Outside of Hulett, Wyoming
by Cassia Reynolds
A Little Background
When I think of American national monuments, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, and the Lincoln Memorial come to mind. But these are just a few of the United States’ 120 protected landmarks. And after some digging, I’ve come to find that they’re more like child pop stars than proper representations of the average American national monument (read: overhyped, overwhelmed with paparazzi, and a lot smaller in real life).
A little background before we get into this: a national monument is a protected area, man-made or natural, that has been established by a US president by proclamation or through the Congress by legislation. These declarations preserve public lands from private development and allow the federal government to name any place on US soil not-to-be-fucked-with in the name of historical or scientific interest.
Basically, the government is that super anal coworker who doesn’t like when other people misplace his stuff, so he takes out that label-maker he keeps in his cubicle (you know who I’m talking about) and goes around sticking his name on every stapler, pen, and coffee mug he has laid claim to. And if he catches you with any of it, it’s all dirty looks and a call later that week from HR.
“Hey Dana. Just got off the phone with Fred, again. I know, I know. I hate his label maker, too. But please don’t hide it in the freezer...or hang it from the ceiling above his desk...or (sigh) replace the label tape with a roll of images of Nicolas Cage. It really upsets him. If you touch it again, I’m going to have to call a mediation meeting. And neither of us wants that.”
But, in the national monument world, instead of a mediation meeting, you end up in prison. Which is probably worse?
The more research I’ve done on American national monuments, the more I’ve learned that these are way cooler than just historical statues. They’re more like Government Sanctioned Ultimate Celebrations of the Weird. (Yay, Science!) And the prime example of that is the first named national monument, an unnatural, natural thing (because, seriously, I don’t know what to call it) out in the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming: Devils Tower.
Good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt proclaimed this first national monument when he visited Devils Tower in 1906. He traveled for weeks to get to Wyoming in response to reports he’d heard of a strange rock formation out in the plains.
Think about that for a second; the President of the United States took a month out of his presidency to go visit a “strange rock formation.” That’s crazy! And it’s not like nothing was going on in 1906. That same year, the San Francisco Earthquake and the Atlanta Race Riots happened, and then Teddy took a trip to Panama to oversee the building of the Panama Canal, and on top of that was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize just a couple months later!
That man was hella busy.
I do wonder why, out of all of America’s wild landscapes, this is the one he chose to name the first national monument. Maybe it was the mystery of the place that caused it and drove Mr. President to see Devils Tower. Even in the age of the Internet, this tall, cylindrical mass of Phonolite porphyry is mysterious as fuck. There is still no certainty about the history of it, though scientists have theorized that it may be the leftovers of a mega-volcano or a laccolith (an igneous rock that protrudes through sedimentary rock). The Kiowa, Lakota, and Sioux tribes all have their own legends about Devils Tower, as well. But nobody really agrees on a single explanation for it.
And here I am, over 100 years later, paying tribute to this same strange rock formation that Teddy did, with just as little scientific understanding of it, and just as much passion for the weird and wonderful of America. Sometimes I think the United States’ motto should be changed from In God We Trust to Let Your Freak Flag Fly.
How I Got Involved
I stumbled upon this grand American freak-scape by accident, as it goes with most of the best experiences.
I was a few days into a two-week road trip to Montana. I’d packed up camp in the Smoky Mountains and pulled the pickup into Knoxville for a break before another long day of driving. I stretched in the shadows of the tall, old brick buildings that lined the quiet street, waiting impatiently until the bars began the day’s sales.
After what seemed like forever (about 15 minutes), I was sitting in a creaky leather booth between some arcade machines and brightly painted guitars, cracking open a local Tennessee Stout (I’d had a rough night and my travel buddy, Diego, had already promised to take the first driving shift).
It was then, as I swallowed that first gulp of delicious deliverance, that I received that fateful, automated call from the National Park service in Montana.
“Your reservation at Glacier National Park has been cancelled due to high levels of negative bear-human interactions in the park. You have been refunded for your deposit. Have a good day.”
That was it. I stared at my phone in shock, half-expecting the robot voice to let out a metallic chuckle and say “just kidding - be sure you check in before noon on the date of your arrival!”
