Sunday, November 24, 2013

Hidden Utah

The moon that we had so enjoyed the night before greeted us as we left our hotel room the following morning.  Something about that pale blue against orange rock says home to me like few things I know.

That said, I must confess that I have never really explored the part of Utah south of Moab and east of Lake Powell.  One day does not an exploration make, but it was enough to know that failure was a huge mistake.

We left Monument Valley in the morning, and headed for a little place nearby called Valley of the Gods.  It is not Monument Valley, but is quite picturesque for a place not even set aside as a state park.

It has broad vistas like these, a roughly 30 mile dirt road that is easy to drive, boulders to climb, lizards to chase, and a quiet that is all to rare.

Fall was in evidence even here, in this dry desert, among the tough old cottonwoods that somehow find water in the dry washes that run through this place. Life is so fragile yet so resilient in the desert -- it is part of what makes it a special place.

From there, we headed over to a nearby state park, called the Goosenecks of the San Juan.

The winding depths of the canyon speak to a remarkable permanence in a place like this. How long that water has flowed, slowly and implacably carrying away the tiny weaknesses in rock and dirt to the sea of Cortez and perhaps beyond, leaving these magnificent oxbow bends a testimony to millennia of labor.

The backdrop to both this place and the Valley of the Gods is the thousand plus foot escarpments of Cedar Mesa, which runs for hundreds of miles through these windblown table lands.  It was there that we headed next.

Little did we know that our road, Utah route 261, would convert from asphalt to dirt and take us right up the face of those cliffs, but it did. We made it, and here is the proof:

The picture below should give you a sense of scale -- see if you can pick out the blue pickup truck.

The views were more than a match for the easier than expected climb up what is known as Moki-Dugway, but they had nothing on our next destination, a place I had not heard of before: Muley Point.

It was hazy when we visited, smog from as far away as LA and as close as the four corners power plant obscuring the view. Still, what a view it is. Here you are not only up the thousand plus feet of Cedar Mesa, but gazing out over the two thousand foot depths of the San Juan River canyon, the far side of which contains all of Monument Valley.  I have been to the Grand Canyon many times, and if this view does not surpass that magnificent place, it certainly belongs there.  One day I shall come to spend the night here under the stars, and wake to see the view before the sun reacts with pollution to create obscuring smog. I am sure it will be nothing short of spectacular at sunrise.

On this day though, hazy or not, it provided a fitting end to a fantastic trip.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hovenweep and Monument Valley

After that great moonrise in Mesa Verde, we stayed in the small town of Cortez, Colorado, and woke to have breakfast in the company of a lovely married couple--he was from Ireland, she was from England (proving world peace is a possibility, friends)--who recounted how hard the government shutdown had been on foreign visitors.  Their stories included asians and europeans in tears at the Grand Canyon, not for its beauty, but because their itineraries, booked months ago, allowed for only a day or two at that special place, and they were being turned away.

Luckily for this couple, their trip to the States was for three months, and they had been able to work around the shutdown. In fact, it had been a blessing for them, as they had simply gone other places -- Havasu Falls, Canyon de Chelley, Monument Valley, etc. which were not dependent on the whims of our Government.   They were astounded at the beauty of those places, and amazed that they had not really heard of them before the shutdown forced them to look about.

After enjoying their company, we headed out to Hovenweep National Monument. It is about as remote as a place can be, and relatively small. There were almost no people there, except one retired couple from Boston.  The Monument consists of a 2-3 mile loop hike around some very lonely ruins, but the place has a beauty and mystery all its own. Very little is known about these people, and they were only there for a short time, but their hard work remains these 6 centuries later.  Star-watching here would be something truly spectacular, but we had to make do with a mid-morning hike. Here are some of the photos.

Initially I was surprised by how much color the desert held this late in October, but then realized we were just coming out of a very wet monsoon season, and were getting the tail end of the desert's blooming celebration of that gift of life.

The ruins surround, on all sides, the shallow canyon you can see in the picture above. They are few in number, but something about the remote location makes that seem exactly right.

The house to the right and low in this picture is something else.  Talk about making use of what nature gives you.

The kids seemed to have a good time, chasing lizards and enjoying the cool air. Hovenweep is not as high as Mesa Verde here, so while it was chilly, it was not cold, perfect for exploring.

From Hovenweep we headed for Bluff, Utah, and a surprisingly great lunch at the aptly named Twin Rocks Cafe and Trading Post.

Well fed, we headed straight for Monument Valley, the approach to which is one of the great roads on the planet. If you don't believe, me, you will just have to go see for yourself, but in the meantime, the photo below gives pretty good evidence.

I really love this place. It has a timelessness and presence that defies any cliche we try to impose.  The Navajo Nation citizens that live here may now drive trucks and engage in tourism, but you can viscerally feel that little of real meaning, both about the spirit here and how human beings interact with the land, has changed in thousands of years. 

The tall spires, sandy soil, towering cliffs, and tough desert flora and fauna limit what people can physically do here, but also cause their spirits to soar, like the ever present ravens, on updrafts of light and color and silence that seem to touch eternities.

