Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nature's wonders in the Southwest

We got a room at the Historical Taos Inn, in part because we could feed the kids, pop them in front of a movie and have dinner à deux at the hotel's restaurant. We all had drinks in the lobby and chatted with the manager of the place, comparing notes on travelling in VW vans. The beauty of being in this mega-tourist zone in the winter is the unhurried treatment we get everywhere. When we told him about our romantic dinner plans he got the waitress to bring some chicken tenders to the kids and then surprised us by not charging us.

It was lovely to have a little time alone (possibly our first ever Valentine's dinner out) but the meal was manqué. Good concepts but all of it too heavy, or too light or too bland. Our fellow diners were all of the new-age granola variety and the background music was provided by open-mic night in the adjoining bar — a man playing the melodica (poorly) to a recording as his girlfriend did an interpretive dance. I spent the rest of Valentine's discovering the difference between a laxative and a stool softener. Hell, who needs ten days for a cleanse when you can do it in five hours?!

Wil took the kids out for a walk in the morning. Not a soul on the sidewalk, everyone in their car. I'm starting to realize (HELLO!!) that outside major city centres, this country is all about cars. If you're not shopping there doesn't seem to be much point in walking anywhere. Time for a little nature break.

Just outside Taos we came upon the wildest community out in the middle of nowhere. The Earthship Landing Zone is a collection of dwellings dug into the desert floor that look like they were designed by someone on some major hallucinogenics. Wild, organic shapes, colours not usually deemed appropriate for houses, walls of windows facing the sun, all built of stacks of old car tires and completely off the grid — using minimal resources and using them well. I had a poke around the web and the interiors are pretty cool too. 

We headed up into Colorado, through some lovely pine forests, past ranches (one called Bad Dream Ranch with an effigy of some guy in a noose hanging from the high gate — welcoming touch!), horse farms and a lot of snow. The Rocky Mountains kept us company almost the whole way. We were heading to Mesa Verde National Park to see some Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. I thought that, prior to heading into some of the reservations, it would be worth seeing something of the peoples who inhabited this land before the whities came along. As we got close, I read that the park is only open from March to November. Crap.

We crossed over into Utah and started heading north, stopping in at the Hole N" the Rock fifteen minutes before it closed. The tour, which according to our well-rehearsed guide, is meant to last twelve minutes was (unintentionally) hysterical. We stepped through the doors of the gift shop and into the side of a sandstone mountain. Our guide whisked us along, through the creation of Albert Christensen & his wife, Gladys. The couple first opened the attraction as a diner when the local uranium-mining business was going like gangbusters. Albert liked it so much he went on to blast a five-room home out of the mountainside. A sandstone cave with three large columns and a couple of walls with windows on the exterior, the place is far and above the finest example of kitsch I have ever seen. According to our guide, Albert was a chef, sculptor, painter, carpenter, barber and taxidermist (I'm sure I'm forgetting a few). Whether he performed any of these activities well is another matter. His awful (and nearly identical) paintings of Jesus hung on many of the "walls", along with a half-completed bust of Benjamin Franklin. The furniture was all fifties and sixties, the kitchen and bathroom fittings all pale greens and blues with big concave silver knobs, the upholstery nubbly browns and tans. The missus had a penchant for tchatchkas and apparently liked to chip away little alcoves in the stone walls to display her hundreds of figurines. Also in the house are two stuffed horses and a stuffed mule, his first attempt at taxidermy and not a very successful one. The beloved mule, who helped Albert haul all the busted rock out of the hole, looked like he'd been attacked with a bat after a wax job gone wrong. Tacky doesn't even begin to cover it. I was sorry to not have more time to really pore over the place (and even more sorry not to be allowed to take photos) but we were definitely getting the "get the hell out, it's closing time" vibe. What a place. What a surreal job.

