From Rushmore to Carhenge: Exploring the Cost of the American Spirit
For almost ten years, I lived in California as a guest—a green card resident from Canada. The only thing stopping me from applying for citizenship was the Oath of Allegiance. I balked at bearing true faith and allegiance to a country I didn’t know.
But a lot can change in ten years, and with every visit back home, it became clearer to me that I’d lost touch with the country that raised me. I was stuck between two places—a situation that applied to almost everything else in my life.
I got into a car and started to drive. The plan: see the country, do something new. Eventually, I found myself parked beside a Dairy Queen on the edge of Alliance, Nebraska. The town has a population of about 8,500—the largest town I’d driven past in hours and the only one with strong enough cell signal to pull up a map on my phone.
I walk inside to grab a soda. As soon as my eyes adjust to the interior lighting, I see… staring. I am in a room filled with demure beige dresses and light-coloured hair. And here I am: red tank top and jeans, a head taller than even the men. Here in Alliance, I am very foreign, very Chinese.
I fell in love with America here.
Only twenty-four hours before, I was standing at The Avenue of Flags, a walkway leading to Mount Rushmore—a shrine to American democracy. I’d travelled 1,400 miles to visit this secular pilgrimage site. Nearly three million people visit every year, and yet, I’d never seen it in person until then. It was worth the wait. When the light of the sun hits the monument just so, the effect will stir even the most unpatriotic of hearts.
The American spirit—traipsing west into the unknown, recreating the wild in our own image through dynamite—is nothing short of audacious. We turn our leaders into gods and our system of government into a religion.
It is this same spirit that led Gutzon Borglum, a Danish-American sculptor and member of the Ku Klux Klan, to partner with the United Daughters of the Confederacy back in 1915. He was to carve a memorial to the Confederacy into Stone Mountain, Georgia, complete with a KKK altar. On June 23, 1923, the first cut began, but his memorial was never finished due to disputes between Borglum and the managing association.
After abandoning Stone Mountain, Borglum went on to oversee the carving of Mount Rushmore, but the site he chose was sacred to the Lakota Indians. For centuries, the Black Hills region had been rife with violent turmoil between the US government and Native Americans. Even today, there are still many who view America’s shrine of democracy as a controversial monstrosity.
But if Mount Rushmore is a shrine, complete with soaring flags and polished granite, then Crazy Horse Memorial is a testament to the enduring will of the people. Located less than twenty miles from Rushmore, the memorial is far from completed, but when finished, it will depict Crazy Horse; a legendary Lakota warrior, riding a horse and pointing into the distance. The final dimensions are planned to be 641 feet wide and 563 feet high, making it much larger than Mount Rushmore, and even dwarfing the Statue of Liberty.
The sculpture is a response to the double-edged sword that is the indomitable American spirit—the determination to forge a free nation even if it means crushing those left behind. In 1877, a white trader taunted Crazy Horse by asking what had become of his lands, and Crazy Horse replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
His words are emblazoned inside the museum at Crazy Horse Memorial, and it is those words that stay with me as I drive 150 miles south to Carhenge near the city of Alliance, Nebraska. It is a replica of England’s Stonehenge using cars salvaged from nearby dumps. All of them are spray-painted gray. For miles around, there is nothing but fields of golden wheat. I have the place all to myself. Its eerie, graveyard quality is heightened by the absence of throngs of tourists found at Rushmore and Crazy Horse.
Assembled in 1987, three foreign cars were originally a part of Carhenge but were torn down, buried, and replaced by American models. A 1962 Caddy – half-buried, head down – marks their grave. Someone painted onto its roof: “Here lie three bones of foreign cars. They served our purpose while Detroit slept. Now Detroit is awake and America’s great!”
Patriotism is dead. America is dying. At least, that’s what media pundits are telling me. There are so many things wrong with our country: healthcare, education, the economy. But as I’m standing in line at Dairy Queen, feeling out of place, I can’t help but believe these are symptoms of a larger problem—one that we may never be able to solve.
We have forgotten what it means to be American, because liberty, equality, and justice have taken on a nuanced meaning in today’s world. The unspoken part: “At the expense of…” We are scrambling to figure out who we are, and in so doing, forget our place in the world.
But as I leave Dairy Queen with a drink in hand, my phone finally shows two bars—enough to tell where I am in relation to the country. The miles between Alliance and everywhere else are narrow, one-lane highways stretching to the horizon. The land is flat. The sky is an indomitable blue—the kind of color that must’ve stirred the hearts of our forefathers as they pioneered a new nation.