Saturday, May 6, 2017

Close Encounters on Devils Tower

Two men loom large in my mind when I think of Devils Tower — Richard Dreyfus and Frank Sanders. Steven Spielburg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was one of the hit movies that came out in 1977. (A little cult classic called Star Wars was another.) I watched it in the theater during some friend's birthday sleepover party and spent the rest of the night decade worrying that I'd be abducted by aliens. I clearly remember spreading out my sleeping bag under my friend's baby grand piano in hopes that it would offer a small measure of protection in the event of an extra-terrestrial visitation. Richard Dreyfus' character briefly encounters a UFO and is then strangely compelled to keep building models of an unusual, mountain-like image he sees in his mind. An iconic scene occurs at the dinner table when he heaps mashed potatoes onto his plate as his puzzled family looks on, then sculpts the mound with his fork.


"This means something. This is important," he tells his wife and kids. They all think he's going bonkers. The movie culminates with the government, Dreyfus, and other civilians who have been having similar visions gathering at Devils Tower, Wyoming to meet up with dozens of UFOs and a massive mothership. This movie made such an impression on my young mind, and for years, you could freak me out by humming the signature five-note musical phrase from the movie. For a long time though, I thought Devils Tower was a fictional place in a sci-fi movie, as real as the Planet Tatooine.

Fast forward to a couple summers ago when I was plotting out the route for our Great Big Western USA Roadtrip. On the map between Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park, I noticed the words "Devils Tower" just north of Interstate 90W. Suddenly, the notion seized me that I had to visit Devils Tower with as much power as it had drawn Dreyfus. I was excited to see the place that had scared fascinated me as a child.

Devils Tower is 867 feet (265 meters) from the base to the summit.

Devils Tower (note that there is not an apostrophe in the official name) is a geological wonder in the Black Hills of Wyoming that President Teddy Roosevelt designated as America's first national monument in 1906. Although most of the surrounding area is made of sedimentary rock, Devils Tower is made of igneous rock (hardened magma). Modern geologist don't completely agree on how the tower was formed. One theory is that it's the volcanic plug of an extinct volcano which eroded away in the prehistoric ages. Native American folklore has various legends about what they call Bear Lodge with the re-occurring theme that a giant bear repeatedly scraped its claws on the rock attempting to reach children who had escaped to the top of the massive rock. Looking at the hexagonal columns that run all the way up the tower, I can imagine how local tribes pictured it as a giant scratching post.

Or perhaps God made a giant pile of mashed potatoes and sculpted it with his fork?

As much of an impact as Close Encounters of the Third Kind had on me, encountering Frank Sanders, the 66-year-old proprietor of the Devils Tower Lodge, is what elevated my visit to Devils Tower to being one of the outstanding memories from our roadtrip. I initially booked a cabin at Devils Tower Lodge because I wanted something family friendly located close to this U.S. National Monument. The TripAdvisor reviews clearly indicated that the lodge was a haven for climbers, but we found it equally as welcoming to those who plan on staying closer to the ground.

Our cabin at Devils Tower Lodge within view of the tower.

We arrived after dinner as the light was beginning to fade from the area. As we checked in at the entrance gate of the park, I could hear the nightly outdoor showing of Close Encounters from the nearby KOA campground.  The cabin itself was roomy and comfortable with two bedrooms, a sleeper sofa in the living room, a kitchenette, and a full bathroom with a view of Devils Tower from the shower and deck.

The dark night sky over Devils Tower (peeking just over the trees on the left third of this photo).

My first pleasant surprise was the breathtaking night sky. Having spent all my life living in either a city or the suburbs, I never fully understood the phrase "a blanket of stars" until we visited Acadia National Park less than a decade ago. Since that time, I've craved seeing a night sky like that. My hopes had been dashed by cloudcover when we'd visited other dark sky sites like Uluru/Ayers Rock. The sky over Devils Tower enraptured me. I swear that I saw a satellite, or perhaps it was the International Space Station, speeding across the sky above us, too high and too fast to be an aeroplane. I saw the Milky Way. I wished that that I had something better than a point-and-shoot camera to capture it all. Since our cabin was a distance away from the main lodge, I almost felt as if my family had this incredible sky all to ourselves. I wanted to stay up all night gazing upwards but finally convinced myself to get some sleep.

