Monday, June 7, 2021
It’s another of those gotta get out early days, and this time we’ve actually managed to get out early. It’s not a matter of beating the mid-afternoon heat but of finding parking. This day’s plan includes a stop at Devil’s Tower along the way to Sheridan, and the National Park Service website warns that the first come, first served parking at Devil’s Tower is very limited.
On the way out of South Dakota, we continue through the green, green mix of forest and ranch land.
When you cross the state line entering Wyoming from South Dakota, you leave Black Hills National Forest behind and enter Thunder Basin National Grassland. Two lane Highway 16 cuts through an arid land that’s roughly carpeted with tall grass and scrub. In the distance mesas and rolling hills add some relief to this craggy table.
It’s not an unattractive land but any appeal that it might have is largely spoiled by the appearance of oil wells. They appear as giant, malevolent steel birds pecking unceasingly, boring deep wounds in our Earth’s skin. The thought occurs to me that I have no righteous standing. By the very act of being here, driving past these unsightly rigs, putting thousands of miles behind me with thousands more to go, I’m simply whetting the appetite of these monstrosities.
We pass through Newcastle, a decent sized town that’s described by the Black Hills and Badlands Website as an area of “Cattle ranches, oil wells and coal mines, a perfect mingling of industry and agriculture, blend with the area’s past.” Is this meant to be appealing to the tourist?
We pass through little Osage, so little that it’s a mere flicker on the map, a moment’s drive-by.
Fifteen minutes later we arrive at Upton, Wyoming, which claims the title of “The Best Town on Earth.”
Upton might very well be “The Best Town on Earth,” and by spending only a few minutes driving through this little burg, well, who am I to be so imperious as to dispute that claim.
You could make the case that there’s some arrogance on the part of the person, or persons who came up with the motto, “The Best Town on Earth,” for a little town on the eastern edge of Wyoming, a town that survives on the ground scourging industries of mining, quarrying and oil extraction.
I imagine that a group of the town’s high-muck-a-mucks was seated around a table.
“We need a motto for our town.”
“Howabout, “Little town on the prairie.”
“That’s good, but I think it’s been done already.”
“Well, I think this is the best damn town on Earth.”
“By god, you’re a fucking genius, but let’s keep it clean and drop the “damn” part.”
I’ll have to admit that during my sixty years I’ve proclaimed various places to be the best on Earth, Disneyland, when I was a child; Muir Beach, when lazing under a Pacific sun; Playa de Carmen when I was sitting under a jungle canopy having a cold beer; and Rome (Italy, not Georgia) when I was people watching, while seated at a café, sipping rich, red wine. I live in a bland, white bread, little town called Hercules and it’s not close to being in the running for best of anything – except white bread, bland. Maybe Upton might be an upgrade.
In the end it’s all really a subjective matter, sort of like claiming the best hamburger or the best pizza.
Passing through, it’s hard to find much to distinguish Upton. There’s a little dive called the Cowboy Bar. It’s not even noon yet, but the Cowboy Bar is open and serving. I guess it’s five o’clock somewhere – like, Poland.
For anyone wanting to own a little business in The Best Town on Earth, it looks like the Cowboy Bar is up for sale.
I ask Cora if she’s up for it. She tells me to go for it. “I’ll visit you,” she adds.
A block or so down the road is The Red Onion Museum which pays tribute to neither the vegetable or the burger place of the same name in Pinole near my home town. It’s my opinion that Pinole’s Red Onion makes the best hamburger on Earth – but that’s a subjective thing.
Upton’s Red Onion is a historical museum that takes its name from a pre-Prohibition saloon, The Red Onion, opened by Walter K. “Jarbo” Poulson. When Prohibition forced the closure of his tavern, Poulson deftly adapted to the new law by moving his operation to a more convenient and covert location – his barn.
The Red Onion Museum is also home to a two headed calf, something I wouldn’t care to see unless I’ve first steeled myself with a few belts of whiskey over at The Cowboy Bar, which conveniently opens early.
