Another early start for me that morning which was a miracle considering the night I’d had blow -drying my clothes after the damp swimming trunk fiasco…ha-ha. Classic!
Ever since watching CE3K, and seeing that scene where the shooting star goes over Devils Tower, I always wondered what I must be like to be there at night and see all those stars. Well that was the plan for today, go to Devils Tower, set up the tripod, and see if I can capture some night shots of the mountain and perhaps see a shooting star in the sky. Maybe get a sense of what it would be like to be on the mountain at night with no one around and pitch black skies. I had no idea if this was even allowed on the mount but I decided to go there a bit later in the day, hang around until dusk and see what I could get away with. But first I thought I’d see a bit of Belle Fourche, Seth Bullock’s city and the famous cattle town from all those western movies!
I found out when I was planning this trip that Belle is very near the Geographical Cent of the US , in as much as if you balanced the whole of the US – all its states – on a pin, then the perfect centre would be Belle Fourche…or very close in any measure. So I added this landmark onto the day’s agenda and figured I could kill that bird before lunch then head over to DT ready for an evening of long exposure photography.
Little did I realise what a frikkin awesome day and night I was about to have!
But first things first.
The night before I had arrived at the AmericInn quite late from my drive back across SD from Badlands
So I told Stacey and the breakfast team at the hotel of my proposal – who thought it was a killer idea! and asked for directions – they were about 2 miles away and en-route to the Centre of the US which was perfect.
I explained the wet boxers hanging over the bathroom shower rail – apologised to the cleaner - fed the mule. and headed north! This was gonna be an awesome day.
I found the tattoo joint easily as Belle is pretty much a one road town, but they were closed until 11:00 so figured what the heck, do the Centre of the US bit first, then come back, book a tat for the next day or Sat, and then head west to DT ready for the evening trip.
This was where I made my first wrong step with driving.
The guide books tell how the Centre of the US as about 16 miles north of Belle on Old Highway 85 – literally drive about 8 miles up the old highway and there is a barn on your left and the marker is on the right in the middle of a field. There is a US flag marking the precise spot.
Now there is a really nice monument in the centre of Belle with all sorts of flags and plinths announcing the centre of the US !!!
But it’s not the real centre, it more for tourists and less hard-core folks to take a few ‘I’ve be there, yay!’ type snaps. Brakes on pal, not me, no sir…I travelled 7500 miles to the Midwest and by luck my hotel is right on top of the centre of the us?? Hell no, I’m finding that damned marker and standing on it! No tourist trap for me this time buddy, I’ve seen Deadwood and I ain’t falling for that again. Cockshuckers!
So I tried to find it in my GPS –haha- no chance, it’s not findable with GPS.. Or at least not with mine anyway. But I figured how hard can it be? after all I was a white van man in London! – I don’t need no stinking GPS! I’ll use my eyes. Old School.
So I drove north through Belle and took the Old Highway 85 on my left and started scanning for a barn in the field on my right. I didn’t see and thing for miles and miles, plenty of traffic passing by but no barn or flag in a field. Eventually after about 20 miles I saw a sign saying Wyoming and Montana.
MONTANA? Jesus how far was this marker? I thought it was in South Dakota?
But I wasn’t.
So I stopped by the side of the highway ( I was on the 212 folks – not H85 at all) very confused as to how I must have drove straight past the only damned barn on a highway for miles and missed the only damned flag as well! Totally wrong highway fool! I was heading north-west to Montana, not north into South Dakota.
So I turned around and headed back to Belle as it was getting close to 11:00 and I wanted to book an appt at the tat place if I could. Centre of the US will have to wait for another day! (Seriously, you’ll laugh when you see my mistake – see you on day 8 for the full story)
So I park outside of Dark Arts and go in and it’s just opened. Now remember her readers, I ain’t got a clue on what to say, or what to pay, let alone what kind of design I wanted, so I asked the guy behind the counter what we could do and when we could do it. To say the guy was accommodating is an understatement. Cut a long story short, it was Thirty Thursday, that means on hour under the needle was just thirty bucks, and to make it even better, he had a slot right there and then. I told him I wanted a Devils Tower tattoo on my right arm, something truly unique and better yet, something from about as close to the tower as I could get. I’m not kidding, we settled on the design and I strapped in for the needle. I had the funniest two hours of the week with this guy. He was funny, talented, precise with the needle and full of anecdotes about tattoos, Belle Fourche, politics, the Dakotas, you name it.
