Saturday, October 15, 2011

Devils and Presidents

The strange noises were trains and trucks.  Watch out for these in Wyoming.  In hotel reviews we’d read things like: “The trains kept me up all night, it sounded like fingernails on the blackboard from every direction,” and of course we didn’t believe that.  But believe it, the sounds of the trains around there can wake you up from the sleep of the dead and the rumblings of the ore trucks can bounce you out of bed in a second.  I slept ok but Sarah didn’t and she was finally getting some rest when my body told me it was time to get up.  I had awakened with visions of Devils Tower in my head and when I finally roused Sarah I told her that we needed to go there.  It was obvious that we should!  [This is an attempt at a reference to CloseEncounters of the Third Kind … I’ll now desist.]

Most of the people at the hotel were hunters or businessmen (or a combination) and so were gone by the time we stumbled down to the restaurant for breakfast at 8:00 or so.  Nice breakfast with lots of coffee, and then they gave us free take-away jumbo Starbucks coffees as a going away present!  We stowed the coffees in the car and went up to the room to pack quickly, then check out ($126.57 for two, including dinner, drinks, and breakfast) and get the hell out of Dodge/Gillette.  It was gray and spitting rain off and on through the first part of that morning but slowly cleared into an acceptable day.

We had seen Devils Tower National Monument on the map and thought it might be fun to go there, but in the push to get to South Dakota we’d kind of forgotten about it.  We hadn’t gotten as far East as we’d hoped the day before, but as it turned out this was great because we were perfectly set up for what we really wanted to see!  We got back on the interstate and traveled East for about a half hour and then took 14 North from Moorcroft, and then 24 to Devils Tower NM (first National Monument in the country), arriving a bit before 10:00.  The high mountain landscape was long gone by now but we climbed up to the western arm of the Black Hills NF from the prairie and were back in a beautiful environment.

“Devils Tower” is a white-man’s marketing name that was given to that spectacular igneous intrusion, but it is sacred to several Indian tribes and was always referred to by some variant of “Bear Lodge.”  I’ll use that name.  Stopped at the gate and flashed our pass, then had one of the most delightful interludes of the trip when we pulled over at the designated Prairie Dog Village and watched those industrious squirrel relatives.  Prairie dogs apparently need enough space to have large villages and have been eradicated from much of their original range, but they’re protected in this part of the NM in northeast Wyoming.  We got back in the car and circled up to the small, CCC-era VC, where we read all the informational displays and had a nice talk with the Ranger.  We realized that what we really needed to do was to take the “long” hike around Bear Lodge … about three miles on Red Beds Trail.  This was wonderful and we only saw one other group in that whole circuit.

The trail circles around Bear Lodge, which is striking from many different angles.  It’s a 867-foot tall rock of igneous phonolite and there are several theories about how it came about, the most likely being that it was forced up by a hot spot of magma about 50 million years ago and erosion has worn away all the ground/rock that used to surround it.  It’s dried into natural hexagons, like a mud field will, contracting as it cooled.  This makes the huge rock look fluted and fits in with a marvelous Indian story about a family being attacked by a bear spirit and being rescued by the rising of the rock into the air while it was clawed furiously by the huge bear.  The Red Beds trail samples the variety of zones you find where the Black Hills meet the prairie: long rocky creases in the hillside filled with pines, open meadows of tall grass, outlooks over the Belle Fourche River, banks of dried red hoodoos or yellow sandstone, gentle woods of ashes and oaks, and rolling conifer forests.  The trail goes way downhill and then back up slowly and was a wonderful hike in October, but in the heat of summer it’s probably murder.

We got all the way around Bear Lodge and then walked on the inner, paved trail a bit so we could see the monolith and its impressive boulder field closer.  You can definitely feel why it’s sacred to Indians and has been so totemic to generations of pioneers who’ve waxed eloquent about it.  There’s something compelling about the sight and/or the object, not only because it’s alone and unique but because it’s a handsome, graceful shape that buries itself into your consciousness.  Writer after writer comes back to the same point: that you don’t forget it.  And again, Sarah and I love the small National Parks and Monuments that don’t get a lot of visitors and seem so personable.  We were glad we went there, even if it wasn’t anywhere near as spectacular as some of the other places we’d seen.

OK, time for South Dakota (somewhere in the black mining hills of Dakota there lived a young boy named Rocky Raccoon).  We stopped for gas and got back on 90 East by about 1:00.  We could have cut southeast through the Black Hills but wanted to make some time and so sped around 90 for the 22 miles to the state border and then another hour or so to Rapid City.  There’s a sign on interstate 90 where it crosses the Berkshires (in Massachusetts) at 1729 feet, proudly proclaiming the highest point on 90 until you travel West to South Dakota.  Well, we were on 90 in South Dakota … on the other side of the looking glass … but we were still up over 4000 feet.  It’s not until you’re about to cross the Missouri headed East that you get down that low and we were far from that point.

At Rapid City we turned South on route 16 towards Mt. Rushmore National Memorial and we weren’t really ready for the garish schlock we had to wade through to see the Monument.  This is another place that apparently gets an incredible number of tourists and the billboards, cheap gift shops, miniature golf courses, fake Western towns, etc. just grated on our nerves.  There were mile after mile of them on route 16 but we finally made it to the Memorial, where they charge you for parking even if you have a Parks pass.  We held our noses and parked and walked in around 2:30, determined to see Mount Rushmore in the flesh no matter how weird it was.

