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Wow Place #254: Devil’s Tower, Wyoming

It was a pretty absurd moment in a highly absurd location – watching Lars from Holland, minus his prosthetic leg, hanging upside down from a hot air balloon, at the scene of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

How did I get here?

It’s July, 1991 and I’m working as a tour guide for a company called American Adventures. My job that summer is to drive small groups of young Europeans cross country, from California to New York –camping every night and visiting as many cool, American locations as possible. Although we have a set itinerary, I have the leeway to veer off the beaten track if I find someplace cool and interesting on the map – like Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

Although most known as the site where the alien mothership landed in Spielberg’s seminal sci-fi epic, Close Encounters, Devil’s Tower is a pretty fascinating place in its own right. Indigenous names for the location include “Bear Lodge,” “Bear’s Lair,” “Home of the Bear,” “Aloft on a Rock,” “Tree Rock,” “Great Gray Horn,” and “Brown Buffalo Horn.” The name “Devil’s Tower” originated in 1875 when Colonel Richard Irving Dodge misunderstood a native name to mean “Bad God’s Tower.”

Whatever the name, Devil’s Tower is absolutely striking. Rising from the gentle rolling hills and plains of northeastern Wyoming, the Tower’s igneous rock formation looks like a giant’s tree stump, perhaps, or a maybe a Titan’s fire hydrant. From summit to base, it’s 867 feet, with the summit topping out at 5,112 feet above sea level (about the same as Denver). Interestingly, it was also the first US national monument, established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.

Although you’re not allowed to climb Devil’s Tower, there’s still a lot to do here, from hiking around the park to watching Close Encounters every night, projected on the side of the visitor’s center wall (a very cool experience). And of course, there’s the bungee jumping.

At 6’1”, Lars is a big, sturdy Dutch dude with a taste for adrenaline. When hearing that you can bungee out of a hot air balloon in the visitor center parking lot, Lars is all in – except for his prosthetic right leg – which he takes off and leaves with me before he going up in the balloon. “Guard it with your life!” he directs me, as his basket lifts off into the air.

As if someone is going to steal it from me.

A short while later, there’s Lars hanging from a hot air balloon, waving his arms wildly and kicking out with his stumpy leg for exclamation, and all I can think is how dramatic it would have been if he had actually worn the prosthetic. Imagine the shock of the bungee operators if he had suddenly taken off the fake leg and started yelling, “Look what you guys did. You tied the bungee cord too tight!”

Happily for me (as his tour guide), Lars and his balloon return to earth safely. Although bungee jumping is pretty safe, statistically speaking, the last thing I want on this trip is a close encounter of the worst kind.

(During my journeys around the world, I often pinch myself, amazed at where my crazy path in life has somehow taken me. How did I end up looking at the peak of Mount Fuji at sunrise or the Taj Mahal at sunset? How am I lucky enough to be hiking the Annapurnas in Nepal or dining in a 5-star restaurant atop the best hotel in Rome? Similarly, I also pinch myself when my situation has entered the territory of the absurd, like the time I found myself, late at night in rural Saga, Japan – dressed as a samurai — pedaling a bicycle through the drive-thru of a local Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant with my friend, Mike, himself decked out in a gorilla suit. How do these things happen? In such instances, I think it’s worth taking a beat to be thankful that life offers up so many surprises, and that you’re fortunate enough to be living at this very moment in time, experiencing one of them. Try to do this sometime today – stop, breathe, look around and be grateful for the gift of the wonderful/insane/absurd present.)