Our 2021 Road Trip #32: A Celebrity Signing in Sandstone

William Clark's autograph!

An autograph so rare, it takes an entire national park to serve as its Certificate of Authenticity.

Chasing autographs is usually an activity better suited to our comic cons than to our vacations. This time we had an excuse to peruse one along our path through Montana. We weren’t allowed to take it home, and its signer was unavailable for a jazz-hands photo op with us, but we appreciated the chance for a close look at preserved physical evidence from a real historical figure who’d later go on to costar in a long-running comics series. The giant object containing his personal graffiti was pretty keen, too.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:

Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.

We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.

Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…

After a protracted lunch stop in Billings that we’ll talk about some other time, our next tourist attraction was 200 miles northeast of Gardiner, Day Six’s starting point. Once upon a time on July 3, 1806, the famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark split into two teams on their return trip from the west. While Lewis’ team headed north up the Marias River toward Canada and through the area that would become Great Falls, Clark took his contingent southward into Crow territory, some of which would later end up as Billings. On July 25th Clark found himself in the presence of a sandstone mesa near the banks of the Yellowstone River, which he would dub Pompeys Tower with all the authority invested in him as a white American exploring guy. The eponymous “Pompey” was the nicknamed 1-year-old Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, son of married party members Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. Having named this mighty formation, Clark felt compelled to sign its south face, like a kid writing his name on the foot of his favorite toy, before moving onward toward rendezvous with Lewis on August 11th at the intersection of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. To the best of our knowledge Clark never autographed another big rock for the rest of his life, making this one a unique collectors’ item.

Pompey's Pillar, Montana!

That powerful and precipitous pillar of Pompey’s protrudes from the peaceful plains.

Years later the Tower would be renamed Pompeys Pillar by someone who loves alliteration as much as I do. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, purchased from a local family by the Bureau of Land Management in 1991, and promoted to a National Monument in 2001. That latter bureaucratic favor meant we could enjoy easy admission with the same America the Beautiful Parks Pass that we’d used to zip into Yellowstone the day before. We’d need to enter just one more national park or monument before the pass would officially have paid for itself within a single vacation.

The Pillar stands some 12 stories tall and takes up nearly two acres at its base. Staircases totaling a good 200+ steps lead from ground level to its summit. Outside was well over 90 degrees as that horrid summer-of-2021 heat wave seared its way east across North America trying to catch up and murder us. While my heat-averse son stayed behind in the air conditioned visitor center and passed the time reading every interpretive display, Anne and I braved the elements and trekked onward and upward.

William Clark Bust!

Special features in the interpretive center include this bust of Clark, future star of the Image Comics alt-history series Manifest Destiny

Ranger Monty!

…and Clark’s pal Ranger Monty, standing near Signs O The Times — tributes to the Bureau of Land Management and its pandemic precautions.

canoes and Pillar!

A few outside artifacts include these canoes, presumably of indigenous craft and not from a local 4-H club.

Pompeys Pillar plaque!

The 51-acre park includes a trail or two, which we skipped due to fear of lethal sunshine.

Caution Snakes!

“Please don’t destroy nature around you, and beware nature trying to destroy you.”

Pompeys Pillar staircase!

The upward climb begins. At least there were courtesy steps, no fancy hiking equipment needed.

William Clark signature!

Roughly halfway up is the deck nearest Clark’s John Hancock, behind the glass that looks greenish from this angle.

Pompeys Pillar etchings!

Throughout the years other folks — some local, some not — etched all over the same face. New contributions are no longer welcome.

William Clark Was Here!

The view of the same face from farther up the stairs. Note the security camera on a pole, because seriously, no new taggers.

Pompeys Pillar pinnacle!

The final steps to the observation deck atop Pompeys Pillar, where you can see what Clark and his crew gazed upon.

Yellowstone River!

The Yellowstone River to the west.

Pompeys Pillar panorama!

An anachronistic farm on the other side of the road.

Pompeys Pillar panorama!

Pompeys Pillar precipitously presides over a pleasant plethora of picturesque panoramas.

Anne not dead!

Anne was proud to have made it to the top of Pompeys Pillar without suffering heatstroke, though on that day we used up a lot of the water supply we’d brought along.

Pompeys Pillar down staircase!

One last vista before we descended from the plateau where Clark’s crew walked. One last view of the Yellowstone River and one more security camera.

Later at ground level, my son showed us the scale replica of Clark’s signature they kept in the center for the non-adventurous. He was okay with his vicarious experience and its complete lack of sweat.

And that’s the story of how we profusely perspired as we peregrinated to the peak of precipitous Pompeys Pillar and perused a particular pioneering personage’s preserved penmanship.

To be continued!

* * * * *

[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]

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