Days 30-31: Ucross to Devil's Tower

On Wednesday the 10th we went from the top of Wyoming to the bottom. We started in a pristine valley, continued through a transition from sage flats to grasslands, and ended in a coal and gas boomtown. We woke up as guests at a former retreat for energy company CEOs, and we went to bed in a campground where most of our neighbors were newcomers seeking entry-level jobs in the fields owned by those CEOs.

The retreat is called The Ranch at Ucross, and it is the only place where travelers can legally pull over in the 110 miles of U.S. 14 between Sheridan and Gillette. Finding it was a lucky break. It was a wonderful place, but also a little strange. It began as a cattle-and-hay operation in 1901. German stonemasons built the main ranch house in 1912 by hauling limestone down from the nearby hills. The place generated its own electricity from carbide batteries until the late1940s. The view of Clear Creek from our rooms is probably the same now as it was then. At night it gives you the absolute stillness of an area that is 27 miles from the nearest town, the clear air of high altitude, and the sounds of birds and animals packed into a desert stream corridor.

The Ranch at Ucross also gives you a lot of older people. It has a contract with a tour bus company that delivers 85 percent of its guests, who are well-to-do retirees on their way from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone. We arrived in the afternoon and saw men in their 80s riding horses, elderly women strolling on the driveway, and a man who might have been 90 getting happily sloshed on the front porch of the ranch house.

The Ranch was sold to the Apache Oil Corporation of Houston in the early 1970s and operated as a corporate retreat until it became a lodge in 1995. Apache is a relatively small oil company, which means it has a market capitalization of only $35 billion (Exxon Mobil’s market cap is $390 billion). The company bought another ranch next door for their top dogs after they sold the first one, and they also bought the old Pratt and Ferris ranch complex further down the road. We dawdled around, watching the antelope in the fields and the fish in the creek, and didn’t get on our bikes until 11am. Then we got off them again for an hour at the Ucross Foundation’s art gallery and office just down the road.

Apache Oil renovated the 1882 Pratt and Ferris ranch, which everyone calls Big Red, and got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The company set up the Ucross Foundation to manage its 22,000 acres and the buildings. They donated a conservation easement on half of the land to the Nature Conservancy, and they made the ranch buildings into a retreat for artists. Residence manager Ruth Salvatore gave us a tour, which included a great show of landscapes by Joellyn Duesberry. A lot of good books have been written here, too. It’s a high-end, well-managed place.

Shortly after we left the Foundation, we noticed a road sign that said Gillette (our destination) was 80 miles away. We had thought it was 70. There was a crosswind, and it was after noon when we pulled into Clearmont, a tiny town with a lot of day workers from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad riding around in white fleet pickup trucks. We noticed that the woman tending the counter at the town’s one convenience store was the same woman who had been waiting tables at the Ranch the night before. She has two kids and says she works 12-hour days. The jobs pay $8 an hour. We were already a long way from Ucross.

As we rode east through big open landscapes, still battling the crosswind, we were passed by an endless stream of big pickup trucks loaded with tools, tanks, and dogs. Most of them are heading to or from Sheridan or Gillette after working on coal-bed methane gas rigs, said Vickie Abbott, who manages the Ranch. Abbott used to teach in public schools. She says that the energy boom is putting pressure on the grade schools to expand, but it is also keeping a lot of young Wyoming men from going to college. “They can start at $22 an hour, so they don’t think they need to go on,” she said. Field workers don’t acquire skills they can use in other industries, so when they are laid off, they are stuck. Injuries and drug abuse are also rampant among energy roughnecks, and Abbott also worries about the effect all this drilling is having on groundwater. “Ranchers have seen their cattle dying because the drilling pollutes their springs,” she says. “Water is everything out here.”

We rode past a big rail-bed rebuilding operation, with different machines for digging out old wooden ties, replacing them, driving spikes, and welding. It went on for miles. Coal trains are heavy. We also passed several buildings with big fans on them, which were probably booster stations for a natural gas pipeline. Then we crossed the Powder River, and shortly after that we climbed out of a small valley and the sage went away and we rode through fields covered with grass. Poof: we were in a different climate zone.

After about 40 miles we came to the bar at Spotted Horse (pop. 2). It had been several hours since we’d seen anything with a water spigot, so we went in. A cowboy and a methane worker were drinking at the bar. They and the bartender were all looking at different copies of “Playboy.” One sign on the dirty wall said, “drink till she’s cute.” Another said, “we don’t call 911.” We had to buy our water, but the guys were friendly enough. I bet they don’t see guys wearing black tights very often. “Eighty miles you’re goin’?,” said the cowboy. “When I’m on my horse for 40 miles, that is one long day. Better get on.”

