Running the Alternate Trails at Devil’s Tower

I’ve been obsessed with the Devil’s Tower ever since I was a kid. Naturally, my fascination with the ancient monolith rising 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River came from Steven Spielberg’s space drop wonderama, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My parents took me to see the film in 1978, on the verge of imminent divorce. Unbeknownst to me as an 8-year-old child then, the outing to the film was destined to become our swan song as a family. Appropriate that it came upon the imprinted canon of five notes. No matter your generation, you know the familiar lace of bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….

I fell asleep in the theater back then, sometime after Richard Dreyfuss was sculpting the Devil’s Tower formation into his mashed potatoes. The scene leaves an air of irony upon me now, since Dreyfuss was on the verge of cinematically losing his family. Perhaps my young mind was shutting me down on purpose to block the acted dysfunction, since Dreyfuss and Teri Garr’s onscreen combativeness rang too close to home in what I dealt with between two feuding parents.

All I know is what I saw when I woke back up changed everything for me, and I thought that had already been achieved the year prior seeing the original Star Wars in ’77. I was awestruck by Spielberg’s glow show upon a grandiose, scraped-up mountain that became a near-lifelong obsession for me. I swore back then to myself I was going to see this Devil’s Tower firsthand before checking out of this life.

It took me all the way to last year, in celebration of my 50th birthday, to venture out west to South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana and fulfill my own pledge. Checked only by a tiny burg called Hulett a few miles away (which has the bare basics but is impressively self-sustained by a Best Western hotel, a hidden Native American museum in the guise of an antique shop and the best bowl of beef tips I’ve ever had), Devil’s Tower lived up to the hype I set inside my head more than four decades ago. A sacred place to the Lakota, Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Shoshone tribes, Devil’s Tower carries that ambience as the “Bear’s Lodge,” one of its many colorful nicknames. Look up the varying indigenous mythologies behind the Tower. In particular, the Kiowa’s legend to the monolith’s formation.

The main path circumventing Devil’s Tower is a mile long, manmade concrete walkway, and naturally it comes recommended to traverse the scores of igneous rock and boulders stockpiled at the base. The park does a wonderful job skirting the butte with advantageous views, tempting even the most casual and fastidious of visitors to pause and gape at a natural icon. If you don’t feel dwarfed and humbled by the enormity of Devil’s Tower, you’re in too much of a hurry.

The discerning eye will spot the random deer, which seem perfectly at ease around the scores of humans within their protected environment. The leaping chipmunks quickly become as commonplace as the tied prayer bundles around tree limbs, left as ceremonial offerings or remembrances to ancestors. If you give yourself to Devil’s Tower and let it guide you instead of blitzing your way around the base as I saw many people sadly doing, you will feel engulfed by something larger than yourself.

I got all I could’ve hoped for on the Tower Trail, as the main route is commonly known. However, I’d set aside an extra day on the traveling itinerary to take more round at Devil’s Tower. I’d done my research and spotted other trails I wanted in on, and man, was that the right call. Namely the 1.5 mile Joyner Ridge Trail and the 2.8 mile Red Beds Trail.

I got up at sunrise to run these trails, beginning right below the Tower Trail. I had them all to myself for my full run. It was heavily forested for a bit, which served up a special treat not even a few tenths of a mile into my run. I was greeted by a pack of does, who calmly spied me before walking across the path in single file. They processed without worry or apprehension to my charging approach. I stopped to let them go and snapped a picture once they’d gotten across. The trust they showed me was as spellbinding as the Tower itself.

Coming through the clearing as I resumed my run, the trail became craggier as the elevation dipped. I kept my eyes peeled with the mount to my back, because something in my sixth sense made me aware I’d come into a place of significance, something you wouldn’t know unless you’d taken the time to hit this trail drifting from the tower. I paused my running app again and spun around, feeling the height of excitement jack my heartbeat even higher. I remember the thud in my chest once I put it all together. I was on the exact path which Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon and Josef Sommer took in their ascension of Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind right before the crop-duster ‘copter rolled in.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I was perhaps too giddy at this point as my pace spiked and I lightly twisted my ankle a couple times on the tougher terrain between Joyner Ridge and Red Beds. I was able to shake things off while I had a momentary flat section to trot through until I was ready to go back at regular speed. The trails interconnect with the Devil’s Tower in the distance, and the pickup to Red Beds changed the dynamic entirely.

