Climbing Devils Tower: ominously foreboding and beautifully spectacular
Once again, the amount of photos we took on this trip is staggering! That, linked with repeated hot spots during the week when a new cut of my "Resident Evil" broadcast spot had to go out the door for the studio's approval, has caused this rollout of the full trip story to take a bit longer.
But no matter. On to stop #2 of 'The Farm, The Field & The Tower': Devils Tower! The location of the extraterrestrial landing at the climax of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Departing Calgary after visiting the Kent Farm from "Superman, The Movie", we vowed to go back very soon and not only visit the other movie locations we opted to hold off on, but also to stay in the Sheraton near the airport once again with that amazing water slide! We also want to check out more of the city as we spent most of the time near the suburbs and amongst plenty of farming country.
Late Monday afternoon would turn into night as our plane touched down in Rapid City, South Dakota. This was the closest major airport to Devils Tower, just a little over two hours drive. I wanted us to travel in daylight so we could see the tower rising over the horizon as we drove. So that night we stayed at a Comfort Inn just off the highway we'd take in the morning.
We were very blessed as far as weather was concerned for this entire vacation! Despite the black clouds near Blackie and the Kent Farm, the rest of the week put temps in the 80's and 90's with no cloud cover or rain whatsoever.
Heading out to Devils Tower on Tuesday morning, this was another first as I'd never been to Wyoming before, much less South Dakota. Around the halfway point a 'Welcome to Wyoming' sign appeared and of course we had to stop for pictures. But not before several other people showed up and we swapped cameras so everyone could be in their own shots. Another hour of drive time passed as we were treated to beautiful landscapes of American flatland.
Soon the object of my movie dreams began to peak over the horizon! Even though I'd heard you can see Devils Tower from 26 miles away, it probably wasn't until we were 16 miles out that I began to recognize that unquestionably familiar shape.
I'd been watching "Close Encounters" on my laptop as we entered the one hour mark from our final destination. However I only wanted to see from the point where Roy Neary is in his car driving through Wyoming and on the way to Devils Tower up through and including the moment when Neary and Jillian break out of the government base camp and head for the mountain. The entire landing sequence would wait until we were actually there...probably that night or in the morning.
Closer and closer, the tower emerged from the landscape to become the obsession of our wonder.
As we approached the last stretch of road leading to the entrance to the park surrounding the tower I once again reached for my iPod, cranking up 'TV Reveals', 'Roy and Jillian on the Road' and 'The Mountain' from the original soundtrack. Yes, I had exact tracks chosen for those first awe-inspiring moments when we'd arrive at each location. I began to realize that this time was the most important of all; the moment each of these movie locations came full-on into view and we could almost touch them. The vibe of the movies they were connected to became so immediate and all encompassing.
We stopped once again about a mile before the tower to take more photos. Three women we snapped shots of at the Wyoming sign drove up (they mentioned they were heading here) and I ran over to offer my photo taking services again. We all had a laugh and took one another's picture against the rock monolith in the distance.
Rolling up to the entrance to the park, campground and stores at around 11:30am, we found ourselves right where the government officials were encamped in the movie as well as the where Lacombe (François Truffaut) and interpreter David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) try to convince Major Walsh that the people who'd come there tonight were in fact invited. Of course this was also the place where Roy and Jillian decide to escape from the helicopter and run for the mountain. There's a KOA campground there now, although there may have been at the time as well.
And right in front of us...Devils Tower!! Majestic, forboding, ominous, spectacular and almost magical!
We stopped in the general store and immediately saw the star attraction on sale right by the register; a rack of "Close Encounters" box set DVDs! As we shopped around a bit and picked up post cards for friends (there was a post office right on site) someone behind the counter told us that they actual run the movie in the restaurant area ever single night at 7pm. So cool!! Unfortunately we wouldn't be able to attend because we had dinner arranged that night.
It was time to take photos then head around the back side of the tower where our accommodations were located; The Devils Tower Lodge. I continued to crank the soundtrack while gazing up at the mountain, wondering how difficult it would be to climb just like they did in the movie.
A couple of weeks before, I read on the official website that there were several trails around the tower. But it wasn't until I called the lodge for more info, I learned that there was a paved trail which ran around the entire base! Wow! Looks like my efforts to actual get around the back side to see where the landing took place in the movie would be easier than I thought. And to my surprise, as the day progressed, I found out just HOW easy it would actually be.