Ah, but we had a secret weapon. After Spotted Horse we turned south, the crosswind became a stiff tailwind, and we started cruising at well above 20 mph. Rain was moving in and pushing us toward Sara and the camper. We were racing it. The white trucks were also racing home, and as the sky grew darker we pulled on reflective gear and hugged the shoulder. Near Gilette we passed the enormous Eagle Butte strip mine, which was lit up in the gloom. It went on for miles. We passed tire stores selling tires that were 20 feet in diameter. We passed a billboard that said, “worried about your water? Call Culligan!” The road was cracked and strewn with debris. The buildings were squat and ugly. Then it was welcome to Gillette; welcome to the boomtown.

We pulled into the Greentree Crazy Woman Campground just before the rain hit, exhausted and grateful once again to Sara for finding and setting up shelter. After dinner, when the rain paused, I went to the washhouse/laundry/tv/game room to use the wireless internet connection. A deeply tanned man and a 16-year-old boy were there, folding laundry. “We got here from Indiana a few days ago,” he said. “Things weren’t going so good back there, and I have an ex-wife who won’t leave me alone. So we loaded our dogs and horses in the trailer and took off. Today I got a job – which is good, because things were looking pretty desperate.” They slept in their diesel pickup truck that night, turning the engine on every few hours to run the heater. The place emptied out early in the morning, with all the guys heading out to drink from the dirty river of coal and gas money.

The men’s bathroom was heavily used and kind of creepy, but Sara said the women’s room was spotless and empty. Everything we saw looked cheap and temporary. I lay in my sleeping bag and thought about the guy’s smiling kid. Back in Ucross, they were probably serving after-dinner drinks to the artists and enjoying the sunset.The guy’s kid probably dropped out of school to follow his dad. Now he just has to wait a year or two until he can get one of those field jobs, where they pay plenty and it’s easy to get meth and weed . That kid is hanging by a thread.

Day 32: Gillette to Devil’s Tower
The forecast was for cloudy skies clearing toward sunset. Our destination was Devil’s Tower, a 1,200-foot stone plug that rises above the Belle Fourche River. If you’ve seen the movie “Close Encounters o the Third Kind,” you’ve seen it. We started off at 9am in light rain. At the outskirts of town we passed another strip mine with a large coal-fired power plant right next to it. Another 100 megawatt plant was recently approved for a site just east of here. It expensive to move coal to power plants, so many power plants are being built next to the coal. We didn’t smell anything coming out of the smoke stacks, and we do use electricity, but as I rode past the stacks I still had the following thought: this is the technology we have to replace if we’re going to survive.

Further out of town we rode past the Donkey Creek Rail Yard, where coal and freight trains wait for their turns to shoot down the main line. We rode past coal trains that seemed almost a mile long. They were just starting east from the yard, and we raced them as they picked up speed. After 25 miles we were in Moorcroft and hungry, so we stopped at Donna’s Diner for lunch. The food was good and the place was packed. They hadn’t seen a lot of men wearing back tights either, but they looked away politely as we walked in and out.

We paid for our pancakes and chicken dumping soup and went outside. Just as we started pulling on our helmets, a friendly-looking man walked up and asked where we were going. When we told him, he said it made him feel good to see people doing big things like that. When we sad that our destination today was Devil’s Tower, he smiled and said, “My son and I climbed that about 30 years ago, with ropes. I tried to climb it with my brother several times before. The first guy who ever climbed it put a wooden ladder there to get up the last 150 feet or so. Parts the ladder are still there. My brother and I almost made it.” I asked him what is on top of Devil’s Tower. “Sagebrush,” he replied.

Bill Hughes, 87, has lived in Moorcroft all his life, except for World War II when he was a flight engineer on B-17 and B-29 bombers. He has been the mayor; he has also managed the local department store and started the local bank. “If you stay in a town this small long enough, you do everything,” he says. Bill says he also built the first trail around the base of Devil’s Tower when he was a boy scout in 1935. The Civilian Conservation Corps came in a few years later and built a prettier trail, but his troop cleared the path.

We rode north through grasslands, and after we crossed the Belle Fourche River the landscape changed again. Here were pine trees and stone outcrops and hills several hundred feet high. We had entered the Black Hills. “I’m getting closer to home,” said Jim, who was raised in south central Minnesota. “The river valleys there look kind of like this.”

It was still cloudy and threatening but it didn’t rain. The Tower loomed every so often, and then it dominated the landscape as we got within a few miles of it. We pulled into the Devil’s Tower KOA Kampground, which is unfortunately about three miles from the base of the tower and right at the Forest Service entrance station. I went to the Devil’s Laundromat and took a Devil’s Shower. Then Sara and Jim made a diabolically tasty meal and wouldn’t let me clean up – they never do. “Go write your blog,” they said. Outside the sky had cleared and a huge moon had risen to the east, illuminating the tower. We’ll visit it in the morning.