And it was weird.  We’d been seeing natural beauty all week, and now this was something jarringly different.  People had actually turned a mountain in the lovely (if you looked beyond the billboards) Black Hills into a sculpture and they had paved over the surrounding hillside with huge smooth-granite walkways and turned every slope into a stairway or ramp in a blatant attempt to proclaim man as superior to nature.  This place wasn’t about nature at all, it was glorifying not only patriotism but the school of thought that reality is shaped by great men and their ability to change things to fit their vision.  You could dig that idea for a bit.  The creators/caretakers of the place definitely stayed solidly on message and did their best to hammer it home.

We did some people-watching and everyone there seemed to be buying into this concept totally … they weren’t there because it was a pretty environment, what this was all about was turning up Born in the USA really loud and thinking about what great guys Lincoln, Washington, etc. were and how man (the chief sculptor was Gutzon Borglum) could do whatever he wanted to his environment.  And that was good, nature can be scary and can trip you up.  They had everything going in the same direction in this place.  Like I say, they had a theme and they did not miss any opportunity to dramatize it.

Looking at Mount Rushmore technically and artistically rather than sociologically, I have to admit that I was very impressed.  They did most of the carving with dynamite and a few jackhammers, and when you look at it closely through binoculars you see how raw the chips in the stone are.  You can see the veins of the mountain running through the faces … something that doesn’t come over in pictures of it … and it’s really an amazing technical achievement that they could make such a holistic sculpture out of that raw material and those tools.  Borglum must have started with Washington, which is definitely a good likeness and an evocative pose, but then the sculpture falls apart artistically.  Jefferson is ok, but kind of squeezed in there and looks nowhere as noble or lifelike as Washington, and you can imagine Gutzon talking to his colleagues at that point:

“Jeez we got done with that one.  Yah boy, let’s call that good enough.  Who’s next?”
“Roosevelt, sir.”
Roosevelt!?!  Isn’t he the one with glasses?  How the %^&* are we gonna do that?”
“I don’t know sir, you’re the genius.”
“Oh God, this is not going to go well.  OK boys, get on up there with the dynamite and start blasting everything that doesn’t look like Teddy Roosevelt.”

Lincoln’s the worst.  His hair is a mess and his face is devoid of any character at all.  It looks like they just did what they could with the remaining rock.  Oh well, as I say I feel the sculpture as a whole succeeds in its intent and I was glad to see it.  But like Disneyworld, once is enough.  We didn’t stay there long.

We left Mount Rushmore at about 3:15 for the long road to Cheyenne.  We wanted to wake up the next day no more than a 2-hour drive from the airport and Cheyenne would be just right.  We didn’t want to stay in another chain hotel in another railroad city, but when Sarah looked things up on the Internet we realized we didn’t have much choice.  We drove West on 244 and thankfully the billboards stopped.  The Black Hills tried their best to look scenic and definitely did a good job, as we crested the shoulder of Harney Peak at around 6500 feet and turned South on 89.  If we had had another day we might have turned off to Jewel Cave NM or Wind Cave NP, but we had a long road in front of us and kept the pedal to the metal (I drove for the whole trip).  We fell off the edge of the plateau of the Black Hills and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland started up: miles and miles of open space with some rolling hills and lots of nothing.

We were following a truck that turned in to the City of Edgemont Rubble Site … this was the actual Rubblebucket!  In Edgemont we turned West on 18 for a bit, back into Wyoming, and then South on 85 for the long haul down to Lusk.  We stopped to try to help two young guys who had alternator trouble, and promised to call their mothers when we got cell reception.  By the time we reached the town of Lusk we still had no bars but a gas station guy with a mobile tried one of their mothers (just an answering machine), and then recommended we stop by the local tow emporium.  It occurred to the guys at the tow emporium that we might be trying to fool them, but they finally believed and set off to rescue the guys back North in the middle of nowhere.  There are lots of places I’d hate to break down and 30 miles North of Lusk WY is one of them.

Took a quick left on route 20 at Lusk and then turned South on route 270, cruising along as fast as we could on the straight and rolling narrow road while the sun slowly set.  Finally made it to Guernsey and crossed the little trickle of the North Platte (it was in a very large riverbed but was really only a trickle at that point … maybe it was dammed??) on route 26 and then at last got back to interstate 25, still about an hour and a half North of Cheyenne.

Sarah completed her research and we set our sights on the La Quinta hotel in Cheyenne.  We were back in chain-hotel and chain-restaurant land, but got a room at the hotel around 8:00 (freight trains were running nearby of course), and then headed for historic downtown Cheyenne (6067 feet) and Shadows Pub and Grill in the restored train depot.  This was actually pretty nice, downtown Cheyenne is scenic and friendly for the most part.  The pub served some good burgers (Sarah thought hers was among the best she’s had) and the beer was worth mentioning (see digression on beer).  Back to the hotel after that for a final round of downloading, blogging, posting, and charging, then bed.

No comments:

Post a Comment