Late Spring 1978, Clarksville Drive-In, Indiana — The car bounced to a halt on the uneven ground, some concoction between gravel and grass. I clamored out of the back seat and onto the hood, where I would remained perched for the next couple of hours in brazen defiance of the sneaking suspicion that there were better places to watch a movie than sitting on the hood of a Chevy Vega hatchback. But at the same time, there really weren’t better places, not as far as I was concerned. The spring had come on warm and velvet, and the twilight world around me was a riot of noises that all seemed distant even when they were merely a few cars away. Echoing laughter, unintelligible snippets of conversation, music spilling from someone’s radio, and the rumble of engines as other cars rolled in and found their spots. The screen was a giant, silent sentinel against a darkening sky. As the stars flickered into sight like a halo surrounding it, the screen flickered to life to the sound of scattered applause sweeping across the lot. Preliminary business was taken care of, and then the screen grew quietly, ominously black. Music, growing steadily louder, seeped out of the battered old speakers mounted on driver-side doors until it hit a crescendo and the screen became a burst of brilliant white light in the form of a movie title: Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
It was my third time seeing it since its initial release in November of 1977. But this one was special. I was at a drive-in, with outer space stretched out above me as the backdrop. And not just at a drive-in, but at a drive-in in Indiana.
When I’m not working the sci-fi beat for the Gutter, I tend to spend my time obsessing about James Bond, and much of the reason I do is because I find it fascinating that Bond, both in books and film, is a fantasy series in which you can participate. You can go to the locations and hotels and restaurants that Bond goes to, drink what he drank, wear what he wore. It’s all real stuff. There’s an intimate level of real-world interactivity with the fictional universe. In much the same way, Close Encounters was, for me when I was growing up, the point at which lavish science fiction spectacle touched reality. And not just any reality; my reality, in a town, time, and place I recognized. I didn’t have to travel. I didn’t have to imagine. I could step outside my front door and see a world that looked very much like Close Encounters. I could play Star Wars, but I could live Close Encounters. Star Wars was in a galaxy far, far away; Close Encounters was right across the river in Indiana.
Although the collective fever dream that is the Internet assures us we have been obsessed without pause with Star Wars since the day it came out, I remember being obsessed with Star Wars for about the amount of time it took to watch Star Wars. And then a few weeks later, possessed of the flighty mind of a child, I was on to something else and didn’t think about Star Wars again until the next movie came out or the Sears Christmas catalog reminded me I needed to ask for a new Snaggletooth figure. Such was the case with most films, but Close Encounters stuck with me because, like I said, I could see that world all around me. It taught me that even in this place of cow pastures, tractors, and a whitewashed clapboard church, wonder was potentially right over the next hill. That sealed it. I was ready to begin my career as a French guy who runs around the globe investigating mysterious reports.
When the “Special Edition” rerelease of Close Encounters hit theaters in 1980, I was excited to see it all on the big screen. I didn’t know what the hell “special edition” meant. I just wanted to see Roy sculpt those mashed potatoes one more time. However, that experience wasn’t as magical as I’d hoped. I was eight years old, and even at that tender young age, I knew that something had been marred. The gaudy disco show that was the interior of the massive spaceship spoiled the sense of mystery. It made blunt and obvious something that should have been esoteric and unknown. Even Steven Spielberg knew it was a bad idea, but it was the concession he had to make to get permission to recut the film the conform a little closer to his original vision (the original cut had been rushed to meet a release date). I was bitterly disappointed, but at least by then I had the proper version on tape and could return to it, banishing all memory of Richard Dreyfus and his sparkler shower. To this day, I roll my eyes at origin stories and attempts to explain things that should just be left magical.
