"Awesome" might just be the most overused word in recent pop culture, as too many folks have too often misused it to describe all manner of things, most of which fall tend to fall woefully short of even being mildly interesting, much less truly awesome. But as I consider the words to describe the incredible scenery I witnessed earlier this month on a trip to Wyoming and South Dakota, "awesome" is certainly appropriate.
This was not my first trip out West, having traveled to the Yellowstone area of southwestern Montana and northwestern Wyoming on a fishing trip years ago. This time my destination was a ranch in eastern Wyoming near the town of Lusk. Two of my friends, Bill Carter and Gary Rhodes, have traveled there to hunt deer and antelope for more than 30 years. Bill had invited me to join them earlier this year to help with the 30-hour drive out, but I opted to do my hunting with camera and tripod rather than a rifle.
By the time we reached the ranch in late afternoon, I was already captivated by the stark, yet magnificent landscape that stretched endlessly in every direction. Fortunately, my friends had yielded to my enthusiasm and stopped occasionally to allow me to snap a few pictures on the way there. Once at the ranch, I amused myself by taking pictures of the flock of 40 to 50 Merriam's wild turkeys that more or less hung around the barnyard there.
The Merriam's subspecies of wild turkey is primarily a western bird and is similar in size to our own Eastern subspecies but displays white and buff feathers on the back and along the wings. While these birds weren't totally tame, they would allow you to approach within 30 feet or so if you were careful. That first evening I was also able to photograph 15 or 20 of them flying up to roost in an old, dead tree, the whole group of them eventually silhouetted against the sunset. During the four days we were there, I took more than 500 turkey photos. How I would love to find such a cooperative flock of Eastern's somewhere close to home.
Since we arrived a day and a half before the deer season opened, we took a drive around the ranch just after daylight to do a little scouting. During that trek, we saw several groups of mule deer does and one small buck. Then we drove to a high spot that allowed us to glass a wide area. While we were there, three nice bucks appeared on the crest of a hill less than 200 yards away.
Seeing some deer certainly elevated the spirits of my hunting companions, and both were successful the following day. Bill took a whitetail buck early the first morning. Mule deer far outnumber whitetails in this part of Wyoming, and that was the first one Bill had taken in his 38 trips there. Gary then shot a nice mule deer later that afternoon.
I spent most of two days crawling around some amazing rock formations about a mile from the ranch house. Each day was bathed in brilliant sunshine, which provided just fantastic photographic light, and I took dozens of spectacular photos there. Some of the formations looked like giant mushrooms as the soft sandstone underneath had eroded away, leaving thick slabs of the harder, darker cap rock sitting on top. Everywhere I looked was more amazing country and so different from what we are used to here in the East.
Since both the hunters had their deer cut and wrapped for the trip home, we decided to leave a day early and due some unscheduled sightseeing on the way home. Our first stop was Devil's Tower National Monument. Although this spectacular natural wonder was only about 100 miles north of where we were staying, neither of my companions had ever seen it either. I am most grateful we decided to do so.
Everyone has probably seen Devil's Tower in the movies or TV documentaries, and even in those mediums, it is most impressive. It is also a stunning sight when you can first see it from the highway nearly a mile away. But standing at the base of the tower and staring upward as it vaults nearly 900 feet into the Wyoming sky is a breathtaking and truly awe-inspiring experience.
From there, we made our way to Interstate 90 and into South Dakota where we entered Badlands National Park later that afternoon. Being a national park, most of the wildlife there is acclimated to humans, and at the first spot we stopped were treated to a group of bighorn sheep literally standing on the road.
But the real attraction there was the thousands upon thousands of acres of incredible geological features, all made even more inspiring by the magic, late-afternoon light. Much of the rock formations looked like giant castles with parapets reaching to the sky. I only wish we would have had the time to hike some of the trails that traversed some of that amazing place.
I shot more than 1,600 photos during the five days we spent in Wyoming and South Dakota. Sorting and editing all those images will probably keep me busy all through this coming winter. That will also help me recall many of the magnificent sights form the trip. In a word, they were awesome, in the truest sense of the word.