I knew from aerial photos that there was a large field of boulders at the back side of the tower. And of course I knew that nothing had actually been filmed there...only the front side. The entire landing sequence in the movie had been photographed at a large hanger in Alabama and shots of the strip behind Devils Tower were superimposed into a model and matte painting. Nonetheless, this was the place where it all happened in the story and the movie and I had to get there...somehow!!
The Devils Tower Lodge is a bed and breakfast operated by a wonderful man by the name of Frank and he was a most gracious host. We stopped by to check in, change into hiking shoes and clothes, and then head back to the tower for our full-on hike around the base. We were pumped!...as well as me being so grateful that Rebecca suggested I buy hiking boots right before our trip. They really came in handy and helped so much with foot comfort as we were traversing the 1.3 mile trail.
I'd loaded the movie soundtrack onto my iPhone for easy access during our trip and that was the first thing I reached for as we got out of the car. There was a ranger station and gift shop right where the trail began and where most of the other hikers were preparing to begin the walk. Rebecca and I started up an extremely steep hill as Devils Tower loomed ahead of us.
It was time to switch off cameras with some of the other people around us. A dad was trying to take a photo of his large family so I asked if I could take it for him so he could be in the shot as well. Turned out he had three cameras and I happily obliged.
In between photos, his wife noticed that the T-shirt I was wearing was connected to the movie. 'Hey, that's from "Close Encounters" isn't it?", she said. I said yes, appreciating the fact (as I always do) when someone 'gets' what I'm wearing. This was perhaps a bit obscure for the casual glance; the music board from the landing strip with the five tones highlighted in appropriate colors. But she nailed it and I declared that this was the reason we were there.
A few steps later we found ourselves several yards from the boulder field where the landing took place in the movie and I was overjoyed. We took a bunch of photos, but I surmised there had to be a better view of this place from above or the other side. Continuing on counterclockwise around the base, we saw some really beautiful angles of the tower seldom seen. And when we arrived near the front face we could look out far past the entrance gate, campground and stores. Just an incredibly beautiful sight.
Rounding the front of the tower now to the right side of the face, we came upon the place where Roy Neary and Jillian made their final ascent on the way to the back side and the landing strip. This is where Roy loses his grip and slides down a rock hill as Jillian reaches for his his hand. All while choppers with EZ-4 approach. It's certainly a bit grown over now but was unmistakable.
We had to get to this spot by veering off the trail. Signs along the way announced that you had to have a permit to leave the trail and climb the mountain. But I had to climb up there a bit for the best view of the location. Around the back side where we began, we witnessed a father and two sons who were high above the rock field but not climbing the actual tower. Just traversing large boulders in a way I'd hoped I could. Have to admit it seem a bit dangerous.
Rebecca and I were now past the front and slowly making our way around to the back of the tower. We were both a bit tired due to the 90 degree temps. Another major suggestion she made that really paid off; wear shorts! Something I haven't done in more than a decade. California climate is mostly a dry heat and I never felt the need to wear them, always opting for jeans or khakis. Not to mention the fact that I am a very white Irish boy and not a big fan of showing off my gams. LOL! BTW, since the trip ended I've not only started wearing shorts again on the weekend, but have purchased a few additional pairs.
Along the way on the trail there were benches and markers explaining how Devils Tower came into existence and some of the history surrounding the native american tribes who honor it. We were now completely at the back side and I could tell the end of the trail was nearing. I watched in anticipation to see the boulder field and the site of the extraterrestrials landing from the movie. What we were about to approach was so much more than I could have hoped for.
The trail forked with one path going right into the woods and another other veering left towards the back side of the tower. We took that one in high expectations.
Suddenly....THERE IT WAS!!!
A marker that documented how the portions of the tower had broken off sat almost right in the middle of the boulder field where the trail ended. We were there!!! We were right in the exact spot where the landing strip was located in the movie! Again, I know they didn't film anything back there, but still...this was IT!!!
Camera shutters flashed as we soaked in the area, the moment, and the climactic scene from "Close Encounters" that occurred on this very spot!
Outside of this wonderful connection to another of my favorite movies of all time, this was a starkly beautiful place. We were looking straight up the slope of the back side of the tower...and the sun was in just the right spot making for perfect photographic lighting.