We got ourselves a hotel room in Moab and let the kids party in the pool and hot tub and, in the morning, drove the few miles up to Arches National Monument. The park is, without a doubt, one of nature's masterpieces. The nine-mile loop road leads you past what look like a giant's plasticine creations. According to another friendly park ranger, the formations were the result of an inland sea depositing a thick layer of sand over an unstable salt bed that eventually gave way, creating cracks and collapses. Whatever caused them, they are beautiful beyond words. Petrified sand the colour of clay in awe-inspiring waves and cracks, towers and arches. We went for a hike up to Delicate Arch, the image that appears on the Utah license plate alongside the logo "Life Elevated". We raced up the steep red track to get the lead on a bunch of fourth graders being herded along by teachers and park rangers. All around us were incredible rock walls and canyons, peppered with eroded nooks and crannies. The worn traces of millions of years of spring streams and rainfalls in this arid environment evident in perfectly round dents in the rock. Aside from a trio of very discreet Japanese tourists we had the Arch to ourselves. The majesty of the place had us all gob-smacked. The kids and I ran around as Wil acted brave and wrung his hands at the proximity of his loved ones to perilous drops. The kids spent the walk down tucking themselves into little cups in the mountainside. Wow.

We drove on, toward Natural Bridges National Monument and had a quick look at more arches. The first one, Sipapu, was named for the place where the Hopi emerged from the underworld. We also saw Horse Collar Ruin. We stood on the edge of a cliff and looked down on the remains of a thousand-year-old dwelling tucked into an alcove near the canyon floor. The weather was starting to turn and we didn't have the courage to tackle a long hike so we settled for some short walks to the lookouts to see the other two bridges. 

Down highway 261 toward Arizona, with a quick detour to a place called Muley Point, where the road drops off an area of rolling fields dense with cedar and juniper called Cedar Mesa, into the Valley of the Gods. The red dirt road is about five miles off the highway, past grazing cattle and grates, to the end of a finger of rock that points the way to Monument Valley. The wind practically knocked me over as I tried to capture, in vain I fear, the spectacular view on film. Standing on a precipice, straddling foot-wide cracks in the rock, the stone towers of Monument Valley like sentinels, casting massive shadows on the horizon, the San Juan River snaking through the canyon striped like a full-colour topography map below. Again, we found ourselves shaking our heads wondering if we were still on planet Earth.

Into Navajo land on a hairy, one-lane switchback gravel road that drops down into the valley. We were pretty happy not to have to back up to make way for a car or truck on its way up. We were too late to make it into Monument Vally Park (damn winter hours) so we headed down the road to Kayenta, the next town. We checked in to a hotel, a lowslung affair where native flute music is constantly playing in all the public spaces of the building. The effect is cool for about as long as it takes to check in, then it starts feeling like you're in the waiting room to see a masseuse. The place was staffed entirely by Navajo, underscoring the fact that we might well be in the US but we were, first and foremost, in the Navajo Nation. The hotel restaurant was meant to be the best in town and we were served by beautiful raven-haired waitresses in black — colourful belts cinching the waist of their long skirts (the look only slightly marred by the jeans visible under the hem). The other guests are an extended family of Chinese tourists, mining men — a reminder that the uranium market is rebounding —  and an older Mennonite couple, complete with Abe Lincoln beard and doily-like head covering. Wil and Henri had a Navajo Taco, a plate full of Indian fry bread, a ten-inch across, half-inch thick disk of fried dough covered in pinto beans, chopped brisket, cheese, tomato and lettuce with a side of salsa & sour cream. A nice, light meal. The hotel was pretty enough but we got a bit creeped out by the place. It felt haunted and, I suppose, in a way, it was. We drove up the road to the Park first thing in the morning. Barebones houses, few and far between, scattered in the desert, roofs covered in old tires to keep the tin and asphalt shingles safe from the wind, rusty pick ups parked outside, barbed wire fencing driven into the red soil, upwind side piled high with tumbleweeds. Aside from the monuments and the infrastructure to handle the tourist onslaught, the land is practically empty. It makes one wonder why white men were so desperate to tear the Hopi, Apache and Navajo from this land. There is no doubt that this is a deeply spiritual area. If you want to commune with nature, you've definitely come to the right place but I found it hard to not let the undercurrent of massacre and displacement taint the sheer majesty. 

