I went to the Devils Tower recently with my wife Amy and three year old son Jack. It was a slightly hot day. There was an easily accessible footpath around the entire Tower, but before we had even circled a third of it, Amy began to tire. I in no way blame her for this. It had been a long drive out, and Jack of course wanted to tightrope-walk every fallen log he came across; scale every mini-boulder near the path (you need a permit to climb on the bigger ones near the base of the Tower—not that I would have taken him up there, but there were there, tempting and beckoning both of us all the more). Even a third of the trip took us the better part of an hour.
“Can’t we just head back?” she asked, signing with one hand while helping Jack balance himself on a hip-high rock with another. “We’ve seen it, right? How much different is it going to look on the other side?”
“Amy, we can’t,” I said. “We have to go all the way around.”
“We’re almost halfway. If we get halfway, going all the way around takes nothing more out of us than turning back does.”
She sighed, but she had Jack’s juice bottle, and had taken a long drink from the water fountain near the gift shop below. Any danger of being overcome by the heat was remote at best.
Off to the side of the path was a sign. It spoke of how people—perhaps specifically Sioux braves long ago… I didn’t have time to read it thoroughly because Jack was about to jump from yet another small boulder—were told to come here when they felt a sickness of the spirit. This place would heal them.
I reached out to steady Jack. “When are we coming back here, Amy?” I asked. “Maybe never. To come here and not go all the way around and see it would be sacrilegious.”
Amy rolled her eyes and walked past me, but she was going forward, not back. When we reached the halfway point, her moodiness eased, and in less than a few short hours we made it all the way around.
Hawks circled above us near the summit. I wanted to be one of them, able to see what they did. At one point we passed a solitary climber traversing one of the columns that looked like giant bear claw marks dug into the side of the Tower. This particular column had broken and was leaning against the column next to it. The scale of it was difficult to judge, but if the size of the climber was anything to go by, that single broken column was the circumference of a three-person tent; one of hundreds of such columns. I took just under a hundred pictures.
About a week later, during the second half of our vacation, Amy and Jack went to northwestern Wisconsin to stay with her mother and step-father. I was with them for the first few days and then traveled further north to go camping with my friend Andy near Lake Minocqua. As we sat by the campfire, I recounted the story of our visit to the Tower and of what I said to Amy to encourage her keep going forward.
“Sacrilegious?” Andy asked, puzzled. “Sacrilegious toward what?”
I didn’t have an answer for him at the moment. I wouldn’t have had one for Amy, either, had she asked that day, challenging my desire to keep moving. But I have one now.
Not going on is sacrilegious toward everyone who doesn’t turn back.