Dreams Become Legends
South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse monument and wi
Summertime road trips of 700-some miles into South Dakota,
the Badlands and the Black Hills seem like a rite of passage. This is
the most classic of vacations, especially for families, who follow
typically flat and easy-to-drive I-90 for a glimpse of the Wild West.
They encounter Shady Brady hats and jackalopes at Wall Drug Store en
route, then Black Hills Gold and red clay pottery, workingcow boys and
This is timeless Americana, right? Wholesome, tame—but not entirely predictable. Getting misty-eyed at the sight of Mount Rushmore and feeling
awestruck while watching work on the Crazy Horse Memorial never
occurred to me. But that is what happened. Who devotes part or all of a
lifetime to outlandish dreams that slowly turn into everlasting
legacies? In South Dakota, the dwindling group includes Donald “Nick” Clifford, one of the last guys alive who helped carve Mount Rushmore.
He turns 87 on July 5 and began climbing the mountain for pay at age
17, during the Great Depression. “Back in those days, we were glad to
have a job,” Clifford says, and he didn’t care whether neighbors
classified the mission as foolhardy.
Clifford—who grew up 4 curvy, uphill miles from his work-site—spent time in quartz mines before helping to drill, winch and sandblast a quartet of presidential faces into a granite mountaintop. This was his job for three years, until Mount Rushmore’s dedication. About 400 men in 14 years made this project their occupation.
Dynamite blasts went off at noon and 4 p.m. daily. Clifford and his high school buddies got a half-hour off for lunch, started work at 7:30 a.m. and had a few on-the-job safety scares, but nothing that killed anybody. “It makes me proud to be an American, to have worked on something like this,” says Clifford, whose station tended to be to the right of Lincoln’s face.
He also played baseball “every day, rain or shine,” as a part of the Mount Rushmore team, which won consecutive state championships. Clifford was a pitcher and outfielder; for sale at the monument’s gift shop are his autographed baseballs and books.
At the Crazy Horse work-site, 17 miles southwest, no one predicts when thelabor ing will end. The massive undertaking (all of Mount Rushmore would fit into the head of nine-story-tall Crazy Horse) began 60 years ago, on June 3, when the first dynamite blast tore off 10 tons of rock.
Now the rubble exceeds 8 million tons. The face of the revered Indian
warrior was unveiled in 1998; although he was a Lakota, this sculpture
pays tribute to all tribes. The work began because of Korczak
Ziolkowski, the monument’s designer and—at the beginning—sole laborer.
The sculptor began this monstrous project at midlife, at the request of
a Lakota chief, and died in 1982.
The work continues because of tour proceeds, private donations and the enthusiasm of the sculptor’s widow, Ruth, who still lives in the mountainside log home that her husband built in the 1940s. No government money is involved. “If you love your job, it doesn’t seem like work,” the 81-year-old woman insists. “You are happy and grateful to begin each new day.”
Seven of the couple’s 10 children also stay involved with the mission, which Ruth considers “storytelling in stone.” The Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore memorials serve as stellar symbols of independence, character, freedom and hope— and not just on the Fourth of July.
Two hours southwest, near Hot Springs, S.D., more than 500 mustangs run free on 11,000 acres at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary. Founder Dayton O. Hyde’s working ranch is a nonprofit enterprise, established two decades ago as a response to the federal corralling of these animals, to prevent the overgrazing of public land.
Making room for others to roam defines freedom in a different way. Ranch tours and volunteer work shifts at the sanctuary are possible. Foal adoptions, horse sponsorships and other donations are welcome.
Crazy Horse | Photo by Mary Bergin