After Arches, Natural Bridges and especially the view from Muley Point, Monument Valley was actually a bit anti-climactic. We got there just as the sun was rising, the beautiful rocks towered above the desert floor, the east faces lit up in orange and pink. Again, we were almost alone in the place. I think the monuments are perhaps better seen as a group, from a distance, when they look like giants looming in the red desert. The Visitor Centre had a fascinating display on the Navajo Code Talkers, Navajo men recruited to serve in World Wars I and II to use their native tongue to transmit secret messages that noone could decode. Later we saw billboards celebrating the names of the first 27 Code Talkers.

We went on to the Grand Canyon, a three-hour drive south west. Why did I always think it was in Colorado? We entered the park from the east and got our first glimpse of the canyon from the Desert View watchtower. To be honest, it wasn't all that different from what we'd seen earlier in the week but the scale! It was just too much to take in. We drove further along the rim and parked the car off the road in a spot we'd read about. According to our guidebook, we should ignore the "Only by Permit" sign and jump the chained gate for a more private viewing of the canyon. We had a quick lunch out of the side of the van and meandered up a dirt road into a gorgeous pine forest.  The mile-long road was so muddy in places we had to weave our way through the woods where we spotted some impressive tracks and some wolf scat. At the end of the road was a lovely little clearing dotted with rustic picnic tables and a latrine. We followed the path toward the edge and found a little track that led out onto a narrow spit that jutted out into the canyon. As the sides dropped away and the spit narrowed further, Wil begged off. The kids and I held hands and walked single file as far out as we dared. I have no fear of heights but a mile down is a hell of a long way. We sat down near the end, on a natural shelf of rocks and had a good look around. Absolute quiet, not a human
or manmade structure visible as far as the eye can see, which is saying something in this setting. The canyon walls opposite are layers of rock laid out in colourful stripes. From this height, the river is just a tiny string on the canyon floor. It's hard to imagine that that little (from here) river is the cause of this wonder but I suppose if you do anything for 1800 million years... After the kids were back on solid ground, Wil decided to have his own look at the view. How lucky we felt to have this magical spot to ourselves.

Back at the car we drove into Grand Canyon Village to see whether we wanted to spend the night or get some mileage done to cut down on tomorrow's drive. As we tidied up the back of the van we noticed that our red backpack, the backpack that held Wil's laptop and every stupid cable to charge computers and cameras and ipods, was no longer with us. We racked our brains and my heart sank as I vaguely recalled putting the backpack on the ground in a parking lot somewhere. A couple of desperate phone calls later the bag was located... in Monument Valley!! Aargh. As Nicky, Wil's sister, put it, karma is not on our side on this trip. Although some good samaritan was kind enough to turn the bag in, which is luck enough. My gaffe tacked an extra six hours on to our drive. To add insult to injury, we had only one option as to how to get there, forcing us to do the same, extremely boring stretches of road three times in the same day. It was a bitter pill made much easier to swallow by Wil, who didn't even bat an eye or do the easy thing and make me feel like even more of an idiot. As we drove back I read to Wil about the bloody and fascinating histories of the Apache, Hopi and Navajo to pass the time.The one consolation was watching the full moon emerge from the desert floor behind the monuments when we finally made it back. By nine we were in Flagstaff, ready to crash.


ajm said...

Did you take any pics of Earthship place? I remember reading about Michael Reynold's project a few years ago and found the whole thing fascinating, if not strange. Innovation. Hippy innovation, I guess.
Also, kind of a relief to know that someone as on-the-ball as you is also capable of forgetting a bag somewhere - human failing is totally endearing :)))

love a xo

Unknown said...

pas pour rien that you left that red bag behind? that moon looks pretty perfect.

sally said...

My thoughts exactly Joanne! That is one beautiful moon.