I can honestly say that I met some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life in that week- so annoying that I don’t recall his name as I’d name check him on here as a thank you. I can’t even find them on the internet – but if this is ever read by anyone who knows the guy, then pass on my regards – awesome work my man and a pleasure doing business with you!
As you can see from my pic – he did an awesome job on the tatt and I now have a permanent reminder of what I did, where I went and when, and actually had it done in Belle Fourche!. So a false start with the driving but a great start with the souvenirs. Thursday is getting better folks!
Talking of great starts – quick mention of the hotel.
I stayed at the Americinn in south Belle Fourche, check out my Trip Advisor for my stay – Greg and Stacey and their team were absolutely lovely, they listened to my bonkers explanations about coming to the Midwest and they whole Devils Tower thing and were genuinely excited for me to be there and doing what I was doing. They were amazed I had fit so much into five days already but they were very helpful with directions and advice and the hotel was one of the best I’ve ever stayed in and I travel A LOT!
So, back to the trip…..where was I?, oh yeah - it was a scorching cloudless sky again and I had my freshly minted tattoo under wraps, a tank full of gas and 50 miles to Devils Tower….Hit it!
Serendipity played a massive part in my trip. Call it luck, call it fate, call it good planning and good advice but my hotel was right on the junction of the I34/ I24 which took you 50 miles west past Hulett, straight past the entrance to Devils Tower. About 50 miles.
So I hit the road again: cameras, tripod, zoom lenses, and tattoos all packed and ready for what I hoped would be a pretty cool evening on the mountain snapping stars and silhouettes.
The I34/WY24 is a really nice easy-going interstate, lovely to drive on with sweeping curves taking you past rural homesteads and tiny – very tiny- clusters of houses with the post-boxes in a row. A classic Midwest road and all the better for the beautiful weather on that day. The geography and geology is something to behold out here and I never got used to the amazing formations that appear on the side of the roads.
The section between Aladdin and Hulett is stunning. Massive rust brown gashes of rock and silt tower above you and away into the plains. (The oldest rocks visible in Devils Tower National Monument were laid down in a shallow sea during the Triassic period, 225 to 195 million years ago. This dark red sandstone and maroon siltstone, interbedded with shale, can be seen along the Belle Fourche River. Oxidation of iron minerals causes the redness of the rocks. This rock layer is known as the Spearfish Formation.)
Huge Ponderosa pines tower into the distance on hills that stretch off for miles. There is a fantastic sweeping descent on WY24 just past the Bear Lodge campsite heading west that offers gorgeous views of the valleys below and the plains on either side. A truly beautiful road to drive on and take in the scenery so unique to WY and SD. I love this road.
Now I’m going to raise this as it was an unexpected occurrence and yes, it’s in the guide books as a warning - but not as much I came to think it needed to be. Maybe because they don’t expect tourists to travel these back routes or roads so here is some really good advice to RV or Car renters. Get full CDW. There is hardly any traffic to be hit by. But traffic ain’t your problem out there:-
So I’m amblin’ along taking it easy, admiring the view from my ice cold mule, and I spot something in the road a ways ahead. A tyre? A jacket? A rucksack? Nope. A turtle. Yes folks, a massive brown turtle. Now I’m from Leicestershire in England and you can take it from me: we don’t do turtles in roads. Usually they are confined to pet shops or Jeremy Kyle guests. Sitting in the middle of the M1? No.
This was an Alligator Snapping Turtle, common across Wyoming as it turns out and quite a frequent traveller on the highway, but more across them than along them. This thing was BIG.
It was just sitting there, looking around with a big yawn on its face like I was interrupting its sleep. (how ironic that ‘encounter’ would be in about 11 hours’ time – you’ll see later folks) So I drove past slowly and marvelled at this big beast lumbering across the highway in the middle of nowhere. Surreal.
I eventually arrived at the little town of Hulett, Wyoming. Hulett is one of those towns mentioned in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (I think – or maybe it’s just years of knowing the location inside out) that had some nonsensical draw to me, so I made a point of pulling over and taking a few snaps.
