50 States – Leg 4, Stop 1: Rapid City, South Dakota – Beach House in the Sky


Woven deeply into every speech I have ever given about exploring the oceans is a reverant tribute to Lewis and Clark and their epic expedition to the new American west. Dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the vast new territory recently acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark also searched, in vain, for the fabled northwest passage, a water route connecting Atlantic and Pacific through North America, sought by explorers for centuries as a shorter trade route. I always carry the audiobook version of their original journals on my iPod, and their own words describing their fascinating encounters with wildlife, native Americans, and emotional reflections on the profound natural beauty that unfolded before them continue to ignite my imagination and desire to explore as if I were still 12 years old.

The Beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota

As our flight began its final approach into the Rapid City area, I peered out the window and gazed upon the fresh snow covering the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, which stretched in all directions, fading softly into a white horizon. And though I had never before set eyes upon these parts before — this was my first to any state in this section of the contienent — the scenery felt strangely familiar and welcoming, as if I were revisiting a favorite childhood home. Perhaps it was the many poetic words of Meriwether and William that had taken root in my consciousness, but as we touched down I felt I had landed in a familiar, warmly welcoming territory I had never set foot in.

 

Leg 4, Stop 1: Rapid City, South Dakota


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As I signed the paperwork at the rental car counter, I asked the agent whether I’d likely see anything if I made the journey up the mountain to see Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. She didn’t offer much hope — it was still snowing and conditions looked grim. But this would be my only opportunity and I told her I’d be happy just to see a nostril through the clouds.

The four-wheel drive of my latest rented Subaru Forester was of little help on the ice- and snow-covered roads winding away from the airport. I nearly slid through the first stop sign I came to. The main highway up the mountain was not much better and conditions became increasingly treacherous as the road became steeper and its turns sharper. The last few miles were typical of many of our national treasures — dotted with tourist traps, gift stores, and hotels boasting that theirs was the largest water slide. All were closed and on a Monday morning I was practically the only car on the road. At last I arrived at the park entrance. It felt a bit silly to pay 10 bucks to park in the nearly empty, cavernous parking garage (but I told myself it was going to a good cause after all).

Megan McFarland, an employee at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, has a beach house with a view of Mt. Rushmore

With the morning temperature hovering at about minus 5 F, I bundled up and made my way up the stairs and caught my first glimpse of eight magnificent nostrils. The storm had cleared for the moment, and the sight of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln was magnificent and inspiring, a powerful and unusual nexus of nature, art , history and the indomitable human spirit, standing tall under the morning’s blanket of snow.

The peaceful silence of the morning was broken by the sound of a snowblower and a snow shovel scraping across the cold granite. National Park Service worker Megan McFarland was at the other end of the shovel, greeting me with a smile, frozen, snow-covered strands of her bangs sprouting from beneath her hoodie. Megan kindly oriented me to the Memorial, including, thankfully, where I could find a warm meal. As we chatted, I explained why I was there, a marine biologist atop a snowy mountain, almost exactly 1,000 miles from the nearest salt water. Megan smiled and told me that though she’s only seen the ocean once, she has always loved the ocean, has a sand collection, and even has a beach house with a view of Mt. Rushmore.

Megan's beach atop Mt. Rushmore

In photos of her home she emailed to me later in the week, I saw that indeed Megan’s mountain top home resembled a beach home I might find in Long Beach Island, New Jersey. It was full of shells she had received as gifts or bought herself, paintings of ocean waves, light houses, and statuettes of mermaids. And among the photos Megan sent, one showed that her beach house did indeed have a view through the evergreens of the face of Mt. Rushmore. "I’ve had an affinity for nature since I was a child. In fact, if I’d been raised near the ocean I probably would’ve grown up in a tidal pool. But growing up in the midwest, on a prairie in South Dakota, I’ve developed a greater appreciation for things of the ocean. My first visit was the Pacific at sunset I felt I had reached the heart beat of the earth," she wrote.

The next morning I arrived at an enormous building complex bearing the name "Rapid City Central High School." The cavernous interior was teeming with students…2,300 of them. I thought to myself that this school is 23 times the size of the high school I had just visited the previous Friday in Macksville, Kansas.

I checked in at the security station, where video feeds from all corners of the massive complex flickered on a computer monitor. A gentleman with a walkie-talkie escorted me through the sea of students, each bearing an ID badge around their neck. He handed me off to another walkie-talkie-equipped official that delivered me, safe and sound, to my destination, the classroom of Michael J. Slaback, who greeted me with a warm smile and joked about the size of the school — that it would make a good shopping mall. It would!

