The devil made us do it

  • Devil's Country

    Diane Sylvain

A recent proposal to change the name of Devils Tower National Monument has fallen through. But even if it had succeeded, Old Nick would have kept a prominent place in the landscape of the West.

Monument Supervisor Lisa Eckert had suggested adding the name "Bear Lodge" to the site. That came at the request of some Native American groups, whose ancestors conducted sacred rituals at the imposing 1,200-foot-high volcanic monolith.

However, area residents persuaded Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin, R, to introduce a bill to block any name change. Her spokesman explained that "Once you start messing around and calling it Bear Lodge, it loses some of its identity." In response, Eckert dropped the suggestion, although Native American activists say they have not given up on the issue.

Whatever happens, we’ll still have the Dirty Devil River in Utah, and I’ll still see the Devils Armchair when I walk home from the post office in downtown Salida, Colo., and gaze at the eastern bowl of Mount Ouray in the Sawatch Range.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s database of place names, there are more than 750 demonic place names in the West. The most popular is Devils Canyon — there are 71 of them. We also have an assortment of Devils Gulches (3), Devil Creeks (17), Devils Basins (5), Devils Peaks (11), and the like, but they don’t really reveal much about their namesake.

For that, you could examine various anatomical parts, starting with the 19 Devils Backbones in California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado. The Devils Head emerges in Colorado, California and Washington. Look around the infernal West, and you can also find the Devils Gut, Nose, Thumb, Elbow, Tooth, Horn, Ribs, Heel, Eyebrow, Tailbone and Throat. Somewhat surprisingly, given our common image of Satan (which comes from the faun, a half-man half-goat wildland creature in Roman mythology), we have no Devils Hoof or Hoofprint, although there is a Devils Toe Creek in Idaho.

It appears that the devil did keep a second home in the West. It had a Chimney in Montana, and Stairs or Stairways in Wyoming, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

As for furnishings, there’s a Devils Footstool in Montana and a Bedstead in Idaho, as well as Chairs and Armchairs in several states. He cooked in the Devils Kitchen of California with a Dutch Oven from Utah, did laundry with a Washboard in Idaho, made butter with a Churn in Oregon, opened wine with a Corkscrew in Montana and got clean on Saturday night at the Bathtub in Arizona or California, so he could go to the Dancehall in Montana.

On Sunday, he might have led the unfaithful from a Devils Pulpit in California or Oregon. Or he could have sneaked off for a few holes at the Devils Golf Course in California, using the Devils Golf Ball from Utah. Why all these devil names on our landscape? The provenance of most is lost to time, but certainly some people believed that the devil lived inside the earth, and so it made sense to name odd-shaped protuberances and escarpments for his backbone, thumbs or horns — whether from whimsy or honest conviction.

As for the others, many of these devil spots are rough places that somebody had to cross once, and "had a devil of a time" doing it. That’s how Devils Slide in Colorado got named a century ago. The Denver, Northwestern & Pacific was then laying rails to cross the Continental Divide at Rollins Pass, 11,660 feet above sea level. To get there, the tracks had to hug the mountainside on a shelf above timberline — but there was a quarter-mile stretch that was nothing but sharp talus. Crossing that treacherous zone required building two side-hill trestles, where the slightest mishap could mean a 1,000-foot plunge into the headwaters of North Boulder Creek.

Steam-powered trains ran over it until the Moffat Tunnel opened in 1928, and the locomotives no longer had to climb the pass.

That’s just one place where people had to "work like the devil" to make a route, and there are scores of others in the West.

So, no matter what happens with Devils Tower in the future, the devil will still adorn our maps. Out here, we seem more than willing to give the devil his due.

The author lives in Salida, Colorado, where he publishes Colorado Central Magazine, and writes for anyone with a checkbook.