Close Encounters of the Western Kind

Fortified by our recent finds in Yellowstone country, my wife and I continued on our homeward route through northern Wyoming, drawn by the geography and myths of the land, toward Devils Tower and South Dakota’s Badlands. I was looking forward, as well, to a stop for trout in Wisconsin’s Driftless country, but that would have to wait for a while. The unpeopled spaces and the wild dimensions of Wyoming held us in thrall.

Devils Tower rises dramatically from the valley of the Belle Fourche River in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming, an igneous butte that stands 867 vertical feet from base to summit. The Tower, long considered to be a sacred place by Native Americans living in the region, is comprised of fluted columns of stone with hundreds of parallel cracks from top to bottom. Climbers are drawn to the Tower from around the world.

In 1906, Devils Tower became the first national monument when President Roosevelt officially recognized its significance in the landscape of America. Long before that, the great formation had played a part in the sacred rites of indigenous people such as the Kiowa and Lakota Sioux. Native American ceremonies continue there today, especially during the month of June.

The Tower, an eroded mass of igneous rock, had uplifted from earth some 60 million years ago as magma rose through layers of sedimentary stone, eventually eroding into what we saw today– a huge green-gray butte ablaze with white feldspar crystals in the early morning sun. As we walked around Devils Tower on the 1.3 mile trail developed by the Park Service, and as we poked in and out of the scree, we felt humbled and in awe of Earth’s tremendous powers.

As a fly-fisher I could look up at the vertical columns of six-sided stone and be reminded somehow of a tapered bamboo fishing rod, hexagonal and exquisite in design. As a birder, I could peer at the upper heights and summit of the rock and see the flights of peregrine falcons (and competitive prairie falcons, too) that nested there and fed on the numerous rock doves of the Tower. As tourists, we might have been reminded of the Indian legends that connect with the origins of the place…

Devils Tower, in the years following the debut of the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977, saw a big increase in tourism at its site. I’ve never bothered to watch the movie, myself, but observing several rock-climbers working slowly toward the summit on a beautiful early morning in July, I could understand how the Tower was appealing for the narrative of a tale in which aliens made contact with the common folk of planet Earth.

Just before entering the South Dakota Badlands for our second visit to the national park, we stopped and spoke with a Native American artist who was working a wind-swept post near the southern sector of this broad American landmark. We enjoyed a friendly discussion of social and political matters, as well as the craftsmanship involved with his trade. My wife bought me a lovely gift– one of the jeweler’s handmade “charms,” an elk tooth that I wear around my neck to keep me close to the Western spirit.

We made a long drive through the Badlands. First of all, I saw a burrowing owl perched on a fence post, and it seemed to say, Come along and fly Our Way. Pronghorns were encountered, lots of them, followed by some bison and, perhaps most interesting of all, groups of roving Rocky Mountain sheep. As for the landscapes that contained us all in a great variety of arid forms and color, they really have to be seen in person to believe the beauty of their “alien” character.

note the sheep in the foreground…


About rivertoprambles

Welcome to Rivertop Rambles. This is my blog about the headwaters country-far afield or close to home. I've been a fly-fisher, birder, and naturalist for most of my adult life. I've also written poetry and natural history books for thirty years. In Rambles I will mostly reflect on the backcountry of my Allegheny foothills in the northern tier of Pennsylvania and the southern tier of New York State. Sometimes I'll write about the wilderness in distant states, or of the wild places in the human soul. Other times I'll just reflect on the domestic life outdoors. In any case, I hope you enjoy. Let's ramble!
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16 Responses to Close Encounters of the Western Kind

  1. Brent says:

    That is one group of comfortable-looking sheep! I think one of the most fascinating things about the rural places of the west–whether it’s in the deserts of the Four Corners or the grasslands and foothills of the high plains–is how deeply you can still feel the influence of the tribes that inhabit(ed) those areas. The various Sioux groups seem especially to have held on to something of their original spirit, despite the government’s endless attempts to grind them down with “reeducation” schools, broken treaties, and land abuse.