When Close Encounters was released, there was a UFO club tie-in one could join, which naturally I did. This far past the date, I can’t remember much about it except that you got a pretty slick newsletter from time to time full of UFO news, and that we were implored to “keep watching the skies.” Centerfield, the town where I spent my 1970s, was a town with clear sky, and many were the nights I would lie in the backyard with Mandy, the girl who lived down the lane, and my friend Rowman, who owned a Black Hole t-shirt and cherry red cowboy boots, and watch the daylight dim, marveling as the Milky Way slowly faded into view accompanied by the rising chorus of crickets and frogs and night birds. On any given night you learn that, to your undying excitement, shooting stars are far more common than you might think and, to your bitter disappointment, you cannot see the moon buggy through a Sears telescope. The three of us would keep our eyes open for mysterious objects, of course. We were, it stood to reason, bound to see one sooner or later…if we just kept watching the skies.
Naturally, I became a minor obsessive with other phenomena as well. I was pretty sure the Bermuda Triangle was nonsense, but it still fascinated me. Vanished airplanes. Shady government organizations — of which my friends and I were already suspicious owing to the secret research facilities in the woods back behind my grandfather’s farm. I saw Uri Gellar on That’s Incredible or some such show and immediately couldn’t believe anyone thought this dude was anything but a magician. I became keenly suspicious of Piggly Wiggly trucks — a suspiciousness that I hold onto even today. I developed what I thought and still think is a healthy blend of starry-eyed wonder at the mysteries of the universe and detached skepticism regarding human claims to have experienced them (I was a salt-of-the-earth kind of kid after all, granted a substantial degree of independence by my parents and expected to learn how to take care of myself; people with their flim-flam and their filibusterin’ didn’t fool me). But UFOs hovered above all, because while I couldn’t conduct psychic research (even though in 6th grade we drew up some “psychic testing” cards and wrote Duke University for some parapsychology testing packets, but honestly that had more to do with Ghostbusters than pure scientific inquiry), but I could walk outside and look at the night sky.
In 1982, when my parents announced that we’d be loading up the 2-door 1980 Chevy Cavalier (back when you’d put two kids and a dog in the back seat of a car, instead of buying an SUV the size of a moderate municipality) for a cross-country road trip to Wyoming, I felt a bolt of electricity ripple down my spine. Wyoming. We were going to Devils Tower. Only we weren’t. We went to Cheyenne and Laramie and then a lodge in Medicine Bow, but we never got close to Devils Tower. No matter how many times I dropped the hint, it remained tantalizingly, frustratingly out of reach in the northeastern corner of the state. I felt like Larry, the sad sack who is brave enough to ditch the detention center with Roy and Jillian but too dumb not to stick his face into a cloud of sleep gas on the way, causing him to miss the entire light show at the end. Fuckin’ Larry.
Years passed. Decades passed. And then came the year 2000. The future. I was my own man, free to follow my own path. And I decided the best and only way to properly usher in the new millennium was to: 1) learn how to spell “millennium”; and 2) go to Devils Tower.
Never Twice a Larry
June 2000, Devils Tower, Wyoming — You know it’s coming. Of course you know. It’s the only reason you turned north onto Highway 24 at Carlile Junction. You know it’s coming but it still takes you by surprise as it slowly rises above the distant horizon, especially at sunset just after storm clouds are clearing, with the world streaked red and orange and purple. You’ve seen its picture dozens, hundreds of times, but they don’t prepare you for the sheer…oddness of the Tower. or for the intimate familiarity you feel with such an alien place, one you’ve never actually seen in person until that exact moment when it peeks at you over the plains. A few days earlier, I was in Northern Indiana. Unconscious of the recreation I’m staging, I can’t help but pull off to the side of the road, get out of the car, and just stare at Devils Tower for a while. It’s surreal, even without a massive, city-sized UFO hovering over it.
We’d set out earlier that summer in a car not much bigger than that Chevy Cavalier (but with only one other passenger). I drove north from New York to pick up what remains of the old Lincoln Highway, US20 across the country. The same road, I posited (incorrectly, I might add), that Roy and Jillian took from their homes in Indiana on the same quest. In Valentine, Nebraska we picked up 18 North to 44 West. Rolled into the campground at Badlands National Park late at night and set up camp in the darkness, minutes before a storm that probably seemed more ferocious than it actually was battered us with wind and rain so intense that the plucky little Eureka tent we’d been calling home across the entire country finally buckled. Tent poles cracked. Water seeped in. I learned that, if I’m tired enough, I can actually fall asleep pretty soundly in a small pool of ice-cold water.
