North by Northwest to Mt. Rushmore

In 1987 I was a very unhappy creative director at a mid-sized ad agency in Boston (representative samples of my work here), when my boss decided it would be a good idea to get me out of town – specifically for a pricey road trip (on his dime) down the California coast.

As I recounted some years later at Campaign Outsider:

Thirtysome years ago, my boss at the time, thinking I was on the verge of quitting his ad agency, sent me and the Missus on a deluxe, all-expenses-paid trip down the California coast from San Francisco to LA.

About halfway through our Golden State jaunt, we encountered the two highlights of the trip: the Hearst Castle and the Madonna Inn, both located in San Luis Obispo.

The Madonna Inn boasts “110 whimsical guest rooms, each with their own unique charm and decor.” We stayed in the Highway Suite, for those of you keeping score at home.

The Missus:

First, the Madonna Inn has nothing to do with either religion or the pop star. Not sure where the name came from but the hotel interiors were not to be believed. Seemingly designed by someone on an acid trip – like the clashing neon colored everything in the restaurant – the place is actually renown for its hallucinogenic public bathrooms, including “the ever-popular motion activated waterfall urinal.”

Madonna Inn Women’s Restroom
Madonna Inn Waterfall Urinal

Our suite had a distinctive design split personality with a huge Fred Flintstone-style boulder fireplace bizarrely paired with an ornate, gold brocade-covered bed.

Then the bathroom combined delicate French floral pedestal sinks with a discomfiting craggy, rock shower in jet black. It had malevolent rather than outdoorsy vibes once inside.

Not since I saw the movie “Psycho” was I that nervous washing up, but the place was great fun overall.

The main event in San Luis Obispo, however, was the San Simeon Hearst Castle. Since the Missus is a certified cinema junkie, we wanted to take all four of its tours.

To get to the Castle, you took a 15-minute bus ride up La Cuesta Encantada (The Enchanted Hill). We asked if we could just stay up there for all four tours, but we were told we had to ride back down to the Visitor Center and take another bus back up each time.

So we did: four round trips, 15 minutes each way.

It was totally worth it.

The Missus:

Unfortunately for my easy going husband, the Sutton family travel motto is “Nothing Succeeds Like Excess!” I knew this was our once-in-a-lifetime visit to the Hearst Castle and figured, what the heck? Why not see it all? Other than the four-round trips up and back, the tours weren’t remotely repetitive (except you saw the amazing pools each time – which was swell). Each guide had a different interest and expertise to share from the architecture and obsessive furniture/objet d’art collections to the Marion Davies/Hearst love story, famous Hollywood guests and over-the-top entertainment. Even the four round trip rides were interesting as Hearst picked the Castle hilltop location to be above the area’s typical fog and cold. It was like an airplane ride where you suddenly see the sun come out and the clouds disappear. It was a completely memorable trip with my always game travel companion.

• • • • • • •

Eventually we made our way to San Diego, where it rains roughly five days a year, including the one on which we arrived.

Undaunted, we checked into La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. That night at roughly 11 p.m. the Missus and I competed in the First Annual La Valencia Invitational Shuffleboard Championship, to which only we were invited.

More than several of La Valencia’s uninvited guests were not amused. Regardless, the Missus was crowned champion round midnight in an insouciantly boisterous post-tournament ceremony.

The Missus:

I seriously had considered booking the Hotel del Coronado where our favorite movie “Some Like it Hot” was filmed, but I read that the place was rather rundown at the time and La Valencia was a cool alternative. Both were true as we visited del Coronado just to walk around where Jack Lemmon gave the funniest performance of his career.

(You’ll note a through-line in our travels of my having to visit famous movie locations wherever possible.) By the way, the renovated hotel looks pretty spiffy today.

Bright and early the next morning, we trundled over to San Diego’s Sea World, which at that time featured a supersized map of the U. S., with prominent tourist attractions displayed in each state. (It was replaced not long after, according to a post on MiceChat, by stables for the Budweiser Clydesdales.)

The Missus turned to me and said, Anywhere in America – where do you want to go the most? I immediately walked to South Dakota and Mt. Rushmore.

So the Missus took me there.

The Missus:

Have to say I was rather non-plussed when John so decidedly picked Mt. Rushmore, but since I loved Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” was totally on-board, thinking what a great surprise birthday gift. Again pre-internet, I asked my travel agent if he could find bargain airfares to fly to Rapid City for the weekend. “A weekend,” he asked incredulously? With only connecting flights, did I know how long it would take to get there? I nodded. “I mean, what else is there to do after Mt. Rushmore,” I asked. “You should go hiking in the Badlands,” he suggested. “We don’t do hiking.” “How about camping in Yellowstone?” “We don’t do camping.” “Well if you’re asking me if there’s a Bloomingdale’s, there isn’t,” he finally said, exasperated. “Right – so let’s book that weekend,” I said, smiling. And we did.

