Day Two: Sunday 30th April 2017.
A trusty mule and a mountain.
A leisurely swim in the HOJO pool was first on the list, no one else around and the hotel was virtually empty as it was Sunday so I had the pool to myself. There’s something a little surreal about floating in a pool listening to piped- in Brookes and Dunn. You just don’t get that in the UK ha-ha.
So a quick and large breakfast, during which, I get an email from the Black Hills Vacation website telling me my credit card has not gone through and I was not booked on the Tuesday 14:00 Minuteman ICBM Tour after all. What? No way, that’s been a boyhood dream to get close to an ICBM silo hidden in plain view (more on this story on Day Four folks) and I jumped on the hotel pc to book another tour with another card. No joy, the tour was booked up for that day. This was not good as I only had that one Tuesday to get that far east across South Dakota and I had a tight schedule to keep in order to see all the things on my list. I had to go get the hired car from the airport so this glitch would have to wait.
Now I ummed and ahhed for weeks about which car to rent whilst in the US. This is a once in a lifetime bucket list after all so why not push the boat out and rent a kick-arsed Dodge Charger or a Mustang convertible? Well…two things, first: they are damned expensive once you add CDW and Roadside Assistance, and second: it had been snowing the week before in Wyoming so did I really want to drive around in an expensive drop-top in two wheel drive in terrain I had never driven in before? No sir. So I opted for a Subaru Forester 4x4. I’ve not driven one before so I was slightly apprehensive as to what to expect but in all honesty, it was the perfect choice. (You’ll find out why in days three, five, seven and eight!)
So within minutes I found myself negotiating Highway 44, up onto H16 and then onto I90 to head west. (I drove the I90 back in ’95 from Seattle to Roslyn when I visited the location for ‘Twin Peaks’ and ‘Northern Exposure’ – I was a film location fan even back then!)
I had a mega plan of action in the UK with days, dates, locations, all that. But when I got to Rapid City, the shuttle driver the night before told me it was going to be unsettled for the next few days but a lot sunnier over near Devils Tower and then possibly snow!. I had not planned to go to the tower until the Monday, but I took his advice and shifted my plans around to hopefully see the tower on a classic sunny May day.
CE3K fans will know that the scenes filmed at and around the tower were done over two weeks up to the 27th May in ’76, so I wanted to try to see the tower in the same light. It turned out to be the perfect decision so I’m glad I had a local person giving me advice.
Back at the airport, to type in ‘Devils Tower, Wyoming’ into the GPS as a final destination was, and I don’t care who reads this, an emotional moment for me. 30 plus years of loving the movie and wondering what the real place would be like in person, saving all the money, planning the trip, hauling my solo arse across to the Midwest from my little English village, it was quite something to see that keyed into the Nuvi for real and see that I had 120 miles to go. Just two hours or so before all those years of wishing were going to come true. I was really, really here, and I was really truly doing this. Yeehah!!
The drive on I90 was fun. I drive abroad a lot so it was not an issue driving on the right in a lefty car. I eventually passed by Spearfish, my hotel location for the next three nights and base of operations. I was getting used to the 4x4 so a lot of traffic was passing me and I couldn’t believe the size of some of the pickups that were hauling ass beside me. I didn’t realise the speed limit was higher than the UK in SD and WY so I was probably pissing a few folks off by hanging at 60, but I wanted to get to know the car first.
I crossed over into Wyoming with a big cheesy grin on my face I can tell you, the sign over on US14 which I’d only seen on Google maps was a sight to behold.
Eventually I started seeing road signs and adverts for Gillette and Devils Tower and which junction to take etc. It was hilarious.
You see, these names are famous and somewhat mythical to CE3K lovers, so seeing them in real life – as lame as this sounds - was surreal.
I wanted to take a picture but they were at points on I90 where I could not stop. Eventually the signs for Sundance started to appear and I knew I was getting close to the turn off for Highway 14 - the road to Devils Tower from I90. It was around midday and I was hungry and thirsty and I didn’t know what I’d get at Devils Tower or what was in Hulett etc, so I drove on past Vore Buffalo Jump and pulled into the Wyoming Visitor Centre for a quick break and some food.
It was shut. Frik! I was starving and needed a drink too and I forgot that it was a Sunday and also off-season so I had to do without. But I got out and had a stretch and walked around the closed centre. It was weird. It was a stunning blue sky day, no clouds and very warm, - shuttle guy was right - yet there was snow sliding off the roof of the visitor centre. Big blocks of it crashing to the ground – on a hot summer day?!. So I snapped a few pics and headed back onto I90 to get my impatient arse to Devils Tower! It really was a beautiful day to be driving across Wyoming, let alone on an adventure of a lifetime.
