The Big Trip: Custer and the Devils Tower


Last night I swore I’d never again set foot in the Black Hills. Today I feel pulled back there, if for no reason than to see what they look like in the cold, rational light of day. mtrushmore.jpgThough I’ll happily skip Mount Rushmore this time. (If you’ve watched Kids in the Hall, you can just hear “I’m crushing your head!” when you look at the picture to the right.)

In the Black Hills National Forest, on the road leading to Custer State Park, was a sign that said, simply, “Grizzly.” I couldn’t tell if it was a warning or an advertisement.

All sorts of roads are closed up here. I don’t know what highway I’m on anymore (my, doesn’t that sound familiar?), but I’m snaking through the woods at about 15 miles per hour, going straight uphill. I’m not entirely sure my car will make it. I can’t help but wonder if I’m on the back side of Mount Rushmore; I’m at the top of Iron Mountain, apparently.

The man on the radio says he’s picking porcupine quills out of his coat from this morning’s encounter. How intriguing!

Custer 01_morning_custer_state_park_south_dakota.jpgState Park is just gorgeous, especially in the early morning light (here is a PDF of the official park guide, Tatanka, which is the Lakota word for buffalo).

The first thing I notice are the burros. Wild burros are standing in the middle of the road. I have to stop and wait for them to mosey along. While I do, I notice a sign on the right that says, “Lively Wildlife At Large!” Then a burro walks up to my car and sticks his huge head through my window and practically into my lap. He may have been looking for food, but all he got from me was a shriek and a friendly scratch behind the ears. Other drivers are being similarly molested. I learn later that they are known as the pack of Begging Burros, wild creatures descended from the burros brought in to carry tourists to the top of Harney Peak back in the 1920s. “The burros favor potato chips,” a park ranger later told us, “but as beggars they are not choosy and will eat just about anything you offer them—and some things you don’t. I suggest you be very careful around them, especially if you have small children with you.”

There are 1500 wild bison (everyone calls them buffalo, even though it’s really incorrect) in the park. They’re never fed unless the winter is so severe that they’re starving. The first Monday in October, they round them up, brand them, and inoculate them. Six hundred are then separated from the rest and auctioned off, which allows the park to control the size of the herd. The park is also home to approximately 400 elk, 300 whitetail deer, about 100 mule deer, and a herd of antelopes.

I see that wildfires have burned everything out. It looks quite desolate in parts. I read that it was the Galena Fire that decimated so much, back in 1988. It has apparently come back a bit in the three years since then.

Then I reach the Cathedral Spires, incredibly sharp and tall granite formations. This is the Needles Highway, and these breathtaking things were formed by upright lenses of very coarse-grained pink granite which intruded into adjacent schists about 1.7 billion years ago.

The town of Custer is quite wonderful. Very, very broad streets; short, squat buildings that look old and rustic, but not like they’re trying so damned hard to be Olde or Rustique. Hill City was quite another matter. It’s a terrible little place, tiny shacks and dilapidated buildings and cheesy motels on a mountainous, winding road.

Between the two was the Crazy Horse Memorial, which I found distinctly unimpressive. And for all the petitions trying to get the name of Custer State Park changed to Chief Crazy Horse State Park, many Native Americans find the monument offensive. Activist and actor Russell Means stated their objections to the memorial this way: “Imagine going to the holy land in Israel, whether you’re a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, and start carving up the mountain of Zion. It’s an insult to our entire being.” In a 1972 autobiography, Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man, had this to say: “The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape. It is against the spirit of Crazy Horse.”

Somewhere north of Hill City, you can hear me screaming on the tape, “THIS IS WHERE I WAS! THIS IS WHERE I WAS LAST NIGHT! I KNOW THIS PLACE! IT WAS HORRIBLE, IT WAS GLOWING GREEN! Oh my Lord, where am I?” —with no further elaboration. I honestly can’t remember anything more about this second encounter.

The central focal point in Lead (pronounced “Leed”) was the Homestake Gold Mine. Started by George Hearst (famously depicted in the HBO series Deadwood as a misanthropic sociopath willing to do anything to acquire gold, or “the color,” as he calls it, and add to his prodigious roster of mines), the Homestake stands where one-third of a mountain used to be. It’s known as The Open Cut. A great pie-wedge of a mountain is missing, hacked away, sliced down and splayed wide, raped and left exposed to the world. It’s one of the most viscerally revolting sights I’ve ever encountered.

