Devil's Tower has been on my bucket list for years and years, and luckily this trip it was on the route, dropping down through Montana on our way to South Dakota. I'm usually interested in theming from a design perspective, but occasionally I'd like to comment from a broader one.
All over the world, people are drawn to locations used in favorite movies. I've been on this quest myself many times before, from the Campo San Barnaba church in Venice that appears in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a library to the Hook & Ladder Company 8 Firehouse in New York City which served as the Ghostbusters headquarters. There are entire websites devoted to tracking this stuff down.
One of my favorite such locations of all time (and I've been more than once) is Vasquez Rocks, located in a county park in north Los Angeles. Because of the close proximity to Hollywood studios—it's within the 'local' day rate radius defined by the unions—Vasquez Rocks turns up in everything. Famous westerns from the 50s and 60s. Shlock from the 70s. Action from the 80s. And lots and lots and lots of Star Trek. And spoofs of Star Trek.
This is where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn (that green lizard monster). I personally love the location for its appearance in the pilot episode of Airwolf. My point is, what used to be a quiet backwoods park where people walked their dogs or rode horses is now something of a tourist stop. Fortunately, it's a bit out of the way, so you don't find busloads of people. But every time I've gone to Vasquez, there's at least a few other people there taking pictures, just like me. All because of what they've seen in film and on television. Which means, in an odd way, Vasquez Rocks has a theme—and that theme is whatever and whenever you remember seeing it. If it's Star Trek, that's the theme. Or Bonanza. Or The Six Million Dollar Man. Or whatever.
In Life: The Movie, author Neal Gabler posits that due to the dominance of film and television, all of us relate to 'reality' as a scripted narrative, in which we all play a character, interacting with other people and situations in a completely mediated way. He argues (writing in 1998) that at this point, we can't not do this. It's too late to go back.
I really got a sense of what he was talking about as I looked up at Devils Tower. Although certainly majestic in its own right, and as appealing as any other National Park or Monument that's also been on my bucket list, I was under no illusion as to why I really wanted to see it in person: Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
For anyone who hasn't seen the film, the final act takes place at Devils Tower. This is the site where alien visitors have communicated that they wish to make contact with humanity. The government has chased everyone away with a cover story that a train wreck has released toxic nerve gas. Those who have had a 'close encounter' like Roy have been haunted by mental images of the tower, and are compelled to go there to meet the aliens. Both Roy and Jillian (her son was abducted, and she too has been called to the tower) persist despite the black helicopters trying to stop them from reaching the landing site that NASA has hastily put together. The movie ends with Jillian's son being returned to her, and Roy being personally chosen by the aliens to come aboard their ship and leave earth.
Because Devils Tower is so central to the plot (from the moment Roy starts shaping it out of mashed potatoes at the dinner table) and because the entire finale was shot there, this National Monument is sort of the icon of the movie. It's like the logo of Close Encounters.
During a trail hike around the base, I dutifully snapped a photo from a vantage that matched my mental image of the tower. It wasn't difficult to do, having watched the film the night before in my motel room. But I was still surprised how close I got to the actual shot shown in the film.
While eating lunch at a diner at the base of Devils Tower (attached to a KOA campground, across the street from a giant gift shop), I noticed this display case of toys, games, clothing, and various promotional swag. These tourist traps just outside the National Monument boundaries are not shy in the slightest about the Close Encounters connection. I admit, I bought a fridge magnet that says "I WAS THERE" in a sci-fi looking typeface with a picture of the mothership lights over the tower. 2017 was the film's 40th anniversary, and there were special t-shirts being sold in the National Parks ranger station. They were out of my size.
This was super cool though; in the same diner there was a 1970s vintage Close Encounters pinball machine in the corner, near the display case. While it wasn't plugged in, it was remarkably well preserved.
The illustrations on the pinball machine have that comic book adaptation look; resembling the film, but not quite right, with outrageous colors. Notice the prominent Devils Tower graphic.
What I realized while visiting Devils Tower is that the mediated themes of these film locations override any other way to experience them. I suppose if I had never seen Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I could experience the tower with fresh eyes, and see it simply as a wonder of nature; it would be like the Grand Canyon, or Monument Valley... wait not Monument Valley, that's been in countless Westerns. The buttes of the landscape telegraph 'Old West' to even people who have never seen a single John Ford film; they've been used in television shows, commercials, advertising, and parodies.
Even if I'd never seen the movie before, Devils Tower is on the Close Encounters poster, on the VHS, on the DVD cover. I might have glimpsed it while renting another film, seen it in a store while browsing for something else. I'd have to have avoided quite a bit of popular culture—certainly a huge swath of science fiction—to not have come across it at least once, if only by accident. And if not... I might have spied it in the diner, in that display case. Or on the shirts at the ranger station.
George Lucas once quipped that one of his biggest regrets is that he's never seen Star Wars. By that he means that his perspective is unavoidably internalized as its creator; he was never able to line up like the public, see it uniquely and for the first time, like anybody else.
In that sense, I'll never see Devils Tower.