talk of politics from the front stoop smokers, or the parking lot arguments between the couple that routinely cursed one another out then raced up the stairs, one to lock the other out. The sirens superseded these sounds, let alone my quieter tap of the HP keyboard, turning of library book pages, or sound my computer speakers could muster to broadcast Netflix.

I left Baltimore for Corvallis, Oregon. East coast to west coast. From a city of 600,000-plus to a college town of 55,000, more than half of that figure students at Oregon State University, the majority of whom had not returned from summer when I moved in. A few nights into my stay, Heather and I watched an episode of Orange is the New Black. A siren wailed and I reflexively arched my neck to peer out the window behind the sofa. Whether or not I could see the flash of red and blue lights was usually a sign of how close the action was to my apartment.

But the sirens were only on TV.

I knew I’d miss my friends in Baltimore. An office job that had been largely supportive of the creative and academic endeavors I undertook during my time there. A few favorite restaurants and bars. The gym. The library. But I never expected to miss the city noises--least of all the sirens.

But as the scene ended on television, the sound disappeared, and there were no flickering lights outside to be seen, I recognized that I had not only moved, but driven into a different life.