Dawn's early light spilling onto Devils Tower

I woke up at sunrise the next morning and left the rest of the family sleeping snug in their beds as I hopped in the minivan to explore Devils Tower National Monument. The sun's rays slowly crept across the side of the tower, and I drove around wanting to see it from all angles (as Richard Dreyfus had suggested). I spent most of the time in solitude, only seeing one other person off in the distance as I took in the way the morning greeted the tower. All the parking spaces by the park headquarters were empty. It truly seemed like it was just me and the tower.

After my family awoke, we headed over to the main lodge for breakfast. There were plenty of people gathered around the long, communal table with a window that looked out at Devils Tower. Most of them were either professional climbing guides who worked for Frank or climbing guests who were fueling up for the day. Some were experienced and others were newbies. Those hexagonal columns make Devils Tower one of North America's best crack climbing areas. Some cracks are just wide enough to squeeze in a few fingers, and others are wide enough for a climber's body. Watching the IMAX movie, National Parks Adventure, I remember one scene on Devils Tower where the climber presses outwards with both legs, nearly doing the splits, while clutching a rope to haul herself up the tower.

A few of the many climbers ascending Devil's Tower

Since he first climbed it in his 20's in 1972, Frank has climbed the Tower more than 2000 times. In 2008 when he was 56-years-old, Frank summitted Devils Tower 365 times. Because of illness or weather, he couldn't go out every single day, so he would double up on climbs on the good days. In his younger days, he set a record by climbing bottom to top 16 times in one day.

The walls of the lodge were covered in framed photos of the Tower autographed by the many people Frank and his guides had brought to the top. Whereas the Tower must surely be familiar to Frank and his team, they get to experience the wonder of discovering it the first time whenever they guide a climber to the top. They enable people to follow a dream and check an item off the bucket list. What an invigorating life that must be!

Tickling the piano keys with Frank at Devils Tower Lodge

My family were just some of the many guests staying at the lodge, but Frank made us feel special. I suspect he has the knack of making everyone feel that way. He has a way of talking that made me feel that we were not merely chatting. He imparts knowledge with his sonorous voice, and we were the fortunate recipients of the information. He speaks as if everything he says is part of a well-rehearsed, captivating TED talk. He comes across as a man with life lessons to share. He doesn't merely tell stories; he is part of the tradition of oral history. If there was ever a wise man on a mountain, that man would be Frank Sanders. I can't remember the specifics of what we spoke about, but I remember the sense that I had met a man who had discovered and was leading an intentional life of meaning. A life where every day was filled with pursuing his passion — climbing that mountain and sharing it with others.

When we picked up our cabin key the previous night, Frank inquired if any of us played the piano and invited us to play a tune after our morning meal. After breakfast, he listened as my daughter played a song on a piano surrounded by shelves and shelves of books. Then, Frank taught her a simple blues chord progression. She repeated it a few times, and he joined her in a duet by playing the melody.

Practicing bouldering skills

I mentioned that I had read he had an indoor rock climbing gym and asked if the kids could use it. Sure enough, he took us to it, turned on some Led Zeppelin, and told us that often times, there's not a direct route straight up the tower. Climbers have to know how to go sideways follow the path. Sounds like a good metaphor for living life.

Practicing balance on the slackline.

We next headed outdoors where Frank handed my kids a pair of ski poles and instructed them to hop up on the slackline. A slackline is like a tightrope except that it has more give and bounce, almost like a narrow trampoline. Practicing on one is supposed to improve climbing skills since it develops balance, coordination and core strength. You also have to learn to focus, much as you do when clinging to a mountainside. Maybe all that time on the slackline and Tower is why Frank seems so Zen and self-aware.

We checked out of the lodge, packed all suitcases and backpacks into the minivan and headed to the National Parks Service park headquarters and the trail around the base of Devils Tower. By this late morning hour, the crowds had already descended upon the park. The peacefulness I had experienced just after sunrise had completely evaporated. While the paved trail was rather easy and even, I was still surprised to see visitors dressed in flowing maxi dresses and flip-flops, as if they were headed to a day at the shopping mall instead of into nature. My kids and I peered up the sides of the tower, trying to identify anyone we had eaten breakfast with. There were so many groups climbing up, and they seemed so small that it was hard to distinguish who we knew. About an hour after we had arrived, we were on our way, heading westward towards the town of Cody, a gateway to Yellowstone National Park.

I'm not the only one to fall under the spell of Frank Sanders and Devils Tower. As I began to research this blog post, I came across so many references to him. A few weeks before our visit, the movie Frank and the Tower premiered at the 2015 5Points Adventure Film Festival. He's been interviewed by The Denver Post, Outside Magazine, and Climbing Magazine as well as the PBS television series Painting and Travel. He even has a cameo appearance sitting by the lodge slackline on the National Parks Adventure IMAX movie.

