Coming Down from the Mountain

The man who removes a mountain begins

by carrying away small stones.

William Faulkner

It had started as The Great American Road Trip. We were a family of five encased in a blue minivan inching along a ribbon of highway from Texas to Canada and back. For three solid weeks. With three children.

I had begun to sense the curvature of the earth as we rolled steadily northward, making our way to Lake Louise. My husband, Jim, and I had spent a lot of time listening to The Byrds singing “In the Blue Canadian Rockies” when we were dating, and had always wanted to go there.

Jim and I had been on various cross-country car trips with our respective parents as we grew up, and wanted to give Amy, Jessica, and Margaret similar memories. It was 1995, and our daughters were then ages 14, 11, and 7.

It certainly started out well. We sang songs, traded seats, talked about the scenery, played License Plate Bingo, and got really hooked on a game we had made up on earlier road trips called Fivers. One person begins by tossing out a genre to someone else, asking the person to name five items in that category. Part of the creative genius of this game is in the delineation of the parameters.

For example, one could say, “Amy, name five authors.” Or, one could narrow down the field to “five female authors” or “five female authors who died before 1900” or “five female authors who wrote under pseudonyms.” The category could be appropriately winnowed by age for each family member. The hardest ones allowed us safe silent passage over many miles until someone finally gave up and the rest jumped in with guesses.

On a visit to Oregon years later, my new son-in-law endeared himself to me one night as he was driving the five Tankards home from the coast in a rented minivan. Over his shoulder, Brian casually asked, “Anyone want to play Fivers?” I looked at Amy, who was grinning. She had obviously taught her husband this family game.

When Amy and Brian later visited me in Texas, we drove up to Waco so he could play in a golf tournament. As we returned to Austin late one evening — Brian asleep in the back, Amy driving, and me as copilot — I asked Amy if she wanted to play Fivers to help stay awake.

“Sure,” she replied swiftly, and we made the next couple hours fly by. We barely wanted to stop playing as we glided off I–35 onto 38th Street.

Like all car games, however, they can wear thin with young children after a while. So on our Great American Road Trip to Canada, we stopped for every possible educational site one could locate between Austin and Alberta.

One was Little Bighorn Battlefield in Wyoming, where we triangulated the positions of Lt. Col. George A. Custer and 262 other soldiers who died at the hands of several thousand Lakota and Cheyenne warriors defending their way of life.

We continued northward. I could write an entire book about all our adventures in Canada. As we began our southward trek home, however, some of the wind went out of our sails. Our car was beginning to look as though we lived in it. Every time someone exited from the side sliding door, the entire contents of the minivan seemed to shift a little closer to the breach. Travel brochures, road maps, guidebooks, souvenirs, bathing suits still wet from the previous night’s motel pool, half-eaten boxes of munchies spewing their contents like lava, dirty laundry, and someone’s chewed gum lurched together like a wave cresting for a surfer to ride out the door. Tempers were running short in the back seats. They weren’t very long in the front seats either.

We were in the Badlands of South Dakota, having just toured Mt. Rushmore. Devil’s Tower lay ahead, with the long road broken up only by Wall Drug for an ice cream stop. What to do?

Then we began seeing the signs for Chief Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest mountain carving. Excitement reached a peak as we saw the huge unfinished outline of the chief astride his horse, with outstretched arm pointing over the Badlands. All four huge Mt. Rushmore heads would fit inside just this Indian’s skull.

New England sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski had come to the Black Hills in 1939 to assist on Mount Rushmore, after winning a prize at the New York World’s Fair. Chief Henry Standing Bear read about him, and invited Ziolkowski to create a “mountainous tribute to the North American Indians.” The sculptor arrived in 1947. A year later, he made the first blast on the mountain, in the presence of five survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Ziolkowski kept chipping and dynamiting away at the mountain over the years until his death in 1982. He had ten children, and today his widow and seven of the children are still working on the sculpture.

When we finally reached the visitor center, the girls were glad to get out of the car. I stemmed the tide of paraphernalia oozing after them as they emerged. We all needed to stretch our legs. The sculpture was breathtaking from that viewpoint, but tourists were not allowed near the blasting area. So we walked around the visitor center learning all about the project’s history and Indian lore.

Jim and I were a bit more fascinated by all the old photos than were the girls. Slowly they drifted off to amuse themselves. Before long, I heard their excited voices from a far-off corner.


“I want one!”

“I can carry another!”

“Put one in my purse!”

“Let’s roll ‘em!”

I turned to see them hobbling out the door, arms loaded with something. They were bent over with the weight of whatever it was, headed toward our car. The woman behind the counter was leaning on it with her arms, beaming.

“Take as many as you want,” she called after them. “Plenty more here!”

I looked down to see a huge wooden box on the floor in front of the counter. It was full of rocks of all sizes from the mountain, with a sign on top just the right height to catch the eyes of tourists’ children: “FREE ROCKS! HELP YOURSELF!” No wonder the sculpture has been a work in progress for sixty-three years.

“Oh no, we can’t. . .,” I started to say, but it was too late. The girls were back for a second helping, and I could see the excitement in their eyes.

“Here, Mom,” said Jessica, running over to me brimming with enthusiasm, “here’s one for you!” She placed a miniboulder in my arms and ran over to assist her sisters.

“Jim!” I called out, “Time to hit the road!”

But we had miles to go before we slept. The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, was coming up next. Who knew what they had for us to cart off?

Copyright 2012 by Elaine F. Tankard



Filed under Family, Travel

2 responses to “Coming Down from the Mountain

  1. That sounds really awesome. Makes me want to go there tomorrow and collect a few stones.


  2. I’m sure they could use your help! 😉