Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Close Encounters of the Kim and Linda Kind

 After journeying together to Ireland last April, Kim and I realized we made good travel buddies.  So when planning my summer family visit to South Dakota, I asked her if she'd like to tag along.  Kim had never been to many of the states in the midwest, and she'd always wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, so was all for it.  To sweeten the deal, I proposed a detour to Yellowstone National Park on the return trip.

Soldier Monument, Little Bighorn Battlefield

It's a two-day, 1200 mile drive from Portland, Oregon to Rapid City, South Dakota.  Although I've traveled this route annually for the past 35 years, Kim had never been on such a long car trip.  As for myself, I was excited to show my long-time friend the place I'd grown up (and she'd heard all about).

So one sunny day this past late May found us cruising down I-90 in Eastern Montana, destination Rapid City and the Black Hills of South Dakota.  To break up the time spent inside the car, I stopped at a couple places of interest along the way.  One of these places was the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Eastern Montana.

Gravestones indicate where soldiers died

In history class you probably heard about "Custer's last stand."  Well that took place right here at Little Bighorn Battlefield.  This National Monument memorializes the conflict between US soldiers trying to control the Indians and the Indian's last armed efforts to preserve their way of life.  On June 25-26, 1876, 263 soldiers of the US Army's 7th Calvary died fighting thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors.  The commanding officer, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, famously perished in this battle.

There were gravestones for the Native warriors also

Coincidentally, the battlefield lies on the Crow Indian Reservation.  For years this area was called "Custer Battlefield."  But the eyes of history have shifted and the powers that be decided it didn't make sense to name a battlefield after the guy who lost.  So in 1991, the monument was renamed "Little Bighorn Battlefield."  Along with a large granite monolith commemorating the US soldiers that fell, there is now an Indian Memorial honoring the Native American warriors that fought and died here.

Loved this sculpture honoring the Native American fighters

I really liked the huge sculpture depicting three warriors on horseback charging off into battle.  It is transparent so one can also take in the surrounding grassy hills and wide-open skies.

National Cemetery honoring those who died in US wars

In addition to the battlefield memorials, we found the place also had a National Cemetery.  Custer National Cemetery provides a final resting place for veterans of the many US wars.

It right before Memorial Day and each grave had a flag

It was interesting to walk among the rows of uniform, bright-white headstones.  Each section of the cemetery was reserved for casualties of a certain war.  There was an area for the First and Second World Wars, as well as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.  There were even older graves from soldiers fighting Indian wars of the frontier.  We visited on the Friday prior to Memorial Day, so each headstone had an American flag placed at its base.

First glimpse of Devils Tower

After spending over an hour touring Little Bighorn Battlefield, it was back in the car for a long drive across the rest of Montana and into Wyoming.  But I had a second stop planned.  Northeastern Wyoming is home to another famous National Monument, one of my personal favorites - Devils Tower.

Looking up the tower

Anyone who lived through the 1970s has probably seen the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind in which Devils Tower is prominently featured.  As a matter of fact, I couldn't stop myself from humming the movie soundtrack's famous five tones as we drove towards the monument.

Close up of the rock formations

Rising 867 feet from summit to base, Devils Tower is a lone igneous formation made up of distinct vertical hexagonal rock columns.  Geologists theorize that the tower was formed by an intrusion of magma into an area of otherwise sedimentary rock.  Over time the surrounding softer rock eroded, leaving this igneous plug standing alone.  The columnar jointing on its sides are unusual, and Devils Tower has the largest and most spectacular example of this fascinating geologic phenomenon.

Local Native American tribes also had stories on how Devils Tower formed.  Several versions feature children being chased by a large bear.  The children pray to the Great Spirit to save them and in response, the Great Spirit made the rock rise into the sky.  Trying to climb the rock, the bear made claw marks in the sides, creating the hexagonal columns seen today.

A thunderstorm foiled our hiking plans

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower the first US National Monument.  Although the tower and surrounding forest are now protected, hiking trails abound, including one path that circles the tower, and climbing Devils Tower is allowed.

This viewpoint, down a gravel road, is the best

Kim and I had planned to walk the 1-mile trail around the base of Devils Tower.  However, as we started out on the path, I noticed dark clouds building in the sky.  We hadn't gone but a quarter mile when thunder began to rumble.  Not wanting to get caught in the rain, or struck by lightning, Kim and I decided to turn around and head to the visitor center.  We had had just reached the parking lot when the skies opened up in a furious burst of rain.

Almost looks like a spaceship is coming

So we sought refuge in the gift shop, and in the process met a new alien friend.  Kim took a selfie, posted it on Facebook, and dubbed it "close encounters of the Kim and Linda kind."  (And I liked it so much I stole it for the title of this blog post!)

We found an alien in the gift shop!

With more dark clouds on the horizon, our hiking plans were not gonna happen.  On to Plan B!  From previous visits, I remembered a place down a gravel road that gave visitors nice views of the tower.  So I took Kim on a quick drive.  We both marveled over the big sky panorama here, especially of the ominous storm clouds hovering above Devils Tower.  Kinda looked like those aliens from the 70s were coming back!

On the road again!  Destination, Rapid City.  Next up - taking Kim through some of my favorite places in the Black Hills.


  1. I can't imagine a car journey of that length - a couple of hours and I've had enough. Some interesting stops along the way, like you had, might make it a little more bearable.

  2. It is nice to have a travel buddy. I love the Devils Tower images. Great shot of you and Kim.
    Take care, enjoy your day!

  3. ...beautiful wide open spaces.

  4. It's so great you found a good travel buddy! We visited Devils tower while in the RV, I loved it so much! The moody skies really set the formation off.

  5. The Devil Tower is quite impressive. Lovely views along the way, love the rainy moody skies. Enjoy your day and thanks for sharing.

  6. You turned a family visit into something really fun. I've always wanted to visit Devil's Tower. I love the dynamic skies you captured!

  7. Road Tripping with a bestie that's what adventures are made off!

  8. I love the sculpture with the running horses. As far as Custer, he is still resented in the Shenandoah Valley for his ruthless attitude during the “Burning.” Farther north, he is known for his huge ego. I guess his luck ran out.

  9. How wonderful to be able to continue travelling with Kim. The stormy skies certainly enhance the dramatic beauty of the Devil's Tower.

  10. At the battlefield is there still a sign that says "stay on the walkway as Rattlesnakes are in the grass?" That sign freaked me out...I went back to the car!


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