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Devil’s Tower and Cody, Wyoming
We woke to a clear blue sky. One of the first things that I did was rush outside to see if the Devil’s Tower Monument was as spectacular in person as I had anticipated. Wow! I was not disappointed!
As a child, I had first seen the monument on the big screen in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” (Does anyone else remember that Steven Spielberg movie, in which Richard Dreyfuss becomes obsessed with making models of Devil’s Tower, and eventually meets/greets/leaves with space aliens who land at the site?) For me, that movie had been the inspiration for countless daydreams about becoming an astronaut and going to live with beings from another planet.
While the distant view of the tower was mesmerizing, I couldn’t wait to experience it from an even closer perspective. We planned to hike around the base of the monument this morning before driving across Wyoming to the town of Cody.
Devil’s Tower is north of the Black Hills, and has long been considered by Native Americans to be a sacred site—held in reverence as a holy place where a person could go to be renewed in spirit. Numerous tribes have stories and legends about the tower, many involving a bear. The grooves in the side of the tower are said to have been created by the claws of a giant bear.
Before the Europeans arrived, the tower was (and still is) referred to as “Bear Lodge” by the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes. Other tribes called the tower “Bears’ Home” (Crow tribe), “Bear’s Tipi” (Arapaho tribe), “Place Where Bears Live” (Assiniboine tribe), and “Bear’s Hat” (Mandan tribe). In 1857, the tower was identified by European-Americans as “Bear Lodge” during a scientific exploration of the Black Hills.
The current name of “Devil’s Tower” is objectionable, even offensive, to many Native Americans. That name was conjured up and imposed by a European-American, Richard Dodge, during a geologic expedition in 1875. Although he claimed that an “unnamed” Indian tribe had referred to the site as “Bad God’s Tower”, his story lacks credibility. He published a widely disseminated account of the expedition, which government surveyors relied upon heavily when they created a map of Wyoming in 1879. The name “Devil’s Tower” stuck. It arguably has more allure and intrigue to non-Native Americans than a name that means the home of a bear, and lawmakers have refused to change the name despite repeated requests by Native Americans for them to do so.
While Ben and I packed up to leave our campground, the kids ran over to the playground, which had some plastic vehicles to climb into, as well as a wooden stagecoach and horses.
Another parent at the playground offered to take a “family photo” of us—we couldn’t resist capturing a “Yes, we were there!” moment.
During the short drive to the base of the monument, my excitement grew as we got closer and closer.
The tower is managed by the National Park Service (“NPS”). It was designated as the first national monument in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Our first stop was the small visitor’s center located at the base of the monument. Genevieve immediately made a bee line for the two park rangers behind the counter and asked how the monument was formed. Through the rangers’ explanations, combined with visual exhibits in the park, we learned that the tower originated about 50 million years ago, when the surrounding land consisted of a thick layer of sandstone (sedimentary rock). From deep inside the earth, magma (molten rock) was pushed upwards until it reached a point about a mile and a half from the earth’s surface; the magma was injected into the sandstone and then hardened.
Over millions of years, ancient rivers gradually eroded away the deep layer of soft sandstone on top of the tower. This morning we had passed by some walls that showed some of the eroded sandstone layers:
The sandstone that was invaded by the magma was rich in feldspar, which cracked into columns as the magma hardened. This type of rock is different from the granite of nearby Mt. Rushmore, which was formed from sandstone that contained a lot of quartz, not feldspar.
For those of you, like Genevieve, who like to know the “real” names for rocks, the official name for the rock that makes up the tower is “phonolite porphyry.” The “phonolite” label refers to the igneous rock, rich in feldspar with no quartz; it makes a ringing sound when struck. The “porphyry” label refers to the coarse-grained feldspar embedded in the fine-grained groundmass.
Because Genevieve is so enthusiastic about geology, and already has a vocabulary for many types of rock formations, one of the rangers jokingly asked her if she wanted a job with the Park. The ranger then went on to seriously discuss the NPS summer programs for college interns; Genevieve’s eyes lit up, and I'm sure that she has stored that information away as a possible future opportunity.