You’ll get close to the main entrance through Red Beds, and it’s worth your time, hiking or running, to scooch through the crimson bedrock. Unfortunately, I did more than scooch, taking a hard tumble into the dirt as exuberance stymied my pivot. Gashed upon the knee with a not-too-bloody souvenir from the Tower, I laughed at myself and got back in gear.

Coming around the Red Beds Trail, I got a peek overtop the South Side Trail, which serves as the primary habitat for Devil’s Tower’s “Prairie Dog Town.” You can stop at a turnout on the main drive into the park and take pictures of a bunch of these little critters, but I was delighted to have a prairie dog away from the main dog drag peek out and give me a quick howdy on my way by. Yeah, they are stinkin’ cute.

The Red Beds Trail will kick your butt, intensity level ranging upon your endurance. It ascends right back up to Devil’s Tower on the opposite side of where climbers prefer to roll the bones up the hexagonal columns. I have a very good command of my cardio, yet even I needed to slow down to a trot again and regulate my breathing with the uptick in altitude and the rising temperature of the morning sun.

As you can see below, however, the upland cliffs on the final leg of the Red Beds Trail does offer a spectacular incentive to push yourself through them.

There’s another trail you can drive down from the main parking lot which is also worth your effort to grab a more distant view of Devil’s Tower. All told, I’d put in 4.8 miles on these side trails before taking a hypothetical victory lap mile around the Tower Trail again. I felt so cleansed afterwards, even with the dirt, sweat and dried blood upon me.

I’d spent two days at Devil’s Tower and for my own personal reward, grabbed one of my many accumulated six packs of Moose Drool beer (one of my absolute favorite brews in the entire universe) from the gift shop and more magnets than I probably needed.

They don’t have much in that dinky town of Hulett and you can’t imagine how the Sturgis bikers manage to cram themselves in there each year, but it has a lot to offer in its miniscule stage. They embrace the Close Encounters emanations as a profitable marketing tool, Devil’s Tower being whimsically called “Area 18.” All I know is that the Tower and its prairie dogs will see me again in the not-too-distant future. Bum bum bum baaaaa bommmmmm….

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Necessary Art of Doing a Solid

See the source image
Ray Van Horn, Jr. with the Queen of Metal, Doro Pesch, 2011

We can poke fun at the concept with the amusing exaggerations and a hilarious twist in the form of ramifications from the double-date-gone-to-shreds “Do Me a Solid” episode from Season 2 of Regular Show. We can chuckle like horndogs at the sexual overtures implicated by the same phrase. Hey, Seinfeld junkies say it in their sleep. I can’t say it enough in a serious light; it’s not just good form, good business sense and goodwill; doing solids is paramount to your personal networking.

I recently had a publicist from the music business throw me a shout out, mentioning a music festival she’d listed me for years back, and how she’d needed a ride from the venue to her hotel after the gig. I recalled it upon her saying so and was seriously touched she’d brought it up all this time later. I remember putting my hand up to her at the show’s after party when, with no cabs or alternate pickup options (Uber and Lyft hadn’t yet become a thing), she called out for anyone heading her direction, approximately 30 miles away. It was my pleasure, knowing her all of a few hours, to give someone in need a ride. I mean, in the music business, we take of our own. It’s automatic. It’s what you do. At least before COVID, people shacked up down on their luck, road-dogging bands overnight all the time. You lend a hand. You do a solid. Not only did we have a long, fun chat on that ride back to her hotel, I made a friend. We don’t talk heavily and we haven’t crossed paths in ages, yet we have periodic communication through social media. As she said, we might never meet again face-to-face, but we have a cemented friendship.

There’s a difference being a writer in the music industry to doing freebies and doing solids for people. Freebies are assignments, reviews, interviews and photography you do without compensation to work your rep. It’s about building your profile, boning up your chops, paying your dues. In my time, record labels and video distributors always sent me hard copy promotional material, which was, then anyway, its own reward. As you can see below by my one-time labyrinth of media already a lifetime ago, three houses back in 2015. What the picture doesn’t show is five other shelves with more media, most of it free. It goes the same for press credentials and free concerts, and eventually, the attractive bait of high profile performers suddenly placed before your interview recorder. All incentive enough in the beginning, at least when there was still a vast assortment of hard copy magazines to work your way up the ladder to. I did many freebie pieces and live photo shoots for websites and ‘zines until my rep commanded actual paying gigs in the magazines and later, the higher traffic websites.