Michael Slaback shows me Central High School's Science Bowl trophies

As Michael escorted me through the building to the auditorium where I would be giving two back-to-back hour-long talks that morning, I saw from the way students greeted him that he was well liked and one of those special teachers who takes the initiative to seek out and find rewarding opportunities for his students, even if it means working well beyond his role as a social studies teacher. He’s led Central High School’s National Ocean Sciences Bowl team along with its National Science Bowl team, and proudly showed me the trophies the latter had won at the regional level. Though I don’t remember how this came up during our conversation about science education, I’ll never forget the fact that Michael is also a vampire movie buff extraordinaire, with a collection of over 800 films! Michael has lived all over the country, and first encountered the ocean in a big way at the age of 27 in Boston, Massachussets, where he lived for a while and became enchanted with the feeling of a coastal community and the taste of fresh seafood.

Along the way I was introduced to Assistant Principal Denelle Sprigler who also serves as the school’s science director. Her first encounter with the ocean came during her honeymoon to Hawaii when she was 32. They arrived at night, and her face lit up as she described seeing the beautiful turquoise waters in the light of the next day. Denelle graciously expressed her gratitude for my visit, and we talked about the importance of such exchanges and how much we still have to learn from each other around such a large and diverse country. And it’s not just the oceans that we need to learn about. She told me that a few years ago a fellow teacher from an eastern city had asked her if Indians still live in teepees in South Dakota. She informed the individual, "No….they live in houses." It’s apparent that Denelle still can’t believe that such a question could have been asked by a teacher.

The first group assembled, around 200 to 300 students, including students from the local middle schools that came over by bus — it was too cold to walk. I met science teacher Rachel Rasmussen, who teaches grades 9 to 12 and has a most impressive range of subjects, including ecology, meteorology and geology. We talked about kids and science and the need for more scientists in this country. During my presentation, I show images of the Gemini and Apollo space program era, recalling the time when it seemed everyone wanted to be an astronaut or scientist when they grew up. No more. Only three or four hands were raised when I asked how many wanted to be a scientist. Rachel suggested that students may not be interested in science because they perceive it as too much work. I asked the audience directly. She was right — lots of hands. "Being a scientist is a lot of work, but it’s never too much work if you enjoy what you’re doing." I said, trying to convince them that being a scientist is, actually, cool. I showed them the photo (above) I had taken of Mt. Rushmore and pointed out Teddy Roosevelt, a champion of conservation, cited as one of the reasons he was included in the monument. I asked the students, "Aren’t you glad that people like Teddy Roosevelt had the foresight to set aside some of our lands to protect them for you and your children?" I saw heads nod. And I spoke of how important it is for us to do the same thing for our ocean territory, which still remains largely unprotected. I also told them I was pretty sure Teddy winked at me.

When Michael saw I had brought a video camera with me, he sought out senior Joel White, who hopes to attend South Dakota State University next year and has a broad range of interests, including video. He was kind enough to video most of the second session, and I hope to post portions of it later. As a token of my appreciation I gave Joel a coveted Barack Obama Inauguration button that I brought with me from the recent events in Washington. I’ve been amazed and gratified at just how popular such items have been with young people during this expedition. I was also gratified at the number of students who approached me after each of the presentations to express their interest in the oceans — roughly half here had never seen the ocean.

As I dashed from Central High School to the airport I saw something I hadn’t yet seen on this trip: Asphalt. I heard the radio announcer say it was going up to 9 degrees that day "A scorcher!" he exclaimed, as the snow slowly began melting from the streets. I had left on the early flight the previous day to give myself a few hours to explore, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I wanted to see more of the Black Hills, of this strangely familiar place that speaks to me in its unique way. And as South Dakota faded from view beneath the clouds, my thoughts drifted to Lewis and Clark, and then to my chance meeting with Megan McFarland, her beach house in the sky, an individual more closely connected to the oceans than many I know who live within a stone’s throw. And I thought of my own deep connection to the scenery below, perhaps the unlikeliest of landlocked locales for an ocean doctor. It’s a place I waited 50 years to see, but a place to which I will surely return.

Click to see more of Megan McFarland's photos from Mt. Rushmore & her beach house in the sky
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