Day 32: Devil's Tower to Spearfish, SD

Here are a few things you might not know about Devil’s Tower. First, it is a site of major spiritual significance to several Plains Indian tribes. Native Americans regularly come to the Tower and tie prayer cloths on the trees around it. You’re not supposed to touch them.

We got to Devil’s Tower at 8am, before it was inundated by busloads of tourists, and walked around the base for a half hour. You might know that the Tower is a world class site for “crack” climbers, who shimmy up cracks in rock faces with the help of ropes and steel chocks. The second thing you might not know is that the Indians don’t like this activity. We counted ten people in four parties on the rock face, and several more were on their way to the base when we got back to the car. Look closely at the center of the close-up photo of the rock face and you can see two of them. A Sioux medicine man is quoted in the visitor’s center as saying, “When people climb on this sacred butte and hammer metal objects into it, the tower is defiled . . . It is like they pounded something into our bodies.” A climber is quoted next to the medicine man, saying something like, “We touch the monolith and measure it by our sweat.” I think the Indians should win this one. They were here first. But the National Parks Service merely asks climbers to stay off the rock during the month of June, and most do.

The third thing you might not know about Devil’s Tower is that it’s crumbling. It is a big hunk of granite, a volcanic intrusion that was originally several hundred feet below the earth’s surface. It emerged as the Belle Fourche River eroded the soft stone nearby, and the six-sided columns that run up its face are cracks that formed as the stone was exposed. The base of the Tower is surrounded by big boulder fields, and although geologists estimate that no big columns have fallen in the last 10,000 years, they are sloughing off. In several hundred thousand years they might be calling it Devil’s Pinkie.

Many buses and big RV’s were in the parking lot when we returned from our hike, including a load of kids from Great River Middle School in St. Paul. This is one of the only public Montessori schools in the country, explained a teacher, and part of their curriculum is taking kids on a three-week camping trip to Yellowstone, the Tetons, and the Black Hills. The kids stay in tents and have homework assignments every night. They were great kids. They cooed and made excited sounds when we told them about the bike trip. Jim and Sara, who spent their careers counseling young people, were enthralled.

We rode out of the campground around 10:30 am with 65 miles to go to Spearfish, a town about 10 miles east of the South Dakota line. The Black Hills really are black when viewed at a distance, and we rode up and down buttes and through lush green valleys. It was a day of low clouds, and they acted like an acoustic damper; everything was quiet and still. One section of State Route 24 had had its asphalt cracks painstakingly repaired with lines of tar that seemed to wiggle and squirm as you rode over them.

We went through Hulett, a compact village that has its own school, newspaper, medical clinic, and football field; and Alva, a hamlet that didn’t seem to have anything going for it except for seven adorable kittens living under the post office. Then we rode through a section of Black Hills National Forest that was even more stately and verdant than the cattle ranches had been. We paused for a fine lunch in Aladdin (pop. 15) at Cindy B’s Café, which was hopping. Everyone seemed to know everyone else, and they chatted easily with us. It was very pleasant, and it took a while. Cindy B. made me a grilled ham and cheese sandwich that had about a pound of incredibly tasty home-cured ham in it. It isn’t wise to eat a heavy meal before exercising and I felt like I had Silly Putty in my guts all afternoon, but it was worth it.

We rode south on state route 111 and then east on a frontage road that ran parallel to Interstate 90. On this road was the Vore Buffalo Jump, which was closed for the season. It is a sinkhole that was used by Plains Indians as a convenient way of killing lots of buffalo at once, in the days before they acquired horses. Several tribes would get together in the fall and collaborate. Scouts gently herded buffalo into a run that was bordered by natural and man-made barriers; sometimes an Indian wearing a calf skin imitated a wounded calf to get the herd to move closer. At a moment carefully chosen by the most skilled scout, everyone screamed and made the herd stampede, so that dozens or hundreds of them fell into the sinkhole. Arrows and spears quickly dispatched the buffalo that weren’t killed by the fall. Then the Indians did a mass skinning and butchering so they would have food, warmth, and all the other things buffalo provided them over the long winter. The sinkhole is now a 40 or 50-foot deep midden pile of buffalo bones, spear points, and other valuable Plains Indian artifacts. It is managed by a not-for-profit that hopes to build a big center on the site. I’d like to come back and see the dig.

There was no welcome sign when we crossed the state line, which is a minor disadvantage of following low-traffic routes. However, we did notice rain clouds to the south. The rain started with about ten miles to go, and by the time we got to the campground we were soaked. It continued until we went to bed. The weather forecast had been for a 20 percent chance of rain. Jim says that with the luck we’re having, this means that it will rain 20 percent of the time. Tomorrow we head deeper into the Black Hills.