• • • • • • •

Before you could say Four Presidents, No Waiting, we were winging our way to Rapid City, SD. After we got to our room in the Presidential Tower of the Rapid City Hilton, we threw open the drapes and saw, atop a hill in the distance . . . dinosaurs. Five of them, for those of you keeping score at home.

“We gotta go there,” the Missus said quickly.

So we unpacked our bags, jumped in the rental car, and went there.

Representative dino-sample.

We can all thank Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration for Rapid City’s Dinosaur Park, as Roadside America notes.

The five sculptures were a Depression-era project cooked up by the Rapid City Chamber of Commerce, who saw them as a way to make jobs, get the government to pay for it, and capitalize on the flood of visitors to nearby Mount Rushmore. Emmit A. Sullivan is credited as the sculptor — the same artistic genius who created the Christ of the Ozarks and the dinosaurs at Dinosaur World in Arkansas.

The next morning we went to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

American History, Alive in Stone…

Majestic figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by the beauty of the Black Hills of South Dakota, tell the story of the birth, growth, development and preservation of this country. From the history of the first inhabitants to the diversity of America today, Mount Rushmore brings visitors face to face with the rich heritage we all share.

Or the rich heritage we all used to share, not to get technical about it.

Regardless, the monument (which was dynamited by Gutzon Borglum to within inches of its final form) is spectacular. Every American should go visit it.

The Missus:

Another fascinating tidbit we learned: Jefferson originally was being carved to the left of Washington, but when a dynamite charge was over-estimated, it blew the nose right off his face. (Your joke goes here.). They started all over again, more successfully, on the right. Also amusing, passers-by during the early carving days thought the memorial was for George and Martha Washington due to Jefferson’s long tresses. 

Then there was the matter of the Mt. Rushmore cafeteria, immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest.

The Missus can tell you about our activities in that regard.

The Missus:

Since you can’t walk around on the top of the monument as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dramatically did in the movie, I chose instead to reenact the fake shooting scene in the cafeteria which I’m happy to say, looked exactly like it did in the film. So I stood in the middle of the room, had John fake shoot me with a hand gesture, and then fell dramatically to the ground where he took my picture. Couldn’t believe other diners were surprised – clearly not movie buffs. 

Afterwards we went to the Big Thunder Gold Mine, where we [checks notes] mined for gold.

What that entailed was pounding away at a wall of rock for roughly 20 minutes to eventually produce a stone roughly the size of – irony alert – a silver dollar. If we added another ton of rock, according to the Big Thunder guy, it might actually yield a single ounce of gold.

Might being the operative term.

Consequently, we went back to the rental car and took a nap.

• • • • • • •

Contrary to the suggestions of our travel agent, we did not go to Wall Drug or Badlands National Park. We also didn’t get to the Crazy Horse Memorial, although given a mulligan, we certainly would have driven the half-hour to see that great work in progress.

We did, however, visit Bear Country U.S.A., where we learned that 1) bears are really really big; 2) bears are really really messy eaters; and 3) when bears surround your car, it’s really really scary.

Other than that, we had a swell time in the bruin house.

We also returned to Mt. Rushmore for its Evening Lighting Ceremony, multiple home videos of which you can watch here, none of which, however, capture the actual magic of it.

The Missus:

Mt. Rushmore illuminated is truly awe-inspiring. Pictures don’t do justice to the enormous scale and detailing of the sculptures – can’t imagine how they dynamited the outlines of Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses, for example. The nightly ceremony began with a very entertaining Ranger telling stories about the monument. He ended his talk cautioning everyone that any photos they tried to take of the lighting would never come out because of the vast distance from the foot of the mountain where we all stood and the monument so high up. “Trust me,” he said, half-laughing, adding, “I know none of you will believe me.” Sure enough, the second the night lights came on, a zillion flashbulbs popped from every tourists’ camera.

And then, our weekend over, we went home.

• • • • • • •

Never one to be shackled by reality in my Adweek columns, I produced this piece upon our return to civilization.

Favorite passage:

We checked into the Presidential Tower of the Rapid City Hilton, and the next day we drove out to Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, where the cafeteria was offering a presidential breakfast for $1.75.

There were four choices, of course, and I picked the Jefferson, which consisted of french toast and coffee. The Missus and I agreed that probably the least popular of the four was the Teddy Roosevelt “Rough Rider” breakfast – biscuits, gravy and coffee. Maybe that’s what made the ride so rough.

Our ride that weekend, though – thanks to the Missus – was totally smooth.

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