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.

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.