The visitor’s center exhibits also contained other interesting information about Wyoming. For example, although United States laws did not authorize women to vote until 1920, Wyoming had passed laws allowing women to vote 50 years earlier. Here is a photo of Louisa Gardner Swain, who cast the first vote in 1870.
We also chuckled over the plight of George Hopkins, who parachuted to the top of the tower in 1941 in order to prove that he “could hit the impossible.” The top of the tower is rounded, not flat, and about the size of a football field. After his landing, Hopkins was stranded at the summit for six days until he was finally rescued by a group of professional mountaineers. (I later learned that he had planned to come down using a long rope dropped from a plane, but the rope drop missed. Food, water and other supplies were dropped from the plane over the next few days, while the weather and other factors delayed climbers from scaling the tower to reach him.)
After exhausting the museum area, we crossed the parking lot and eagerly started our 1.3 mile hike around the base of the tower. (The bright morning sun washed out the color of the tower in the photo below.)
We came across an area where some columns had fallen. Hikers could navigate through the rocks but were not allowed to climb upwards beyond a certain point. The white sign above Genevieve and Sebastian marks the beginning of the “no climbing” zone.
No columns have fallen for at least 200 years. An exhibit along the trail explained that the tower has the tallest and widest columns in the world, with some measuring up to 600 feet tall and 10 to 20 feet wide.
As we focused in on the columns, we could see rock climbers among the cracks (about ¼ of the way up and ½ of the way up, near the center of the photo below).
About 4000 climbers from around the world flock to the tower each year to summit this unique land formation. The first recorded climbers were two ranchers in 1893, who built a crude 350-foot wooden ladder that they attached to the tower by hammering stakes into one of the cracks.
Native Americans from the plains tribes have long objected to the recreational climbing of the tower, with some viewing such activity as a desecration of their sacred site. In 1996, Arvol Looking Horse, Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Pipe for the Cheyenne Silver River Trive said: “It affects us psychologically and spiritually . . . . When people climb on this sacred butte and hammer metal objects into it, the butte is defiled and our worship is intruded upon. It is like they pounded something into our bodies.”
Early rock climbing techniques have undeniably scarred the tower. However, modern rock climbers try to minimize the impact of the ascent. For example, the vast majority no longer use the steel pegs called “pitons” that were commonly hammered into cracks. In addition, NPS has asked climbers to voluntarily abstain from climbing the tower during the month of June, when many Native American cultural ceremonies occur in the park. Although the request has resulted in an 80% reduction in June climbs, approximately 200 people each year ignore the request and climb anyway during that month.
Here we passed some fabric markers left by a different group of climbers. We could hear their voices loudly and clearer, but we couldn’t see them.
We never tired of gazing at the beauty of the columns.
We quickly reached the half-way point on the trail.
We stopped to read all of the informative exhibits along the path. This one told about the important role of fire in maintaining a healthy forest.
We learned that ponderosa pine trees have a thick bark that protects them from low-lying, fast moving fires. If natural fires are continually suppressed and extinguished, the result can be an overabundance of vegetation that fuels very hot, long-burning fires, which can kill mature trees and cause extensive long-term damage to a forest.
The children walked along, happy together.
The climbers’ voices on this side of the tower echoed harshly all around us; we could hear their conversations quite clearly even though they were far away. Can you find them in this photo below?
How about now, with this zoom?
Okay, there they are!
As I was looking at the climbers, I heard Genevieve and Sebastian cry, “Wow, Mom! A bunny, come see, come see!” They were much more excited about a small rabbit that they had found than searching for specks of color on the tower.
They also found an ant that was the same size as a nearby spider.
We finished our hike in good spirits and then set off for our 5 ½ hour drive across Wyoming to the town of Cody. Two final photos of the tower, from a distance.
Some old buildings were nestled in the prairie grass.
The fire that passed through here had spared the trees surrounding this small farm.
More burned trees.
