One of my favorite parts of being a National Park Ranger is hearing the stories of the visitors at Mount Rushmore. Everyone has a story to tell about why they have made to journey to the Black Hills, where they are going next, how long they have been on the road, and the adventures they have enjoyed along the way. One of the pages in the Junior Ranger activity books we have available at Mount Rushmore includes a map of the United States. The instructions are to draw the route you took to get to Mount Rushmore. I have seen many depictions of convoluted routes around the country with twists and turns leading to other National Parks. The route that we took to get to Rushmore was no different.
Derrick and I wanted to try to visit as many parks as possible during the Centennial of the National Park Service, so even the trip to begin our adventure as park rangers included National Park stops.
To bring you back to where it all started, we left Wisconsin on April 20, 2016 three months and one week ago today. We had a wonderful dinner and night visiting my sister and our brother-in-law, then headed out the next day to pick up some cheese for the road, then to see Derrick’s parents, stopped at the farm, and Grandma’s, spent the night in Abrams, then headed to Manitowoc to see my family and a few friends. After finishing our brief farewell tour of Wisconsin, we headed down to Chicago to visit Derrick’s sister, our brother-in-law, and our Goddaughter.
After a very nice visit with family and a night of thunderstorms, we were back on the road early the next morning. Our next stop was Louisville, Kentucky to visit my cousin and get a tour of her campus at the University of St. Louis. From there we drove to nearby Mammoth Cave National Park and began our Centennial parks visits.
On our way to the park, I was able to call and reserve one of the historic cabins for the night. Mammoth Cave is only about and hour and a half from Louisville, so we plenty of time to enjoy the park above the ground.
We took a walk in the evening rain to see the bats and the mist rise from the Green River. Spring! What a beautiful time to be here! Everything is green and bursting with life. The sound of a flap from above revealed a gang of vultures perched in a dead tree, their wings casually open, casting off the heat from earlier in the day. The rain finally let up and we enjoyed being the only people on the trail. There are many times when we are in the parks and we feel like we have them all to ourselves, but this time even more so. As Mammoth Cave hospitality was undergoing major renovations, the hotel and restaurant were completely closed and torn apart. It was not until we arrived that we realized how lucky we were to get a cabin for the night, since the historic cabins were the ONLY lodging available (aside from camping of course).
As Derrick and I walked the trail we talked about our new life adventure and all of the friends and family that might come and visit us while we are at Mount Rushmore. Then, I was struck with a thought. This rangering opportunity may be fulfilling a desire we have expressed throughout our visits to the National Parks. So often we would talk about how much we wished we could share our experiences in the parks with the people we love. Could working at a park be the ticket? Our advocacy and stewardship of the parks has led us to this point and now, we are hopefully able to ignite even more interest in the parks in others. And there we stood, celebrating the Centennial at Mammoth Cave, working our way to our jobs as Rangers at Rushmore! What a trip and what an experience!
The next morning we woke to a sunny and humid spring day in Mammoth Cave N.P. I spotted a beautiful Scarlet Tanager and an Indigo Bunting on our morning hike along with countless Yellow Swallowtail butterflies. We hit the road and continued south toward Nashville, then on to Georgia to surprise a few good friends and enjoy their Georgia Jamboree.
Before we headed to visit our friends, we had to make one stop on the way at a place called Stone Mountain. It is the location of the first mountain carving that Gutzon Borglum (the sculptor of Mount Rushmore) attempted, as well as where he learned how to work with dynamite. Since we were about to spend our summer talking about Borglum, we thought it was appropriate to make the voyage to see the carving.
Stone Mountain is located just outside of Atlanta, which became very apparent as we arrive just in time for rush hour. We sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic for 3 hours to go about 10 miles. When we finally arrived at Stone Mountain, already somewhat irritated and road weary, we realized that there was a $15 fee to get in. It seemed a little steep, but we had come specifically to see this work of art, so we paid and entered the gates.
