Stop #15 – Thunder in the Valley.

As we enter the final phase of our two-week long virtual pre-journey trough the western states, we enjoy a hearty breakfast in preparation for our hike around the base of Devil’s Tower. Before we arrive at the nation’s first national monument, the Thunder Basin National Grassland must be crossed. This nearly treeless short grass prairie is home to mule deer, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, along with countless snakes, burrowing owls, and marauding coyotes. The grassland stretches from the foot of the Bighorn Mountains eastward nearly 100 miles to the famed Black Hills of Northeast Wyoming and western South Dakota. An Interstate sign warns travelers that there are no services for the next 87 miles!

The Black Hills loom in the distance as we enter the endless vistas of Thunder Basin.
The Pumpkin Buttes rise dramatically from the grassland. Here uranium mines abound and not far away, the world’s largest open pit coal mine tells us that vegetation has been here for millenniums.

Our mid-morning destination is Devil’s Tower in the Bear Lodge Mountains … a near-wilderness area in the Wyoming section of the Black Hills. These “mountains” are similar to the Appalachians – high but rounded, forested, and sparsely populated. The only fair sized town in Crook County is Sundance with a population of less than a thousand souls who brave an intense winter. While I lived there for two years, the temperature dipped to a minus 45 and coupled with ten feet of snow, the environment was challenging to say the least.

The Bear Lodge Mountains remind me of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. In fact, going eastward, the next highest mountain is in Georgia – Frog Mountain – on the Georgia-Tennessee state line – a thousand plus miles away. Note the dark green glow of Ponderosa Pine which gives the Black Hills its name.
Thousands of Whitetail deer live in the wilds around Sundance.

he Bear Lodge Mountains are noted for several superlatives. The hills are home to the highest concentration of Whitetail Deer in the US and in the midst of this dark green unbroken forest rises Devil’s Tower 1000 feet straight up from the floor of Ponderosa Pine. The tower is an ancient remnant of a volcano whose throat was filled with liquid magma eons ago. The magma cooled very slowly and formed six sided rock crystals ten feet on each side but stretching vertically from bottom to top creating a fluted edge as though a giant bear tried to scratch its way to the top. Broken columns ring the base and climbing on the shattered crystalline structures is not for the faint of heart or weak of knee… such as me.

Devil’s Tower is an enigma — it just isn’t a typical view in a forested region. We are still several road miles away as it looms mysteriously over the forest.

Around the base, the park service has constructed a 1 1/2 mile path in and out of the talus piles. In several locations, you an look straight up and only imagine the flattened top of several dozen acres 1000 feet higher. What an experience it must have been for the first climbers in the late nineteenth century! They carried 12 inch thick logs one at a time and pounded them into the fissures between crystals forming a vertical open ladder and slowly inched their way to the top. Not me!

Straight up – a thousand feet – the rock crystals stretch. Ready to climb?
Not quite sure I want to do this. I think I will pass this time around. Beautiful detail on the crystals though!

Around noon, we plan to leave the tower and head a few dozen miles to my old home in Sundance, home of the Sundance Kid legend. He supposedly robbed the Sundance State Bank which, while I was there, would cash your paycheck in silver dollars – a throwback to the Old West fear of the government’s paper money.

The Sundance State Bank where the “Kid” legend began.

Lunch will be great at the Dime Bar which has 50 feet of 10 cent pieces imbedded in the bar top. Too early for a whiskey and my imagination runs amok as I envision cowboys, gamblers, ranchers, and miners belly up amongst all the dimes. The Black Hills was and still is a major source of gold and the largest gold mining company in the northern hemisphere is still based not far away in Deadwood, South Dakota. The gold was the reason the Native Americans were pushed out of their sacred hills and the reason Colonel George Custer was sent to control renegade bands in 1876. Gold causes men to do strange things!

We will camp near Deadwood about 40 miles from Sundance and spend the evening carousing the bars and losing money in the casinos – sort of a last fling before we start our journey home. Thanks for sharing this virtual day with Carolyn and me. We are looking forward to the real trip in June.

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