Saturday, November 30, 2013

See This Place Before You Die


No, not Four Corners even though that was where we stopped first.  Both Amy and I had been there as kids but neither of us remembered how spare the little exhibit was.  It’s basically a bronze plaque on the ground showing you the corner of each of the four states that intersect there and then two other plaques explaining how the surveyors plotted out the boundaries between the states.  Of course the kids enjoyed it for the same reason I did all those years ago:
“Now I’m in New Mexico.”
“Look at me I’m in Colorado and you’re in Arizona!”
“Which way is Popo’s house?  Let’s walk there!”
All three of the kids were impressed by the different flags that were flying overhead: one not just for each of the states but also for the Navajo nation and for the Ute Mountain Indians whose reservation occupied most of the Colorado part of the four corners area.

We bought some Navajo jewelry for Amy and our kids and for Jenny and Owen’s kids too since we would be in Corvallis, OR soon.  The necklaces all sported little brown nut like objects in addition to the beads, turquoise, and metal.  After learning Juniper’s name one of the artists explained to us that the little hard brown nuggets were actually husks from Juniper berries.  She said the squirrels eat the berries and hollow out one side of the husk.  All the beader has to do is to poke a hole in the other side and the husks are ready to be strung.  Ava listened very carefully to all this.  I could see the artist gears turning in her head.

We set back out on the road past the Ute Mountain looming snowless on our right, tempting us with its modern casino, but even here babysitters elude us.  LOL.  Soon we were in Utah on a two lane road through an empty desert with absolutely no cell service.  I’m not sure when we noticed the skyline.  Perhaps when the road curved north and the glare of the midafternoon sun briefly abated.  In the distance we could see shadowy outlines of enormous towers of rocks groping toward the cloud flecked sky.  Even from our distant vantage point you could tell how vast the area was by the different shades of darkness the rocks assumed across the entire northern horizon.

I didn’t mind the lack of phone service.  Truly the only thing I enjoy using more than my oh so versatile Cabela’s pocketknife is my Road Atlas, the one and only thing we purchased at ultra-hip and thus expensive REI.  While plotting our route toward Arches National Park I saw a little red dot labeled “Valley of the Gods” about two hours south of Moab, UT.  Amy thought the name sounded promising and I liked the fact we would have to use the map to get there.

On the way we drove through the tiny town of Bluff, UT.  It wasn’t even really a town as much as a roadside stop with a few houses off to one side of the red dirt road that snaked out from the highway.  A 50s era sedan, colorfully decrepit, waited in front of an old shop just off the main road.  The tires still looked good but the dust belied its lack of roadworthiness.  The shop was closed and its dusty windowpanes were too dark to reveal what was inside.  It looked like it was an old home or perhaps a service station that had been converted to serve other purposes, as if the stranded automobile had necessitated an abrupt career change for the owners. 

We parked in front of the diner across the street so Amy and I could get out and lean our heads back to take in the two enormous rocks each precariously balanced atop its own stone spire.  The two colossal towers looked almost exactly alike hence their name Navajo Twin Rocks.

Outside the diner my prediction came true.  A woman came up to us and offered us a “Keep Utah Wild” sticker for our carrier.  I just had a feeling…

We continued northwest on the highway until we came to the dirt road entrance to Valley of the Gods.  There was no visitor center, no parking lot, no one around as far as the eye could see.  It felt like we had found some kind of secret treasure.

Down the bumpy red dirt road, across small gullies, up and down grades as we traversed the floor 
of the valley toward the enormous bluff we had been able to see from the highway.  Soon we could see how this place had gotten its name.

As the road took us closer to the base of the bluff enormous rock formations lumbered toward us, then froze, captured in the slow death of erosion as they had been for the last million years.  A signpost at the very beginning of the drive had given us mile markers and names so we would know they were called things like “The 7 sailors” and “The Hen.”  Perhaps we give these things names to make it easier to take them in, to grasp their magnificence without thinking about the ominous forces that rendered them.

About midway through the drive we stopped and ate sandwiches around the ice chest.  It was so still it felt like the sound of our breathing might travel for miles.  But even if it did there was no one around to here.  Just us and these bizarre stone figures.  Some looked like warriors standing guard over something long forgotten.  Perhaps time itself.  

Ava decided to climb one of the rocks and the rest of the kids quickly followed suit.  8 Ball valiantly tried to keep up with them but eventually resigned himself to barking at them from Amy’s heels.  I’ve rediscovered how much I like to climb on this trip so I was right behind them.  Fearless Ava was disappointed we didn’t have time for her to go to the very top.  She also doubted my belief that we would probably need some kind of climbing gear to ascend the smooth sheer wall above her.  Her confidence is infectious.

Right before we left Ava unearthed what we eventually decided was a piece of coral, left behind from the vast expanse of ocean that once covered this place.  Below that is a picture of the cairn of 5 rocks we constructed at the base of a juniper tree to commemorate our visit here.  I wonder how long it will last...

We followed the dirt road out and then turned back toward the main road, passing through Bluff again before we hooked up with the northbound US highway that would take us to Moab, UT.  We had to stop to let these cows cross on the way.

It was a long drive for how tired we all were by then but there was nowhere else to stop in the desert.  Amy and I made a solemn pledge to return here to camp in the summer but the sub-freezing temperatures forecast for tonight kept us from entertaining the idea this time.  Until then we can only imagine what it would be like to wake up in the shadows of those inert gods, watching over our family even as time slowly turned us and everything else to dust.  

