Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
The day’s agenda had one item: Mesa Verde. Once again, we had no idea where we were sleeping that night, although we did know it would be someplace with plumbing. We were getting Stinky. Capital S. We smelled like hiking and campfire and multiple hours inside an enclosed vehicle.
This trip sounds enticing, doesn’t it? You’re ready to take off a month and just drive, aren’t you?
By now I was getting comfortable with the whole concept of seeing where the road took us and not fretting when we didn’t have a plan. (It only took me three weeks.) In two days we had to be in Wichita, Kansas, but in the meantime, we just drove. A lot. From the time we left Ken’s Lake on Tuesday until we reached the Wichita Marriott Thursday evening we spent nineteen-plus hours in the car. But you know what? We were so darn happy it was almost nauseating.
The scenery changed every few miles so I was taking a lot of video, and the conversations that accompanied the visuals were just stupid giddy. We drove by a closed tourist attraction in Cortez in southwestern Colorado.
“Cowboy Town!” we chorused.
“It’s for sale,” I observed.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I don’t need a cowboy town. Do you?”
“No. I travel with my own cowboy.”
“That would be you,” I explained.
“Uh huh. I got that.”
Man, we were in the groove. We were just flowing along, smooth and calm, smiling and laughing, throwing puns out like there was an award for the most groan-worthy. Driving through a tunnel prompted “Oh no! We’ve got tunnel vision!” “We’re just tunneling through.” “I see light at the end of the tunnel,” etc. etc.
I didn’t say they were good puns. Actually, they were really obvious and weren’t puns at all, more like statements about what was actually happening.
We were nearing home and we’d survived more than three and a half weeks of constant togetherness and nearly constant movement, of working a trade show, of family time, of uncertainty, and of trying to keep our livelihoods afloat while we were away on this epic adventure.
There was this sense of accomplishment already, even though we still had another fourteen hundred miles to go. I mean, we hadn’t killed each other. (New anniversary card idea: Dear Love, I’m so glad I didn’t kill you on our road trip.) We hadn’t even had one single argument.
Oh yeah. In the groove.
A few miles after Cortez we turned onto Mesa Top Ruins Road. It was aptly named, ascending on curves and the occasional switchback until reaching the rim. This drive was tame; it certainly wasn’t like Burr Trail, and the drop-offs were only on one side of the road.
There were even guardrails and occasional pull-outs, which came in handy a couple of times. The speed limit was 35, and we were going to drive 35; we had no problem letting those who didn’t value their lives whip around us.
Before arriving at the park, we pulled off at Geologic Overlook. On the way up, we passed a young boy coming down. “Be careful when you get all the way up there,” he said, practically doing a backbend as he stretched his arm as far as it would go to point up the trail behind him. “It’s hiiiiigher!” The gents we saw in Capitol Reef were fun. This kid was like chocolate-covered candy-coated sprinkles. Adorable.
We followed the path and he was right – it was definitely higher. The air was crisp, as it should be at 8,571 feet above sea level. There was snow scattered about, the trees were bare, and the view was panoramic. We didn’t dally, though. I needed to get to Mesa Verde.
These cliff dwellings were something I’d wanted to see in person since I was a teenager. Native Americans, their many cultures and their complex history, fascinated me. I don’t know why. It wasn’t something I was taught in school. In mid-’70s to late -’80s Indiana, we didn’t learn much about the people who were here before the Europeans.
I think my interest stemmed from a novel my grandma gave me, based on the life of a girl who had been kidnapped by Comanches. I read it over and over until the corners of the cover were ragged and the spine was cracked with rows of thin white lines.
For some reason it made an impression on me; I don’t know if it was particularly well written or if it was because my grandma had given the book to me, or if I found romance in the protagonist’s story. It was alien to my Midwestern life, our single-family home with loving parents and bratty younger brother (I was a teenage girl; all younger brothers are brats when you’re a teenage girl), my band practice and Latin club and sleepovers.
In those pages was a young girl ripped from everything familiar, yet she made the new life her own. She grew up with a strange people in a strange land, married the chief, and had three children. Maybe I wondered how I’d fare, if I’d survive half as well.
This was a book I hadn’t really thought of in decades. The title was “Ride the Wind” and the girl it was based on was Cynthia Ann Parker, Quanah Parker’s mother.