We probably have a good twenty miles to go, when I nudge Cora and point to the unmistakable profile of Devil’s Tower rising out of the surrounding hills.
Devil’s Tower is one of those marvels that, like Yellowstone’s Old Faithful or King’s Canyon’s giant sequoias, makes your heart race faster with anticipation the closer you get.
For various Native American Tribes, Devil’s Tower is more than a natural wonder to gape at and share photos of on Facebook. Those tribes consider the Devil’s Tower to be a sacred place and their stories of the tower’s origin contain similarities, all linked to a bear.
The Sioux tell the story of two boys lost in the prairie. When a giant bear gives chase the boys try unsuccessfully to escape the beast. In desperation, just before falling prey, the boys drop to their knees and pray for deliverance from the bear. The boys are saved when a pillar of stone bursts from the earth and lifts them to safety. In an attempt to climb the tower the bear circles the pillar and claws at the stone, thus creating the tower’s distinctive vertical striations. The boys are later saved by an eagle that delivers them back to their village.
The Kiowa tell of seven maidens who are also saved from a bear, by being propelled to safety by a rising pillar of stone. Instead of being returned to their village, the maidens are thrust into the sky and transformed, for eternity, into the “Seven Sisters,” the star cluster known as the Pleiades.
It was apparently a mistranslation of the Lakota name for the tower, a name that means Bear Lodge, that caused Colonel Richard Dodge, who led an expedition to the area in 1875, to name it Devil’s Tower. Native Americans have lobbied for the tower’s name to be changed to one more consistent with its original name.
Parked in a queue of cars waiting to enter the park itself, we have plenty of time to take in this strange and breathtaking marvel. For me the most arresting feature is the vertical columns (nearly all of them hexagonal) that give Devil’s Tower a ropey appearance.
Once through the entrance it becomes the routine, reminiscent of a shopping mall on Christmas Eve, of driving lap after lap around the parking lot. Finally, on the verge of declaring a surrender and driving on, we happen upon someone getting into their car to leave. Finding the coveted little patch of real estate only represents act one.
What follows is watching the remaining acts in the drama of a family getting into a car, starting the engine and actually liberating the parking place. A queue of cars develops behind us as we wait for the fidgeting and fussing in the still parked car. What could possibly be going on in that car?
For Cora and I patience is the key because one tap on the horn throws the whole process into ultra-slow motion (I know that’s what I would do if someone honked at me. In fact, out of spite I might even shut off the motor, get out of the car and take Lexi out to pee, even if I know her bladder to be bone dry).
Since dogs aren’t allowed on the short trail that leads to the base of the tower, Cora and I take turns as do all the other doggy families. Owners sitting on benches in the shade while their dogs circle each other doing the time honored butt sniffing ritual. All except for Lexi. She won’t be bothered with socializing as she has the more important work to do of keeping her eyes riveted to the nearby woods, looking for any birds and squirrels that would have the temerity to invade her space.
The Tower Trail starts at the Visitor Center parking lot on the west side of Devils Tower. A gentle climb winds from the lot and leads to a boulder field that lies between the path and the actual base of the tower. Once at the boulder field the path circles the tower. Visitors are allowed onto the boulder field but to go beyond the piled boulders requires a permit.
Walking towards the base I notice what looked like rags hanging from the trees that line the path. Some kind of vandalism?.
At the edge of the boulder field I walk about a quarter of the way around the tower, pausing occasionally to take photos.
During my walk I come upon a group of people pointing to a spot about halfway up the tower. A lone climber. Today is June 8th. June. Out of respect for the sacred significance of Devil’s Tower to Native Americans, the National Park Service has instituted a voluntary climbing closure for the month of June.
And yet, there’s a climber. I suppose that if asked he would give what he considers a valid reason for ignoring the closure; June is the only time available in his busy climbing schedule, one climber isn’t any big deal, who cares about pagans, or maybe just, too bad – so sad.
I pause during my walk back towards the parking lot to take a closer look at the rags and then notice a sign, “Please do not disturb prayer bundles and prayer cloths.”
