July 11, 2006—Kate wanted to see Devils Tower. (Yes, it's spelled without the apostrophe—drives me crazy.) She's a big fan of the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," in which it plays a prominent role. I wanted to see Devils Tower, even though I'm not a fan of the movie. And Terry, as usual, was agreeable to going along. So we left Wheatland and drove 120 miles east to the Wyoming state park nearest Devils Tower: Keyhole State Park, which is about 39 miles away.
At Keyhole we purchased annual camping and day use passes ($100 for both), so dry camping at any Wyoming state park will be free from now on. (As far as I know, no Wyoming state parks offer campsite hookups, though they do have places where you can dump your tanks and fill up with water.) Keyhole is pretty extensive, with multiple campsite clusters, so we asked the ranger which sites would be least crowded. "Homestead," he said, "but you won't be able to see the water from there." We didn't care, so off we went.
Homestead has three campsite loops, and Terry and I found some very pleasant wooded sites in the first loop...but Kate had gone ahead in the Tracker to scout locations, and she soon returned to report that she'd found even better sites, with beautiful views of the lake, in the third loop. As usual, she was right: the new sites were just perfect.
That first evening we were treated to an unusual sunset, with high clouds turning yellow-orange in a sort of Creamsicle pattern. The sun set across the lake from us, which made for wonderful reflections in the water—I'll show you one later.
Our first order of business the next day was to visit Devils Tower. A dirt road provides a shortcut from the state park to the highway that leads to the tower, and we discovered that it traverses a veritable paradise of green fields and rippling streams. We stopped again and again to admire and photograph the pastoral vistas.
The tower is visible from miles away, of course—it lifts 1,280 feet above the surrounding landscape, standing out from the flat land like some prehistoric monument. What makes it even more striking is its peculiar grooved structure: it's actually formed from giant hexagonal stone columns, tightly packed together. Although I'm no geologist, I recognized this at once as being similar to that of sites like Giant's Causeway in Ireland and Devil's Postpile in California.
All these natural features are magma extrusions: liquid rock squeezed up from below the crust, forcing its way through sedimentary rock but not quite reaching the surface—if it had, there'd have been a volcano. Because this basaltic rock was much harder than the layers it had pushed up into, over millions of years the surrounding rock eroded away, leaving Devils Tower to stand alone. Why the hexagonal columns? Because that's how rock this type of fractures when it cools.
We soon discovered that there's a pretty decent National Parks campground right at the base of the tower, and some sites have great views of the tower. We could have stayed here instead of at Keyhole. But it was very crowded and noisy—lots of vacationing families with kids—whereas our campsite at Keyhole is virtually deserted except for us. We prefer the peace and quiet there.
So what we did instead was to make a midnight excursion a couple of days later, on the night of the full moon. Kate and Terry and I piled into the Tracker at about 11:00 p.m. and drove the thirty miles to Devils Tower. Then we looked for a good location in the park, one where the moon would rise behind the tower. A sloping meadow afforded the perfect vantage point, and I was able to capture the instant before the moon rose over the plateau, just as it set the clouds aglow with cold fire. It was a magical scene as the shadow of the tower crept visibly across the brightly moonlit meadow.
The next day we had a visitor: a Lazy Daze even older than Gertie pulled in, driven by my friend Susan Fain. Susan has extensively restored this 1979 rig and driven it 2,500 miles from her home in Maryland to visit friends in Wyoming. We were delighted to meet her and her elderly dog Gus in person.
Susan's rig, "Smokey," is showing its years, but it's still very livable. The fact that this 27-year-old motorhome is still on the road is a testimony to how well Lazy Daze has always built its coaches.
Susan had originally planned to stay at the Marina, a crowded, heavily commercialized concessionaire-operated campground within Keyhole that's the only place in the park with electric power... but one look at our idyllic campsite convinced her to stay with us. Since Smokey has no generator and no solar panels, Kate and Terry ran a cord over to Susan's rig so that she could have power when they were running their generator.
And they opened their WiFi network so that she could use their satellite internet connection. Susan extended her stay by a couple of days, and with the whole campground to ourselves, we all had a good time. Occasionally we'd run into the nearby town of Moorcroft for supplies or to pick up mail.
When we first drove through Moorcroft on our way to Keystone, I was struck once again by the way the highways in and out of town were guarded by railroad crossing-style gates bearing ominous warning signs: "HIGHWAY CLOSED WHEN LIGHTS ARE FLASHING - RETURN TO MOORCROFT." I assumed that these were for winter road closings—Wyoming's blizzards can be severe—but we were soon to learn of another use.
The weather had been growing hotter by the day, and with temperatures above 100° F. and a prolonged drought, inevitably wildfires broke out. We watched with concern as towering clouds of smoke rose to join the clouds. Unlike the small fires we'd seen at Grayrocks, we didn't have a lake between us and the fires... they were just on the other side of the ridge.
Soon the roads in that direction were being closed. As the gates came down, we prepared to leave on short notice if the wind blew the fires our way. There was one benefit: the smoky skies made for especially colorful sunsets.
Temperatures continued to climb, going far higher than I had ever dreamed I'd see in northern Wyoming. The one thing I can't do, despite all my solar panels and all my batteries, is run Gertie's roof air conditioner when I'm not plugged into "shore power." I opened all my windows and ran all five of my fans, but the scorching air was almost unbearable. I spent more and more time in Kate & Terry's coach, because they were able to run their generator in order to power their air conditioner. Not a cheap way to keep cool—we figured it was costing about $1.50 an hour in gasoline—but under the circumstances it was worth every penny.
I was especially concerned about Marie, who at age 17 is in no shape to withstand much heat stress. I took to spraying her with water from a mister every fifteen minutes, as she lay in front of the fan I kept on the floor for her. But even that didn't help much. It'll tell you something about her condition that when I poured a half cup of water directly on her, she just laid there looking grateful. Can you imagine a cat doing that?
At night, thank heaven, it cooled off rapidly once the sun went down. The very low humidity was a help there. But it got hotter and hotter every day, with no relief in sight. The air blown by the fans was like that from an oven. When I'd turn on the faucet, the water felt scalding. When the temperature inside Gertie reached 110°, I couldn't believe it. After all, this wasn't Phoenix!
That night I started having abdominal pains and vomiting. I thought it must be heat exhaustion. The symptoms went away the next morning, but returned with a vengeance that afternoon, even though I'd spent the whole day lying on Kate & Terry's couch in their air-conditioned coach. How could this be heat exhaustion? Finally I asked Kate to drive me to the hospital in Gillette, about 40 miles away.