Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
The wind whipped my hair as I walked to the Belle Fourche River that morning, the sun’s sideways rays turning the landscape into an impressionist painting. I ignored the cheek lashings from my ponytail and felt the magnificence, the sheer splendor of Devils Tower.
It’s hard for me to call it that. Everything about that name is wrong. Not only was it a bad translation, but it’s also missing an apostrophe. When it was officially declared a National Monument, the possessive punctuation was left out by mistake.
Devils Tower is a clerical error.
You know what wasn’t a clerical error? Our marriage license! Good thing, because not only were we starting our second week on this crazy trip, it was also our third anniversary. When we said our vows (Well, I said mine. He sang his. Show-off. Remarkable, romantic, stop-you’re-ruining-my-makeup-oh-who-cares-keep-singing show-off.), we didn’t have monthlong road trips in our plans. We had the whole death do us part bit, and the I’ll love you forever part, but we didn’t know it would also mean that we’d take extended cross-country trips so that I could write books about them. It was a dream of mine, but it wasn’t one I thought would actually happen.
But it did. And there we were. Standing at the base of the first National Monument in the United States.
On the way out of the campground we stopped at the Circle of Sacred Smoke, a sculpture by Junkyu Muto that symbolizes peace. It represents a puff of smoke as it first leaves the pipe and is meant to raise awareness of the twenty tribes that consider the peak sacred.
As someone who has always been sensitive to the near-eradication of Native Americans, that sculpture and the Ranger talk from the night before, combined with other experiences, profoundly moved me. After visiting several National Parks in a relatively short amount of time, a picture was emerging of a rogue branch of the U.S. government that gave a damn about what it did to people.
After Bear Butte, and the Black Hills, and the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie, I was grateful to see a National Monument that not only acknowledged the people who’d lived here for thousands and thousands of years, but also included them as an integral part of the experience.
It wasn’t even nine in the morning when we reached the Visitor Center and it was already a happening place. The log building was the definition of rustic. Constructed of ponderosa pines in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and was exactly what you’d expect a National Park Visitor Center to be.
Inside, we browsed the exhibits covering the monument’s human and geologic history, and eavesdropped as a Junior Ranger raised her right hand to accept her newly-sworn duties. Outside, people gathered for a guided walk around the behemoth. We took off in the opposite direction.
The Tower Path is an easy 1.3 mile hike that encircles Devils Tower. It winds through a pine forest around the ever-present massive monolith. Here and there we’d come across strips of cloth and bundles tied to tree branches. Native peoples leave these physical manifestations of prayers around the base of this sacred place, and they are not to be disturbed. Seeing them is to experience an intimacy with another person’s faith, like an offering at a memorial or a lit candle on an altar.
As we walked I felt gratitude that people in the late 1800s had the foresight to preserve this landmark for the public. In 1890, the General Land Office (GLO) ordered that all applications for ownership of the tower and the land around it should be rejected. This same organization administered the Homestead Act, which parceled out pieces of land to people who wanted to live on it (except the native peoples who were already there).
In 1892, the GLO (precursor to the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM) protected the landmark further by making it a temporary forest reserve. It held that designation until 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt used his wiles to have Devils Tower declared the first National Monument.
I kinda feel like Teddy pulled a fast one. He’d originally signed the act to prevent looting of Native American ruins and artifacts, a practice that had become an issue in Chaco Canyon and similar archaeological sites in the southwest. The Antiquities Act, signed on June 8, 1906, gave President Roosevelt, and all subsequent presidents, the power to declare “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” as monuments.
While Devils Tower technically fit those criteria, considering the reason for the act it’s a little surprising that the Wyoming site was chosen as the first officially protected landmark. Hey, whatever works. I’m just glad he did.
Up close, Devils Tower is even more astonishing. It’s made up of columns that are unexpectedly symmetrical. Huge chunks lay around the base and when we looked up, we could see where they broke off. On the northeast side, peregrine falcons swirled around their nests. A little further and we joined a group of hikers pointing binoculars and zoom lenses at a sole climber.
Normally there’d be more than one person scaling the columns. Devils Tower is a climbing destination, and has been since 1893 when William Rogers and Willard Ripley used a wooden stake ladder to get to the summit, a relatively flat plain the size of a football field. Two years later, William’s wife Linnie became the first woman to reach the top. Now there are over 200 mapped routes and climbers travel from all over the world to scale Bear Lodge, as it’s known to the Lakota.
For those who consider this a sacred place, like the Lakota, it’s been said that each stake is felt physically and psychologically, and climbing is akin to climbing a cross. Each tribe has a different story, but a frequently seen element is that a bear attempted to reach the summit and kept slipping, dragging its claws in the rock. On the way down, it left those distinctive vertical scores that make climbing it so enticing.
As Bear Lodge became increasingly popular with climbers, the Park Service realized it needed to acknowledge the importance of this place to the many tribes who consider it sacred. At first they tried a voluntary halt to climbing in June, with a mandatory shutdown for commercial guides, but they lost a lawsuit initiated by the Mountain States Legal Foundation. So, in 1995 they established a completely voluntary ban for individuals and guides during that same month.
Most people honor it. Obviously, as we watched a man hunt for his next hold, some don’t.
Catching up with the guided tour that had gone the other way around the mountain, we joined them briefly as the Ranger talked about prescribed burns. We’d noticed there was very little undergrowth in the forest, and that’s because the Park Service intentionally starts fires.
Smokey Bear would not be upset by this. During our hike we’d seen discolored bark at the base of several trees. Turns out, ponderosa pines are built for flames. Not only does it take an incredibly hot fire to burn through their thick bark, their sap is also a fire suppressant. As a fire gets taller, the lower branches act like a natural sprinkler system.
