After threading a nylon climbing rope through my harness, my son, Tom, tied it off with a figure-eight knot, pulled the slack taut through his belaying device, leaned back and nodded.
"On belay!" he announced.
"Ready to climb," I replied, taking a deep breath.
"Climb on!" Tom called.
I jammed the toes of my right foot into a tight crack about 3 feet off the ground.
This was my start up Wyoming's fabled Devils Tower, one of the world's most celebrated monoliths made even more famous in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
I laboriously proceeded part way up the near-vertical face, paused to catch my breath on a narrow shelf, and peered down. My legs trembled and I clutched the rope in a death grip.
All right, full disclosure: I wasn't actually climbing the real Devils Tower, but a scale model housed inside the Campbell County Recreation Center in Gillette, Wyoming, where my son now lives.
There is absolutely no way I would ever, under any circumstances, try to scale the actual tower, which soars dramatically 1,267 feet above the surrounding terrain, for a variety of good reasons – the best one being I'm terrified of sheer drops.
I've climbed to nearly 20,000 feet in the Andes, 14,000 feet in the Himalayas and 11,000 feet in the Alps, but on each of those occasions both my feet were planted firmly on the ground at all times.
And whenever a mountaineering route has taken me close to a precipice I detour wide of the lip and clutch every tree or rock along the way.
This healthy trepidation was reinforced a few days after my abbreviated indoor ascent a couple of weeks ago when Tom and I visited the real Devils Tower during a short hiking trip to Wyoming and South Dakota.
Instead of driving to a parking lot adjacent to the tower we left our car at the visitor's center a couple miles below and proceeded up a well-worn trail leading to the base. President Theodore Roosevelt declared Devils Tower the first U.S. national monument in 1906, and today the park encompasses 1,347 acres.
Of the 400,000 annual visitors, about 1 percent register to climb the tower, and on the day Tom and I arrived two men were inching their way up the south face.
From our position only a few hundred yards away we could hear them discussing their options, and I found myself trembling so hard I had to look away.
Tom and I spent about half an hour circumnavigating the tower's 1.3-mile base trail, and when we came back to the spot where the climbers were in view they hardly seemed to have moved. I couldn't tell if they were going up or down, and since the sun was slowly sinking in the late-afternoon sky I sorely hoped they were descending.
It was time for us to head back down, too, since we had also hiked about 6 miles earlier in the day in South Dakota's Spearfish Canyon, an outrageously beautiful gorge with sheer limestone cliffs framed by a dense forest of spruce, pine, aspen and birch.
Though the elevation was lower than South Dakota's 7,242-foot Harney Peak, which we scaled a few days earlier, there was considerably more snow in Spearfish Canyon because steep walls keep much of the ground in shadow.
A few times Tom and I strayed from the packed surface we wound up post-holing past our knees.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Harney, Spearfish and Devils Tower, the highlight of our excursion was a 10-plus-mile hike through South Dakota's 242,756-acre Badlands National Park, where our route across prairie and hardpan weaved past eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires.
According to the calendar it was still winter, and I brought with me with mountaineering gear anticipating ferocious March winds, heavy snow and ice. It might as well have been May, though, and we enjoyed bright sun, gentle breezes and temperatures approaching 70 degrees.
The unseasonably mild conditions also brought out thousands and thousands of prairie dogs, which barked, scurried into their holes and popped their heads out when we approached.
I was concerned that the appearance of the furry critters would trigger the arrival of another Badlands species – rattlesnakes – but a park ranger seemed to think the poisonous reptiles were still hibernating. Just to be safe, though, he suggested, "Watch where you're stepping."
Tom had seen one of the snakes when he hiked over the same trails in October, and said he might have trod on it if it hadn't shaken its tail.
Away from the trail we also spotted dozens of grazing bison, and after studying their enormous horns I was happy to keep our distance.
We began our hike on the Castle Trail at a parking lot near the Door/Window rock formation, not far from the Ben Reifel Visitors Center. We did not see another person until we emerged 5 miles later at the park road near the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a quarter-mile, family-friendly and handicapped-accessible loop that explains the origins of the badlands and displays fossilized remains of exotic animal inhabitants dating back 23 million years to the Oligocene Epoch, including hyracodon and subhyracodon, two types of rhinoceros; merycoidodon, sheep with scary-looking fangs; and a giant pig with tusks known as archaeotherium.
After examining the exhibits we headed back to the Door/Window parking lot, detouring on the Medicine Root Trail.
Having been conditioned to East Coast hiking, which often involves tripping over roots and getting whapped in the face by branches, Tom and I thoroughly embraced the smooth, flat, impediment-free surface of the Badlands.
I was also very happy that we weren't hiking there during World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Force conducted precision and demolition bombing exercises.
This was my first trip to the region, and I'm already planning a return this summer to take in Yellowstone, the Bighorns and the Tetons.
This summer also marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, and as Tom and I gamboled over the expansive, majestic terrain we both found ourselves humming a favorite song:
"This land is your land
This land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the redwood forest
To the Gulf Stream waters.
This land was made for you and me."