Video: Pan of Wyoming
So I turned off at J185 and headed north along H14. 24 miles and half an hour to go.
The roads at this point start to take on a strangely familiar theme.
There are classic scenes in c3ek where Gillian and Roy take the station wagon through its paces and crash it thru barriers on h24 and go across country to evade the road blocks set up by the National Guard. It was amazing to be driving down the same roads and to see them basically identical to the movie. Of course, it’s impossible to locate the real locations as the film cameras change the focal depth and distances of the scene but this was all too familiar territory and it hadn’t changed in 40 years. Excellent!
The geography is very interesting around this part of the US. I90 was a long stretch across plains, literally plains like you see in old cowboy films but jutting out of the ground to the left and right for miles either side were massive rock formations, millions of year old, crazy angles and crazy colours, in particular a rusty ruddy red brown colour that would become a familiar sight through my week. The closest I’ve come to this in the UK are Iarge cliffs around Devon and Dorset where you can see three or four layers of stretching up wards. Out here and especially along h24 and h14 after Carlisle Junction were massive versions of this geological palette and it was hard keeping my eye on the road as it was so interesting and beautiful. It was another unexpected bonus to be had on this amazing trip across the Midwest and a hint of the geological wonder that lay ahead some 20 miles or so.
Another sight that really started to become noticeable was the little rows of post-boxes by the side of the road. Rows of 5 or 10 post boxes on a post by the road with not a house in sight, just like the famous movie scene where Roy has his first encounter with the aliens on the cross roads. There were lots of little houses, all made of wood, dotted long h14 and to be honest some of them were not in the best shape but they added a real sense of being in the true Midwest where life probably still is very hard and remote, punished by the sunshine at high altitude and then bleak snow in winter months. I wanted to stop and take a pic of one of the rows of post-boxes but I felt it was a bit rude so I decided to keep that memory for me I my head. I’d already linked my cell phone to the car stereo and when I left the Wyoming Visitor centre I put the soundtrack to CE$K on and it was playing as I drove along I24 and it was surreal I can tell you. To drive along these roads with that soundtrack on was a dream come true in of itself. As I said, it's very hilly in that area and you start to climb and drop on the road and the bends become sweeping and the roadside becomes more lined with trees and hills, just like the scene in the movie when Gill and Roy eventually get stopped and put into army vehicles by Apollo Creed.
And then,…..there it is. Almost right on cue with the album blasting out of the stereo. Devils Tower.
Now I’ll be totally honest here. I was a little underwhelmed. I pulled over to a layby and sat and stared. I was emotional to see it but slightly confused as it was bloody tiny! WHAT? Damn you Spielberg and your movie magic – taking this thimble and making it the size of a mountain! It was big yes, to say the least, but not as big as I was expecting and to make matters a little worse it was sat in a valley with three bigger mountains behind it that dwarfed it! I was pleased to see it but I was taken aback a little by how – not big- it was in real life.
I sat there and took it in and figured that hell, I was still here, that is Devils Tower and I’m really here so let’s suck it in and get down there.
It was at this point that I realised my complete idiocy and almost choked on my bottle of water.
I checked the fuel and caught the GPS mileage to destination= 13 miles to go.
Hang on? I was still 13 bloody miles away?! What? It was that big from 13 miles away? How big was it close up then? Haha, my lack of knowledge of the countryside hit home in a big way. I was already at 4000 ft above sea level! So I was up higher than Devils Tower and had to drop a long way into a valley, miles ahead, that would eventually bring me up to Devils Tower, and I mean UP TO as well. Donkey!
So I took off again, and cranked up the audio and prepared myself to come face to face with DT in about 15 minutes. Along the road, I saw perhaps 5 vehicles come past and no one in my rear view or up ahead. It was a hot clear blue day and almost no one else around for miles and miles.
As you descend into what I guess must be Belle Fourche valley, you wind around the hills and every so often you see DT for a moment up ahead and it becomes bigger and bigger, and as you drop right down to the valley floor it looms up, fast becoming the only object for miles around. Truly taking on its movie sized stature.
So eventually, there it is. Devils Tower, all 1267 ft. of it rising far above the Belle Fourche river and dominating the surrounding countryside like a geological monolith. There is a pull off on the left of H24 which is just south from the turn off to H110.
This provides a fantastic view of the tower from about a mile and a half away and it really dawns on you how big this thing is. It’s massive and dwarves everything else around for miles.
About a hundred yards down from the pull off is where Gillian and Roy park the station wagon and first glimpse the tower. Just to the left of them is a little hillock that they climb up and the camera follows them up the hill and lifts above them revealing the mounting in all its glory. This is accessible from the pull off if you walk a hundred yards down from your car and climb the hillock. It’s just as dramatic as the movie scene I can testify.