Amazingly there is an ultra-modern Best Western hotel on the edge of town which was out of my price range when I was booking my hotels and looking back, I’m glad I didn’t make the stretch as Hulett is miles from anywhere and it would’ve been limiting for getting around. Belle Fourche was ideal for my purposes. So I ditched the Scooby and went off in search of food and drink. It must have been the altitude as I was permanently thirsty. Hulett is a very small town sitting about 10 miles NE from Devils Tower on H24. It’s literally straddled across a classic main road with low rise wooden fronted shops and hotels.
It reminded me of Radiator Springs in the Pixar movie 'Cars'. That’s not a bad thing; it was exactly what I was looking for to capture the true mid-west as I thought it might be. I reminded me of the scene at the rail yard in Ce3k and had clearly not changed much in many years. I liked it because it was what I had imagined a small, Midwestern town to look like. On the way to it from Belle Fourche I passed some very, very small little villages dotted along or set back from the road and often they were very run down and weather beaten outposts which looked like they were clinging on to life out here. I often wondered what the owners did for a living. Perhaps ranch hands or something similar.
There was a large sign post on the roadside east of Hulett that declared the area as where General Custer and his army started looking for gold in the surrounding hills. There were about 1000 of his men spread about the locale all looking for the gold that had been discovered close by. I wondered how many of the little villages or Hulett were descendant of this band of army/ gold miners. It’s possible!
I pulled in to grab lunch and have a look around to see what was what. To be fair it was not a long stay, as there really want much to see. Bu they did have a great little minimart on the main drag heading south. I picked up a load of water and chips etc. For some reason I was drinking like fish out there, maybe the altitude or humidity, but it was a thirsty week. I snapped some pics of the main street and buildings. It was a beautiful clear blue sky day and the two looked lovely in the light. In summer the town gets way more crowded due to the bike rally and I think it probably earns a lot of revenue in this period. I didn’t exactly bring much to the game on my visit; I bought a couple of cool tee shirts and some food and then picked up the road out of town and headed to Devils Tower.
This time from the north.
Street view is a fantastic thing no doubt but trust me, nothing makes up for the reality of seeing DT rise up on the flat plains ahead of you, disappear round the bend then rises up against the skyline in full no 3D. It’s beautiful and austere and dominates the landscape.
I filmed the short bit of road heading up to the turn off for DT to capture the view. It really is quite awesome to see this huge monolith rising up to your right as you drive along the highway. I don’t think I will ever get over that view.
I mentioned it before, but since seeing CE3k I had always loved that scene where a shooting star hacks across the night sky above DT only for it to really be a crafty alien craft demonstrating its abilities and how it can hide in plain view….perhaps for thousands of years and I always wondered what it must be like to see a shooting star above DT in real life.
SO my main plan for today’s visit was to stay long enough for the sun to go down, set up the posh camera on the tripod and see if I could, with all my collective photography knowledge ( basic at best) see if I could capture DT at night with the star behind it.
On the way up to the tower I stopped at the Trading Post, They get a special mention here. The main dude that ran it showed me a great spot for photos at the back of the shop on a grassy area used for picnics…it’s also where the web cam is sort of pointed at. So I stood there, texted my girlfriend at home who jumped on the web cam and woah! She could see me live at DT with the tower in the back ground!
He was a great guy and let me loose checking out number plates for the right combination out of hundreds hanging up in the store. He left me have a close look at the CE3K display they had under a counter. They had loads of stuff, books, toys, vids, collectibles, sweets, games….all CE3K related. It was very cool. The shop itself has literally tonnes of DT stuff. I bought loads of stuff and could’ve bought more! Ha-ha...it was like a gold mine.
So I whipped the by now much dirtier 4x4 up to the visitor’s car park at the base of the boulder field below the tower and took a walk around it again. It was about 17:00 at this point and again the weather was stunning. Blue skies and clear for miles. I took a little more time on the trail this time as I didn’t have my life in suitcases stored in the trunk or a hotel to find and book into etc. Plus I was deliberately waiting for the sun to go down so I was in no rush. I was still overwhelmed at being there again.
