I should be more familiar with the geography of South Dakota since I grew up in the far northwest corner of Iowa, but I rarely crossed the Missouri River except for a few plane trips to the west coast, Colorado, and Vegas. There are pictures of me visiting the Black Hills as a child but the only thing I can recall are sepia-tinted memories of Jellystone Park and catching guppies in a stream near our campsite. On this most recent visit I saw how close Sturgis and the Black Hills were to Wyoming, and during the planning stages of our trip it was decided that our last full day was to be spent exploring Devils Tower National Monument. I was excited because after a few days of heavy drinking amidst the leather clad throng it was time to get away from the high-octane exhaust and see a bit of God’s Country ©.
We awoke and performed our morning ablutions then grabbed the dog, filled the cooler, and took to the road. About 500 yards from the campsite R realised that he had forgotten part of his chewing apparatus so i figured we would be turning back but he said to hell with it along with something else about eating soft foods for the rest of the day – real men don’t turn back. So there we were, four people and one dog, minus 1/10th of our teeth, barreling down the road in R’s souped up Chevy Denali pick-up to our first destination – Deadwood, SD for breakfast.
Deadwood was settled illegally in the 1870s by men seeking out gold in the Black Hills, which was then part of the Lakota indian territory and therefore off-limits to settlement by the white man. Originally it was just a mining camp but soon after it started to boom a few enterprising young men brought to the town the most important trappings of modern life at the time – gambling and prostitutes. It was during these years that Deadwood achieved its reputation of being a lawless town full of thieves and murderers and whores and interestingly enough it is the time we most enjoy hearing about. That says a lot about our collective interests, doesn’t it? Today, Deadwood’s population is around 1,270 people down from 5,000+ during its heydey and would be considered by today’s standards to be downright Rotarian. During the Sturgis Rally it serves as an overflow for bikers as well as a picturesque destination for a ride around the countryside; during the rest of the year it is a vacation destination for those seeking to explore the natural beauty of the Black Hills. Gambling is still allowed in Deadwood and the cafe that we ate at during our visit was also a casino but it was undergoing renovations so I was unable to pull the one-armed bandit while waiting for my breakfast burger. Sadly, the last prostitutes were run out of town during a raid in 1980 ending a proud Deadwood tradition that stretched for over a hundred years. I didn’t get a good enough photo to show here because during the early morning hours Deadwood sort of looks like the Western Town at your local Six Flags so here is one I found online to give you an idea of what it looks like when it is all lit up and glorious.
Once we finished our breakfast and walked the dog we girded our loins for the drive into Wyoming. R’s truck, formerly used as an escort vehicle for wide-loads, is outfitted to the nines with all manner of (GPS/CB-Radio/Laptop) equipment so sitting in the passenger seat is a very crowded affair, but the worst part of all is that this stuff serves to constantly distract the driver. R is a professional truck driver and has been for decades but if he’s not messing with the GPS or climate controls he is turning to look at us when he talks or petting the dog, who can’t seem to sit still nor can she realize that what she is doing is giving me and Blondie a collective heart attack. The relaxing drive I imagined where I could point the camera out the window was spent rather with one hand on the Oh-Shit handle and an eye on the road looking out for our forthcoming doom. The only person other than the dog who wasn’t worried about veering into oncoming traffic was K, who has ridden shotgun with R for thirty years and has either trust in his ability to avoid calamity or developed the greatest poker face known to man. Eventually the dog settled into her niche, we got the temperature just right, and the road straightened out so we could relax and look at the countryside. (NOTE – the drive back at the end of the day was a relaxed affair so I believe that my initial nervousness was from rarely riding long distances with R rather than him being a crazy man behind the wheel – I trust his skills completely)
The rugged landscape of the Black Hills slowly gives way to the high plains allowing for stunning vistas in all directions. One only has to squint and look away from the road to see what it must have looked like when the main mode of transportation was the horse or a long and lonely walk. It doesn’t take a genius to see why the original inhabitants of this land fought so hard to keep it.
