A Close Encounter*

“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies.”
    Alex de Tocqueville

Devils Tower, Wyoming, U.S.

A “me too” view of Devils Tower, a photo like many others.

In October, 2018, we drove from our home in northwest Montana to Keystone, South Dakota to visit Custer State Park. Photographically less successful than I'd hoped, thanks to terrible weather throughout SD's Black Hills, we nevertheless managed to have a good time and to make a few keeper photos along the way.

While primarily about the South Dakota part of the trip, my October article notes that we went a little out of our way to make a brief stop at Wyoming's Devils Tower National Monument, which we'd never seen. As I wrote in the October article, I'm glad we made that detour from the shorter route to Keystone. Devils Tower, the first national monument in the U.S., is pretty terrific, the fall color made for some nice photos, and I had a really good time making them. There's also a third installment, about another short detour and photographing a crumbling old barn along the Pintler Scenic Loop (Montana Route 1)

We'd spent the night in Hardin, MT, and woke to gray skies and sub-freezing temperatures. Making no effort to get on the road early, but being early risers in any case, after breakfast the drive of a little over three hours had us at the monument's entrance road around 10:30 AM.

On a southern approach one can see the tower from some distance away, as it's surrounded by flat terrain (relatively, speaking as someone who lives in the northern Rockies). It is startling to see this thing punching 867 feet (264 m) into the sky above surrounding hay fields.

The White Sky Blues

Dappled sun and fall color, Devils Tower, Wyoming, U.S.

Dappled sun seems to light a path to the tower.

Greeted by a depressingly pure white sky I had little hope for decent light, but I've learned to never say “Never” when arriving anywhere in similar conditions. O'Toole's Corollary often prevails, but now and then we catch him napping.

We parked at the surprisingly non-busy visitors center, all the more amazing with this being a comfortable Saturday morning; I'd expected big crowds and parking hassles. The lack of both was not a disappointment. We set out on the paved trail, leaving the photo gear in the car. The trail is flat, making for a nice stroll while marveling at the tower and scoping out photo compositions, of which I found endless possibilities. Even better, I felt I might be able to do more than make copies of the iconic photos everyone has seen (and made). If, that is, the light would improve a little bit. And it looked like it just might do that, as the dreaded white sky began to morph into mottled clouds with patches of blue.

The massive rubble pile at the base of the tower gives way to pine and aspen trees and the usual forest shrubbery, which eventually opens into grassy meadows with scattered trees. The 1.3 mile (2 km) Tower Trail around the monument sticks close to the rubble pile and is largely in the pines and aspens. We'd hit the peak of fall color, the aspens glowing golden in the improving light. After walking about half-way around the tower we returned to the car to collect the camera and tripod, the 24-70 zoom, and the usual accessories. We then retraced our steps making stops along the way to capture scenes I'd spotted earlier, all the while the light improving. Bright light bringing out brilliant color in the aspens, and an improving sky made up for the relatively flat lighting on the tower's columns of igneous rock. I decided the best photos would focus on the giant rocks of the rubble pile and the sunlit trees, while minimizing the tower itself. I didn't have a lot of time, but also didn't rush, instead taking the time to get my compositions just right (well, one can hope!).

This is a sacred site to several Native American tribes; walking the trail one will spot colorful prayer cloths or bundles hanging in low branches. I'd not seen these anywhere before. Fortunately there are small signs explaining the bundles and requesting they be left alone. I find these kinds of cultural connections fascinating and often beautiful. It somehow felt wrong to photograph these bundles, so I didn't.

We wrapped up working close to the tower and drove out on some of the gravel roads within the monument's 1347 acre (545 ha) area. This gave us some of the more iconic views of the tower. While happy to capture those, I also tried to get something a little different, in one case framing a large foreground Ponderosa pine with the tower fairly small in the distance.This is the first photo in our Devils Tower gallery. The sky had become quite dramatic as the wind increased; this made for some nice black & white images. O'Toole owed me a couple of favors!

Too Short a Visit

We stopped for lunch near the monument's entrance, and then under increasingly stormy skies aimed for Keystone, where we'd spend the next several days in rain and fog. About five miles from the monument we stopped for photos across a hay field of large round bales, the monument small in the distance. With my telephoto zoom at about 330mm I could see several climbers had just arrived at the top of the monument.

Aspens in a bog, Custer State Park, South Dakota, U.S.

People climb this thing. Above is a section of a photo made several miles from the tower. You can see the full photo in our Devils Tower gallery. It's the second photo, top row.

There's much more to the monument than the tower: impressive red sandstone cliffs above the Belle Fourche River, a large prairie dog town near the monument's entrance, and a number of walking trails. I suspect the tower can be glorious in golden-hour light. Night-sky/Milky Way photography around the monument would be great fun. It's a long drive from home, but I hope to return to take advantage of all of that.

We had only a short time at Devils Tower, as we needed to be in Keystone, SD by dinner time. But it turned out to be the most enjoyable two hours of photography of the entire trip, and resulted in several images I hope are at least a bit different, “originals” rather than mere copies of others' work.

November, 2018

*'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' feature film