Four very busy days had passed with incredible experiences and surprises but still nothing compared to be standing on a massive boulder in beautiful sunlight with DT behind me and Wyoming stretching out for miles around in every direction. It was a wondrous afternoon and it really is true that the tower has an almost spiritual effect on people. I saw and heard a lot of people joking about shedding a reluctant tear or feeling very emotional just to be near this massive rock. I felt it too.
Say what you will, we’re all moved by different things, but this rock, this place, well….I guess you have to go there. You’ll know what I mean.
So I found myself walking around the base of DT in summer sun light through the pines and quite a lot less people that the Sunday before. I guess it was early season and a week day so it was very quiet. Perhaps ten cars in the car park? I took some stunning shots of the mountain which seem to change colour every ten steps I took. If anyone is interested, the bottom part of the massive columns closest to walkers/ hikers is a grey flecked colour but the further up it takes on a feint yellow colour due to the lichen on the rocks…so colour wise it is mostly grey/yellow when you are there. Around the back of the tower, which is actually the side you see in the movies, which I think is slightly north-north east, everyone disappeared leaving only me for about 40 minutes. I guess they had all vacated the tower and headed back to their cars.
This left me alone on the back of the mountain. I sat on a bench, sat there in giant silence looking up at this beautiful formation and marvelling at how, for a brief moment in time, the fates had me sat on DT, alone. The mountain was all mine. Not a soul or sound for 45 mins. I watched the sun through the trees, the squirrels scampering about and listened to far-off grunts and snorts of some unseen but obviously quite large creature. It was one of many moments in this week that I simply had no words and will never find any to describe it. I filmed myself sitting there to look back on in years to come, just to prove that I was there, alone on Devils Tower.
After about an hour it had gotten significantly darker so I whipped out the iPod and watched bits of the movie. Far out! It was actually a little unnerving sitting on the dark side of the moon watching the film but it had to be done! I wasn’t sure what was out there in the trees so I picked up the trail and headed back to the car for about 19:30. The visitor centre was shut and I think there were about three people left in the car park so I took a load of snaps, put the seat back in Scooby the mule and tried to get a bit of sleep ahead of hopefully an evening of night shots.
I admit that by this time of the trip I was feeling the weight of the time-zones and travelling catching up with me, and I could tell I was starting to come down from the adrenaline rush that had kept me going almost non- stop for 5 days. Also, anyone with a tattoo will know that sometimes when you have a two hour + session you do become tired afterwards, probably for the muscle shock or just the adrenaline of getting it done. Ironically I find tattoos send me to sleep. I’ve done that three times, fallen asleep in the middle of a tattoo- I find them therapeutic and calming so go figure. However, no sooner had I drifted off in the car than a huge bus cranked into the car park, thrashing my sleep to bits and destroying my chances of a nap before a snap!
Out get about 20 people, mainly women and they proceed to congregate in the little amphitheatre in the centre of the car park and chat. Out of the closed Visitors Centre strolls a National Parks Warden and starts talking to the gathered crowd.
Ladies and Gentleman : introducing Devin Cherry.
Devin is from Kentucky and was spending the summer as a NP guide on DT. By day he is a geology teacher. Call me mad but how frikkin lucky is that? I’m sat almost alone in my car 7,500 miles away from home, wondering how or even IF I’m allowed to stay up on Devils Tower, Wyoming, thinking ‘do I need to let someone know I’m up here’? when a truck load of tourists turn up just as it’s getting dark and in the middle is a NP tour guide/ geology teacher. Hah!
So I wandered over to Devin and asked sheepishly about being allowed to hang around after dark and take a few sneaky snaps and then go home.
His face was a picture …’dude, it’s open all night and you can do what you want, take a hike around it in the dark, take snaps all night, whatever, you just can’t camp/sleep up here, but it’s open 24/7’’ So I told him what I was planning to do with the night exposures/ star field backdrop stuff and he practically laughed out loud. ‘ you gotta let me help you with that, I can tell you how to set your camera up, where to stand etc,’ He then explained that he was here to do a non-public near-dark tour of the tower for the Wyoming Welcome Centres, of whom the 20 folks next to us were all part of , dotted across Wyoming. This was a tour for tour guides and would I like to tag along?