I can also testifying to being a bit overwhelmed by it all as I was sitting in my 4x4 -I’ll happily admit it. ("You cry baby- you cry baby" ha-ha – Spielberg was right!) I’ve been told that the mountain has that effect on people and for lots of different reasons. I was certainly overwhelmed to be there and why not. This moment right here, at this famous spot, was something I'd dreamed of as a teenager and never thought I’d see. It really was a boyhood dream come true. I turned the music off in the car and sat there in awe. Literally speechless for about 10 minutes – that’s an achievement in of itself I can assure you!
It’s indescribable to be honest. It’s awesome, mythical, huge, beautiful, weird, ominous, gentle, sentient, and interesting, wondrous…..you get the picture. It’s all things to all people but to me it was simply stunning. I literally ‘couldn’t believe it was real’ - to quote Melinda Dillon.
I gathered my senses and rang my g/f back in the UK. She was over the moon for me and was so cool about me being overwhelmed by it and totally expected it for all the reasons above. Of course I’m overwhelmed. I’ve waited 30 years, just travelled 7451 miles- had 4.5 hrs sleep in nearly 40 hrs and hardly eaten, it’s my 50th birthday present and the 40th anniversary of the movie and I’m looking at Devils Tower right in front of me– of course I was emotional ha-ha – what the hell else would I be?! So we hung up after congratulations and I took a few snaps but to be honest, I had something to do else and pronto……‘I had to get down there’ I was only a mile away and it was about 14:00 and I think I grinned for about the next seven hours non-stop. You hang a left a little way down the road onto H110 and this essentially is the driveway to the monument. It’s only half a mile long and there is an absolutely fantastic view of the mountain on your left. Jaw dropping stuff. I had to pull over and take a few snaps and vids.
(Note, about 4 years ago a friend of mine Oliver Sinden sent me a photo of his car parked right in the same place with the tower in the background as he knew I loved the place so much – that pic has been on my desk at work for years and I always wanted to replace it with one of my own – and today that little wish came true too)
For all you Ce3k fans, if there really was a landing strip built as per the movie then it would be under my feet. It amazed me once I had a better understanding of the compass and how the tower sat on the map, just how accurate Spielberg got the location correct down in Alabama. The runway with the blue landing lights would run from the mountain, right under my feet and away behind me towards Campstool Draw. Kudos to Spielberg / Alves for getting this right and it made my day to see the tower from the angle that we see it most in the movie. It really is real. I had to keep telling myself to calm down. – I hope you’re reading this and perhaps feeling a bit of the childlike wonder I was feeling in actually being there. As I write this it still hasn’t hit home that I’ve actually been there.
I’ll be honest with you again. I stood on the door sill with the door open and blasted the track ‘The Mountain’ on the car stereo and shot some video. There was no one around. I had the view to myself and it was epic! John Williams would have been proud – hopefully. I know I was.
Around the bend on the left is the Devils Tower Trading Post, which is essentially nirvana for fans of the tower and of the movie. It has every conceivable gift you can possibly imagine and more. As I said, it was off season and the roads were empty and so was the shop. It was surreal. (That word again) I was almost alone at this place, just two other vehicles in the big carpark.
First things first – food and drink. I was running on adrenaline and it was catching up on me so I ram raided the chips and cookie stand and grabbed a bunch of water bottles and sat on the picnic table outside and got my shit together.
It’s about $15 to enter the park via a small booth and this is valid for four days so it’s well worth the money. The road stretches out ahead across the Belle Fourche River. A really beautiful bend in the river heads to the right, way below the tower, and the road follows it across the river and around the base of the tower in a climbing 2 mile spiral where it terminates at a large car park next to the Visitor Centre. It’s a very scenic drive and you go pas the prairie dog town where load of prairie dogs are scampering about and standing up to see what’s happening. (For UK readers, think of Meerkats with American accents).
It struck me that on my birthday in May, 1976, the very last day of filming took place back near the Trading Post back over the bridge (helicopters flying equipment up to the mountain towards dusk) and in between shots, Francois Truffaut sat with some local kids and watched the prairie dogs right where I was parked. What a day this was becoming!
As I said – it was a very quiet Sunday indeed and once I got off the I90 at Sundance I hardly saw anyone on the way to Devils Tower. I took a few snaps from the bottom of the tower in the car park near the camping site and then took the 2 mile drive up around the mountain. I had no idea of the road or what lay ahead. Not a clue. You go up with the mountain to your right so every so often you caught a glimpse of it thru the tall ponderosa pines which surround the mountains lower levels. It’s pretty much hidden from view when you’re driving on that road which is amazing when you consider how tall it is above the pines. I stopped at one layby behind another 4x4 to take a look as it looked fantastic in the afternoon sunshine which by now was lighting it from the west.