    • Absolutely! And even on this short ramble eastward, one could see and feel that native spirit, from the prayer flags waving in branches near the Tower to the solitary craftsman at his lonely outpost near the Badlands… Thanks for that.

  2. plaidcamper says:

    Another great post about the spirit of the west! Wyoming is some state, and as you found, there is much to love in the space and sparse population density.
    We’ve never visited Devils Tower, but your fine description has convinced me to make the detour next time we head down that way. Enjoyed the movie when I was a 10 year old boy, but didn’t understand at the time it was as much about obsession and family breakdown as it was about life “out there” – the badlands are alien enough for most earthlings, full of exciting wildlife. No need for alien close encounters…
    Badlands are some of the best lands – thanks, Walt!

    • Some of the best lands, for sure, Adam. Make sure you swing around to the Tower the next time you make it into the region. You’ll find that it’s “uplifting” in a special way!
      Thank you for the kind words of support.

  3. Bob Stanton says:

    Wow! Great photos all, Walt, but the one with the mesa in the background and sheep in the fore is truly artistic. I was immediately struck by it. Oh, and the narrative ain’t too shabby either!

  4. Thank you for that, Bob. We were lucky to get those views of sheep relaxing in their element, especially the one of those lounge lizards kicking back in front of the spreading mesas. I appreciate your reflections!

  5. I love reading your commentary on our West. Just a tad bit different from your home country.

  6. JZ says:

    Love them pictures and the illustrative narrative behind them Walt. You truly have a way with words and putting together an adventure (smile). Walt, I am always amazed when I see pictures of the west. It is truly a frontier like no other. Your journey has been wonderful to read and you’ve given your readers a front row seat. By the way, the Badlands name given to a national park is very cool. Always loved that name and think it is appropriately named. I would like to someday visit these treasures out west. Its hard as an angler who fishes a lot, not the want to spend almost your entire day wetting a line at these places. I literally would run from river to river carrying a fly rod. Although, perhaps true enjoyment would be seeing the towns and people that inhabit such an area. The local cuisine and craft beers would have to be in favor also. You did your trip righteous Walt, by experiencing everything in balance. Man, those goats sure look comfortable laying on dust rock. Rock-on Walt..

    • Thank you for that appreciation, JZ, and I’m glad you’ve found a front-row seat for my reflections on where we’ve gone. There really are so many treasures to be seen and/or experienced as a visitor to the region. I, too, know that feeling of wanting to fish it river to river but I’m increasingly reevaluating the potential by, as you say, “experiencing everything in balance.” So yes– wings over water– fishing, hiking, craft beers, towns and people, too. Thanks again for understanding that fly fishing is one way, an enjoyment in itself, but also a key to getting there, to rocking on in Badland splendor..

  7. loydtruss says:

    Appreciate you sharing the historic aspect of Devils Tower, I wish my wife and I had the time to visit this spectacular monument. I feel sure we will make another trip out west in the near future and the tower will be on our list.
    Another area we would like to see is Monument Valley. A lot of John Fords westerns were film there; one of the best was The Searchers. I hope you get to make the trip to the Driftless in Wisconsin, truly a fly fishing paradise. Thanks for sharing another great post!

    • Thank you, Bill. Yes, places like the Tower, Monument Valley and any number of natural and historic sites out West will bear repeated visits. Beautiful country and places worth supporting and preserving. I hope you have a chance to go out there again. As for the Driftless, stay tuned! My report is coming soon.

  8. Someone messed up on the brochure or maybe I read it wrong. It showed a picture of the tower then talked about Yellowstone. So of course when I went to the tower section of yellowstone I expected to see the tower. Nope, no where to be found. I learned later it was in another part of Wyoming. I found stupid and annoyed at the same time. Glad you got to see it.

  9. Kevin, There’s no tower, per se, at Tower Junction in Yellowstone, just Tower Creek, the falls, etc. Devils Tower is a long haul away to the east, but certainly worth the visit.

  10. Anonymous says:

    rivertoprambles, thanks a lot for the post.Really thank you! Much obliged.

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