Once off the interstate the winding road leading to Devils Tower offered occasional glimpses of the monolith and my first impression was that it looked like something that belonged on Frankenstein’s neck. There are varying theories regarding its formation and I will spare you a long thesis on the subject because it would bore you as much as my discussion about red-beds bored my fellow travellers during the drive out. Let’s just say that it was possibly an underground tube of cooled magma that remained while the softer materials surrounding it eroded over the millennia.
If one were to ask the native peoples what the name of the butte was they would probably call it Bear’s Lodge, Bear’s Tipi, Bear’s Lodge Butte, or any number of other things that most certainly are not Devils Tower. It was called that because an interpreter on an 1875 expedition to the area misinterpreted the local name for it and it stuck in the imagination of the American public; then when it was declared the first United States National Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906 it was all but permanent – what Teddy says most certainly goes. There have been many attempts to change the name back to it’s more meaningful moniker but locals say that the change would hurt tourist revenue. Personally I like the name Bear’s Lodge and I do not think that it would take away any of the majesty from the tower but once the legend is written it is hard to unwrite. The name of the tower isn’t the only source of smouldering anger. For years native peoples were trying to get the US government to halt climbing on the tower because to them it is a sacred place and every time someone pounds a bolt into the granite they are desecrating holy ground. Some compromise has been reached and the Park Service has asked that people voluntarily refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June when local tribes are performing rituals around the tower, but there are always the contrarians that say they have a right to climb it at any time because it is on federal land and that any prohibition would constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. One can see the logic in both arguments but during our visit to the park there were quite a few people scaling the walls so it isn’t weighing too heavily on the public’s mind.
There were quite a few people at the park during our visit and most of them rode over from Sturgis so the normal peaceful quiet was shattered by the sounds of loud exhausts, barking dogs, and even a fat guy who was blasting Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA at top volume while driving and eating Triscuits from the box – it was a sight that made my head turn like an inquisitive dog. Luckily for us many of these people are also very lazy so they take their pictures near the ranger station, get atop their motorcycles, and ride off to the Trading Post to buy their Close Encounters of the Third Kind trinkets. This leaves the trail around the tower virtually empty. Blondie, K, and I circumnavigated the tower like sneaker shod Magellans and once we got to the far side we were treated to beautiful views of the tower, the pine-dotted valley to the east, and a deer that didn’t give a shit.
Once we finished our circuit around the tower we met up with our chauffeur, who stayed behind with the dog, and made our way to the exit. Anyone who has ever visited Devils Tower will tell you that you haven’t completed your trek until you have taken pictures of the prairie dogs and their city near the entrance to the park. I am dead serious when I say that they live in a little city – there must have been at least a few thousand of the critters popping in and out of burrows and from what I could tell they had very little fear of man. Many signs were posted warning people not to feed the prairie dogs but from the shape of them I can guarantee that someone is providing them with a steady supply of junk food.
Our last stop before heading home was the Devils Tower Trading Post near the entrance to the park. There you could buy all manner of junk, take pictures of a few scruffy buffalo, get you last pics of the tower, and of course purchase ice cream, which was what we were there for – remember soft foods were the order of the day.
The trip to Devils Tower was one we won’t soon forget and someday I would like to return and spend a lot more time hiking the land and getting to know the Black Hills area better. After packing all of the gear the next morning Blondie and I took the long way to the airport in Rapid City via Vanocker Canyon Road south of Sturgis. It was a beautiful drive that left a lasting impression on both of us due to a surprise appearance by one of the local residents. I could see that something brown was going to come bounding out of the ditch about fifty yards ahead of us so I slowed down expecting a deer to run across the road, but what we were treated to was a gigantic mountain lion at a full run right there in front of us. It was gone as quickly as it appeared and neither of us was able to speak for a few seconds until I screamed out YEAH, THAT WAS A F__KING MOUNTAIN LION! It was a great end to an adventure.
We are off to Iceland for another ten-day adventure tomorrow so check back in a few weeks for the whole story. If you want to follow along with our trip via social media you can find us on Instagram @THE_REAL_PMO and @blondie_enm and on Twitter @The_Real_PMO (see a pattern there?) We will use the tag #IcelandAfield2013 on both platforms.