It’s the heart of July, that period of summer when both spring and fall feel worlds away. The sun relentlessly beats down, scalding enough to wonder if it has some rude arrangement with the northeastern Wyoming sky that allows it direct access to skin. Despite the pine forest, shade is elusive.
Plastic water bottles in hand, droves of tourists walk the paved trail that circles the main attraction, stopping to gaze upward at the steep columns above. Most who visit do so from the east, the parking lot peppered with license plates advertising the 10,000 lakes of Minnesota, Nebraska’s state bird, or the Show Me State.
Devils Tower is not only a tourist attraction, it’s also a destination for climbers from all over the world, and as climbers return to the flat trail from their forays in the vertical, the onlookers are often bursting with questions, and usually the same three: Did you get to the top? How long did it take? How did you get the rope up? Each answer is received with a gasp, and perhaps an, “Oh, good for you, I could never do something like that.”
But there are the few who do. And most likely, they’ll end up in the hands of Frank Sanders. Sanders, 65, has strong, sinewy legs that protrude daily from shorts. He takes deep breaths, speaks slowly and with emphasis, and lives on a steady diet of coffee, Pedialyte, and cigarettes. He recalls full paragraphs of literature from memory and tells stories with the same wordsmanship as his favorite authors. One year, he climbed the tower every single day.
Sanders operates a bed and breakfast and guiding service just outside of the national monument boundaries, on land that the old park superintendent once occupied. The B&B’s dining room windows show off the steep and impressive west face of the tower, and rooms in the lodge bear the names of various tower routes: Burning Daylight, the Durance Suite, Windows. Every summer, visitors come from all over the U.S. and abroad to meet Sanders, stay at the base of Devils Tower, and maybe climb to the top.
Sanders arrived at the tower in the summer of 1972, hitchhiking west from Tennessee at the suggestion of a climbing mentor, who told him, “Go to Devils Tower-the cracks are straight and you won’t get off route.” He was a strong and passionate climber who would become prolific, with his name behind many of the Tower’s first ascents. Crossing the state border in the passenger seat of a random passerby’s, Sanders laid eyes on the tower as it was lit up by a flash of lightening, remembering this moment as “the first time I really felt the aura, the power of the tower, on me.”
It was an inauspicious beginning: After a rowdy evening at a local bar, young Sanders spent his first night in Wyoming in the county jail. A talented climber, highly intelligent, and well-educated, he was also a loose cannon and a heavy drinker. But Sanders quickly took charge of his life. The day he acquired the land on which Devils Tower Lodge now stands, Sanders checked himself into rehab.
“The ironman who ran triathlons and climbed El Cap and all the rest,” he recalls, “admitted out loud he needed help. At that time I realized I had one choice on my menu: I needed to quit. Ever since then I have worked on putting more choices on my menu.” Sanders saw a life that he wanted, one far away from the picket fences and stifled suburbia of his childhood, one even further from the uncontrolled and unstable bondage of his alcoholism. Frank envisioned a life where, as he says, he can live “in the middle of nowhere, where people come from everywhere,” to take a break from life, gain perspective, and live out their dreams. He envisioned a place where he might provide to others some of the healing and understanding that he has so needed throughout his life. Sanders envisioned a world in which he wanted to live, and then he masterfully created it around himself.
“This is the best job,” Sanders says. “This is the best way to spend life that I have yet found by a long shot.”
Entering Devils Tower Lodge these days, you might stumble across Sanders masterfully playing the piano for enthused guests, possibly even inviting one to join him on the bench to spin a jazz riff. You might find him on the flanks of the tower with a group of clients, casually belaying as he doles out morsels of wisdom known to change life trajectories. You might see him in a quiet moment with a guest, listening empathetically to tales a life gone awry. Or you might catch him at the head of the long, full table in the dining room, his back to a sweeping view of Devils Tower, giving thanks for the friends-turned-family at his table, and for another year of being clean and sober.
“I do know,” he orates, “right now, in this life, with that tower, and the good people around me, it’s about as good as it’s going to get, man, and I want to absorb, every morning, from the time I open my eyes, whatever I’m doing. To take in and collect, and savor. Chew thoroughly, taste all over me, and swallow deep. I don’t want to be selfish–I can share it with other people–but this experience: I don’t want any of it to slip by unnoticed or discounted. Yeah, I’m surely under the influence of the tower.”
The sun is blistering and the tower steep; arms could always be a little stronger and legs nimbler. Yet Sanders and his guests, long before even standing on the summit, have already won. They are the few that, whether under the spell of the tower, or by some other stroke of fate, have tied up their lives and dreams with a figure-8, shoved their hand into the dark crack of the unknown, breathed deeply, and said, “Yes.”
Photos by Sagar Gondalia