Something I became aware of as we made our way around the entire tower; the geography of Devils Tower had been 'cheated' (an editing term for 'putting two things together that aren't necessarily in the same scene or location') during the filming of the movie. Most of the climb that Roy Neary, Jillian and Larry make up the front side of the tower is correct. However during the final ascent, where Larry falls asleep after breathing in EZ-4 gas and Roy and Jillian have to leave him behind, cameras moved to the back side and the boulder field to make for a more foreboding, climactic end to the climb.
Another movie observation: when Laughlin (Bob Balaban) realizes that the numbers being sent by the extraterrestrials are actually Earth coordinates, the final geological map we see on screen showing that they intend to land next to Devils Tower is somewhat incorrect. During an official's meeting to decide how the populace will be cleared from a 300 mile radias of the tower, a close up of this map shows an 'X' and the precise spot where the landing will take place. In real life that 'X' is actually located where the government base camp sits on the front side. The parking area loop is in full view to the left of the tower on the map which is in fact near the back side.
After spending many moments breathing in the back side and boulder field, we were aware that exhaustion was starting to take over. It was nearing time to head to the lodge and get cleaned up for dinner. Yet we still had a little over two hours to go so we decided to get to our rental car and head back around to the front side of the tower to check out the Devils Tower Trading Post, another store with soveneirs, books, T-shirts and other paraphenalia for those wanting to take a piece of the rock with them. That was something I'd already done when we were in close proximaty to where Roy and Jillian made their final climb to the dark side of the moon; dig up a small rock to bring home as a memento. One that had obviously been undisturbed for decades or even hundreds of years.
At this point all I wanted to do was sit down and have an ice cold drink. We'd earned it! Inside the Trading Post we found an ice cream stand and decided to have a nice cold treat, sit and really relax. Looking around the store a bit more before heading back to the lodge, we discovered a few large sized display cases. Inside was a merchandise treasure trove from "Close Encounters"; Magazines, books, the soundtrack on record and tape, puzzles, a frisbee, trading card sets, a lunch box....all original items from 1977 and 1978!! Some of these were still in their original wrap! A sign inside the cases read 'display only - not for sale'. Incredible collection! And of course there was another rack with many more copies of the movie box set for sale. I was so very appreciative of this representation and love for the film on site!
Now it was time to head back to the lodge and get ready for dinner. We were served a fine meal of Mexican food in the main dining room as were other guests in attendance. Several people were there to rock climb and we saw climbers way up on the face of the tower several times while hiking the trail. Absolutely amazing and just a little scary to behold!
As night fell I suddenly got the crazy idea that it would be cool to go back to the trail and see the tower at night. Not walking around the entire length though. Just heading up the hill to the fork that began the loop. I had my iPhone with me and decided to play 'Wild Signals' from the "Close Encounters" soundtrack. I envisioned that it might be a little creepy listening to that in the near dark. But we did it anyway as I blasted the track (if you can call it 'blasting' with iPhone speakers alone) with only the two of us there. It was another moment that brought us closer to that sequence from the movie. Hearing the five tones and the exchange from the mothership echoing in the woods as the tower loomed overhead was truly an exhilarating moment! At one point I could feel the hair on my arms rising.
We traveled back to the lodge for a good nights sleep in a big comfy bed...Devils Tower eerily shadowing us out our window.
Wednesday morning came and I knew I wanted to experience a few more aspects of the tower just one more time before we left. I was a bit tired the night before and missed the opportunity to watch the end of the movie at night with the tower in sight; a very appropriate time and setting. So we decided to drive around the back side once again, sit in the car and watch the landing sequence from the point where Roy and Gillian first glimpse the landing strip right through the end credits. It was a fitting end to a very full 24 hours there.
Snapping a few more photos, mailing post cards and enjoying the morning, we turned the car around for one more wide glance. This is another place I would return to in a heartbeat and hopefully next time we'll bring a tent and camp out.
It was time to hit the road for a little side trip we decided to take before flying off to Iowa and the "Field of Dreams" baseball field. But I'm going to leave that for the next post because this one is JUST SO BIG!!! LOL!
You can check out our full set of photos from Devils Tower as well as all the images from 'The Farm, The Field & The Tower' by clicking RIGHT HERE!