It was magnificent and me and the vehicle occupants took turns to take snaps like you do. The guy was about my age and his dad had come here about 40 years before but this guy had not come with him, but always promised himself that he’d come to see the tower one day. And here he was. I told him my own story and he was astounded that I’d come so far to see the tower but understood the attraction as he too had driven a long way from Kentucky as I recall. He was the first of many really nice people that I met on this trip who all dug the vibe of my journey pack to 1977 and totally got where I was coming from in making this crazy journey to live out a boyhood dream. More nice folks will crop up as my week unfolds but this travelling couple were a great start to my introduction to some downright awesome Americans (and crazy assed Dutch folk too!)
The road eventually winds up in a looped carpark which was not very busy – probably gets mental in summer months – but for now it was almost vehicle free. So I parked up with zero problem.
The car park is literally at the base of the tower. On one side there is a small visitors Centre/ Shop, and on the other there is a small paved incline from the carpark which takes you up thru the ever present pines (100ft tall I might add) to a paved walkway around the tower. Standing there in blazing sunlight at the foot of the tower proper, just at the perimeter of the boulder field is a memory I will never, ever, forget. The view of the tower with the sun lighting it up above the trees and the contrast of colours between the boulders, the trees and the sky is something that HAS to be seen to be believed. None of my cameras can capture what I saw that day and certainly not what I felt standing at the foot of this tremendous monolith. It was a sheer sense of wonder. I’m not religious at all, but you have to wonder sometimes don’t you – how beautiful is this planet?! How did that bloody great big rock get there and look as staggeringly awesome as it does. It’s the only one of its kind in the world. It brought a tear to my eye and a big bloody smile ha-ha. You simply have to go there and see it. It’s so much more than can be imagined.
Blah, blah….get on with it – we’ve still got six days to go and a shit load to pack in!
So off I went. I headed up the path to the right and ambled through the boulder field. I had the Posh camera and zoom with the tripod so I stopped here and there to take some classic shots of the mountain. Then I decided to ‘Roy it’ and climb up on to the boulders and evade EZ4 for a laugh. I did a few 4th wall gags for my girlfriend and then carried on up around the tower.
Video: Devils Tower - Boulder Field
From the carpark you can easily see on the right shoulder of the mounting the slippery slope that Roy and Gillian climb up. It's huge. But credit to Joe Alves and the modelling teams for rendering such a lifelike to-scale film set down in Alabama as it was identical to the real thing. Amazing, familiar as heck due to the movie but I still could not believe I was there. It was real and surreal at the same time!
There weren’t many people about so I had a good few occasions where no-one passed me for ten minutes. (this was to get way better on my next visit on the following Thursday – now THAT was a day to beat all days). I walked around the mountain taking it all in, the sights, the sounds, the animals, the different views of the columns stretching way up above me to the crumbling tower top.
You can really see why Carl Gottlieb suggested it to Joe Alves who in turn suggested it to Spielberg as a potential UFO contact site. It’s truly epic and truly spiritual and at the same time sheer frikkinly awesome. The walk around the tower, all paved and immaculate, takes about an hour if you stop like I did and snapped half a gig of vids and pics. But the scenery is outstanding and the angles you see of the tower are unbelievable. For someone like me coming all that way it was truly more than I could ever have dreamed or imagined and at the same time it was EXACTLY like I had dreamed and imagined it to be.
I didn’t have any idea of the rules about being on the tower along, after dark, safety, animals and food etc. so as the sun began to set and the paths had less folks on them I decided to head back to the Subaru and call it a day. It was very difficult absorbing it all and I actually think – looking back- that I was a bit shocked – no doubt overtired from all the travelling and time zones and lack of sleep. I was also un sure about all my gear in the back of the 4x4 for hours with no one around – it’s the Londoner in me – you don’t leave a suitcase and a North Face jacket in the back of a car in view and then go off hiking ha-ha.
So I headed back down the mountain in beautiful springs fading evening light and drove the way I came in back along H24, back to I90 and back east some 60 miles to Spearfish and to my second hotel of the trip and home for 3 nights – the Super 8 Spearfish!
What an amazing day don’t you think? Oh it gets better. It gets a whole lot better.
See you in the morning – and I’ll see you Devils Tower later in the week!
Glen, Spearfish, SD. 2017
All content and images copyright Glen Ferris 2018. All rights reserved.