We drove the dirt road loop, a bouncy, rutted affair, through the tribal park, stopping more times than we could count to take in the views.  On one occasion, Keegan, rifle ever at hand, jumped out and pointed at a glass sided tour bus of 15 or so people, shouting "stop or I'll shoot." In unison, each of those 15 passengers shot their hands in the air, the universal sign of surrender.  He thought he was the living personification of John Wayne's bravado, and grinned like a cheshire cat. We had to honor that spirit with a quick stint atop a horse, owned by a friendly young Navajo, who seemed to enjoy sharing him and telling us about his home amidst these giant cliffs of red. 

The timing for our drive was perfect, with the evening sun slanting in across the horizon, lighting everything up in a warm glow that brought the sandstone alive.

Before the sun set fully, we raced back to the mittens overlook, to take in last light over those iconic monoliths. Here is what we saw:

Knowing that the moon had come up full in Mesa Verde the night before, we decided to wait and see where it would come up here.  Slowly, all of the tourists left, until we were virtually alone in the growing darkness, with even the gate of the park shut behind us.  In that silence and quiet, broken only by the wind blowing and an occasional straggler, our patience bore fruit. 

There is nothing quite like this place under the light of a full moon. I can think of only one other time in my life where I had chills run up my spine as I took pictures (bear encounters excepted, of course).  That was in 1997 when, after a horrific day of driving hours on end, we pulled into Yosemite National Park at three in the morning, under a full moon and cloudless skies.  Not a soul stirred, only we weary travelers, and it was as if we had walked right into an Ansel Adams photo, silver glinting off hardened granite walls, contrasting with the dark shadows of cliff clefts and the white cascades of falling water, almost aglow in the moonlight.  

This night was one of those nights for me, where planets align and all is right with the world.  I will not forget it until my dusk darkens into night,  and I will always know that man passes through here like a fleeting breeze, but the desert and its beauty endures.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Mesa Verde -- No Thanks To Ted Cruz

After the fun of Silverton, we headed out of Durango--a place we will never visit again, thanks to the Police Officer who pulled me over just before the 65 mile an hour sign, while I was allegedly going 61 in a 45 zone.  (I even bought bagels with that guy and said hello to him that morning!  It's enough to turn you into a 60's radical.)

But I digress.  We left that place which shall not be named again to try something quite novel -- actually visit a national park on our fall national park trip.  Miracle of miracles, somebody in DC finally figured out that it was REALLY STUPID to close our National Parks, when people from all over the world, some of whom had been planning the trip for their whole lives, were being barred from seeing "America's best idea."   We were thrilled for them and for us that some sense (calling it "common" would be giving the politicians far too much credit) finally prevailed.

We headed to the Mesa Verde visitor center, and no sooner had we arrived, than a reporter asked us what we thought about the whole shutdown thing.  As you might guess from the foregoing, we had a few comments on that.  Here is the article:

After getting that off our chests and buying tickets to visit some of the ruins, we left the visitor center and headed up the steep switchback road that gets you to the top of the mesa.  Standing at almost 9,000 feet above sea level, it was cold as we stopped to take the photo above, a view of the high desert valley that is home to Cortez, Colorado, where we would stay the night.

The road to the top still showed the effects of massive fires that ripped through here in 2000, the year Kate was born.  Still, the new growth showed signs of fall, and the view from the top was amazing.

Our first stop was Spruce Tree house, one of the ruins in the park that you can visit without reserved tickets. A short hike leads to the ruins.

One of the real draws here is being able to descend into an enclosed Kiva.  We made the most of it.

Alden, being his typical creative self, tried to eat the light shafts (where does he get these ideas?) -- I have to say, it was pretty dang cool looking.

Next up was Balcony House, a bit of a mystery in Mesa Verde, as it is hard to get into and out of, and it is unclear what its purpose is.  These days, it starts with a climb up this ladder:

Keegan was a little nervous, but once he got to the top he was good to go.

The construction is pretty interesting. Not sure I would want to live on the top floor.

Kate spent more time with the park ranger than maybe any other member of our party did. She has a fierce curiosity which I love. She won't rest until she has squeezed all the knowledge she can out of whatever or whoever she comes across.

Alden and his mom explored all the dark corners together.

The shadow casts a funny light here, but you can see that the bottom of the alcove was clearly a sandy beach at one point. Amazingly preserved.

When it was over, we had to leave through this. Don't know what they were up against, but it is pretty clear they didn't want anyone coming up to easily.

We spent the late afternoon and evening indulging my desire to photograph in the setting sun.  Here are some of the results:

Canyon that holds the Cliff Palace

Ruins along the canyon near Cliff Palace.  Heck of an attic there.

Ruins on top of the Mesa near Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace.

Unknown ruins near Cliff Palace.

I took pictures until the sun set, then headed out the park road back towards the long descent to the visitors center. As we rounded the bend heading that way, this was the sight that greeted us:

Yep, that day pretty much rocked.  Next up, Hovenweep and Monument Valley.