Welcome to Wyoming!
As I crossed the border from South Dakota heading east into Wyoming, the landscape changed only subtly but at the same time significantly. This clearly wasn’t the same kind of residual-prairie-turned-farmland that pervades most of South Dakota, but it is still grassland, just different in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.
The grass seems a bit brighter green, the sky a bit brighter blue, but that doesn’t really account for it. The one obvious difference is in that line of reddish Earth toward the top of the grass in the above picture. Here’s some that was closer to the road:
Interspersed among the fields of bright green grass are areas that look like someone or something sliced into the flesh of the earth, exposing raw, reddish wounds. Even closer:
Other sights of interest upon entering Wyoming:
- Sign: “Broken Boot Campground: Wi-Fi, Showers, Shade” — Oh, they’re hitting all the selling points. I didn’t buy.
- License plate: “MUAHAHA”
The plan was to visit Devils Tower National Monument on my way west. Besides references to The 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which used the Tower as a location for the climax, what I heard most about Devils Tower was how good the night sky viewing is, and I was looking forward to finally seeing the Milky Way in all its glory.
By the way, this is why Devils Tower is considered a “Dark Sky Place.” These are all the towns between the South Dakota border and Devils Tower:
- Beulah, population 33
- Alva, population 50
- Aladdin, population 15
- Hulett, population 383
Hence, no light pollution.
I also passed several logging trucks on the highway, some carrying freshly cut logs away from the forest, and some finished 4x4s.
As the road brought me steadily closer, I caught tantalizing glimpses of the Tower peeking out between mountains as I rounded bends in the road, and then hiding again. Here is one of the early clear views.
Devils Tower stands sentinel above the surrounding grassland and Ponderosa pine forests.
I walked the 1.3 mile loop trail around the base, which is as close as you can get without climbing up the rocks. The tower looked slightly different from every angle, with unique colors, fallen columns creating interesting patterns, determined trees growing out of fissures in the rock, and paths through the woods heading away.
The slight green tint to the rock is a type of lichen that grows on it. The boulders, rocks, and occasional broken columns littering the base testify to the processes of erosion that continue to wear away the tower. This happens very slowly, however, at the rate of a column every thousand years or so.
Along the path, there were several fallen trees that looked like this, as if they rotated around as they grew up. Do you know what causes this? Please leave a comment if so; I’d love to know.
Later I attended a ranger talk by a geoscientist about the geology and possible causes of formation of the tower. Apparently, there is still much debate about what how it formed. The leading theories are that it was either a column of lava that pushed up from under the Earth and cooled into this shape, or that it did the same thing while remaining below the surface, then was either pushed up later already formed, or the area around it eroded away leaving the harder, igneous rock of the Tower behind.
Either way, as the magma cooled into igneous rock, it contracted, forming the hexagonal (and sometimes 4-, 5- and 7-sided) columns separated by vertical cracks. As water seeps into those cracks, then freezes and contracts over and over, it slowly creates larger and larger fissures in the rock, occasionally breaking off chunks or, rarely, even whole columns.
After the talk, I asked the ranger about the red gashes in the surrounding area that look like tortured crags, and she said they are called “Spearfish sandstone formations.” She told me that similar types of rocks are found in the Black Hills region that I just visited, including Spearfish Canyon, though they looked very different there. Similar coloring, but in gorges, not gashes.
Despite the name, there is nothing ominous about the tower or the area. The name in fact has an interesting history. The cartographer who was mapping the area in 1875 asked the local tribes via a translator what they called the site, and they told him Bear Claws Tower. The translator got it badly wrong and told the cartographer it was called “bad gods tower,” which the cartographer set down as Devils Tower. When the tribes later found out about the error, they wrote letters to have it changed, and the cartographer refused point blank.
The name Bear Claws Tower comes from the legend of its formation. Several local tribes have slightly different variations on the legend, but the basic story is similar. In the Lakota version, seven sisters were in a field gathering berries when a giant bear approached, threatening to attack them. The girls ran away, the bear gave chase, and they prayed to the gods to save them.
Suddenly the Earth thrust upward beneath their feet, carrying them far out of the bear’s reach, but the bear was angry at loosing his prey and clawed at the tower with his enormous claws, leaving the gouge marks that streak the tower. The girls were safe at the top of the tower, but for saving them, the gods thrust them up into the sky, where they remain today. On a clear night, you can look up above the Tower and see the seven sisters, called the Pleiades or Subaru.
Stargazing is in fact one of the attractions I was looking forward to here. The one potential hitch was whether they would let me stay overnight. After my experience at Shenandoah National Park, being warned that spending the night in my van was considered camping, regardless of whether I was doing camping stuff or not, and that camping outside of a designated campground was illegal, I wasn’t eager for a repeat. But I couldn’t pay for the on-site campground and the nearest free campsite was at least a 45 minute drive out of the park, and I didn’t want to do that drive when already too tired.
So I asked two different rangers about stargazing, figuring there has got to be a solution to this as it is a popular activity here. I turns out that “camping” is defined as “sleeping.” My conversation with the law enforcement ranger ended like this:
Me: “So as long as I’m awake all night, I can stay in my van anywhere in the park?”
Ranger: “Strange, but yes.”