How cool is that?
It only works if there are regular fires, however. From 1916 until the 1970s the Park Service actively suppressed fires, building up decades of kindling. Since 1991, Devils Tower has regularly burned sections of the surrounding forest floor in spring and fall, mimicking the natural cycle. If you happen to visit and see portions of the park on fire, don’t be alarmed. It’s probably on purpose.
Surprisingly, considering everything we’d seen and learned that morning, it was only 11 o’clock when we resumed our westward journey. By 12:14pm we’d caught our first glimpse of snow-capped mountains. Yep, I noted the time. I see white summits and squeal like 15-year-old me if she’d met Mikhail Baryshnikov. (White Nights, anyone?) No wonder I married a Mountain Man.
We picked up I-90, drove through the mining town of Gillette, and curved north towards Montana. I’d mentioned earlier that we’d be taking a convoluted route; this was part of it. We were driving from Wyoming into Montana to drive back into Wyoming. We had a good reason for it. I swear.
Knowing we’d be driving this route, Paul, our cattle-ranching host in South Dakota, had suggested one more stop. We pulled off in Sheridan to see King’s Saddlery and King Ropes & Museum.
You know how somebody mentions a place and you’re like “Yeah yeah yeah ok. I’ll go, just because you want me to go.” And then you go, not expecting much, and walk in and think “Holy Mother of Leather-working! What magic is this place!” And it’s stuffed to the rafters with rows and rows of saddles tooled with the most intricate designs you could ever imagine burned into leather, coupled with an unreasonable number of spurs, stirrups, tools, mounted heads, skulls, guns, and whips, plus a stagecoach, a one-horse open sleigh, a stuffed bear, and a bull’s head wearing goggles?
It was like that.
If you know saddles, then you know King’s Saddlery. Don King, who passed away in 2007, began his saddle business in 1946 and became recognized for his floral pattern, known as the Sheridan style. In the sixties he added rope-making, and the family-owned business still makes them by hand. We walked into the store and knew this wasn’t for tourists. “Real cowboys shop here,” I thought. Out back we found the museum, a sprawling collection of just about every Western item you could imagine. We marveled at the scope and on the way out we talked with Bill, Don’s son, for a bit.
“We all collected something,” he said of his dad, his three brothers, and “even my wife.” At first they had a Quonset hut of old carriages, but things kept piling up, so they turned it into a museum.
We walked out a little shell-shocked, recovering by stopping at each of several bronze sculptures that lined the sidewalk. Across the street a neon cowboy rode a bucking bronco at The Mint Bar, est. 1907.
Note to self: don’t go to Sheridan, Wyoming, if all you have is two hours. In the short time we were there it had fulfilled just about every expectation I’d had of a rustling western town, and I was sad to leave it. We didn’t have a choice, though. The next day we had a date with Yellowstone.
“Woohoo! We’re in Montana!”
Our eighth state. I knew we wouldn’t be here long, but this was Jim’s home state and that deserved a little celebration. Unfortunately, the joviality was short-lived. Our next stop was a place where hundreds of men died.
We make a habit of visiting places like that. Battlefields, internment camps, memorials. It’s not because we’re morbid. Just the opposite. We visit because it’s important to learn from the past, and the only way you can do that is to see it all, the good, the bad, and the devastating.
Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is proof that perception of the past morphs when seen through a changing societal lens. This was a memorial to people who fought and died in a battle that took place in 1876, so you might think something that happened so long ago would be static. Yet, before 1991 it was known as Custer Battlefield National Monument and focused solely on Army casualties.
The battle that took place was part of the Great Sioux War and could be traced back to the broken Treaty of Fort Laramie. It was nineteen years after Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse had met with other leaders at Bear Butte in 1857 to discuss the threat the settlers presented, and eight years after gold-rushing settlers trod on the infamous treaty and stole the Black Hills.
By the time Lt. Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry arrived at the Little Bighorn River on June 25, 1876, thousands of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho were camped along its banks. The battle was disastrous for the U.S., who suffered 268 casualties, including Custer. The tribes lost anywhere from 40 to 100 warriors.
This was the site of Custer’s Last Stand, but it was more than that. It was one of the final battles in a war between two cultures that were inherently unable to coexist. One, a nomadic people who followed the land and went where the living was best. The other, a people who settled a land and made it what they wanted.
Prior to 1991, only the U.S. story was told at the battlefield. After a 1988 protest by members of the American Indian Movement and combined pressure from that group and the National Congress for American Indians, Congress passed legislation requiring both sides of the story be told.
On December 10, 1991, President George H. W. Bush signed it into law and the site became Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. In addition to the name change, there is also an Indian Memorial with engraved granite walls and a bronze sculpture of Native American Spirit Warriors.
Visiting is somber. There are gravestones marking spots where soldiers and warriors fell. There’s a horse cemetery. Most somber of all is the memorial etched with names above a mass grave of about 220 soldiers, scouts, and civilians. There are several headstones inside the fence near the memorial, and there is even one for Custer, although his remains were moved to West Point. (His horse, Comanche, survived the battle and ended up at Fort Meade.)
We began to walk the path next to the graveyard when I heard, for the second time in my life, a rattlesnake in the wild.
This wasn’t like my rattlesnake encounter in the Badlands. There were no juicy tourists to entice the snake away from me. Here, it was just the two of us, separated by a wrought iron fence. I told him to stay on his side and I’d stay on mine, but we both knew that line was an illusion. I slowly backed away, and Jim and I decided it was time to go.