Solids, however, are a different beast, and those made all the difference in establishing myself, not merely as a pro music journalist, but a friend to the scene. I’m not out to pat myself on the back here, but for sake of the argument, I am going to reel off a few examples of solids I did that later made the difference in my 13 year career covering music and film.

There was the time I was asked by a record label to pick up a box of a band’s CDs at a local Fedex and take them down to the venue I was covering. The band had run low on merch due to a successful album launch and well-received road campaign. I wasn’t working this band that night, but it was well-noted and appreciated by the band and their label. The label never forgot that and routinely sent me care packages of band t-shirts, autographed posters, glossy pictures and more albums for pleasure listening than I could squeeze into an already hefty itinerary. Funny enough, another band on the same label who’d known what I’d done did me a solid one night by putting me on their guest list last minute when the tour manager of my designated act neglected to add me. Yes, I’d had a terrific interview with the lead singer of the band who helped me and that wasn’t forgotten, either. Across the lines, people learn about and remember you by your good deeds. See how it works?

If I had a dime for every email or phone call I received from a publicist or record label promoter asking me to “do a solid” by giving their new artist signings press coverage, I could’ve funded more than one issue of my digital ‘zine, Retaliate. In my time as a music journalist, I did more than 300 interviews, and my willingness to give new bands and artists love always won me favor when the same publicists offered me key names such as Rob Zombie, System of a Down, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper, Slayer or Lita Ford by way of thanks.

There was a time a young college kid reached out to me while I was the height of my time in the industry. A routine reader of my work, he was writing a term paper for his music class and he asked me to fact check and edit his work. Some people might scoff at such a request. “Who has time for that?” you hear so often, and yet I was flattered. I took the time to edit the young man’s paper and I gave him suggestions, some editorial strikes and a few music history timeline corrections, all for free. I can already hear some of you writing professionals groaning at me, but it was a mere 45 minutes of my time between album reviews. I got to multitask by spinning the next album in my queue and get a taste of it for before a more scrutinizing listen. The college kid later contacted me to let me know he’d received an A on his paper, and he then took to social media to give me props. Considering I had just started writing media reviews for Blabbermouth and was immediately torched by the site’s infamous online trolls, the kid’s praise felt amazing and it gave me strength to strap on my armor against my haters. Reward comes in many different fashions, and none of it goes out of style.

There’s a band I’ll keep anonymous whom I’d interviewed many times and we have a handful of now-hilarious stories from backstage and their touring van. Every time they came into my town, they always promptly added me to their guest list and I was almost always there. So often did I see their gigs I ended up leaving the show early once (after their slot, of course) to go buy said band a case of beer, knowing they were cash strapped with just enough gas and dinner money to make it to the next town. The current venue had neglected to comp them grub and drinks, a sad play which does happen as often as the sickening pay-to-play venues. The friends in this band have all gone on to different pastures, but we say hello to each other frequently.

Aside from giving my publicist friend a ride to her hotel, there was a time I met up with a different record label executive for drinks at a high profile music festival showcased in my hometown. Being a stranger to this city, she was lost and needed a sense of direction back to her hotel. I did what any responsible buddy or Good Samaritan should do in such a case; I escorted her the 13 city blocks to deliver her safely to her destination. She bought me dinner another time and later invited me up to Brooklyn, New York for an album release party.

All of this may come off as bragging, but I never did any of the aforementioned for self-serving purposes. Many times a solid given is a solid unreturned. It happens, so reciprocation shouldn’t be expected. Often you do a solid for someone upon request, and watching it in motion is inspirational stuff. A solid endears you to people and sure, it may put a sign around your neck that could put you in a precarious spot of being taken for granted. Yet, doing a solid off-the-cuff, without prompt, from the heart…that is what people often remember and return kindness comes in different forms; some materially, much of it intangibly.

For all the solids I did for a couple of underground music promoters I had a longtime friendship with, they were the ones who put my name in the hat to succeed them when they departed the prestigious Blabbermouth. I had written for a lot of esteemed magazines and sites and maintained monthly columns which were filled with guests months in advance. I was most proud of my six year stint at Blabbermouth, offered to me based on my solids done for others.

