DEVILS TOWER IS ONE STOP just off the I-90, a link in a schizophrenic chain that offers a Yellowstone-bound pilgrim the cheese curd general stores of Wisconsin, the S.P.A.M. museum in Minnesota, the Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota, before giving way to sites of fasting and visions—the Badlands, the Black Hills, Devil’s Tower, the Little Bighorn Battlefield—places where Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and Custer, all the big guns, big men, had it out the high prairie, the mutilated remains of the losers left to be picked apart by the vultures and coyotes, swallowed by the tall grass, souls sentenced to wander the earth forever. A highway rosary whose beads are slid with the confusion of not knowing whether each counted “click, click” into the former represents damnation or deliverance.
The tower marks the northern terminus of the Black Hills, a monolith lighthouse overlooking the Great Plains. It is distinct in geology for its igneous surface, which cooled in such a way that the rock cracked into perfect, hexagonal columns. Pale yellow lichens cover the tower’s greenish-gray face, contrasting with the red sandstone butte from which it rises. An apron of crumbled boulders surrounds the base, columns heaped atop one another like an unearthed Roman archaeological site.
I first stopped at Devil’s Tower in 2003, in summer, driving east to west with a college friend. We paid the entry fee and followed the road winding toward the looming rock. As we made our way to the top, we came upon a prairie dog town. We watched the sentinels, standing guard on the mounds, keeping a sharp eye for prairie falcons and badgers, chirking to the others to head underground if they spotted something sketchy. The creature was once abundant across the Great Plains—about five billion when the Lewis and Clark expedition rolled through–but is now contained to a square inch of its former range. They graze down the grass around their colonies, supposedly taking biomass from hungry cows, so they had to go, with poison and dynamite. They’re sensitive rodents, vulnerable to sylvatic plague carried by fleas. I didn’t know they were listed as Endangered the first time I saw them, didn’t know that a species could be worthy of crisis if it was smaller than a wolf.
We watched a grown woman squat on her haunches, extend a potato chip to one of the endangered dogs, her red-lacquered fingernails snapping back as it scurried to her outstretched fist and took the chip with its mouth, and proceeded nibble, paws to mouth to paws. “I thought it would take it with its hands, with its hands!” cried the outraged feeder. How could anyone know such a thing about prairie dogs, that they would dare to bite the hand that fed them?
“That thing is going to get really sick.”
“Glad I’m not sleeping in that den,” we commented to one another.
Burrow, someone should have corrected us: it was a burrow. A biker standing near us, donning leather chaps and a Ted Nugent t-shirt, nodded his head at this. Here, I have to admit, that part of us wanted to feed a prairie dog, to see a little breathing stuffed animal up close, it’s glimmering black bead eyes, fat little paunch belly and bobbed tail, it’s curious twitching nose touching the tip of your index finger. You could pick up one in each hand, touch their whiskered faces together, little prairie dolls. So tempting. We hopped in the car and wound our way up, around the red sandstone spotted with ponderosa to the parking lot.
Devil’s Tower in May is a moveable feast, a panoply of bickering and shuffling pilgrims. There may be a few more outdoorsy types hanging around, climbers hoping to scale the sides, hardcore backcountry explorers on their way to grander adventures. No time for the riff-raff.
We saw the sign: “This place is held sacred by many American Indians and highly regarded by other peoples. Respect this place by staying on the trails.” Fair enough. But was it enough?
The federal government is awfully good at designing vivid safety signs that convey a remarkable sense of humor over unusual ways to injure oneself within the bounds of protected areas. They post signs with cartoons of little boys falling into hot springs, a scream gripping their befuddled faces, as their baseball hats fly above their arced bodies, arms spread in a crucifix as they teeter on the geyser’s edge; signs with grown men, their tube socks slack around their ankles, cameras slung around their necks, getting gored in the ass by bison, sketches of every human-nature calamity that could possibly occur. They’ve done their best to cover all their bases. It is the other trespasses, mistakes that don’t burn the skin or bite our rump that they fail to illustrate. Can’t go too hard on them: I don’t know how you’d draw these things for those who don’t pay attention anyways.
The rock was not always named thus. It marks an important site for many Plains tribes, who gave it names that had nothing to do with some red man from some white man’s underworld: Bear’s Tipi, Tree Rock, Great Gray Horn, Grizzly Lodge. A translator in an expedition party misinterpreted the name to “Bad God’s Tower,” which eventually morphed to “Devils Tower.” Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed it our first National Monument in 1906. Some view the tower as the birthplace of wisdom, a place for visions.
Various legends describe how the rock came to be. Many of them speak of a grizzly, a massive bear that draws hunters to its den at the base of the tower; a bear that kidnaps a man’s wife, chases girls. In most of the legends, the ground rises to the sky to save people from the jaws of the beast. The bear’s dragging claws leave the vertical column markings on the rock as it jumps to reach for the people soaring away on the uplifted ground.
Today, we're driving home from the 2014 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and stop at Devils Tower on the way back. Old Glory flies perfectly flat atop the gift shop seated below the soaring rock. Arnica snaps a landscape shot before we drive into the postcard scene before us. The prairie dogs scamper about the grasses, popping up and diving down, into and out of their tunnel systems. We wind to the top, into the tree line, and park. An Austrian father and son hike just ahead of us. The father spies climbers on the face of the tower and breaks the silence of the trail, screaming: “You ignorant! No respect for the rock!” They step off trail after a half-mile to take a leak in the woods.
We continue ahead, looking between the trees, tip-toeing. We walk and watch, and breathe, and . . . nothing. Just another hike at a National Monument, no more, no less. We return to the trusty Avalanche. We drive to Thermopolis.
Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming