Devil’s Tower

I visited: Devil’s Tower National Monument. It’s located in northeast Wyoming and is sacred to many Indigenous groups.

Devil’s Tower, known to some as Bear Lodge, was the second major stop in my road trip with Becca. It’s become one of my favorite places in the country. I visited it for the first time last year with Steve, knowing nearly nothing about it in advance beyond Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

My first visit was nothing short of astounding. We drove in from South Dakota on a Friday afternoon in November. Steve reminded me that I slept through a lot of the drive there, but I was awake in time for the approach. We drove through Wyoming’s wide, sloping hills dotted with trees. From about twenty miles away we spotted the large cliff face towering over the horizon like a smokestack, or an altar. The road weaved around steep hills, obscuring the Tower from our view for a mile or two before it would appear again, looming larger, and then vanish. It was magnetic. Finally we reached the small park surrounding it, basking in its shadow. We chose to take the gentle hike around its circumference, weaving through the pine trees that surround it like pilgrims and the huge boulders that surround it like emissaries. It was sunset now, and nearly nobody else was there, so most of our hike was silent in the fading light.

I’ve described the experience to people as otherworldly, even mystical, but it’s a complicated memory. The geology itself is dramatic, providing a kind of narrative shape for any exploration. The Tower’s elevation means you are always simultaneously looking down at miles of Wyoming wilderness stretched out below you and up at 867 feet of steep rock reaching above you. But I couldn’t ever shake the feeling that I was a trespasser at someone else’s holy place. The Tower remains a sacred place for many Indigenous groups, and many of the trees are draped with prayer cloths. Some of what made the experience feel so mystical to me, I think, is the fact of walking through a space that has accommodated so many rituals and prayers. Inevitably a place like that acquires a kind of glow. I haven’t made peace yet with what it means to seek wonder in a natural space that is sacred to others. It’s a tension that’s present in nearly every National Park I visit, but it’s loudest at the Tower, since the wonder is so loud there. It’s the kind of tension I want to try and resolve, even if it takes a long time, because it seems like the kind of tension that requires action, especially if I plan to keep visiting National Parks that once belonged to someone else.

On this recent trip I felt the same magnetic draw again. We drove two hours there, arriving at sunset, and stayed only 20 minutes or so before driving two hours back to our lodging. I stood at the base of the Tower mesmerized, stammering to Becca, “I wish I could articulate what it is about this place that feels so compelling to me, what draws me to it.” Becca smiled and replied, “You don’t have to. Maybe it’s good that you can’t.” It’s the kind of tension I don’t want to try and resolve, because it seems like the kind of tension that asks not for analysis but for attention and presence, even surrender.

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