The doors on the fire station looked newer than the rest of the building, and we wondered if those doors were concealing a fire truck.
The fire hadn’t spread to the trees behind this pretty white church.
The road ahead:
A few oil pumps were hard at work:
We passed what appeared to be some form of mine, which was carved into the earth like a long black scar.
A small community:
Several deer were grazing near the roadside.
This small lake reflected the deep blue of the sky.
In the distance were the Bighorn Mountains that we would have to cross to reach the western portion of the state.
The highway, however, did not cut through the mountains. It headed west but curved northward, tracking along the eastern side of the mountain range and up into Montana. We would have to take a winding two-lane road that broke off from the highway near the Montana border, where the mountains were lower and didn’t have snow along their peaks.
On our right side were these mounds of earth, with their soft red and cream colors, protruding from the desert landscape.
Grazing cattle were dark dots on the rolling fields.
As we headed north, the green of the surrounding grassland reflected the recent rains.
We continually hit large swarms of bugs, which we eventually determined were grasshoppers. They would hit our windshield with a loud “snap” and leave gigantic mustard yellow splat designs. (I will spare you the photos of these.)
We stopped in Sheridan to have a picnic lunch among the trees:
North of Sheridan, we left the highway and started our 2-lane journey east, over the mountains.
The view behind us:
We snaked our way upward. Every so often, there was a sign by the road with an arrow pointing toward the rock faces, with the type and the age of the rocks identified.
The scenery around us:
As we crested the mountain pass and headed down the backside, we came upon a long stretch of construction work.
We could see a wide and straight swath of newly graded dirt cutting across the sweeping curves of the existing road.
While I know that the new road will save travel time for many people, part of me mourned the loss of the gently meandering, 2-lane “scenic route.”
Soon, we passed through a wide valley.
We toodled along behind a slow-moving, rental RV for a few miles. When the yellow line transitioned from solid to dashes, we moved over into the left lane to pass. Suddenly, the RV that we were passing moved over into our lane, pushing us partially off the road. Yikes! Thank goodness the road had a shoulder on the other side (and that no other vehicles were coming from the other direction), but up ahead, we could see a small bridge, where the shoulder disappeared into a concrete barrier and a drop off. Ben stomped on the gas, and we easily passed the RV and slid back over into the right lane in the nick of time before reaching the bridge. Whew! That certainly got the adrenaline flowing! We both had looked over at the woman driving the RV as we passed, wondering what was she thinking! We spent several moments speculating on her motive, and finally decided that she must just have been an inexperienced RV driver who got a bit freaked out by another RV passing her.
The valley narrowed, and rocky hills lined the edges.
A gorge opened up on our right:
Another view of the gorge:
In the distance, we could see horizontal lines in the cliff sides, clearly evidencing how the left side had dropped away from the right over time.
We were surrounded by beauty:
We could see the road ahead, looping down the mountain.
The narrow road had been carved into a fairly steep slant, with little room for error.
As Ben carefully navigated one switchback after another, we all were a bit tense, watching how close our big RV was to the edge, and trying not to think about “one false move and . . . . “ Sebastian’s mind wandered over to the dark side of “what if.” “Daddy, what would you do if we had an accident right now?” (Let’s see . . . would we hope that we crashed into the cliff side instead of plummeting to our deaths? Would we pray that our RV didn’t end up in the ravine resembling a crumpled ball of aluminum foil? Would we . . . ?) Ben calmly responded, “I really need to focus on driving right now, Sebastian.”
We finally reached the bottom, where a swift river raced along beside us.
The red rock walls revealed their layers of history.
The rock walls soon were replaced with soft, red mounds that had beautiful, horizontal erosion patterns.
Agricultural fields were spread out around us.
We drove through the town of Greybull, population 1,815:
This ram stood in a small park.
The Greybull airport had a collection of old planes.
As we neared Cody, the land flattened to a wide, arid plateau.
We finally arrived in Cody.