Last example, in another industry to which I gave my all and my spare time to my teammates and those on other teams in the company, I was given the finest compliment anyone’s ever given to me: I was called a “mensch,” the Yiddish phrase for someone possessing integrity and honor. I was genuinely choked up when I heard that. It had been noted how many solids I’d done for people in the entire organization, regardless if it was my direct job or not. You don’t need to play office politics when your shoulders are already squared with pride and you give of yourself. It doesn’t need to be Bruce Wayne-like epic bestowments of charity. Hold a door for someone. Let someone into traffic. Give a homeless person a bottle of water or a burger. Listen to someone having a bad day. It’s simpler than you realize.

That, my friends, is a road lesser taken well-worth the effort. Do the solid.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Interpreting the Zen of Yoda

A mutual love of Star Wars being one of the foundations to our relationship, TJ and I frequently cut each other up by dropping hilarious Yoda imitations upon each other.  The groovy-gravelly tones of the long-eared galoot Jedi doyen has been imprinted upon global pop culture ever since his hand-animated debut in 1981’s The Empire Strikes Back.  Yoda’s actual species yet remains a mystery. George Lucas himself has said in interviews he never really figured out where his pint-sized, lightsaber proficient alien Confucius actually originated from.  Shooting Yoda from the hip with Frank Oz’s memorable pebbly voiceovers, Lucas describes him as “a mystery character, he’s a magical character.  He has no background.  He comes and he goes.  He’s the subversive secret mysterious stranger that enters the film and to then exits at the end.”

And yet, the lovably twisted lexicon of Yoda has never really left us. For 40 years now, Yoda-speak has become both parody and parable in our commonplace lives.  A 900-year-old-ish master of Zen, Yoda is, and his never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover aura is so beloved in pop culture people have been known to outright sob at his demise, perhaps the greatest performance a puppet not named Kermit ever gave in cinema.  So enamored are we with Yoda, Disney has recently banked millions of dollars on merch bearing a contemporary pipsqueak preemie version, revealed during The Mandalorian Season 2 as “Grogu.”

Even if you don’t believe in The Force, there’s a strong chance you’ve heard a famous quote of Yoda snagged time and again by the general media.  It’s popped up in sports, medicine, psychology, metaphysics and self-help, and you likely already know where I’m going here. So say it with me, as Yoda dropped it upon an over-eager Luke Skywalker back in the day…

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger.  Anger leads to hate.  Hate leads to suffering.”

The overt message is wisdom for the ages, one of the most profound life lessons delivered to my generation in the same manner we were bestowed precepts at the ends of Fat Albert, He-Man and She-Ra episodes.  Beware the dark side that tempts us. Drift towards the light and make good choices for your future salvation. Don’t let a cackling wizard and his black-domed henchman seduce you into becoming an extant of hedonism.

For me, however, the underlying moral of the story, is this:

It is much easier, much safer, to take the quick and easy route in life.  It’s far more work to take the harder and slower route, the uncertain route, the less convenient route. One that may not pay off immediately, but is the more righteous way to go. In other words, a road less traveled. We have choices in life, so many they often become trivialized minutiae to the masses, though carrying vast importance to an individual or small group of like-minded. Truly, life decisions become a matter of the fast and opportune to a large percentage of our very well-known species.

There’s one thing I would ever want to say to the human race when it’s my time to vanish into the ether and merge my life essence with the grand universe as Yoda, Ben Kenobi, Mace Windu, Kit Fisto, Qui-Gon Jinn and ultimately Anakin Skywalker did…

Empathy is the beacon on the path of the light side. It calls to us and empathy for one another is what will save our species.  Multicultural empathy especially is the number one lacking thing in our society. The more we take the time to understand and appreciate one another, the blurrier the division lines ultimately become.  If there’s one thing George Lucas and all the many writers, actors, directors and filmmakers have been trying to teach us through the ever-evolving Star Wars universe, it’s a spirit of multiculturalism where color, gender, sexuality and yes, humans and non-humans have a place at the proverbial table.

A brighter world, would this be, Yoda might say in his astral form.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Taking the Road Less Traveled

The term “road less traveled” is often misinterpreted from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” but the intent remains the same. Frost’s poem posits an alternate path to his lyrical hike in the woods as “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear.”

Now Frost is using environmental allegory in “The Road Not Taken” to make the point that we have a choice in our lives, to follow the proverbial beaten path and automatically do as others would do. Or we can peel away the blinders and open our eyes and minds to another way to get where we’re going and where we’d like to be in life.