The violence of the night gave way to a morning staggering in its drama. Having come in under cover of darkness, we’d seen nothing of the Badlands. Emerging from the tattered, tragic remains of the tent, cold and wet and sore but curiously well-rested, my jaw dropped at what I saw before me. Land so vast, so unlike anything I’d ever seen before, so brilliant in color and crisp that it seemed almost unreal. We wandered an alien landscape for hours before finally packing back into the car and taking a gravel back road through sweeping grasslands dotted with buffalo and prairie dogs to an inevitable pit stop at Wall Drug before picking up US 14 to Rapid City, where we crashed for the night in a neon-soaked motel. Up early the next morning to see Mount Rushmore, which is a quick trip once you realize they don’t let you go up onto the faces to recreate the finale of North By Northwest. From there, north on 385 back to US 14 and, finally, the road to Devils Tower with John Williams’ “Roy and Gillian On the Road” playing on repeat until such time as the ancient volcanic cone came into view, when one was of course obliged to finally let the soundtrack advance to the next track: “The Mountain.”
Even if I hadn’t had it in mind to recreate the scene, it’s difficult not to stop and get out of the car to stare at this strange, majestic thing looming on the otherwise flat horizon. Eyes open for any suspicious-looking Piggly Wiggly trucks, we traveled on, arriving at the campground just as the sun was setting (timing was an issue for much of the trip) and to the news that the campground was full for the night. With few prospects for a night’s sleep other than in the car, pulled off to the side of the road somewhere, we decided to depend on the kindness of strangers. And sure enough, we found a family happy to let us assemble the sad, ragged remnants of our tent alongside theirs. That night, another rain came in, but it was a merciful mist that dampened the inside of our brave, faltering shelter without actually flooding it. The Tower was a black shape against a black sky as tendrils of fog snaked their way through the campsite. Our prospects for spotting a stray UFO were dim in this soup, but of course…wasn’t sudden cloud cover exactly how the UFOs cloaked themselves?
The next morning was softened by haze, but there it was. Devils Tower, partially wreathed in fog and looming over us. Dark, brooding, sacred. Even without Close Encounters, it is the sort of sight that strikes one dumb and demands a period of serious, reverent silence. There’s a reason it’s been a sacred spot since before Europeans decided to claim the Americas as their own, since a giant bear spirit raked it with its claws and gave it that distinctive look so difficult to recreate when sculpting shaving cream or mashed potatoes. Attempts to recreate Roy and Jillian’s desperate scramble to “the far side of the moon” were stymied by the fact that you can’t actually do that legally, and the park rangers seemed unsympathetic even when I revealed I had the soundtrack with me. Instead, we followed the trail through the woods surrounding the giant oddity, spying from time to time a sacred bundle that had been left tied to a branch, circumnavigating the base of the Tower. Despite the crowded campground the night before, we saw few others on that fog-shrouded, utterly silent path.
Upon completing the circuit, I found I was less disappointed by the lack of a secret military UFO meet ‘n’ greet station and have achieved a sense of solemn, satisfying peace. To be honest, the part in Close Encounters when they finally meet the aliens…eh. It was fine, but for me, it was all the stuff that came before that I found more awe-inspiring. That quest for understanding. That frantic search for meaning. That giddy, terrifying, absurd exploration of strange phenomena and Roy and Jillian’s bizarre odyssey across America. Seeing the aliens was dazzling but, at the same time, a sense of mystery is sacrificed. There’s always a melancholy at the completion of an adventure.The climax of seeing the visitors was nothing compared to the sheer relief and joy and wonder expressed by Roy and Jillian when both of them see Devils Tower for the first time. “Roy and Gillian On the Road” is a more enjoyable track than “The Visitors.”
I understood Roy when, as he and Jillian are crouched in the rocks watching the UFOs show off and blast their radios, he said, “We can’t stay here.” But I understood, on a much deeper and more personal level, Jillian when she replied, “I can.”