I admit that my love of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind inspired this year’s summer road trip. The Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming had played a pivotal role in the film and, after touring all the great UFO hot-spots in the Southwest last year with the other Dave, seemed like the next logical place to go. This amazing geologic feature is considered sacred to Native Americans and is also this country’s very first National Monument with no short thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt. Despite its history, I don’t think I’m alone when I site Close Encounters as my first introduction to it.
I was seven years old back when the film was released and, at that time, much more enthralled with another 1977 blockbuster, STAR WARS. My only connection to the film was via a “bendy” alien figure my Grandma bought me (Grandma always understood my interests better than my idiot parents did).
The age of VHS tapes coincided with my teenage years and though I’d watched Close Encounters commercial TV airing when I was twelve, it wasn’t till then that I’d get my first real introduction to it. I was completely blown away by the amazing story as well as Richard Dreyfuss’ performance. I shared the excitement his character felt watching UFO’s light up the night sky on the big screen despite never having witnessed any myself. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of alien visitors and do consider myself a believer. With the exception of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), aliens coming in peace had been a rare concept for Hollywood. Close Encounters did an amazing job replacing our innate fear with a sense of childhood wonder. This was a direct reflection of the Director himself.
Steven Spielberg, had been fascinated with UFO’s since his youth and while watching the Perseids Meteor Shower with his father. He had long wanted to make this picture but it wouldn’t be until his success with JAWS that he’d have the clout to do so. The film’s lead, Richard Dreyfus, actively sought the role of Roy Neary during the filming of JAWS despite Spielberg’s initial trepidation. He was finally cast after pitching the idea that Roy should be an adult man who’s still very much a child at heart and, in that respect, Dreyfuss hit a grand slam; at least from the eyes of this man/child.
In the film, Roy is compelled to visit the Devil’s Tower and works out his visions via sculpting; most notably with his mashed potatoes. I had it in my head that I was going to take a photo in front of the Devil’s Tower holding my own spuds replica of Roy’s. The hard part was keeping them fresh for the three days it took me to get there.
I found a spot on the road ideal for taking the picture and, after we exited the car, saw a bison grazing across from us. It was postcard like scene I’ll never forget and I was never more grateful for my own visions of doing goofy photo ops.
We opened the cooler and removed our container of mashed potatoes which, unfortunately, had become water-logged from melted ice that seeped in. It was actually pretty gross and I think the kids and I all threw up in our mouths a bit while working with them. Finally, I was ready to take the photo but the sun was directly in my face which made it really hard to focus even with sunglasses on. It seemed every time I’d finally get the right pose, a car would pass buy and ruin the shot (and Lord knows what they must of thought of me standing out there with a plate of mashed potatoes).
After several takes I was finally satisfied and returned to the car with my kids who were laughing their heads off.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“We’ve never heard you drop the F-bomb so many times in your life!” they responded.
I wasn’t sure whether or not the United States National Park Service would embrace the film or pretend it didn’t exist. Obviously, I was hoping for the former but it is a government agency, after all, and we’re talking about a movie featuring extraterrestrials. Before entering the Monument’s main gate, there’s a large gift shop called Devil’s Tower Trading Post. We pulled in amongst an army of motorcycles which was indicative of the 77th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally taking place the following week. This whole road trip made me want to re-watch the “Sons of Anarchy” series.
We arrived early so there weren’t many people in the store. I should mention that after our visit to the Tower we stopped back here for soda and the checkout line stretched to the back. For fans of Close Encounters, this shop was like having died and gone to Heaven! This was one of several times during this trip that I was sorry for not having the other David here to share this with. I also wished I’d more money to buy us BOTH a ton of souvenirs!
After purchasing our passes, we headed down a winding road that led to the Visitor Center. While on the way, we passed “prairie dog town,” an assortment of borrows where the people-friendly rodents would come out and beg for treats (despite the sign telling folks not to feed them).
Parking for this Monument is VERY limited but we struck gold by getting the last space and one that was right near the trail that led up to the Tower.
I should mention that despite its protective status, you are allowed to climb the Tower to a certain level before getting a permit to scale the rest. In fact, there were several people doing so during our visit and they all appeared like specs.
We walked the trail around the Tower which, after all the driving we’d been doing, was just what we needed. The kids would later say this spot was their favorite part of the trip and I completely agree.
Before leaving we stopped inside the official Devil’s Tower gift shop and, though it offered mostly earthly goods, they did have Close Encounters items too. This included a 40th Anniversary T-shirt that I really wanted but would have to spend six months at a fat farm before I’d be skinny enough to fit in it. Needless to say, it was nowhere as good as the Trading Post though I was happy to see them pay tribute to the movie.
It was a beautiful August day and the Tower was, indeed, breathtaking. If Close Encounters was real, I’d have to commend the aliens on their impeccable choice of rendezvous spots. Tomorrow I’ll be seeing my first post-Devil’s Tower viewing of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and on the big screen. The film is getting another theatrical release celebrating its forty-year milestone and I’m looking forward to seeing it and with fellow fans. For me it’s a second chance after missing it back in ’77. I’m even thinking of bringing along that old bendy alien figure with me. It’ll certainly be easier to travel with than a pound of mashed potatoes.
Coming Up…The Space Aliens Grill & Bar!