We are now in Buffalo, Wyoming, at the Deer Park Campground. Skies are smoky and night temperatures have cooled to something more reasonable that the 95 degrees we found when we arrived at 7 pm.
Somehow this day seemed to be a study in contrasts. The streets of Deadwood thundered with the sound of motorcycles and the crush of people, and the same sounds accompanied our views of Devils Tower. Yet, as we approached this mythical mountain, I felt much as N. Scott Mornaday did when he said, “There are things in nature which engender an awful quiet in man, Devils Tower is one of them”.
We approached from the south leaving Interstate 90 at Sundance so that we could make the loop back to Moorcroft without having to backtrack on our way to Buffalo. The land rises slowly, with low rolling ridges lifting upward and shadowed by the dark pine forest of this far northern tip of the Black Hills. The road is a good one, and the views open up to the west for a hundred miles of Wyoming space, but Devils Tower doesn’t make it’s first appearance until we are several miles north of the interstate. When it does, it seems small but still not insignificant, even shrouded in the darkness of an afternoon thunderstorm moving east.
Controversy surrounds this vertical dome of rock, even to the geologic origin of the porphyritic igneous gray stone filled with large white crystals of feldspar. The simplest explanation is that it is an intrusion of magma that wasn’t ever really a volcano, and probably never erupted on the surface of the earth. It cooled and was later exposed by erosion. That is the simple version, and there are many others written up in the various geologic references to the dramatic vertical tower.
In addition to the creation controversy, there are conflicts over the name, which has a negative connotation that doesn’t sit well with the local tribes who revere the monolith as a sacred place. Bear Lodge is one of their many names for it. There is also controversy over the several thousand people who come each year to climb the huge columns. Just yesterday a young couple ascended the east face with their ten month old on board. That puts a whole new spin on the “baby on board” thing, doesn’t it! What about child endangerment??
If you ever saw “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, a classic and a favorite of mine, you saw this place. It is the kind of place that triggers imagination, whether that of Steven Spielberg or the many Native American tribes who have an equally mythically compelling story of 7 sisters who were chased to the top of a tall tree by their brother who had transformed into a bear. Eventually the sisters were raised safely to the sky, and became the Pleiades, or the Big Dipper, depending on who is telling the story.
The road to Devils Tower past the entry gate (where we used our Senior Passes for free entry) wasn’t too narrow, but when we saw a sign “Large Vehicle Drop-Off) we whipped around and took advantage of it and unhooked the toads for the trip to the visitor center just 2 miles farther up the road. It was a good thing we did, because there wasn’t any parking at all up there and barely any turnaround space. I enjoyed the visitor center, and the proximity to the tower. I could have stayed there much longer, but the day was escaping and there was still some 130 miles to go before we settled in for the night in Buffalo, our destination for the day. I somehow didn’t plan this leg of the journey quite right because my short little hour for the town of Deadwood, turned into three hours of delight and fun.
Leaving Hermosa this morning right on time at 8am, we caravanned north on Highway 40 to Keystone. The town was still sleeping and yet the rock shop was open and we spent some time wandering among the big bins of rose quartz and petrified wood so that I could take back a big hunk of that gorgeous rosy rock that comes from the heart of the Black Hills. I saw several outcroppings of the stuff as we wound our way around the hills, and remembered the huge bins I have seen in Quartzite of Black Hills rose quartz. Of course that would be my souvenir! So much better to get it here right in the hills than down in the desert.
The drive north toward Deadwood opened up a completely different part of the Hills, with deeper forests and less rangeland, more water, a big reservoir, and green valleys in between. Yesterday we spent time in Custer State Park, buffalo country, gorgeous rangeland, and the difference was significant. The Black Hills stretched north, and felt much bigger today than they did until now. I’ll be writing about Custer City and Custer State Park eventually, but tonight this day is foremost in my mind and vision.
Thunderstorms threatened us all day, with huge dark clouds just out of reach, and just an occasional burst of raindrops on the windshield. By the time we got to Deadwood, the skies were clearing and the air was fresh and cool. I had no idea what to expect of Deadwood, but Mo thought we definitely needed to at least drop in and spend an hour or so.
Deadwood reminded me so very much of Wallace, a north Idaho mining town where I once lived. The big difference was the influx of money from casinos and gambling into Deadwood. Like Wallace, the entire town is a National Historic Site, but the money from gambling seems to give a big boost to the Deadwood economy. The town was lively and fun! After walking up and down the streets I did begin to notice that there weren’t any real “shops” anywhere in Deadwood, just a LOT of bars, and saloons, and restaurants, and casinos, and just a few shops with kitschy stuff and a boutique with diamond studded leather everything. In the midst of this, however, it was obvious that underneath all that was a real small town, with a courthouse, and an athletic center, parks, and some old wonderful neighborhoods. Just like Wallace.
We wanted to see Boot Hill, or what is now called the Mt Moriah Cemetery, where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, side by side. Instead of climbing the long steep hill to the top, we decided to enjoy the Boot Hill Tour trolley. Lucky for us, they were dog friendly, and Abby and Jackson were perfect dogs on the trolley and in the cemetery where they sat on the stone steps and slept while we all listened to stories of Bill and Jane, who actually only met once and were barely acquainted! A shocking revelation to me.
Back down the hill we settled in for lunch on the patio of one more very dog friendly spot before loading up and heading out of town. I was so glad that we stopped at the first big parking area on the southwest side of town as we entered, because we discovered there would have been no place to even think of parking a motorhome any closer.
We drove from Deadwood to Buffalo with the Devils Tower loop in about eleven hours, and it was only 275 miles. I was excited to once again see the Big Horn Mountains, my reason for traveling this way, but on this August afternoon I was to be disappointed. Fires in the west are wreaking havoc, and at the moment there are several burning in Montana just north of us and in Wyoming and Idaho. The smoke got thicker as we approached Buffalo and we could just barely see a thin faint outline of what was supposed to be Cloud Peak, the crown of the Cloud Peak Wilderness and the Big Horn Mountains.
We have scheduled three nights here in Buffalo, with day trips into the Big Horns big on the list. Smoke in the summer in the west… I knew it could be a problem on this trip, but so far we have been really lucky. We will see what the next three days have in store for us. Looking at the murky skies over Buffalo, I wished we had planned instead for a night or two just feeling whatever it is that you feel at the base of Devils Tower.