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Newspaper & Magazine Articles: Blog2
  • Writer's pictureSusan Flanagan

Taking the Family Stateside | The Kids are Alright | Mar. 20, 2012

Mount Rushmore rises out of the Black Hills of South Dakota like the first iceberg of the year rises out of the North Atlantic. You know it`s going to be there at some point; you`re not sure when to expect it. But once you clap eyes on it, there`s no mistaking it for something else.

And there`s also no mistaking its majesty. The 60-foot faces of the four presidents carved into the granite of the Black Hills are infinitely better in reality than in photos or in movies. It’s the difference between watching a humpback whale breach on a You Tube video and being out in a dory near Torbay Head when a humpback passes under your boat, circles and lifts its massive body out of the ocean just to show you it can be done. You’re close enough to touch the barnacles. The spray lands on your face. The rancid smell of digested caplin assaults your nostrils. Your boat rocks when the whale hits the water.

A hundred years ago a South Dakota state historian had an idea to lure tourists to the remote and impoverished area around Keystone by creating a gargantuan sculpture. It was a build-it-and they-will-come sort of vision. A sculptor named Gutzon Borglum conceived the idea of carving the busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln. Money ran out before the chests were complete however, but it turns out the presidents’ faces were enough to draw a crowd. Every year more than two million tourists visit the monument.

We arrived at Mount Rushmore on a stinking hot day in July. I’m talking steam rising off the ground hot. Thirty-six degrees and not a breath of wind or drop of moisture hot. As the boys took turns posing at a distance pretending they were picking a president’s nose, our only girl headed to the tent mister – like a car wash for overheated tourists. Something we don’t often see around this province. Although, who knows, maybe they’re used in the Labrador interior in the energy-zapping heat of summer.

Once the children finished goofing around, I knew what would come next. What had become a ritual at each historical stop throughout the United States. They raced to the nearest vending machine. There was no sense protesting or thinking that one day might be different. I resigned myself to the fact that looking at monolithic faces carved in granite is not any more culturally enhancing than collecting quarters from 50 States. You see they didn’t race to the vending machines to buy a drink, although for 27 days No. 3 always seemed to have a Coke in his hand. The children raced to the machines to exchange quarters. Put a quarter in, press return change and a different quarter pops out. Magic really. Do this until each child gets at least one 25-cent piece among the fifty collectible American quarters that came out between 1999 until 2008 (five per year).

The quarters are works of art. Alabama has Helen Keller; Tennessee has musical instruments; New York the Statue of Liberty; Arizona has the Grand Canyon and South Dakota has, you guessed it, Mount Rushmore. And it’s not enough to collect one complete set of quarters for the 50 States. No, no, no. Both major American mints (Denver and Philadelphia) issued the coins and the coin holders we had bought, at West Edmonton Mall of all places, held spaces for each set. You can tell in which mint a quarter originated by a tiny P or D engraved under In God We Trust.

After a few groans of protest we yanked our girl out of the mister and the boys away from the vending machines and headed down a trail to get a closer look at the presidents. We took turns getting our pics taken below the four heads. We visited exhibits explaining the history of the monument. The conflict with the Sioux Nation who have begun constructing their own monument of Crazy Horse over on Highway 385. The challenges like when the sculptor died and then money ran out in 1941. We and thousands of other tourists were awestruck.

Did I mention a large percentage of the other tourists are motorcycle enthusiasts? The winding roads leading to Mount Rushmore are some of the best motorcycle roads in the world. For over 70 years bikers have been rolling into the nearby town of Sturgis for one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the United States. More than 700,000 a year.

I wouldn’t recommend bringing your children to the rally but don’t shy away from the bikers. They’re intelligent, kind, engaging and entertaining. Plus many are travelling with their own children. No matter where you stay or where you stop to eat, you and your preschoolers will be greeted by huge Bikers Welcome signs. We enjoyed sharing meals with big, bald leather-clad bikers in sleeveless t’s and vests. I think my husband daydreamed about being there alone on his Bonneville, with the wind in his hair and the sun on his face. Alas, to his credit, he enthusiastically climbed back aboard the Flanavan and headed, with the family he had created, into the Badlands of South Dakota. We had been to the Alberta Badlands around Drumheller and climbed around on hoodoos but the badlands in Badlands national Park were well, more badlandish. It’s where Dances with Wolves was filmed.

There’s no gas, no water, no quarter-exchanging vending machines for hundreds of miles. There are a few stary buffalo however. At one point we pulled in to a rest stop to climb around on what was, 65 million years ago, the bottom of the sea. The shale has eroded leaving church spires, deep gullies and even what looked like a giant happy face in the hill. We climbed around for about an hour, until in the dry heat, we built up quite a thirst. Between the six and a half of us, it took no time to drain all our beverages. Yet our thirst was not nearly quenched. When we started seeing mirages, we drank the melted ice out of the bag at the bottom of the cooler. Bits of sand and all.

Don’t know if we were hallucinating from dehydration, but shortly after we got back in the van a million prairie dogs popped out of holes in the dirt, just like at the games arcade or fair. Except we didn’t need a hammer. They just went up and down like magic. Like seals in the St Lawrence, prairie dogs thrive in South Dakota. You can hire a guide and go on a custom prairie dog hunting trip. “Prairie dogs offer sportsmen countless hours of entertainment,” boasts one outfitter’s website. “Prairie dogs are small targets that will stand still; often times give you a few chances, and seem to replenish themselves as the day goes on.” We decided to skip booking a tour but we did have fun running amongst their burrows.

