Soaring skyward from the Wyoming prairies, Devil’s Tower draws a continuous stream of sight-seers from the nearby Interstate for a quick gawk, and a snapshot with mom, pop or kids blocking the view.
Before the white man turned it into a tourist attraction, the rock was a sacred place — a place of legends, a place of visions. I visited the monument three times before and all I ever saw was this honkin’ big rock jutting up out of the ground. It was monumentally pretty, but holy? I just didn’t see it. The view this time is no different: a big, interesting rock; no big deal.
But this visit I am camped below the tower, sleeping in its shadow, in no hurry to get to some distant motel in time for a hot meal. With nothing to do and all evening to do it, I hike the two-and-a-half miles up to the base of the tower, then sit to watch the tourists come and go.
I watch the tower, too, and something starts happening to time. The tower stands changeless. Below, hundreds of cars come and go in what seems like an instant. Tourists flock around the base like the birds flocking around the crest. Frenetic currents flowing around an island of stillness. I sit for an hour and there isn’t a moment of peace at the base, only on the tower.
The sun sets. The people trickle away. The birds roost. Time slows further and in the stillness and solitude the tower starts changing. Subtle shadings invisible in the glare of day show up in the gloom. Shadows form and vanish. Highlights shift. All the time my eyes keep pace, adjusting to the lower light levels.
After the last rays of sunlight slip off the summit I begin to see the faces: near the base, a sad Don Quixote; above, a bald man with a goatee looks down; near him, two demonic eyes and a single nostril define a skull. Back at the base, three reclining men take shape. Above them, a smiling woman appears, but only for 30 seconds. An angry troll forms halfway up and glares at me until the stars come out. A golden eagle dives skyward. Familiar figures appear. Marlo Thomas as “That Girl.” Bullwinkle J. Moose as Whistler’s Mother. I saunter over to the telescopes and take a closer look. Some figures vanish under the pressure of magnification, but many become clearer. That spooks me.
I watch the tower until it’s just a black mass blocking the stars. Where did the faces and figures come from, I wonder, walking along the starlit road back to camp. “From you,” Marlo and Bullwinkle reply. And in that moment I learn what makes a place sacred.