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Truly in tears over America, the beautiful

POSTED: July 31, 2011 1:30 a.m.

KEYSTONE, S.D. — On a recent Sunday at nightfall, I sat with a few thousand others at the foot of Mount Rushmore, the fabled monument in Western South Dakota.

As giant spotlights were coming up on the granite likeness of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, the audience began singing "America the Beautiful" with a singer on a video recording.

I tried to sing, but the lump in my throat and the tears in my eyes made that impossible.

My trip to Mount Rushmore was one of the final stops on a whirlwind tour that took us to Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. If you haven’t been there, I hope you get to go one day.

When Katharine Lee Bates wrote the words to "America," it was based on a poem called "Pike’s Peak." I didn’t make it to Pike’s Peak, but I did see some sites that made her words come to life.

I had never seen "amber waves of grain," until I drove through the wide-open farmland of northern Minnesota and North Dakota. Tall tassels of corn and wheat seemed to wave as we drove along Interstate 94.

The state of Montana gave me "spacious skies" like I had never seen before. "Big Sky" is a term used to describe Montana and it fits.

Looking around, you can see miles and miles in any direction, and the vision is not cluttered by development or even trees. The sky was a perfect blue like none I had seen before.

We drove long days to reach the West. We arrived in Yellowstone National Park at sundown and drove through the darkest night to reach a cabin in Grand Teton National Park.

The final few miles were just dark highways surrounded by a canopy of trees.

It was not until the next morning that I saw the most amazing work of God’s paintbrush. With crisp temperatures in the upper 40s, I saw the centerpiece, Grand Teton and its fellow snowcapped mountains that stretch nearly two miles in the sky.

Driving along the roads of the park was like driving by a never-ending mural. It was like seeing an incredible painting, but at the same time it was very real. Rounding a corner, the sights were so spectacular that they literally took my breath away.

We shared the road with bison, deer, antelope, coyote and elk. Waiting for a 2,000-pound animal to walk by your door can also take your breath away (and make you review the damage waiver on your rental car).

But it all became real at Mount Rushmore.

Washington was the first president of our nation. Jefferson gave us the Louisiana Purchase and sent explorers Lewis and Clark to see what was out there in the unexplored West. Lincoln tried to hold the young nation together, while Teddy Roosevelt helped preserve the unspoiled landscape of the West for future generations.

I had seen the fruits of their collective labor like I had never seen it before. Their impressive faces in stone inspired feelings of awe and reverence.

I have heard many express their love for the American West, but now a part of it is within me and I hope that it stays there for as long as I live.

Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesville times.com/harris.



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