Remember that scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind when Richard Dreyfuss frenetically sculpted his compulsions out of mashed potatoes? Remember the scene where he first sees Devils Tower? If you haven’t seen this movie, maybe you should, as both an anthropological treatise on 1970s American family life and as an artistic rendition of one man’s obsession, as well as a possible metaphor for the spiritual drive by which a person can be obsessed.
Interestingly enough, one of the places Betty and I visited on our whirlwind trip east and back, dealing with my obsession to make a documentary movie, was Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming. As I stood looking up at it, I understood why it was the perfect image of obsession for Close Encounters. There is a power rooted in that stone monolith that sabers you in the innards when you grip that initial view.
We first saw it from Wyoming State Highway 24, just south of Hulett. The monolith shoots up about 1300 feet above the Belle Fourche River and the surrounding meadows and escarpments, and announces the western edge of the Black Hills.
Betty and I arrived at Devils Tower after passing through Belle Fourche, South Dakota. Belle Fourche is French for, according to the lady who worked the counter in the local Conoco service station, Beautiful Fork. The river, upstream from the town of Belle Fourche toward Devils Tower, is beautiful: sometimes a valley with fields of hay, black cows, red cows, pinto horses; sometimes a gorge with red-rimmed cliffs topped with juniper and ponderosa. The river horseshoes, oxbows and arrows northeast towards the Cheyenne River, which joins the Missouri, which joins the Mississippi on its obsessive journey towards the sea.
I had no intention on staying in Belle Fourche long. I just wanted to see where Billy Otis (more about Billy later) is from. They were tearing up the main drag in Belle Fourche, sawing concrete, unloading base material, pounding stakes, surveying, giving the surrounding buildings a pale, concrete-colored cast. There was a well-kept grain elevator on the railroad tracks that ran right through the middle of town. There was a bar, some cafes, an Art Deco movie house that looked like it was still showing films. There was a building downtown that harbored information about Belle Fourche being the geographic center of the United States, that is if you include Alaska and Hawaii in the mix. All the frenetic roadwork and drive to spend Belle Fourche’s share of the stimulus money reminded me once again of our need—not just our want—for mammon.
As we drove up and down the street dodging traffic used to dealing with the particularities of the road-building, I noticed characteristics of a place that gets cold. Cold and windy. Blistered paint, roughed up paint, no paint at all. I understood why Billy Otis headed south to Arizona where I knew him.
I first met Billy when I was a student obsessed with being a cattleman. I registered in his artificial insemination class at a junior college in Arizona. Billy was a cattleman then, too, and ran a company, if I remember right, that did breeding management plans for ranches, which included artificial insemination. We sat in the classroom all day Saturdays back then in 1972 as he lectured us about semen, and cervix, and the right kind of working pens. Once or twice we got to journey to the state prison at Florence, Arizona, and actually worked on inseminating and pregnancy-testing the old, beat-up Holstein cows in the prison dairy herd.
Years later, I ran into him again while we both worked for J. R. Norton, III’s agricultural empire, in the cattle feeding division. Billy and I helped wind down and phase out the big Spur Feeding operation on the Gila Indian Reservation at Santan. We did a lot of drinking and carousing as we looked at cattle, gave tours to visiting mid-westerners from the National Cattleman’s Association, climbed around in a storage bin hefting double handfuls of burnt beet pulp, assessing it for nutritional value as a component in the feed we milled for our cattle.
I can see him in my memory, a can of Coors in his stubby right hand, a load of snoose crammed in his lower lip, his grey and battered Stetson hat with the work stains just above the sweat band. He always wore long-sleeved shirts and high-priced but well used cowboy boots. His shirts, in my mind anyway, were always plaid, a modest plaid with modest colors. Many mornings we began long before sun-up and ended long after dark as if intent on gathering together everything life could possibly offer, whether good for us or bad. After Spur Feeding shut down, I lost track of Billy.
A couple of years ago, my friend Ray Fred Kelly told me Billy is now an evangelical pastor. What a surprise, but then maybe it shouldn’t be. Everywhere Betty and I traveled this last summer we saw evidence of a strong return to spirituality—or maybe it was always there and I just hadn’t paid attention. Traveling across America we saw Burma Shave-sized signs spouting scripture, and a proliferation of highway billboards singing the praises of Jesus Christ, and evidence of Christian activity on all levels. And Jewish stuff, and Buddhist, and at Devils Tower, Native American activity. All around the base of the mountain, where the scree and scrabble had tumbled down for eons, little shrines supplicated—bird feathers, snippets of red and blue and orange fabric, white animal bones—to the deities of the mountain. The National Park Service had signs posted, alerting visitors to the sacred nature of those places. This was not something to chuckle at; it was serious stuff.
I already had a notion that Devils Tower was sacred to this continent’s original human inhabitants. I saw it in the 1989 Native-American cult classic film titled Powwow Highway. In that movie, so different from Close Encounters, the movie’s protagonists, played by Gary Farmer and A Martinez, scramble atop the tower and conduct spiritual ceremonies that propel them into a more arduous physical and spiritual journey in search of who they are and what their lives mean. I suppose Betty and I were searching for something like that on our journey that led us to Belle Fourche, and Devils Tower, and later that day, Lame Deer, Montana and then the Little Big Horn.
But then again, that’s what the characters in Close Encounters were seeking, too, when I think of it, and the spirituality was represented in the metaphor of aliens from some other galaxy. I’m not sure how I feel about God or Jesus, or Yahweh or Buddha or the other deities that can be worshiped and prayed to at Devils Tower. And do I dare ask if all these spiritual quests are some sort of obsession? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that my journey to get to DC, to Wyoming, back to Idaho, the journey inside myself, this story I am obsessed with telling, way back in the back of my mind, and creeping up my spine, represents more than stimulus money, pocket change, fame, a greasy cheeseburger and a thick chocolate milkshake. I suspect Billy Otis knows that, too, as do the men and women who maintain their shrines at the base of Devils Tower.