As soon as we began driving around we realized that Stone Mountain was not the only attraction behind the gates. There was an entire park that surrounded the mountain with trails and winding roads leading to parking areas. But the odd part was that there was barely anyone around. A few people walking the trails and a car here and there, but other than that, we saw very few people. We kept looking around us for the Stone Mountain carving but couldn’t see anything. How do you miss a mountain? We were confused and unsure of where to go, so we followed the winding roads to a deserted parking lot for what looked like and amusement park. Was the mountain inside there? Did we have to pay again? We parked and walked up to the gates, soon realizing that there was nobody working at the ticket window and that you could just walk right in. We walked through the colorful archway and tried to decipher what was being sold at the ticket booth. Bright splashy signs advertised the “Skyhike”, “Geyser Towers”, “Summit Skyride”, the “Great Locomotive Chase Adventure Golf”, and “Yogi Bear 4-D Adventure”. We were in a theme park – a seemingly closed and deserted theme park in which we were the only visitors.
We walked through the collection of stores, restaurants, bumper boats, obstacle courses, and ticket booths for numerous attractions. Advertisements for the evening laser show adorned light posts, banners denoted area to take photos with “characters”. But what was most bizarre was that the entire place was empty. It was like something had happened to all the people and we were the only survivors. Michael Jackson, John Mellencamp, and AC/DC blared through the speakers on the light posts as we wandered around the eerily vacant park. But what about the mountain? We wove our way through the deserted streets and rounded a corner to our first view of Stone Mountain.
It is a huge granite dome monadnock formed by a pluton igneous intrusion. Created by magma that cooled slowly beneath the Earth’s surface about 350 million years ago, it was formed at the same time as the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is a very large and impressive land feature and carving. The relief carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee is the largest high relief sculpture in the world. 400 feet above the ground, the carving is 90 by 190 feet, recessed 42 feet into the mountain.
We were excited to finally view the work of art we had come to see, but were a little disappointed since the areas surrounding the mountain seemed to be under construction. We also could not figure out how to get to any of the trails close to the mountain. But, we had fulfilled our goal, which was to see Stone Mountain. After finding a penny press that worked (the first one we tried was apparently broken) and pressing ourselves a small souvenir of our stop, we headed back through the oddly unoccupied amusement park to our car.
It wasn’t until we got to Mount Rushmore and learned the actual story of Borglum’s time at Stone Mountain that we realized none of the work we saw was actually done by Borglum! (Follow this link and scroll down to “Borglum Carves Mountains” for a short explanation.)
The sun was setting as we left Stone Mountain and headed to surprise our friends, Luke and Stephanie, at their Georgia Jamboree. We turned down their driveway at 11:00 p.m. and crept through the fog toward the event. I could barely contain my excitement as we rolled toward the house. This would be the second time that we surprised these wonderful friends of ours. The first time was on their wedding day when we attended Derrick’s brother’s wedding, oddly enough in Atlanta Georgia, then flew to Chicago the same day to surprise Luke and Stephanie at their wedding reception. We had not been sure if we would be able to attend either event at the time, but when we were able to make it work, we decided to keep our attendance a secret and surprise them.
We parked our car and walked through the hazy darkness toward to sounds of laughter and crackling campfire. When we emerged from the night, we were met with a combination of “Holy cow! We are so glad you are here!” and “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DID THIS AGAIN!” It was a wonderful feeling to see our dear friends and to know we would be spending the next few days relaxing and reveling with a fantastic group of people. The weekend also included a live performance by local musicians Free Lance Ruckus on Luke and Stephanie’s recently constructed back porch. It was a fabulously relaxing few days of hammocking, hula-hooping, great music, tons of food, Luke’s delicious home brew, and lots of smiles and laughter.
After the delightful days of friends, fun, camping, and music, we were back on the road. Our next stop was to visit Derrick’s brother, our sister-in-law, and our nephews (and the furry friends) in Columbus. Plans to grill out were foiled by a severe thunderstorm and we enjoyed pizza, conversation, and laugher with our family.
We left Columbus at 10:14 p.m. and drove into the wee hours of the morning until we reached Holy Springs National Forest near Tupelo, Mississippi where we made camp for the night in the humid, dewy darkness. We listened to owls hooting back and forth and what sounded like an entire flock of whippoorwills trilling their distinct call through the forest. It was 3:00 a.m. and we were ready to rest up for tomorrow’s drive to cross a new park off of our list, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.