Not sure if I’ll make it back to camp: Devil’s Tower return ride
Saturday May 25, 2013, 65 miles (104 km) – Total so far: 1,543 miles (2,483 km)
I suppose there are bound to be stories when something so unusual and striking is found in the landscape.
Our American pop culture has a story about UFOs and a man making a model of the rock out of mashed potatoes.
A Native American legend tells the story of a bear clawing the sides of the rock in his effort to catch seven young girls, who are pushed up into the sky to become stars as the rock elongates itself.
The geologists tell stories about an igneous intrusion exposed by erosion or how the rock is the neck of an old volcano.
What you believe is up to you. However, I think everyone would agree that Devils Tower is not something you casually dismiss as you are travelling through this landscape. It demands your attention as it rises 1,280 feet above the valley to a height of 5,117 feet.
In 1906, Devils Tower was the first site in the United States to be declared a National Monument. The most recent political event associated with the park, however, seems to be the prescribed burn that got out-of-control about a week ago. The local KOA owners, who have connections to the political world, have very harsh words to say about the Park Service and how they’ve ruined the viewscape and the experience for tourists. They are also pretty pissed off since the fire burnt through power lines and they were without electricity for some time.
Interestingly, this national monument has been doing successful prescribed burns for many years to mimic the natural fire frequencies found in Ponderosa pine forests. Naturally, Ponderosa pine forests have a very open understorey with little fuel. They burn every 10-25 years in fairly cool burns.
I, personally, don’t think the burn looks all that bad. The bare ground will green up within weeks. The dead needles will fall soon enough. Some trees will die and provide habitat. New tree seedlings will sprout. Yep, it looks a little brown and black right now, but it is hardly a devastating fire in my opinion. Two years from now, most tourists probably won’t even notice the fire scars.
But I don’t know the answers. Prescribed burning is a controversial subject, even when the burns all go to plan. There are issues around smoke, timing with nesting seasons, aesthetics, general public ignorance about natural fire regimes, planning processes and more. All I know is that I’m glad I’m not someone responsible for planning or implementing a burn.
I ride up the hill to the visitor centre and the trail around the base. I stop and admire the Tower many times along the way. It looks quite different from different angles. The columnar joints give the Tower its ‘clawed’ look. The joints result from the way the magma contracted when it cooled. It is the size of the Tower that impresses me the most, though.
I would like to hike some of the outlying trails, but I’m a little wary about the wind, the miles I still need to ride to get home, and the forecast for potentially severe storms this afternoon. So I skip those trails and head back down the hill.
One motorist decides to be an asshole, following me dangerously close down the hill, even though I’m breaking the speed limit by 5-7 mph. He even honks at one point. I want to flip him off; instead, I just ride right out in the middle of the lane. All the way down. Even when I’m just barely doing the speed limit. Once I get to the flat valley below, I move over. He skims by me with less than a metre between me and his car. What a dick!
But all is not lost. When I get up to the cluster of commercial buildings near the entrance station, I see the car. “I think I will have a word with him”, says shy, introverted, Nerd Em. I sit in front of his car on the porch of the building. When he and his female companion return from across the parking lot, I stand up. He looks surprised, then flustered, and then like he is trying to figure out where to go to get away. His girlfriend grabs his arm.
Me: “Excuse me, but the way you drove up there was really dangerous. If I had hit a rock, or a patch of gravel, and fallen off my bike, and you were following that closely, you would have run over me and likely killed me.”
Guy: “I was trying to let you know I wanted to get around you.”
His female companion looks horrified by his words.
Me: “The speed limit was 20 mph. I was doing 25-27 mph the whole way down the hill. There was no reason you needed to pass me, anyway. I moved over as soon as I went under the speed limit. I was trying to be respectful of you. I don’t think you realize how following or passing that closely is so incredibly dangerous. You could kill someone doing that.”
He starts to say something, but his girlfriend/wife/female companion interrupts and says, “We’re so sorry. We weren’t thinking.” She truly does look upset.
She squeezes the guy’s arm incredibly hard, then lets go and walks around the car in a huff. She flings open the door, sits down, slams the door and crosses her arms. The guy mumbles something I don’t hear, gets in the car, starts it up and reverses backwards in a hurry. He tears out of the parking lot.
I’m shaking. I’m not usually the type of person to confront people like that. But that driving behaviour was so dangerous, I just couldn’t let that one go. A couple of guys who were sitting down the end of the porch ask me if I’m okay. One says he got the licence plate number if I want to call the cops. But I tell them that I’m fine, that I hope just being confronted about his behaviour in such a way will change the way the guy acts next time. These guys are motorcyclists, so they can empathize with me about bad auto drivers. After a few minutes of chat I excuse myself, so I can get started on the ride back to Sundance.
The ride back is as difficult as I thought it would be. This morning, on the way to Devils Tower, I was getting a pretty decent push with a tailwind. After the first steep hill climb, it seemed like it was pretty much almost all downhill to the monument. So I expected it to be a tough ride back.
The 10-15 mph wind feels like a lot more than that, but only because I’m climbing into it. There are a few long grades with some steep parts in three different sections, but I just keep pedalling, taking breaks as required. It doesn’t look too stormy, and the views over the rolling, pine-covered hills in the distance are picturesque.
There are times, though, as the afternoon wears on, that I wonder if I’m going to have the energy to make it back to camp. I stop a few times just to get some sugar in me – I’m not hungry much today, so I’ve got to keep putting the fuel in a little bit at a time.
On the last hill, a couple drivers give me encouragement honks. One person sticks their hand out the window and gives me a big thumbs-up. Several motorcyclists wave, too. It’s enough to get me up that last hill, even though I am feeling quite fatigued at this point. The wind has really taken it out of me.
Finally, I’m flying down the long hill toward Sundance mountain. This mountain is sacred to the Sioux, the site of yearly ceremonies held to worship the sun.
I fly right into town with the wind behind me now. What a day! I’m totally exhausted and will sleep well tonight. In the evening, the severe storms that were forecast develop off to the east. The campground gets some crazy winds off the back side of the storms, but mostly it’s just a safe opportunity to watch the clouds build, grow dark, accumulate and break. Beautiful – particularly when it’s not happening right over you. Good night – consciousness won’t last longer than 8pm tonight.