“Hypothetical - what if the car breaks down on the way home?” my friend Katherine asks.
“Well, I guess we get abducted by aliens,” I reply. “And probed.”
We are standing at the foot of Devil’s Tower, a bizarre geological formation that looms above the Black Hills near the border of South Dakota, about a two-hour drive east of Paradise Ranch. We literally can’t take our eyes off the mountain - it’s almost like it has a magnetic pull, drawing us closer, sucking us into the vortex. Little wonder it’s considered a sacred site for Native Americans - like Uluru in Central Australia, it seems to have its own force field, a spirituality transcending its imposing physicality.
Of course, the flat-topped creviced mountain, which stands 1267 feet above the surrounding terrain, is also famed as the landing site for extra-terrestrials in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Hollywood fantasy that has only added to the mountain’s mystique. And it’s not hard to imagine a mother ship hovering above, pulling in hapless victims powerless against the greater forces of the universe...
We hum the five-note theme from the movie as we hike around the rock, a fairly easy two-kilometre walk that circumnavigates the base. Several people are clambering over the lower boulders, while two rock-climbers defy the Native American request not to climb the tower during the month of June when they are conducting sacred ceremonies at the site.
Hugely popular with rock climbers, the tower was first ascended in 1893; the wooden ladder from that ascent is still intact on one face of the rock. We peer through a rusty telescope, both amazed and a little appalled that anyone would even consider trying to get to the top. The crevices seem so deep, the face so sheer - I can’t help wonder what drives such madness, especially considering the traditional owners consider climbing a desecration of the site.
Sacred to the Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Kiowa tribes, there are several legends surrounding the monolith and its creation. Its name in Arapaho and Cheyenne is ‘Bear Tipi’ ... and it does indeed look like a tipi structure, ripped to shreds by the talons of a gigantic bear.
According to the Sioux legend, seven little girls were playing in the forest when a bear began to chase them. To escape, the girls jumped on a rock and began to pray to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Spirit caused the rock to rise into the air, lifting them towards the heavens so the bear could not reach them. The crevices in the rock were created by the bear’s giant claws as it attempted to scale the rock. When the girls reached the top, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.
The geological explanation of the monolith is less evocative, but equally shrouded in mystery. Some say it’s the remnant of a volcano; others that it’s a volcanic plug that formed 40 million years ago, protruding from the landscape as surrounding formations eroded around it. The rocks and boulders at the base of the mountain are actually broken pieces of hexagonal columns, fallen from the sides.
Declared America’s first National Monument in 1906, Devils Tower is a lure for hundreds of visitors a day. It certainly makes a fascinating day trip from the ranch, particularly for international visitors keen to see one of the world’s rare ‘oh my god, stop in your tracks’ sites. If you’re in this part of the world, don’t miss it.