‘No’ , I said, ‘I have much better things to do’.
Did I hell!...I locked the Scooby, slyly idled up to the tail end of the tour quicker than a UFO crossing state lines and not paying the toll!
So of we went, 30 Wyoming Visitor Centre workers, me and a couple of campers who were also late down off the mountain. We set off around the base of the tower and Devin began interacting with the crowd and throwing all sorts of geological facts and figures to the clamouring masses. They loved it. I loved it. I thought ‘wow, lucky sod gets to do this for a living!’ So we toured the same route I did about two hours earlier and to be honest, he added a whole new spin on the place. Pointing out geologic areas of interest, using a green laser to show us strategic formations, and other stuff. We took about an hour to circumnavigate the tower and probably half way round it really started to get dark and some of us used torches to scan ahead. I can confirm that it is bloody awesome to see this place in the dark as yes, it’s very VERY dark, but it’s so clear that you can eventually see quite some distance. I was tagging along at the back trying to get my new camera to work so every so often I was alone in deep dark on DT, again, one of the moments that will stay with me for a very long time and a blog such as this will help me remember and share that moment.
So we wound our way back down to the car park and folks got back on the bus and headed home across the state. It was about 21:30 by now and Devin suggested I give it another hour before it got truly dark and the stars would be fully visible in the sky. The sun had set an hour before but there was residual light so I took his advice and mucked about with my gear.
We chatted about the gear and he was also a CE3K fan so we were buzzing about the fact that not a lot of people we had met really knew the movie which was incredible to us considering the impact of the film and the famous music from it. The two campers were also hanging around to take a few night snaps when Devin suddenly came up with an awesome idea. ‘‘what say I get some telescopes out and we spot the stars as its now getting really dark’’?
‘’Does a bear shit in the woods just behind the tower? Of course…so go get em’ and I’ll wait here’’ says I!
Er…no….you see Devin was not talking about your average telescopes from PC world, no these things required two men to lift them and a computer to calibrate them as they were self-propelled and auto star tracking!
I was impressed, this evening was getting better and better and all of it was just blind luck and good timing. Devin was a star. But ….may I introduce two more stars….Kathy and Annie: two Camping Cooks from Kansas!
It was about 22:30 and I really had to eat, so did Devin as it turned out. The girls offered to go get some sandwiches if we set up the three large telescopes and Devin showed them how to use them. Deal! See ya! So off they went down the mountain.
And then there were two.
Devin if you’re reading this you’ll probably laugh. I told him my boyhood dream of coming here and seeing the tower and how far I’d come to do it. And now here I was at 23:00, in the shadow of Devils Tower, Wyoming, surrounded by miles of dark silent land, a star filled sky and only one other human to prove I was there. It was quite literally friggin’ awesome!
We both just stood there grinning. Looking up at the ever present laccolith. Swear to god it was like being in the movie: ‘we’re the only ones – the only ones’
After our moment of film fan reverie we set about setting up the telescopes and I can tell you now, one of them looked like R2D2! Which was appropriate considering it was May the 4th.
About half an hour later the girls arrived with what one can only describe as door stops. Where the hell they found the ingredients to make decent sandwiches at 23:00 on Devils Tower in a camp site god only knows! They disappeared quicker than a UFO crossing state …oh bollocks; I’ve used that one already.
Anyway, we all took turns to look through the amazing telescopes and Devin carried on in full NP mode giving us a midnight lesson in astronomy and how to take night photos with our collective gear. I had four cameras so he was a good guy to have on a dark mountain.
I took myself off to be alone with the mountain. I liked the telescopes but I wanted to take it all in as I knew this kind of experience can’t be bought and would never, in my lifetime, be repeated. The mountain itself was lit by a very bright moon and the stars were massively visible right across the sky so it was a fantastic view and once again, it was overwhelming to be there in those circumstances. I just sat on the car park floor, in the dark, and took it all in. It was surreal, spiritual, mesmerising and above all …my time…my moment…me and the mountain. One of the girls saw a shooting star over the rear of the mountain and I saw one overhead and we all saw one in the south of the sky. The wish came true. Cue clapping ha-ha.