We headed straight for the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, where our good friend Chris was waiting for us. Chris lives near us in California, and she had flown into Cody earlier today. She would be joining us in the RV for 5 days as we traveled through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons in western Wyoming.
Here is a statue of Buffalo Bill outside the Center.
We arrived at the Center less than an hour before closing time, so we quickly zoomed through the exhibits. Buffalo Bill was the stage name for William Cody, who founded the town of Cody in 1896. He is best known for his “Wild West” show that toured around the U.S. (and many countries) from 1882 to 1913.
Among the Native Americans, Buffalo Bill was viewed as a friend, and the relationship was one of mutual respect. When Buffalo Bill was asked by European Americans if he saw a solution to the “Indian problem,” he replied, “Never make a single promise to the Indians that is not fulfilled.” He said that every conflict that he knew about involving Native Americans arose from “broken promises and broken treaties by the government.”
The museum had some items related to Annie Oakley, who was an ace shooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show from 1885 to 1901.
Here is an old chuckwagon that was displayed in the museum:
We walked through downtown Cody and discovered that we were just in time to view the nightly “shootout” in front of the Irma hotel. The show pitted the “good guys” (Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, and others) against the “bad guys” (Butch Cassidy and other outlaws).
Buffalo Bill welcomed us to the show.
Before the main event started, the Wyatt Earp character showed how a gun that fires only blanks can still blow gaping holes in a soda can.
Wyatt then instructed all of the children that if they were to find a gun anywhere, they were to “Leave it Alone.” He then made us loudly repeat the phrase "Leave it Alone!" a couple of times to ensure that we all understood that guns were not toys and could cause deadly harm.
With that lesson behind us, the show then unfolded. In sum, the good guys were relaxing in town, the bad guys came in and robbed the saloon and shot Trixie the waitress, the good guys and the bad guys had a showdown, and the bad guys all lost.
The “bad guys”:
The end of the bad guys (who are on the ground):
The entire cast:
Genevieve and Sebastian with a few of the actors:
Miss Chris . . .
. . . getting a surprise double-kiss!
The few restaurants that we had scoped out all had long waiting lists tonight. We wanted to attend the local rodeo this evening and needed to eat quickly. We ended up at the Outlaw Café, which had good hot sandwiches and delicious desserts.
Sebastian in front of a “cool” motorcycle:
A close-up of the bike:
At the rodeo, we saw this beautiful, speckled bull:
We also watched calf-roping, barrel races (in which one horse broke its leg), and bull riding (only one rider stayed on, and several others limped off in evident pain after hitting the ground).
Here is a shot of the calf-roping:
At one point, the announcer clown called for all of the children to come down into the arena. Genevieve and Sebastian raced down and joined the other kids in a line.
The announcer clown then had the children start off doing silly things, like putting their arms out in front of them, turning around, etc. He then moved onto a request that the children lie down in the dirt, then get up, take a handle of the dirt, and then put the dirt in their pockets. Genevieve refused to do any of this (she has been around the block, that girl), but I watched in horror as Sebastian (with his trusting soul) laid down in the dirt (with who knows what kind of excrement in it), then get up, then bend down and scoop up some soil in his hands. With the crowd roaring, he of course couldn’t hear my shouts of “No, don’t do it!”
The children then participated in a contest to see who could be the first to pull ribbons off of 3 calves’ tails. We watched the chaos, as the kids ran around chasing the calves.
Genevieve came back with a big smile and one of the prizes (a coupon for a free ice cream treat). She had not gotten one of the calf ribbons; however, a local girl that she had met in the arena had won the prize and given it to her. How kind!
When Sebastian returned to the stands, I mentioned that he would have to empty his pockets before entering the RV tonight. He looked at me with a grin and said, “Mom, I didn’t put the dirt in my pocket!” No? He explained, “I watched the clown man. He took the dirt and let it go outside of his pocket. He was only pretending to put it in! So I copied him and did the same.” Smart boy!
We arrived at our campground late tonight and set up quickly. Tomorrow we would be driving into Yellowstone, and we were all very excited!
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