Devils Tower Wagon Train
August 1, 2011
I have traveled thousands of miles over the last quarter century, along the historic trails of the west, “one step at a time.” Each Pony Express relay or wagon train adventure was accomplished with my horses’ willing friendship and stamina, whether under saddle or harnessed to my wagon. I am always amazed just how far one can travel via horses. It’s a perspective unique to any other mode of travel and I re-discovered this while riding my horse “Izzy” on a wagon train this past month.
For over a year, Mike and Carolyn Manley of Gillette, Wyo., had worked on organizing a wagon train around Devils Tower for our small band of veteran wagon train travelers. They thought it would be interesting to trek along two-tracks and county roads surrounding this unusual National Monument. Mike contacted local ranch landowners, told them what we were wanting to do and was delighted when they gave us special permission to cross and camp at their places on all sides of the monument.
Devils Tower is a geological formation near the Northeastern Wyoming and South Dakota borders. It is America’s first National Monument, created by President Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act on Sept. 24, 1906. This gigantic stump-like rock rises 1,200-feet above the Belle Fourche River and has been a fabled landmark of the Native Americans for centuries. According to the National Park Service, over 20 tribes have potential cultural affiliation with Devils Tower, many of which hold traditional ceremonial activities each year. The Arapahos call Devils Tower “Bears Tipi” and the Cheyenne Indians refer to it as “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear Peak” and it is a very holy place to them. The Crows call the Tower “Bear’s House” and “Bear’s Lair” and they were known to fast and worship there, building small stone “dream houses” as part of their vision quests. They believe Devils Tower was “put there by the Great Spirit for a special reason, because it was different from all other rocks.” The Lakotas traditionally held their sacred Sun Dance at Devils Tower around the summer solstice. It is considered a sacred place of renewal and the location where they received the White Buffalo Calf Pipe, the most sacred object of their people.
On Oct. 1, 1941, the Tower made national headlines when George Hopkins, a world record parachute jumper, decided to jump from an airplane onto the top of Devils Tower. He had planned to descend down off the top via a 1/2-inch, 1,000-foot rope which was dropped from the plane. Unfortunately, the rope missed and landed on the side of the Tower and thus, out of reach of Hopkins, which left him stranded. The Park Service now had the problem of getting him down. Telegrams and letters offering advice on how to rescue him came from all over the United States over the next few days, while food and blankets were air dropped to Hopkins on the giant rock top. Soon everyone wanted to get involved and even the Goodyear Company offered to loan the use of a blimp for rescue.
On Oct. 5, Jack Durrance, a student at Dartmouth College, who was a skier and mountain climber, came to lead a rescue party. The Navy offered the use of a helicopter but in the end Durrance led seven other climbers to the summit where they found Hopkins in excellent physical condition and good spirits. During the six-day event, over 7,000 visitors come to Devils Tower monument to see him and witness the rescue operations. Nowadays climbers can get permission from the Park Service to scale the Tower and we saw several going up the rock side while we traveled around the site.
The morning of our wagon train’s start found our three wagons and seven outriders clip-clopping down Main Street in Sundance, Wyo. The equine virus outbreak, travel costs and other circumstances had cut the number of wagons, but our small determined group headed out, early sun on our backs and the hint of adventure in our minds. Up and down county roads we traveled, sometimes meeting local folks wondering where we were headed.
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One afternoon we were detained by a private funeral precession of an elderly woman who’s ashes were being taken to a nearby hillside. Relatives said she would have been totally delighted to have covered wagons at her funeral.
Everywhere the countryside was green from the record rainfall and cut hay fields were waiting for the balers. With every mile, the view of Devils Tower grew closer, peeking in and out of the pines and oaks our wagons passed through on the two-track trails. One day we were permitted to cross close behind the Tower, in an area not open to the public and I discovered that as we traveled around it, each face of the Tower was different, sometimes seeming so straight sided and others, as if leaning to one side.
For 128 “Manley” Miles I rode my horse alongside the covered wagons, taking in the sights, smells, sounds and slower pace that is life on a wagon train. Our wagon wheels quietly passed around this wondrous monument and I reflected on the Native Americans and emigrants who had traveled this same area, knowing it was a “sacred place.” It is truly worthy of the title as it rises above the Wyoming rolling hills and prairie.