What I took for rags is actually a Native American devotion to their sacred tower.
I take a photo of the sign and then swing my camera to photograph some of the bundles hanging from a nearby branch. No. Something doesn’t feel right about photographing the prayer bundles. It seems to me to be an intrusion to photograph something so personal and spiritual. Yet, aren’t we intruding just by being here?
We arrive early in Sheridan, early meaning mid-afternoon. Cora’s going to relax in the room but I’m ready to check out downtown.
I’d learned about one of Sheridan’s main attractions the day before from the proprietor of a rock shop in Custer, a little souvenir shop with the clever name, The Rock Shop.
As I was paying for a set of sandstone coasters, the proprietor engaged me in the usual souvenir shop conversation.
“Where ya from?”
About the moment that I said “San Francisco,” I noticed a small Trump sticker on a post behind the counter. It was at that instant when it was understood which grounds we stood on.
I told the man about where we’d been and where we were going, told him about the national parks we’d visited.
That’s when he told me about his own trips to national parks and how he likes to “yank the chains” of rangers, park employees and other assorted “tree huggers.”
“Tree huggers.” Oh boy, here we go, I thought.
“I’ll ask a ranger, ‘Where’s the best place to collect petrified wood?’ If I’m at one of the battlefields I’ll ask where I can find bullets and arrowheads? It’s fun to watch them lose their minds every time I ask where I can find artifacts, in a park that I paid to get into. It drives them into a panic.” (Treasure hunting is illegal in national parks and national monuments but his point seems to be that paying an entry fee gives him carte blanche to loot the place).
My gut told me that the guy was bullshitting me, trying to get a rise out of the “libtard,” from “commiefornia.”
Well, the liberal wasn’t taking the bait on this day, so we moved on to other topics.
As the man tore some packing tissue from a roll and started wrapping the coasters I told him that we were leaving for Sheridan in the morning. He paused in his wrapping, glanced from side to side and leaned over towards me as if he was going to tell me about a can’t miss Sheridan brothel, or an illegal gambling den. Or maybe he was going to whisper to me that Biden stole the election.
“When you get to Main Street, look for a sign that says King’s Saddles.”
“Okay,” I responded, wondering with suspicion where the man was actually leading me.
Still leaning in, he continued, “Go inside. It looks like any western shop; clothes, hats, boots and tack. Go all the way to the back and find the back door. Go out the door and you’ll step into a little alley.”
At this point I figured he was leading me to either a cat house; or maybe the punch line, when he would reveal that he was giving me directions to Sheridan’s chapter of the Republican Party. Given a choice I’d select the former over the latter and not for the obvious reason of physical gratification. I simply prefer to consort with ethical people who are engaged in honest work and are forthright with the people they’re screwing, rather than wasting my time with people who deny the screwing while engaging in moral sleight of hand.
“Cross the alley. There’s another building there. Go through the door into the building,” he continued. “You’ll see some guys at work tables. They’re making ropes and saddles. You can watch, they don’t care.”
“This is where they keep all the ropes and the saddles. The saddles are worth thousands.”
Now I was relatively certain I wasn’t being made sport of and my interest was piqued.
“But the best part is when you go off to the left, through another doorway. That’s where the museum is. All the old saddles and antique guns and ranch equipment. Check it out.”
The man finished wrapping my coasters and handed me the package, “Check it out. King’s Saddles.”
With that conversation more or less forgotten I park on Main Street in Sheridan. Just a couple of doors up and there it is, King’s Saddlery.
A sign on the door tells me that it’s close to closing time but I decide to go in and have a quick look around.
I browse the western clothes, the hats and the boots.
I like western wear. I own two western hats, a black felt one and a big white, wide brimmed Stetson straw hat. I also own four pairs of western boots, from a worn down rough out pair to a shiny pair of pointy toed black boots. I like the look – even in San Francisco – especially in San Francisco, jogs the locals a bit.
I’d brought the white straw Stetson and the rough outs on the trip, along with a pair of boot cut jeans and a belt with a big western buckle.
