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Published: July 30th 2011
Whether as a sacred place to native Americans, or as a geologic marvel, or as a meeting place for close encounters of the third kind, Devils Tower looms large in American culture, and thus constituted our first destination as we departed Gillette. The iconic basalt column rises right out of the plain a few miles northeast of Gillette, and constituted only a small detour from our path to the Black Hills. It is visible from miles away, but its true grandeur and scale can only be appreciated close up. As we drove in, our stop at the entrance yielded a brochure similar to all the national park brochure, but to our surprise the most prominent quote in the brochure was from our friend N. Scott Momaday from his book The Way to Rainy Mountain:
"A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron. At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil's Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun. There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in
the heart of man; Devil's Tower is one of them."
The Kiowa tale of the origin of Devils Tower from the exhibits in the VIsitor Center:
"Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran, and the bear after them. The came to the stump of a giant tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade them climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. It reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper."
A more mechanistic explanation can be had, but there are three different ones and they don't exactly agree. What they do agree on is that Devils Tower started as molten rock in a magma chamber,
that it cooled without ever reaching the surface, and that the surface then eroded away to reveal it. GIven its height of 1267', that represents a lot of erosion, and a lot of persistence by the little magma extrusion that couldn't.
The trees around the base of the monument are festooned with prayer cloths and prayer bundles. Like Uluru in Australia, this is a monolith that is held sacred by native peoples, and like Uluru, it is regularly climbed by thrill-seekers in violation of the native requests. It probably goes without saying that we did not prepare ourselves for Devils Tower by three days of fasting a la Dr. Momaday.
Next stop: the Black Hills. These isolated mountains, an anomaly in an otherwise seemingly endless plain, are both geologically and biologically complex. The name comes from the Lakota Sioux and refers to their dark appearance from a distance because of the covering trees.
In yet another scenic route for U.S. 14, we started with a trip through Spearfish Canyon. 22 miles long, it wanders (along with Spearfish Creek) through a canyon carved by the creek as the last inland ocean of North America drained,
exposing layer after layer of 2 billion year old rocks. They range from granite in the oldest layer to sandstone to the same Spearfish formation red shale with layers of gypsum we saw at Devils Tower. The canyon certainly does not rank with some of the greater canyons of North America, but is scenic and pleasant enough, and leads directly into Deadwood, our next stop.
Deadwood grew up as a mining town, and the first wagon train, reported to be bringing the commodities needed to bolster business, arrived with a load of gamblers and prostitutes, and Deadwood was born as a town without law. Murder and mayhem were common, with the most notorious being the murder of Wild Bill Hickok as he played cards. Hickok became famous when interviewed by McCall's following one of the few public one-on-one gun duels of the old west, and establishing the picturesque but mostly inaccurate public perception of gunfights in the west. Even this event was not a quick-draw contest, but more like a duel. Taking place in Springfield MO, it resulted in the death of a gambling rival, Dave Tutt, and Hickok was acquitted in a jury trial on the grounds that
the shooting was justified because Tutt had humiliated him. Hickok acted on both sides of the law, and was himself killed by a shot to the back of the head in Deadwood, the shot delivered by "Broken Nose Jack" McCall. McCall was originally acquitted of murder charges, but was re-tried when it was decided that since the original trial had been held in Deadwood, and since Deadwood was not legally a town since it was in territory still legally held by the Lakota Sioux, that the original trial was illegal. He was convicted and hanged. When his body was disinterred for move to a new cemetery, the noose was still around his neck. Will Bill was originally buried in Ingelside Cemetery, but three years later when the original resting place began to become too full (imagine that). When disinterred, his body had been poorly embalmed and had therefore become petrified from calcium carbonate, weighing some 400 pound. This made relocation difficult. The poker hand he had been holding (a pair of aces and a pair of eights) became known as the "dead man's hand". As a joke, Calamity Jane (for whom Hickok had no use) was buried next to him
when she died, and they rest next to one another today. In 1979, Hickok was voted into the Poker Hall of Fame, perhaps the only man to get there for dying holding a losing hand. On May 21, 1980, a date that shall live in infamy, state and federal agents swooped in and arrested the girls and closed the brothels which the locals had left unmolested. Sic transit gloria.
From Deadwood, we proceeded to the Crazy Horse Memorial, the world's largest sculpture. Started by Korczak Ziolkowski and being completed by his family, it honors the Lakota Sioux warrior. It shows him astride his horse and pointing off into the distance, and depicts his famous answer to the question of where his lands were: "My lands are where my dead lie buried." The face of Crazy Horse was completed several years ago, and work is proceeding, with no fixed completion date. The campus includes a museum and a native American cultural center. On the way from Deadwood, we even came across our long sought after close up view of bighorn sheep.
Nearby is the famous Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. Its iconic carving of the faces of George Washington,
Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson may be one of the most identifiable American landmarks. It is not nearly as large s the Crazy Horse Memorial, but is complete and draws over 3 million visitors a year.
We ended our day in Rapid City, recently voted America's most patriotic city. Serving ss the headquarters for tourism for the Black Hills in general, and Mt. Rushmore in particular, it has bronze statues of American presidents on all the street corners downtown. Despite low expectations, we found a wonderful restaurant there, complete with a more than adequate wine list.
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