When was the last time you took a chance on something? Maybe you played 5 to 1 odds at the track or you might’ve shifted some of your portfolio toward a few large-cap tech stocks because you smell growth potential. You took a chance on a British murder drama on PBS instead of settling for network t.v.’s offerings or the latest critic’s darling on a trendy streaming service. You might even have tried a draft pint of crafted microbrew instead of ordering that everyday bottle of Miller Lite. In my case, you might take a huge leap of faith, not only by going out on my own and unexpectedly finding new love, but, more materially, ripping more then 800 CDs and storing them digitally onto a thumb drive before purging the hard copy.

My girlfriend, TJ and I are avid hikers and we’ve come to the realization in our travels that often it’s the side trails, the paths straying from the main flow where everyone else filters, that lure us and, so long as we keep our sense of direction, the payoffs are, more often than not, far more satisfying.

I came up with the idea of Roads Lesser Traveled following a recent getaway TJ and I had in the mountains of Deep Creek Lake. In particular, the Swallow Falls system, one of the area’s biggest attractions. Instead of catching the falls from the main entrance at the top, we discovered another way in via the bottom of the system. While there was a a fair handful of people heading onto this same unmarked trail, we took a chance on it after talking to some in-the-know local youth. At a certain point, we had this trail mostly to ourselves the deeper we ventured. We were treated to a spectacular show of rock formations, water rivulets, mushrooms and an abundance of moss you wouldn’t get on the man-made, crowded paths circumventing the high side of the falls.

TJ and I went about two miles deep into the narrowing splendor, tap-dancing around many muddy spots, but the air became more pristine from the collision of the rushing water below us and the natural seepage from the rocks at our sides. TJ thanked the earth fairies showing off for us and compared much of what we saw to the Middle Earth realm in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frankly, we didn’t even bother making our way to the main gate after such an exhibition.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and looking at another way to reach your destination, gives most people unease. Yes, TJ and I usually stick to color-coded paths in the woods, especially in the deeper forestation of the back woods zones. Still, you never know what’s waiting for you off-the-beaten path, because it’s ingrained subliminally that we shy from we can’t see or know with full certainty. It’s often said in life itself that people fear what they can’t understand. In some cases, that creates hostility, prejudice and even nihilism. What an unhealthy way to live.

Consider, this, though; what are you missing out on by taking the same route as everyone else? Sure, popular vote often bears justification. If you’ve been to Yellowstone, it’s a guarantee a cluster of people banded together at any random spot inside that vast park is something worth joining in on, i.e. a view of some bison or a grizzly. It so happened in our Deep Creek adventures that taking a barely-blazed, grown over trail yielded TJ and I a treat in the form of a young fawn lying on its belly. It held its position a long time before taking off, and we turned direction so that we could leave the fawn in proximity of its distant doe mother. This year, we’ve been graced by up-close deer contacts on four out of our last five hikes. It would seem Cernunnos or even Lugh have been reaching out to us during this vernal equinox through their earthly horned avatars. It’s been a thrilling Beltane for us, to be sure.

I’m taking a chance by opening a new blog after a few years of inactivity. In the past, I’ve blogged about music, horror and comic books and I had very steady followings. My defunct blog, The Metal Minute was awarded Best Personal Blog by Metal Hammer magazine years ago, one of my proudest achievements. I’m excited to be writing Roads Lesser Traveled and look forward to interacting with you all, pardon the pun, down the road.

The vibe here at Roads Lesser Traveled will be to take you on journeys. While travel and hiking will have their places on this blog, I’ll also be talking metaphorically about roads lesser traveled in life, love, writing, etc. My hope is to inspire and motivate through the bandwidth uniting us here. It’s all about embracing what this world has to offer without inhibitors. It’s about going upward and onward with an adventurer’s spirit, while taking the necessary pauses to reflect, appreciate, analyze and even grieve where appropriate.

So take that plunge, that leap of faith. Overcome that faint uncertainty, all within reason, of course. Assess risk sensibly, take any necessary precautions, but don’t let that gnawing trepidation against the unknown rattle you. Take a chance. Explore a new option. It’s very much the same as life itself. Taking the road lesser traveled often yields spectacular results. Or, to paraphrase Robert Frost, of the roads that diverge in the woods or elsewhere, taking the less traveled makes all the difference.

I thank you for taking the less traveled path bringing you to my fledgling blog and hope that together we may blaze it in good company…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.