American Pilgrimage: A Road Trip to Mount Rushmore and Back

David DiLillo

 

Born a third-generation American, I was raised with a vivid sense of pride for my country. Born in New York City, however, my perception of what this country exactly is remained far more tenuous for a long time. What did the soil feel like one thousand miles away from either coast? What scent did the trees give off resting between the Appalachians and the Rockies? Most importantly, what were other Americans like? What does that word mean, apart from the ideals and laws we all uphold and debate over? I set off from my home city with two close friends, determined to make it to the west end of South Dakota, committed to answering these questions. As we headed further away from the Atlantic, I learned that some details would remain more obscure than others, but the feeling of being a tourist in my own nation carried its own unique revelations that I’ll always remember.

 

Our first main goal was to cover ground from New York to Chicago in one day. This goal was driven by our initial yearning to hit the road, our curiosity about a great American city none of us had been to, and our insatiable craving for pizza – the long, hungry hours spent on the interstates amplified this third reason to get to the Windy City all the more quickly. Passing beyond areas of Pennsylvania I was familiar with into Ohio and Indiana, I noticed the prevalence of cornfields more and more, and it dawned on me how much physical land they take up. I’m not the most ardent fan of the yellow crop, but being the agricultural foundation of the United States that it is, it was no surprise that our host in Indianapolis quite bluntly welcomed us to “the land of corn.”

 

Passing through the industrial bastions of Akron and northern Illinois, we made our way toward the Chicago skyline at nightfall. Running past Buckingham Fountain in the rain to eat dinner, nestled under steel canyons with my two friends, made our first meal one of the best I had ever eaten. Spending only one full day in Chicago, we awoke the next morning with full stomachs to scale the Willis Tower, visit a dive bar near Wrigley Field, and observe everything and everything in between. In contrast to the unimpressed New Yorker stereotype, I found myself enthralled by this great city by the lake.

 

The nagging feeling as though I were a foreigner to the U.S. only deepened from there, though. It seemed our East Coast aura and sensibilities were visible in plain sight. As we sat down for a delicious breakfast in Kenosha, Wisconsin, no less than four separate waitresses greeted us, each with her own local recommendations and, unfortunately, warm invitations to social events we wouldn’t be around for. We spent a good deal of time at the coast of Lake Michigan, dipping our feet into the crystal blue water. The moment was as pure as the waves.

 

After a lovely respite from highways with fire-toasted marshmallows at a relative’s house in Minnesota, we entered South Dakota. Most of the billboard advertisements were hand-painted, and it was on Interstate 90 where the main landscape of the Midwest revealed itself. Cornfields no longer surrounded us, but the yellow haze and rolling hills of South Dakota yielded a beauty even more unknown to me. We three American culture lovers took in the small but proud arts community of Sioux Falls; without the manic energy of a city like New York, every street corner, statue, and individual we encountered across the country took on this very honest charm, largely devoid of the constructed sentimentality on display in films and television.

 

If driving in South Dakota by day is like guiding a boat through a prairie, driving by night seems as though rapidly drifting through a black, starless space. Not in the business of taking too many chances, we rested overnight in Murdo, a humble town with kind people and an overall population comparable to my high school graduating class. We made it to Badlands National Park the next morning, coming face to face with alien cliffs that had at one time existed as a large obstacle to westward settlers. There they stood in the present carved out of the earth as glorious and surreal natural attractions. We then visited Wall Drug, an establishment so renowned one would be forgiven for mistaking the town’s name as being credited after the store.

 

We drove through the dense forest of Black Hills, low on gasoline and high on an excitement to arrive at Mount Rushmore before sunset. Reaching Mount Rushmore was quite unlike anything I’d imagined. The spectacle and grandeur of the entrance and amphitheater were enough to take me off guard; peering over the ledge, gazing at this eternally unfinished monument to the celebrated leaders of our nation with hundreds of other pilgrims, was the crux moment that defined our trip. What others may deem a hokey tourist spot remained, in my eyes, this sacred mountainside, earnest and hallowed.  A malfunction of the usual video projector added a level of authenticity, as park rangers gave impromptu, heartfelt thoughts on the history and meaning of the sculpture. There I was, warmly singing the national anthem with so many others in the face of this memorial. In that moment, all divisions and conflicting worldviews were put aside in solemn reverence.

 

As far west as we had gotten ourselves, we had less time to get back then we would have liked, though this leg of the trip wasn’t without its own quirks and splendors. Touching upon the legendary Oregon Trail to visit Chimney Rock, I wistfully imaged us as 19th century travelers, spending more of our time discovering the inner landscapes of America and our own inner fibers rather than risking our lives for the hope of settling a better place to live. Following a long drive through the beige expanses of Nebraska, we were smitten by the small-city allure and vibrant nightlife of Omaha, as well as amazed having met a club bouncer native to our own home borough of Staten Island. We made it to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in time for dinner two days later.

 

Approaching New York’s skyline by way of New Jersey, we still had vague notions of certain parts of the country, having only caught glimpses of struggles and other very real aspects and concerns of families and communities through the states. However, we learned that being informed about and connected to our fellow Americans is a continual process and not simply granted because we were born here. We felt that our national identities had been edified – and our friendships reinforced together. 

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