Road Trip Day 7: From Plains to Prairie

After only about ten minutes of driving this morning, I crossed into the state of Wyoming. Whereas most of the road in South Dakota passed through flat, unchanging farmland, the scenery in Wyoming was much more interesting– Wyoming doesn’t have farmland, it has pasture, and the difference is significant. Farmland is flat and tame; pasture is rolling hills, and wild prairies, and rock formations jutting from the scrub brush landscape. Pasture also means that on occasion, your drive will be interrupted by cowboys and cowgirls (cowpersons?) driving herds of steer down the road:

Maybe it was just the novelty of the prairie, but I haven’t been this enthralled with a landscape since the first time I saw the Alps. Every single view was unique, with dozens of different things to draw the eye: a herd of cows appearing as brown or black specks in the distance; a dark green pine forest stretching over the distant hills; massive sandstone cliffs near the roadside; a winding river carving its way across the prairie; or even just the clouds, which seem so much more dramatic over wide-open grasslands than they do back home.

If that’s not enough, then occasionally Wyoming steps it up a notch. Exhibit A: Devils Tower.

Okay, so here’s the story: fifty million years ago, this landscape wasn’t on the surface of the Earth at all– it was over a mile underground. At some point, maybe as part of a volcano, or maybe as part of an upwelling that didn’t reach the surface, magma from the Earth’s mantle thrust upward and cooled, forming a massive lump of igneous rock. When the surrounding sedimentary rock eroded away over the course of millions of years, the harder igneous rock was left: Devils Tower. And it’s still being exposed: rain, wind, and the nearby Belle Fourche River are still doing their work on the surrounding rock. In another million years, it could be even more impressive.

Below, you can see Devils Tower in the distance, behind some of the softer sandstone cliffs that were/are being eroded away:

Later in the day, I drove through the Bighorn Mountains. At one pass, I reached 9966 feet elevation, which may be the highest elevation I’ve reached outside of an airplane in about twenty years. Even in the Alps, I didn’t climb any mountains higher than 8000 feet. On the way back down, we drove along the bottom of Bighorn Canyon, and eventually back out onto the prairie.

My destination for the night was Cody, Wyoming– tomorrow, if the roads are clear of snow, I’ll be driving through Yellowstone National Park. For dinner, I did the obvious, after seeing so many cows both along and on the road: I went to a local saloon and had a giant slab of authentic Wyoming steak.

The meal cost almost as much as my motel room. It was totally worth it.