What to think and feel about Devils Tower

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When I was twelve I saw Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a theater and I was amazed by the spaceships and by the musical tones and light display at the end. I was amazed as well afterward when I discovered that weird rocky tower where the aliens meet with the humans was a real place.

It rises out of the landscape rather suddenly, a nearly thousand-foot column of hardened lava so different from the surrounding sandstone. Its origins are uncertain.

Like all famous national parks and monuments it is overwhelmed by tourists. There are two trails circling the tower, the inside one paved the outside one along a dirt trail. I’ve done both. The dirt trail feels a little more natural and I saw wild turkeys there many years ago. The inside pathway, then as now, is choked with tourists, children running all about off the trail, baby strollers of enormous size pushed by undeterrable mothers.

All along the paved path are signs put up by the park service as part of their mission to educate the public. The signs outline the theories of its volcanic past, highlight its history, and remark upon its cultural significance, especially that related to the native peoples who lived here in earlier times and, judging by the many-colored cloths and prayer bundles tied to small branches, hanging down and blowing in the wind, still live around here, somewhere.

The signs appear at all the best viewpoints. The Park Service evidently wants to shape your experience at the very moment you are having it, to tell you what to think and feel, either out of fear you will think and feel the wrong things or that you will think and feel not much at all. It doesn’t matter. There’s a view, there’s a sign.

This post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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