Score. Found the loophole!
She did warn me though not to get caught sleeping at a pullout or parking area at 6 or 7 am, though I assumed that once the crowds started arriving, they wouldn’t be checking (or care) and I could sleep for a few hours. One ranger was even kind enough to point out the best stargazing spot at the park. A few other people were there for the first couple hours of darkness and then faded away, one by one, leaving just me and one other minivan to wait out the night.
In preparation, I washed the front windows, outside and inside, to get a perfectly clear view. I am in love with the windows on the Ford Transit, by the way. Big and bold, they let me see so much. I can turn around on the front passenger seat and lean back against the dash and get a great night sky view above me. And I turned off the battery and fridge so as not to hear any man-made noise, however mild.
Mother Teresa said, “See how nature—trees, flowers, grass—grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, the sun, how they move in silence.” I get so little of this. Even camped out in the middle of nowhere, there is the intermittent hum of the fridge or fan and the occasional truck or camper driving by. It is hard to get away completely from artificial noises, and for tonight at least, I wanted to bask in the celestial music.
And so, wrapped in a warm blanket, with hot tea and me and the stars, I stayed up all night to watch the Milky Way.
I was tempted, after just a few minutes and again after several hours, to put on some music or an audiobook, but resisted. I wanted tonight to be special. I have been feeling lately like there is something I need to learn from the stars. From nature. That I simply need to be still and silent long enough to hear the message.
I did in fact see the Milky Way that night, which was incredible, though not like some of those amazing photos you see in magazines, but still incredible. So clear and strangely close. I even got out of the van for a while just to stare up at it, until I started freezing and went back inside to warmth.
Not to disappoint, but I didn’t have any awe inspiring revelations that night, though it was an amazing and special experience. And I still feel like there is something I need to learn, but the stars’ timeline is not my timeline, and my God’s timeline is not my timeline, and I may have to repeat this many more nights. I can be patient.
I also want a better camera. The iPhone camera is surprisingly good, but is pretty much useless in low light situations and I’d love to be able to take some of those night sky photographs myself.
The sunrise was also beautiful, and more rare for me even than the stars! There were lots of deer out early in the morning, which disappeared as if on cue at about quarter to seven, just before the early tourists started coming in to the park. Smart deer.
Partially to wait out the time until the rangers would stop checking parked cars for sleepers, and partially out of genuine interest, I watched the prairie dog colony for a couple hours in the early morning light. I was fascinated by the interactions between them; how a couple would keep a lookout so that others could dig or eat…and then discovered something fascinating.
I was exhausted from my all-night vigil, so after two hours of prairie dog watching my will power was already in the back of the van napping and I indulged in a Katy Bowman podcast. The biomechanics of movement. Hot, right?
When I turned on the podcast, suddenly I stopped hearing almost anything else. Only the loudest prairie dog squeak and the rumble of passing diesel trucks occasionally broke through. But when I turned it back off, they were all back. The prairie dogs and the rest of the cars. And let me tell you, those prairie dogs keep up quite a chatter. I had the volume down very low on my phone, so what happened? Was it my attention? I felt like I was watching the prairie dogs just as attentively as before. It’s not exactly rocket science, after all.
I was too tired to investigate further then, but I tried it again as I left the park and drove west through Wyoming, watching the landscape in silence for a while, then turning on a different audiobook, and a similar thing happened. It wasn’t the volume this time—I wasn’t hearing the outside world anyway—but when I turned on the audiobook, the landscape faded almost immediately into the background and was actually hard for me to see it in the same way. I’m not talking about visual acuity or even attention, but something else. Awareness? I’m not sure what to call it.
When I turned the audiobook back off, however, it took a good 20 minutes for my awareness(?) to readjust and to experience my surroundings more fully again. I tried this a couple more times over a few days and it always happened, no matter what I turned on.
Could this, more than the sheer time spent on the road, account for the shift in perception I described in the Loess Hills post?
I made a conscious choice at the beginning of this journey not to listen to music, audiobooks, podcasts, or anything else while driving, and for the vast majority of the time I have kept to that. The long miles on the road are my time for contemplation, for the Jesus Prayer, for letting all these experiences percolate inside me.
Yet, like an addict, I am often tempted to turn something on as if it were a physical need. Building resistance has been a process not unlike detox, and when I resist, it is not done as a legalistic adherence to a self-imposed rule: it isn’t a rule, and—this is new—I’m also not guilting myself when I give in. That isn’t helpful.
I am doing this out of recognition that it is what I need to do to get healthy. Like medicine for a sickness, and the sickness is needing that external stimulus to be calm. The withdrawal pains can be difficult and at times make me jittery for entertainment and I am good at justifying it as educational or relaxing or whatever, but if I can’t be calm in my own mind, I am not truly healthy.
Finally, exhausted, I went to bed around 9am and slept for a few hours.
In total, I spent four days and three nights at Devils Tower, with a couple nights dispersed camping approximately 30 miles away. I felt like I wanted to really get to know the Tower, not just pop by for a day and think I’ve seen all there is to see. A few days is hardly better, but it did give me a chance to form a connection with the place, to take the time to see things in more depth, and that felt good.
Hope you enjoyed the pictures. It was hard to choose which ones to include, since I took so many.