I take a wrong turn in Lead, and instead of going east to Deadwood, I head south, and once again get lost in the Black Hills, on thin dirt roads that wind into the mountains. What is it about the Black Hills, I wonder aloud on the tape, that wants me to get lost? I wander for another hour or so—not panicking this time, but not happy. I think I had to revisit the Black Hills in daylight to understand that something is making me feel uncomfortable here. It’s where the West and the Prairie meet, uneasily, on sacred ground. Perhaps the primal soul of the place is all stirred up; maybe it’s the spirits who reside here.

I sneak over the border into Wyoming, and I can breathe again. I’m out of the forests and the landscape is bright and open and expansive. I see my first real cowboys, and they’re corralling cattle. My spirit has lightened considerably; I’m not as dark, as fearful, as frustrated.

The sun is high and the breeze is cool; I smell skunk mixed with cow. I drive toward Sundance, home of the Sundance Kid but not the Sundance Film Festival. It was named for the Lakota sun dance ceremonies that were held nearby at Devils Tower and dramatized so powerfully in the 1970 Richard Harris film, A Man Called Horse.

The hills I see are ridged and rounded, like the backs of brahman bulls, but covered with trees instead of fur and flesh.

When I was talking about going on this trip and how I didn’t know where I was going, someone (I forget who) said, “It’s like I put a pile of mashed potatoes on your plate and you’ve started playing with it—isn’t that what it’s like?” She was referring, of course, to the famous scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Richard Dreyfuss’s character starts seeing a tower-shaped mountain in his mind, and wants to recreate it everywhere—in shaving foam, in mashed potatoes, in a pile of mountain of mud in his living room. He was being drawn toward something, mysteriously but inextricably, though he didn’t know where he was going, where his quest would take him.

Now here was the place itself, the iconic Devils Tower, rising up in front of me. Of course I half expected to see UFOs whizzing by. The two most common questions the park rangers are asked: Where did the apostrophe in “Devil’s” go? (No one knows; it just vanished one day and was never seen again.) And does the top look like it did in Close Encounters? (No, the interior shots were filmed in Huntsville, Alabama. There is no interior of the real Devils Tower. It’s a rounded dome with a sort of tundra effect on top.)

Tons of people climb the Tower every day, which feels a tad sacrilegious to me. It’s like climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Australia. Or carving the faces of presidents into a mountain in the Black Hills. It is, after all, a terribly sacred place. Prayer offerings (bundles and cloths) were left there, sweat lodge ceremonies held there, vision quests undertaken there, funerals performed there. And of course the Sun Dance, perhaps the most spectacular and important religious ceremony of the Plains Indians of 19th-century North America. Ordinarily held by each tribe once a year in early summer, it was an occasion when all could gather with guests from other tribes and reaffirm their basic beliefs about the universe and the supernatural through words, ceremonies, and symbolic objects.

I cross the Belle Fourche River and head to Gillette. There are oil rigs in the field to my left, and an odd mist rising from the fields to my right—the mists rise suddenly, then quickly disperse. I never learned why. After miles of peace, Gillette was unpleasantly busy—lots of traffic and strip malls. I find an RV campground, and put my tent in the back, near a hedge, as far away from people as I could manage. There was nothing on the radio but high school football games, so I bedded down quickly, and realized I was starting to feel alone and uneasy. “It’s been eleven days,” I wrote in my journal that night, “and who I’ve been for 35 years feels like it’s starting to fall away. Who I will become, and where I’ll end up, is anyone’s guess.”

Next episode: Jesus is Lord on the Crow Reservation

Categories: Animals, Earth-based Religions, Nature, Spirituality, The Big Trip, Travel | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “The Big Trip: Custer and the Devils Tower

  1. I was thinking about this overnight. There is something we humans share with big rocks. A monolith has power. In a way that appears to be rooted in our neurology, like archetypal images and symbols, monoliths are part of our genetic makeup.

    While walking the Appalachian Trail, whenever I would come across a large single rock, a boulder, some cliff face, I would not hesitate to stop and lie against it. I’m not sure I could have resisted it had I tried, and try I never did.

    In a cave I am wont to lie against the walls.

    And when I see Devils Tower, all I want to do is make myself flat and there be no gap between it and me.

  2. indigo bunting

    This is a beautiful post. It covers so much ground: geographically, historically, philosophically, spiritually. Lovely.

  3. cedarwaxwing

    I’m enjoying reading these posts. It’s like a Bill Bryson book – without the annoying parts.

  4. CW: High praise indeed!

  5. The annoying parts are what I like best.

  6. Anonymous

    Where did you find the Devils Tower image?

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