One of the great joys of living on the road is welcoming family into our little cocoon and traveling and exploring together. Peter’s oldest son, Davis, joined us for ten days touring the four corners region where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado touch one another. We met up in Salt Lake City, at the Red Iguana, where we fortified ourselves with their wonderful Mexican food – flavorful and authentic – before we headed down the road, first to Moab, Utah.
We had planned this trip long ago and so I was hovering over the keyboard on ReserveAmerica at precisely the minute the reservations opened for Dead Horse Point State Park since this small campground is hugely popular in the fall. I was able to reserve a spot for three nights. We dropped our Airstream and headed immediately to Arches National Park for the golden and coppery light of the late afternoon. This is a place of astounding beauty and the wonders of the geology are breathtaking. On another day, we toured the rest of the park, catching a short hike to Double Arch and the Windows before a sudden and drenching rainstorm released its amazing intensity. Complete with lightning!
Another day we ventured five miles down the road from Dead Horse Point to the north entrance to Canyonlands National Park and Islands in the Sky. The immensity of the canyons here reveal the power of the forces of wind and water and erosion in sculpting the red sandstone into the needles and buttes and hoodoos that lay below us on our rim hike to Grand View overlooking the confluence of the Green River and the Colorado River. Edward Abbey once wrote that from these rims, you could look down on the backs of eagles soaring. It is truly amazing.
One of the great delights of our time at Dead Horse Point included the luxury of a hot shower in the Airstream. There are no showers at this state park so we loaded up our on-board water ahead of time and had more than enough for each of us to enjoy showers after a long day of outdoor activity. Wonderful!
Our next destination was Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado. In order to orient ourselves to the archeological significance of the region, we stopped first at the Anasazi Cultural Center, north of Cortez. This rich and informative museum does a great job of informing the visitor. The anthropology and paleontology of the region stretches back 12,000 years. My favorite exhibit here is the reconstructed pit house of between 700 and 900 AD. These were the initial settlement dwellings the indigenous people built on the valley floor and later, on the mesas, as they adopted the agriculture of the three sisters – corn, beans and squash – into their diet.
We camped in the national park for two nights, grateful for water and electric as the temperatures dropped into the low 30s during our stay. Heat is a wonderful commodity and we were all toasty and comfortable every night.
We visited numerous ruins during our days and the highlight was the hike down to Step House on Wetherill Mesa. Here, side by side, sit the ruins from nearly 700 years of human occupation. Two pit houses, and a kiva, most likely in use until 900 AD, are tucked under the cliff. And then, a full cliff dwelling was built, most likely around 1100 AD. The multiple rooms and storage areas and kiva were probably home to a small group of 20 people until it was abandoned in the mid-1200s when the ancestral people of Mesa Verde all dispersed.
At the Visitor’s Center, we were reminded that the ancestral people dispersed from here to points west (into Arizona) and south (to New Mexico) where the tribes of today, from the Hopi to the Rio Grande pueblos, consider Mesa Verde their ancestral home. To this day, these ruins are considered sacred to the descendants who return to visit the ancestors’ spirits who reside in and around Mesa Verde.
Our trip then took us south into New Mexico (we did not make it to Arizona, the fourth state of the “four corners”) where we stopped for a couple of hours to tour the remarkable Aztec Ruins National Monument near Farmington, a formidable pueblo of over 400 rooms, kivas, and public areas. This village was built and occupied from about 1100 to 1300 AD and touring the ruins, we observed some of the original timbers holding up the massive roof, the handprints of inhabitants held in the adobe bricks, and saw a rush grass mat still hanging in a window opening from 900 years ago.
The most fascinating piece of information that I gathered was the mystery of how the entire pueblo was planned. One long north wall is perfectly aligned with the sun’s path on the summer solstice. The pueblo was apparently constructed with a specific symmetrical arrangement of buildings, roads, berms, and retaining walls, according to a plan. The central Great Kiva, for example, is lined up on a meridian with the road to Chaco Canyon, to the south; and the road to Mesa Verde, to the north. The window openings in the central Great Kiva align with the sun and moon’s positions at various times of the year on the summer and winter solstice and the fall and spring equinox. The meaning or the significance of all these points is lost on us today, so they are observations and points of questioning and wondering.
From Farmington, we headed south to our campground at Cochiti. This Corps of Engineers site is one we found last year and its central location between Albuquerque and Santa Fe makes is just about ideal. We celebrated Davis’ birthday at a great place in Santa Fe called Harry’s Roadhouse where the local cuisine (New Mexican) was great, the atmosphere was very fun and the people watching was outstanding. Their homemade pies (we sampled the lemon meringue and the coconut cream) were tangy with fresh lime flavors.
The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque is a must see if you are in town. The Center was founded in 1976 by the nineteen New Mexico pueblos. It is a rich resource for the introduction to these tribal nations. The emergence myths of the tribes are my favorite part of the Center. Each myth is slightly different but all capture the nature of change and movement and birth from mother earth. These myths affect me deeply and having visited Mesa Verde, I now understand a bit more about how this constant movement from one place to another has unfolded in the stories of their lives and those of the ancestors. “We are the people who came from the north”, one Laguna pueblo story goes.
We have visited a few of the pueblos on past trips to New Mexico so this time, we wanted to explore a new one. We selected Jemez Pueblo located in a valley of the Jemez Mountains west of Albuquerque. We had heard of their small cultural center and museum and spent a morning there learning about their history, which included having migrated south from Mesa Verde nearly 800 years ago, settling many villages on the tops of the red sandstone mesas and living there for hundreds of years. The ruins of many are still in the valley and on the mesas. We visited one ruin, called Giusewa, where the mission church (first built in 1600) continues, even in ruin, to dominate the site.
No trip to this part of New Mexico is complete for us without a visit/pilgrimage to Chimayo. We discovered this remarkable little town north of Santa Fe on our wedding trip in the late 1980s and have been returning ever since. The mission church, re-built in the early 1800s, still serves the local village. Its wooden altarpiece is spectacular, the wooden carved and painted statues of the saints are alive with emotional intensity. The little chapel to the left continues to attract pilgrims looking for healing with the sacred dirt. We were not here in time for Mass this time, however, the faithful were still present in the tiny church and the grace and the beauty of the holy place lightened us all.
The Rancho de Chimayo had a table for three for dinner and we dined on some more delicious and uniquely flavored New Mexican food, this time served with their amazing sopapillas (think warm, fresh, light, hot puffed fried dough) served with honey. Oh my!
Our time traveling with Davis concluded when we dropped him off in Albuquerque for his flight back east. It was a wonderful visit where we all learned so much and our hearts were touched by the power of this place and the people who call it their ancestral home. In most puebloan languages, there is no word for “goodbye” because the belief in the cyclical nature of life points to an awareness that we will all cross paths once more. So in parting from Davis, we adopted the puebloan custom of saying, “until we meet again”. Aho.
Liz and Peter are heading due east on their way to Florida, stopping in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Mississippi for new adventures in their Airstream.