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park is one of the largest preserved examples of indigenous American cliff dwellings in North America.  We climbed a winding road of switchbacks up the rugged mountainside with the Mountain Range looming out of the background.  The road was very narrow and guardrails were unfortunately reserved for only the most precarious precipices so poor Amy did a little bit of sweating and back seat driving on the way up.  I would like to point out that this gal was basically fearless when I met her, but she is just so attached to these wonderful little babies of ours that cliffs that spell certain death mean something a little different now that we’re all grown up.

This vantage point wasn’t even halfway up but it offered a fantastic view of the town of Mancos and the San Juan mountains beyond.  After 20 miles of switchbacks and 45 minutes the road leveled out and we drove through a wide expanse of burned trees and wispy yellow prairie grass masking the blackened earth beneath.  The brittle leafless branches reached up to the relentless blue sky.  It felt like we were some kind of sole survivors, roaming across the narrow blacktop that no longer led anywhere.

The log wood exterior of the visitor center seemed perfectly suited to the rugged landscape.  Amy and Juniper walked through the museum while Ava and Sullivan and I took the trail down to the cliff dwellings.  You could see them from the visitor center, mud houses built into a hollow indention in the side of the cliff wall.  The trail was steep but paved and pretty much a walk in the park compared to Old Man Cave.  Not wanting to get overconfident I still had both of them hold my hand on the way down.   The path leveled out and then snaked along the side of the escarpment until we came to the 1400 year old settlement.

The Spruce Tree House is the best preserved of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.  Some of the mud walls climbed all the way to the top of the rock ceiling.  The windows were incredibly square.  Through them you could glimpse the intricate system of rooms and different levels beyond.  The wood and grass roofs had long since disintegrated but the deep round kivas below were well preserved, each with its own venting system and a recessed section in the middle for a fire, vented out through the same opening the ladder was dropped down through.  Kivas were believed to be used for ceremonial community activities; the tops of them served as the town square.

The upper covering of one of the kivas had been restored so you could climb down in it to see what it would have been like to spend time with family there hundreds of years ago.  Sullivan was a little intimidated by the darkness below the top of the ladder but he took the plunge with some encouragement from Ava and me.  The kids and I speculated about what people might have stored on the shelves built into the circular walls.  We agreed it had been a necessary innovation to keep food and other items from getting dusty.

We climbed back up and I encouraged the kids to ask the ranger some of the questions I had been unable to answer.  We learned that the ancient peoples who lived there ate deer and rabbits as well as corn.  Apparently there were toe and hand hold paths that led up to the top of the cliff where corn as well as other crops had once been installed.  At peak usage 100-120 people lived there.  Their fires provided light and warmth at night in addition to being a cooking source.  Despite that Ava wondered if there were times when residents, children perhaps, disoriented by darkness wandered right off the edge of the cliff which even today didn’t have any kind of guardrail.  I agreed that certainly was possible.  I suppose that was the price people paid for having a strategically safe location for their homes.

We rejoined Amy and Juniper who told me about the dioramas inside the museum that showed the people drying slabs of deer meat.  “The deer was red,” she noted with thinly veiled disgust.  It was good for her to have some one on one time with her Mom.  I love having my kids so close in age but sometimes it feels like there is a lot of competition for Mom and Dad’s attention.  It’s nice when you get one of them alone and just listen uninterrupted to what they have to say. 

We loaded everyone up and drove to one of the trailheads further into the park where we stopped and had a picnic lunch right next to another set of ruins.  As with the kivas the roofs were long gone giving the homes a strange, half-finished quality, like tiny square versions of the cookie cutter tract homes carved into the desert back in Phoenix and sold before they’re even finished.  Only these residents had deserted their homes for reasons still unknown 800 years before.  The wind moved the trees but not the homes or the dust within.  They looked more vacant than abandoned, ready for their owners to return and refashion new coverings of the same native material.  Amy and I watched while the kids played in the open area between the two groups of buildings in the tracks of other, darker completed children now long gone.

By the time we made our way back down the winding slope it was already getting dark and everyone was tired.  We stopped at the Colorado visitor center in Cortez so we could get a sticker for the truck.  They were sold in packs of two identical ones.  I thought it would be redundant to put them both on the carrier so Amy gave one to an older guy of like mind emerging from the visitor center with his own sets of stickers decorating his sleeker more modern carrier.

“I wish I had one to give you guys,” he told me.

“Don’t worry.  Somebody will give us one now.  That’s just kind of how these things work,” I told him.

There was a playground adjacent to the parking lot so the kids played with 8 ball and Frank and two little boys they met there.  We ate dinner at a local microbrewery where the roast beef and potatoes gave us that full warmth you get from comfort food.  The IPA however tasted more like a wheat beer.  More citrusy than bitter.  Amy asked if I wanted to send it back.  I paused and said no realizing it wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the flavor as I thought the description was inaccurate.  It was in that moment I realized I am not so much a beer snob as a beer purist.  I love drinking a quart of ice cold Miller High Life or crushing empty cans of PBR against my forehead, but I’m willing to shell out $6 for a tall IPA or a Guinness on draft because I know they offer something completely different.  Perhaps beer is similar to how I once heard chess described many years ago: a sea from which a gnat may drink or an elephant may bathe.  Here’s to elephantine doses of hops and tasty barley to balance them.  Drink up friends and toast a process even older than the cliff dwellers.