When we finally reached a road stop and replenished liquids, we took a look at what was for sale. Camouflage clothing, guns of every size, hunting gear I didn’t know existed and pelts of hundreds of animals from wolves down to mouse-sized weasels. With the children started singing “Weasel-stompin’ music,” we barrelled on across the border into Minnesota bound for the town of Marshall. Population 12,735, Marshall sits about 250 km west of St. Paul, not far from the South Dakota border. Marshall is my maiden name and my brother, whose nickname is Marshall, had passed through the town on his cross-continental trek a few years before. We hadn’t thought anything of the date being the 7th of the 7th, 2007 except to think of our friend Rourke, whose birthday we’d miss. Were we in for a shock?

When we rolled into the Marshall Inn, front desk clerks shook their heads and told us not to waste time checking any other hotels in town as every room was filled to the gills with wedding guests. Turns out that everyone and their uncle decided to get married on that day. If they weren’t getting married themselves, they were attending a wedding and staying in a hotel for the night following the party. Seven after all is an auspicious number (if we hadn’t gotten married on a Friday, the 13th, we may have considered the 7th of the 7th ourselves). So Marshall, billed as “Southwest Minnesota’s Overnight Headquarters,” had no room for the pregnant mother of four.

My plans-free husband didn’t mind, but my ever-enlarging belly didn’t want to crawl into a sleeping bag that night. It wanted a bed. Someone finally took pity and directed us to the massive Prairie’s Edge Casino near Granite Falls to the north where we secured an indoor-pool side room. We can put up with sleeping in a casino for one night, I thought. After all we had camped in Idaho on the banks of a majestic river. We had hiked in Glacier National Park; taken in the history at Little Big Horn, the site of Custer’s last stand. They wouldn’t mind staying in a fake environment for just one night.

We were tired and had comfortable beds. That’s all that mattered. After exhausting the children in the pool, we headed to the rubber-chicken buffet which was open ‘til 11 pm to serve those returning from the slots and roulette. I was about to apologize for such unnatural and culturally-demeaning surroundings when our girl, face and eyes into a chocolate sundae, piped up: “This is my favourite part of the trip.”

No. 3 agreed.

Susan Flanagan can be reached at If you go to Mount Rushmore and would like to visit one of the caves, make sure you sign up as soon as you get there for the next day. Otherwise you’ll be disappointed. Susan also recommends the Corn Palace in Mitchell.

KinderStart feedback:

Anne writes: “I really liked your article on Declan and Kinderstart. Back in the olden days when my kids started school there was no KinderStart, just a Kindergarten Orientation Day in June of the year prior to the child starting school. What a surprise for the teachers!

Anyway of the three children, the first was OK for her Kindergarten Orientation Day. She did not know all her numbers and letters and she would not speak except through her friend from next door.

Our second child did not know any colors when she went to kindergarten, much less her kindergarten orientation day and was supremely disinterested in learning them. Her note from the public health nurse following the preschool health check said she might have a hearing problem since she did not cooperate for any of the assessment. She would only recite the alphabet her own way "kello-mello-p" and consistently added an extra "N" between Y and Z. The teacher was quite stressed.

Our third child was the worst. She knew her colors and letters although she still prints D's and B's backwards. She was a spring as opposed to a fall baby and so was already five when she went to kindergarten. I thought I had a winner until it became clear she could not read! At the end of the kindergarten year she still could not read, not even one sentence. My husband and I met with the teacher who recommended a summer program at MUN. My husband said yes and I said no way.

We muddled along through Grade One without much improvement on the reading front. I was beginning to doubt the premise "if you read to your children, they will become readers". By this time I had read the entire series of Anne of Green Gables Books to our third.

Finally in Grade Two she started to improve.

Anyway my long drawn-out point is despite their lackluster starts in kindergarten all three girls finished high school with first class honors and two have completed university degrees. The final one, the poor reader, is scoring highest marks in the class in first year English at university.

So my advice, if your child is not a star in kindergarten - WAIT!”

Labrador feedback

Bob writes: “I enjoyed your article in today’s paper. I’ve travelled with four of my own children so I can appreciate the circumstances you described. Thankfully I have never experienced the flies… in Labrador.”

Monica Surina, Executive Assistant, Destination Labrador writes: “Just finished reading your article about your upcoming trip along the Trans Labrador Highway.

You and your family are certainly going to enjoy this trip along the highway a lot more than the last time you were in Labrador! And … although your friends were correct about the flies to some degree (depending on where you are) … it only adds to the mystique of Labrador - LOL. And you’ve already discovered the secret of Skin So Soft and plenty of tires so you have that angle covered as well… While in Churchill Falls, also check out the fantastic view at the Bowdoin Canyon. Ask someone at the Town Hall or the hotel for directions to this breathtaking place… If planning on staying in Labrador City, I would highly recommend that you book well in advance, as this area is undergoing a huge construction boom, and rooms of any kind are at a premium.”

“I’m going to provide you with some links that will provide you with some very useful information as to things to see and do while on your trip through the Big Land.”

South Coast OF LABRADOR:

Battle Harbour National Historical Site (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Red Bay National Historical Site (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Point Amour Lighthouse - (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Central Labrador:

Labrador Interpretation Centre - (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)

Labrador Heritage Museum - (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)


Churchill Falls - (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)




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