It was almost insulting, the finality of the message. There was no call back number, no person to even ask questions to. It was over. I was halfway across the country with a fully-packed truck bed of camping gear to a no-go. I had a friend, Mara, in North Dakota waiting for me to pick her up...but no destination.
(Side Note: this was one of the few trips I’d planned extensively instead of just jetting off. And look at what happened. The world is obviously telling me to give up on any notion of planning and to just roll with it.)
But the road trip must go on. And, as we continued our journey up through the deep Midwest to meet Mara, Diego and I began to Google the “best camping spots” before we hit the Rocky Mountains.
And that’s how I eventually stumbled upon a review for Devils Tower, a kind of watering hole for wanderers in the empty expanses of plains that otherwise make up the western Midwest. I did a single Google image search of Devils Tower and was spellbound by this massive middle finger to gravity. In less than a week, I’d picked up Mara and me and my two buddies were in Wyoming, rocketing along a worn, windy trail to a new destination.
The Tower became visible miles before we actually reached the monument; it rose up from the valleys and sloping hills of Wyoming’s rolling landscape like some gargantuan, prehistoric tree trunk, chopped clean through by an axe. The way that the afternoon light hit it left the other side encased in shadows. It was creepy and magnificent.
The road ended at the base, where a KOA Campground had set up shop - it was one of those fancy campsites with a general store, showers, and even an ice cream stand. I guess it’s necessary to have the essentials when you’re stranded a good hour from the nearest grocery store.
Once we arrived, we constructed our tent, admiring the burnt red clay beds that surrounded us, the deer running through the camp in broad daylight. It seemed like a bit of a paradise from society. It was quiet, there was no cell service, and Devils Tower rose up beside us, colossal and confusing. It was so big that the sky seemed even bigger surrounding it.
I remembered a favorite quote of mine from that cowboy classic, Lonesome Dove. And I smiled to myself when I realized that in the book, the main characters, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, began their adventure on a wild journey to Montana.
Full Disclosure: I fell in love with the character of Augustus McCrae for a short while. If you haven’t read Lonesome Dove, do yourself a favor and get lost in this lost land of cowboys and frontiers.
Augustus’s words rang in head as I looked across all of Mother Nature’s bright colors engulfing me and the green-gray shadow of Devils Tower.
“It ain’t dying I’m talking about, it’s living. I doubt it matters where you die, but it matters where you live.”
As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe, still reeling at my good fortune of grabbing the parking space in front of the building. People crowd around little tables that have been pushed together to make room for more little tables and I have organized all my things so they take up as little room as physically possible...and still it seems like I’m exploding into the space of my neighbors. I like working here with the noise and the business and the aroma of coffee keeping me wide-eyed and alert. Sometimes it’s nice having a private moment in the crowded public sphere. But it’s strange comparing this world to the endless emptiness of Wyoming, with its infinite skies and equally vast green landscapes.
The idea of space is just...different out there. Everything is bigger because it can be.
And still, Devils Tower appears larger-than-life, a jaw-dropping vision of Earth’s most unbelievable possibilities. And sometimes, you just need to see this kind of thing, a reminder of the power of Mother Nature and of the smallness of humanity in the expanse of time, space, and life itself.
If there’s one thing that looks small compared to Devils Tower, it’s people.
Our first night we snuck in late to the campground’s daily showing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was pretty awesome; they had a television plugged in right in front of Devils Tower, so we were facing the real deal even as we saw it in the movie. Meta, huh?
We snagged a few plastic chairs in the front and as the movie began to play, we could hear the muffled hops of rabbits in the grass, the odd hoot of an owl, and the wind rustling leaves. As the aliens began to communicate with the Earthlings and the night darkened to a purple-black, it felt like the 1970’s-poor-quality of the film was made up for by the real thing surrounding me. The depth of stars above me, the way that Devils Tower blocked a portion of the sky, sucking in the light.
It was the first time I’d ever seen Close Encounters, and I was thrilled by the campy-ness, the very ET-esque feeling of interacting with aliens, of optimism and celebration of the believer, the weirdo.
In that glittering, glowy evening, I couldn’t help but think, “you know what? We can’t be the only ones out here.”
Maybe that’s what Teddy was thinking, too.
Check out my other installations on Devils Tower or risk a serious case of FOMO: Devils Tower: The Perimeter & Devils Tower: Beneath the Pine