Meeting Frank and staying at Devils Tower Lodge significantly impacted my fond memories of my family's visit to this park. It lent it a depth that I don't think I would have discovered milling around with the masses along the base trails and in the headquarter museum. I have Richard Dreyfus and Steven Spielburg to blame thank for making Devils Tower such a big part of my childhood memories. And I have Frank Sanders to thank for transforming it into one of my fondest travel memories in adulthood.

(In case if you were wondering, no UFOs were encountered by me on our visit. Thank goodness!)


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  1. HA! I love this. I love that movie and was also drawn to see the Devil's Tower when we moved across the country from Seattle to Detroit. We made the turn off and drove and drove and drove and we could see it looming in the distance and decided not to go all the way there - I think we were concerned about travel times. I've always been bummed we didn't actually get up close and personal. What a cool experience to learn and stay with Frank. Very cool. Cheers from Copenhagen, Erin #TheWeeklyPostcard

  2. I never saw the movie, but still it definitely looks like a interesting place to visit. Glad you got the chance to see it before the crowds came. And I am with you, I don't see how people hike in flip flops even if it is a easy one. #TheWeeklyPostcard.

  3. Lov eit! After watching Close Encounters I was obsessed with Devil's Tower. Would you believe I still haven't been closer that driving by on the highway?#wkendtravelinspiration

  4. I have not seen this movie (I know, I know) but I do know people think about it when they see this tower. I have seen many pictures of it but I believe you have to actually see it to understand its magnitude. #TPThursday

  5. How incredibly fascinating! I've never heard of this and I lived in Montana, only a few hours away from Yellowstone! That's cool though that it was the first national monument! Thanks for linking up with #TheWeeklyPostcard!

  6. Your mashed potato GIF brings back memories of the movie. I think it would be exciting to stay at the Devil's Tower Lodge (with the Tower visible outside your window). Very cool photo of the climbers scaling the Tower.

  7. This might be your best travel tale ever written - it certainly is my favorite. Loved the introduction to Devils Tower!

  8. Hmmm, I haven't seen this movie, maybe I should watch it. It sounds quite exciting. But much more exciting seems to be the Devil's Tower itself. Quite a strange geological formation. It's amazing to see these "daredevils" climbing up those rocks. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  9. Such incredible place - I was there in 2015 as well and we stayed at the KOA campground. The outline of the tower was imposing and humbling. We didn't get as close as you did but it was still an incredible experience. You seem like you've had an amazing time!

  10. Sometimes travel starts out about a place and ends up about a person, doesn't it? Sounds like you had an incredible visit. I've not been to Devils Tower but it sure looks like a cool place - and that night sky! I, also , was impressed by the National Park movie footage but I didn't see the original Close Encounters - however, I can tell my age by saying that I saw Star Wars in the theater.

  11. I don't think I've actually seen Close Encounters of a Third Kind - need to add it to the list! But Devils Tower looks like an interesting place to visit - it reminds me of a couple of the places we visited on our Oregon Trail road trip a couple years ago ;-)

  12. Oh I can see why you just had to stop by Michelle. This lone natural tower peaking up behind the trees, yet surrounded by nothing. Quite eery and magical.

  13. How wonderful! Natural formations like this are so fascinating. I've never been to WY, but if I found my way up in that area, I'd love to camp under the stars you described. #TheWeeklyPostcard

  14. That sounds like such a great impromptu trip. It looks pretty menacing actually. And the stars are beautiful. What a clear sky. It must have been out in the middle of nowhere to see the stars so clearly.

  15. What an amazing place! Beautiful is this volcanic mountain built of basalt

  16. How cool! We used to pass by there on our family road trips, but I'd love to go back as an adult and see it again!

  17. Bryna | Dotted Line TravelsMay 8, 2017 at 10:35 PM

    Very cool and crazy how much it does look like it could have been sculpted like mash potatoes with a fork! I love the photo of the light of dawn behind the tower - very beautiful!

  18. Wonderful storytelling. I love that you took off at dawn by yourself to visit the tower. Close Encounters is one of my favorite movies too.

  19. I love this post - so many facets. I hope you don't start looking at mashed potato with a fork in hand unless it is going into your mouth. I love starry skies and it was a pity you didn't get to see them at Uluru. I wanted to see them in the Sahara and they were obscured by a sandy haze. Your point and shoot captured them well, better than mine would I'm sure.


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