Mysterious it's been called. Magical. Mesmerizing. Just what is it about our first national monument?
At night, with the cold, dark, starry quiet closing around me, I would shut my eyes sometimes and try to conjure it to mind once more—the massive form of Devils Tower and the way the monolith rises, a near vertical pillar of striated stone, 867 feet above the tawny dry prairie of eastern Wyoming. I saw it clearly every time.
Even so, throughout my visit to Devils Tower National Monument, 60 miles northeast of Gillette, I struggled to fathom the rock. It was dreamlike—almost unreal—how abruptly it shot up from the flat land. It existed, I knew, beyond logic in the realm of symbol and myth. American Indians have legends about Devils Tower, which some call Bear Lodge, and film director Steven Spielberg made the tower the mesmerizing centerpiece of his 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You may remember the way the film’s star, Richard Dreyfuss, keeps obsessing—the way he sculpts mini Devils Towers out of mashed potatoes and shaving cream—as he’s haunted by the earthly visitations of extraterrestrials. And you may recall the film’s culminating scene, in which the aliens land at the tower, their spacecraft beaming strange music as they step onto firm ground.
I was there to decipher the symbols, to ask, as Dreyfuss so shrilly does, "What is it? What is it?" And I was contemplating the tower at a critical moment. President Theodore Roosevelt established Devils Tower National Monument, thereby protecting the rock in perpetuity, on September 24, 1906. The monument is now turning 100.
I could have made my life easy and marked the centennial in high summer, when 97,000 people visit the 2.1-square-mile park each month, toting their picnics and wending through wispy grass over the gentle, clearly marked hiking trails.
But I didn’t do that. I wanted to experience the tower sans crowds, as the first American Indians experienced it, and as the Native novelist N. Scott Momaday did when he wrote a few decades ago, "There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them." I went in December, when the temperature outside was at times below zero and the snow swirled about in the wind. Imagine me lumbering around the tower’s base in moon boots, kicking through a fresh dusting of powder as a couple of mule deer picked at the brush beneath the ponderosas nearby.
That same harsh solitude shaped Teddy Roosevelt, who spent several years of his 20s in the Dakota Territory running cattle ranches near Bismarck, as he waxed rhapsodic about the "immensity and mystery" of the West’s wild lands. Roosevelt scarcely ever returned after those early halcyon years, but the region remained in his heart. And so in 1906, just three months after Congress passed the Antiquities Act to protect "objects of historic or scientific interest," T.R. squinted a bit. He decreed that Devils Tower was also of scientific interest because it was, well, "an extraordinary example of the effect of erosion."
But Roosevelt probably never laid eyes on the tower, which I find sad. What I encountered, walking, was pure beauty: a vast boulder field above me, its contours softened by the snow that sparkled in the late afternoon sun, and then, directly above, the tower itself, a frozen procession of almost vertical columns.
Plaques by the trailside told the geologic story. The tower was born underground more than 50 million years ago when molten rock flooded up through soft sedimentary stone. As the magma cooled into a gray rock known to geologists as phonolite, it cracked into a matrix of tall, mostly hexagonal columns. Then the Belle Fourche River carved away the surrounding sandstone and the tower emerged. The erosion continues.
But I found the origin legend told by the Kiowa people truer to the tower’s spirit. According to their story, the rock sprang into being when a bear was chasing seven sisters over the plains. The sisters "came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them," wrote Momaday, himself a Kiowa, in his 1967 essay "The Way to Rainy Mountain." "It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air." The sisters rested safely aloof, while the bear, Momaday says, "reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws."
Devils Tower remains a source of spiritual replenishment for at least 20 Plains tribes, including the Crow, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and Lakota. Every June, for the summer solstice, Native people from across North America gather in the tower’s shadow. Along the trails are usually small scraps of colored cloth, prayer flags knotted to tree branches, left by those who come alone to meditate on the tower’s powerful presence. When I saw them fluttering I thought of what one Lakota elder, Arvol Looking Horse, had told me earlier: "The tower is a living energy, and we don’t ever allow people to take a piece of it home. If you take even a small stone as a souvenir, you will have a bad dream—a dream telling you to put the stone back." I returned to my car with empty hands.
That night I stopped in at the Devils Tower Lodge, a lavish bed-and-breakfast owned by Frank Sanders, a bone-thin, kinetic ex-hippie who wears a parka with the devil himself embroidered on it. Sanders, 54, is something of a kingpin. He is a rock-climbing guide at Devils Tower, a celebrated destination for "crack climbing," or shimmying skyward in the joint between two faces of stone.
In mid-December I was the lodge’s only guest, and over dinner Sanders intoned, "I was an alcoholic once, and I put every known drug into my system. It was the only way I knew of staying alive." Sanders told me how he’d fulfilled a dream of buying an old house near the tower and how he’d stayed clean by focusing—by scaling the tower more than 700 times. Then he began railing against the National Park Service, which each June promulgates a "voluntary climbing ban" for the sake of the Indians.
Most climbers comply, but the closure, implemented in 1995, stokes an ongoing feud over who owns the terrain. Some say Indians do. Others are adamant that Devils Tower is an American wonder that should be accessible to all.
Sanders is in the latter camp. "June," he says, "isn’t just sacred to Native Americans. That month happens to contain my sobriety date. I was married in that meadow right over there"—he points—"and I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. This place is sacred to me, too."
We finished our lentil soup and then, before I turned in, Sanders vouchsafed me an ancient book with bits of red leather flecking off its spine: Our Wild Indians, by Richard Irving Dodge, the U.S. Army colonel who named Devils Tower. "The Indian believes in two gods, equal in wisdom and power," Dodge wrote. "One is the Good God." In Black Hills, an earlier book, from 1876, Dodge claimed the tower was the haunt of the Bad God—and then, to streamline things, he invoked the word devil. "The devil is a Christian concept," says Michael Hackwith, a Lakota who oversees a sweat lodge at the tower each July. "There is no way that evil spirits lurk at the tower. God is there, always."
When I awoke the sky was clear, and bright northern lights rose in the chill like small vertical rainbows on either side of the tower. I went outside and threw my cross-country skis down on the snow in a meadow and began skiing the perimeter, whipping through lap after lap until I was in a sort of trance. "I own this moment!" I thought. "This is my private kingdom!"
But even as I circled, the wind came on, erasing my tracks, and clouds drifted in. I paused for a second and felt my sweat start to freeze on my shirt. I recognized that I was lord of nothing. Above me the tower loomed, inscrutable and inviolable, as it will loom for millions of years.
Photography by Tom Till
This article was first published in May 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Pick up AAA’s Colorado & Wyoming map as well as the Idaho, Montana, & Wyoming TourBook and Northwestern CampBook.
TO DO AND SEE
Rogues Gallery & Devils Tower Frontier Museum in Hulett, Wyo., eight miles from the park, is home to hundreds of early cowboy artifacts and examples of Plains Indian beadwork. (307) 467-5849.
Ponderosa Café and Bar Hulett. Steaks and standard Italian fare. (307) 467-5335. Roma’s Ristorante Elegant Italian dining in downtown Spearfish, S.D., 60 miles east. (605) 722-0715.
Devils Tower Lodge A bed-and-breakfast that looks out on the tower 800 yards away. Comfortable rooms, solicitous hosts, climbing lessons. (888) 314-5267, www.devilstowerlodge.com . Hulett Motel Cabins and chalets by the Belle Fourche River. (307) 467-5220, www.hulettmotel.com .