It was at this point Devin took out his laser and showed us constellations as it was truly dark and we could follow the green light into the sky. We also took the opportunity to write our names in laser on Devils Tower and photograph them with long exposures. I mean COME ON! How cool is THAT!
I tried to photo my name but it was difficult getting the aperture, exposure length and ISO set to truly see what we saw…but we could see it and it was a great way to round off an utterly brilliant and spontaneous night. The green dots below are laser traces which is all the camera could pick up. But we could see it with the naked eye. Great fun.
I took out my phone, loaded the scene from the movie where the mother ship comes over the mountain and held the phone up to match the mountain and we watched it for real…. Awesome!
(I’ve long given up what people think of me when reading this blog. I figure if you’ve stayed with me this far you have a pretty good measure of how much I love this film and how much of a great frikkin trip this turned out to be so I’ll just keep writing and you can just keep reading)
Eventually, the girls decided it was time to quit and off they went. The Kansas Cooks. Respect for the impromptu picnic on Devils Tower! Devin and I were still buzzing as we hauled R2D2 and his pals back into the depths of the visitors centre when he came up with one final kick arse suggestion.:- There is a dirt track back down the mountain road called Joyner's Trail which leads out to a massive pasture about a mile away from the tower and it offers magnificent and famous views of the mountain and was I game for going there and setting up the camera for some final shots?
It was by now 00:30 and I’ll be honest, the thought of driving home 50 miles back to Belle Fourche at that time of night was heavy on my mind but I thought f*ck it, this is once in a lifetime baby…lead the way National Park Ranger person! So we convoyed back down the mountain and I followed him along the trail and parked up in a dedicated parking area and got out. I can’t even begin to tell you the view we had that late night, I’ll let the following pictures say it for me. There just aren’t words.
See….how do I explain those views… I can’t.
It got to 01:30 and I was really beginning to flag and I mean seriously knackered, so with a mutual respect for films and photos I bid Devin a solid and very grateful farewell, looked back at the mountain for an invisible Gillian Guiler, climbed aboard the mothership/ Subaru and headed home to Belle Fourche. Thanks Devin.
This is where things got a little dicey. I got as far as Hulett, 10 miles north when BAM! I was overcome with fatigue. Man it was like someone had unplugged me from the grid. I was 100% TIRED. I pulled over to the sidewalk, switched the car off, cranked the seat back and conked out right there. I gave it half an hour and then headed back to Belle Fourche. I didn’t fancy explaining to a state trooper that I was British, 50 miles from my hotel. But I was fine after a power nap.
12 hours before on a lovely sunny day and H24 was this classic empty highway dotted with little towns and not a lot of traffic. Very scenic and very drivable. There is a great section where you climb up and then drop down into a valley about 20 miles north of Hulett. But at night it’s literally a different game altogether. It’s pitch black, no cars, no truck lights, no towns, no road lights, no bridges to give you a sense of distance. After Hulett it’s a straight 40 mile drive to the next town, pitch dark for miles around.
Here’s here it gets really tricky. I was advised by a US work colleague to take out FULL cdw. This is because out in the Midwest, it ain’t other drivers gonna’ kill you, It’s the wildlife.
Devin warned me to drive the whole way home with full beam on but to be very mindful not to get too focused on the road ahead, but to keep a peripheral on the side of the roads left and right. And he was right. Three herds of deer ran out from nowhere right across my car doing 50. I shit a brick and woke the hell up I can tell you. On one occasion I thought was hallucinating as there was this strange image in the road ahead – turned out to be a stag deer standing in the road just staring at me. I slowed right down and watched about ten deer slowly traipse across the road in front of me with all the time in the world. I was more than happy to see the lights of Belle Fourche eventually appear and pulled into the car park about as tired as anyone could be.
I've learned hard lessons in the UK when I've been tired behind the wheel. I learned another one in Wyoming. Never drive tired late at night on the backroads as you'll hit or be hit by wildlife and then it will probably eat you. I'm not kidding.
I texted my girlfriend about 02:45 to say I was back in the hotel and don’t remember much after that! But looking back – what a tremendous day/ night - and what a hell of an experience. I don’t think I could’ve asked for a more beautiful evening do you?
Glen , Belle Fourche , SD. 2017
All images and content copyright Glen Ferris 2018. All rights reserved.