Along the walls are displays full of stirrups and spurs, blankets and a variety of gear for the rider.
I look up from one of the clothing racks, note the clientele in the store, and shoot a glance of thanks to the heavens and the sartorial angel who advised me not to dress western that afternoon.
Had I dressed in boots and hat I would’ve instantly outed myself as a phony, a pretender. The lyrics of an old country-western song play in my head.
“You’re just a Coca Cola cowboy”
You got an Eastwood smile and Robert Redford hair…”
I watch two fellows going to the counter to pay for some coils of rope, looking at them as a basketball fan might look at Lebron James. Tall, lean and wiry, they’re dressed in work beaten Stetsons, sun bleached jeans and boots coated with plains dust.
These men are the real deal, cowboys; artists of the lariat, whose communication with a good cutting horse is telepathic. They are, in their own unique way, athletes, who can control a horse as deftly as a Formula One driver maneuvers an “S” turn; men who could stop a horse on a dime, from full gallop, and not foolishly go ass over tea kettle.
These are the guys that tourists expect to see when they deplane in America. A man’s, man as the saying goes. Oh we suburban men might deny it to the highest reaches of heaven, but these cowboys are who we, in our most secret fantasies and wettest of dreams, have yearned to be.
The beer bellied, middle aged guys driving their Toyotas and Hondas to Walmart would, in a heartbeat, trade in their flip flops and pajama pants, for a good horse, a dusty pair of boots and shiny spurs.
I think back on the guys who I saw hanging out at The Big Texan in Amarillo, all decked out in their western duds. Counterfeits, Coca Cola cowboys.
After shaking off my man crush, I do a quick walk through the store to the back door.
Following the advice of the rock shop guy I go out the back door, across the alley and into the next building. Off to the left are rows and rows of completed saddles. Lift up a price tag, $4,500 dollars. Another, $5,000.
Directly in front of me, towards the back of this workshop, are towering racks filled with coiled ropes of various colors and thicknesses. I’m relatively certain that different ropes serve different purposes but I’m as ignorant about this cowboy gear as I might be in a warehouse full of aircraft parts.
I hurry back to the motel to tell Cora that I’ve just found a sight that in its own unique way rivals the Grand Canyon and,
“They open at eight tomorrow and you’ve just GOT to see this.”
The next morning, as always, I get up well before Cora and take Lexi out for a walk. Being only a short drive from our motel, we go to Sheridan’s city park, Kendrick Park.
It’s a wonderful park, unlike any I’ve ever seen, a long, narrow park, with a path that winds through the city green while off to one side, Big Goose Creek, a creek so robust that in California we might call it a river, serenades park goers with it’s cool riffle. We walk past an ice cream kiosk that’s closed at this early hour and follow the path to the end of the park before turning back.
Back at the motel, Cora is packed and ready to go. We get to King’s Saddlery a little after eight in the morning. She’s fascinated by the place, particularly the museum, though not so much as I.
Ha! A cowboy or two wandering through the aisles would have heightened her level of interest. (I have a few photos in my archives of Cora surrounded by three rodeo cowboys. In each, Cora is wearing a smile as broad as the Wyoming skies).
Below, images of the King Saddlery Museum.
As we take our leave from King’s we stop and talk with a couple from Texas. They have only a passing interest in Cora and I. They’re more intent on gushing over Lexi. Our little road show has starred only a cast of three but Lexi, who’s only been along for the ride, has, from day one, been the clear star, the icebreaker, the conversation starter.
With the gushing done, they continue through King’s and Cora and I and Lexi set out for Red Lodge, Montana.
California might be the Golden State, Florida the Sunshine State and Texans might claim everything bigger but in Wyoming it’s all cowboy, all the time.
Listening to the sports report on the way to Sheridan, the big news wasn’t about baseball, it was all about the upcoming high school state rodeo championships.
And the state symbol is – the cowboy on the bucking horse. He’s the University of Wyoming’s mascot. You see him everywhere, arm in the air and spurs flashing, having that good ride.