Yep. Quanah Parker. The same Comanche chief who surrendered at Palo Duro Canyon and moved back to what is now the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, which has a lake named after him and a campground on its shores called Doris.
Quanah had no connection, that I know of, to the Ancestral Pueblo People of Mesa Verde, but reading the fictional account of his mother’s story and the people who became her family impacted me to the point that I wanted to learn more about the indigenous peoples of America, which is how we ended up in Mesa Verde in the off season when most of the National Park was closed.
Mesa Verde is the only National Park dedicated to preserving something built by humans; the rest focus on protecting the natural environment. This park is unique because the culture that inhabited this area did so for seven hundred years, from around 550 to the late 1270s.
There are over 5,000 archaeological sites in its 80 square miles, 600 of which are cliff dwellings. What’s also noteworthy is that those cliff dwellings weren’t even built until the late 1190s. They were occupied for less than a hundred years before the people who built them headed south to what is now Arizona and New Mexico.
Why did they build their homes in caves on the side of a mountain? Why did they leave? No one knows.
When we arrived, Spruce Tree House, which was a short hike from Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum and normally open, was closed due to falling rocks. We could look from afar, and like the bison in Wichita Mountains, I settled for capturing its beauty with my zoom lens.
I was disappointed, yes, and I knew ahead of time that we wouldn’t be able to see much and that it would be better to come back in warmer weather when more of the park would be open, but we were so close I couldn’t just drive by. I needed to stop, or that teenage girl, who wanted to know more about her country and what was not in her history books, would never forgive me.
There were many places I thought “I’d like to go back,” but I knew deep down that was unlikely. Mesa Verde was a place I’d visit again. I didn’t know when, but it would happen.
We left the park and got back on US-160 and we drove. And drove. And drove. We drove through Durango, known for silver mining and its full-day heritage train, and stopped for a quick stroll in the rotten egg-smelling sulphur-spring resort town of Pagosa Springs.
I did search after search for a place to stay when we had a connection, and when I couldn’t find a decent rate on Priceline, I used another service to book a room in Alamosa. We’d always had good luck with Priceline, so I figured why not?
It was another two hours to Alamosa, a drive over the Continental Divide through Wolf Creek Pass. Cher, Boston, Eagles, Carole King, etc. were the soundtrack (shut up; we like our ‘70s) as we drove through fields of pure white snow towards craggy peaks.
We climbed and hugged the sides of the mountains, but these weren’t like the otherworldly ridges and bluffs of Utah with its red sandstone and bizarre hoodoos. These were the Rockies, imposing and imperious and majestic. They weren’t better. They were just different, a world apart from the landscape we’d driven the day before. We skirted falling rocks and marveled at random waterfalls springing from the rockface.
We came down out of the mountains and hit a relative straightaway. We were so very ready for a decent place to sleep and a comfortable bed. What we got was a bit different.
As we neared Alamosa, after nearly eight hours in the car that day, I wrote “one thing I’ve noticed is that it’s hard for us to be around other people. We have no patience for rudeness, impatience (ha), and general assholery. There’s just no need for it.”
It was prescient. When we checked into our “2 ½ star room” I was none too pleased to discover that not only was there no microwave (which honestly was not a big deal), but also that the clothes rack was hanging from only one side and the screws were on the floor.
When I mentioned it to the manager, his response was a flippant, “Do you have a bed?”
I replied with a terse you-do-not-want-to-make-me-angry “Yes, but that is not acceptable and we are not staying in that room.” He put us into the room next door, which, while it had no loose screws, also had no phone and the bed frame was designed to cripple guests because it was sticking out from the box spring by about three inches.
I wasn’t going to complain too much or let this experience ruin our groove. In his defense, the manager was probably in his early 20s and he seemed overwhelmed. I blamed the service I used more than I blamed him because this was definitely not 2 ½ star accommodations.
Besides, there was a silver lining to our stay at this specific hotel. As we were checking in, the young man told us about Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, located just a few miles east of Alamosa on our way to the Comanche National Grasslands.
That tip, and the terrified look on the kid’s face when I didn’t react kindly to his attempt at sarcasm, is why I won’t name this woeful establishment.
Absolutely beat, we collapsed (without dinging our shins) onto the bed that was admittedly more comfortable than the air mattress we’d slept on the two previous nights, and prepared for another day of exploration.
Previously published with modifications at An Off-Season Visit to Mesa Verde National Park.