Monday, October 01, 2012

The Trip Home - Pompey's Pillar

Back in Junior High, I read a version of the Lewis & Clark Journals for a report - totally enthralled with the story of their expedition in the early 1800's into territory that was mostly unknown save for the trappers and fur traders who had ventured into the lands west of the Missouri River. As my dad took us on weekend trips around Idaho and Montana, we often saw historic signs indicating we were on the same path taken by Lewis and Clark. I'd always wanted to see Pompey's Pillar, named after Shoshone Indian guide Sacajawea's baby boy, but for some reason, our family trips never took us there. But I could go see it now since I was passing so near to the spot and had the time.

I feared that I had envisioned a more impressive formation than actually existed, and I was right to fear that. At first sight, I was disappointed with what looked like just a bluff jutting out. It was hard to envision why Lewis & Clark as well as the travelers that followed were so impressed with this. I chalked it up partially to having just seen the Badlands.

Looking SW from top of Pompey's Pillar

Looking more west out over the Yellowstone River

Looking NE from top of Pompey's Pillar
According to the journals, Clark climbed to the top of this pillar to survey the countryside. As part of the National Park System, modern visitors can climb stairs and boardwalks to gain the same view. That's the Yellowstone River which the party had traveled on.

In fact, back in Lewis & Clark's time, the Yellowstone flowed closer to the pillar. In the interpretive center, I found an early picture of the site from the mid-1800's and I was surprised that there were no trees surrounding it as there are today. That would definitely make a difference as to how impressive it might look from a distance, how it would stand out on the plain. This shot is taken on the "back side" between the river (behind me) and the pillar.

And a shot of the Yellowstone River where it passes near the pillar.

So you really can walk all the way around the pillar. This shot is looking more or less east back towards the Interstate. Clark said he could see ample herds of buffalo and other game on those plains. I'm still whining about how essentially flat everything is.

So I stood at the base of Pompey's Pillar and let it impress me for what it was - a really huge sandstone outcropping that humans have been visiting for one reason or another for centuries. Native Americans called it "the place where the mountain lion lies" - perhaps because they thought it resembled the head of a mountain lion (I'm not the only one with a vivid imagination).  They had been drawing petroglyphs on it long before white travelers started carving their names in it. Most of those names were carved along a section on the right of this picture - in the larger version look for poles that indicate the platform for viewing these.

But near the base on the front of the pillar I spotted this, which may be some of those older petroglyphs. I mused that when ancient people "tag" rock formations, they are held in reverence and awe. When more modern man does similar things, we think of it as defacing nature and vandalism. Granted, not much artistic about carving your initials in rock...

The birds make good use of the upper reaches of the outcropping, mudding in their nests.

But for most of the visitors, it is the old signatures carved into the pillar that is the main draw. The most famous is sealed behind a protective barrier. Some belong to the Lewis & Clark Expedition members, others are later - pioneers moving west by wagon train, trappers and traders, more modern tourists.

Yes, I was interested in those signatures, but I was also interested in the rock formations themselves, and of course, the trees. Yes, I took lots of pictures, some of which I'll share in the next post. Inspiration abounds!   

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