Classic landscapes, classic roadtrip …
By Bob Berwyn
I don’t know if minor car repairs count as a relationship test. But when our car battery dies in front of the Great Sand Dunes National Park visitor center, we aren’t too worried. Well-stocked for a week-long swing through the Southwest, Leigh and I decide to let the car “rest” while we stroll around the nature center, watching evening shadows play on the dunes. We snack on salami, cheese and chocolate. Our cooler is full of goodies, and we team up with a no-worry, we’ll-make-it vibe — not to mention a hefty boost from AAA — to handle the glitch smoothly.
We reach Alamosa just before AutoZone closes and replace the battery with the help of a few loaner tools, shoving them back through the door as the manager locks up and waves goodnight. The Nissan starts no problem, so we fill the tank and U-turn back to the highway, munching cheesy popcorn, trying to catch the Rockies on AM, then blasting Neil Young as we veer through Crestone to our national forest campsite tucked up against the base of the Sangre de Cristos.
“Somewhere on a desert highway, She rides a Harley Davidson …”
It’s all good, we decide, crawling into sleeping bags within earshot of North Crestone Creek. Comet curls up at our feet. The wind rustles through lush aspens, whispering a sweet lullaby in the night air.
Mutually inspired, we conceived the trip as a haiku to summer freedom. Sure, we had a goal, but the path was completely up to us. So we rolled out of Frisco, over Hoosier Pass and down into the bony heart of Colorado, where rusted pickups tilt under crooked cottonwood trees. First stop, the Fairplay Hotel, where the bartender cards us — just for laughs, we think. After a beer, a couple of games of pool and bowl of soup, we press on. We have our sights set on Crestone, and pitch camp around midnight. We’ve known each other only a few months, but we seem to be on the same wavelength, setting up the tent with ease.
The dead battery was the excuse we needed to linger near the dunes an extra day, rewarded with the discovery of some of the world’s best pie at the Great Sand Dunes Lodge, just outside the park entrance. We drive along a rugged sandy lane, park and hike barefoot across Medano Creek, mountain runoff flowing in shallow braids across sheets of sand.
But on the way out, the car dies yet again. We open the hood and tighten up every wire we can see, though it seems more mystical than mechanical when it restarts a few minutes later. Our plan unfolds as we head south and west: we won’t turn off the engine until we’re in reach of a Nissan service center. So we roll through South Fork, over Wolf Creek Pass with a quick stop (motor running) in Pagosa Springs. A few hundred miles later, we park it at the Four Winds Motel, just west of Durango and uphill from the local Nissan dealer.
The next morning, a service vet eyeballs the sedan and tells us to go on with the trip. A good whack on the starter should do the trick, he suggests, giving us a couple of other useful backcountry car rescue tips. That’s all we needed to hear, so we charge west. A quick side trip up La Plata Canyon yields the season’s first wild mushrooms, a bagful of tasty boletus to supplement our camp kitchen. Then it’s onward to Mesa Verde National Park for a quick loop through the cluster of ancient sandstone cities.
The ancestral Anasazi terrain has been hammered by drought, beetles and wildfire in the past decade. A major blaze swept across the high mesa in 2000, burning 19,000 acres, and the Long Mesa fire burned another 2,600 acres during the 2002 drought. Ips beetles have killed up to 90 percent of the pinyon pines the region. These factors have changed the Mesa Verde landscape dramatically in the last 20 years, turning parts of the plateau into a ghost forest.
It’s also a woodland waiting to be reborn, right now lush with wildflowers, brush and deer herds after plentiful early summer rains. Similar weather and climate cycles may have pushed the Anasazi out of their strongholds, when just a few drought years in a row could have emptied reservoirs and caused wildlife to migrate out of the area. Life is a delicate balance here at the Four Corners, where the great Southwestern Desert meets the Rocky Mountains. Resting on a broad sandstone ledge in the park, we read some Edward Abbey. He knew it too: Sustaining a civilization in this part of the world probably requires more respect for nature than we’ve been willing to show so far.
Fueling in Cortez, we decide to keep driving. The mid-summer sunset lingers deliciously. We stop at a nondescript bluff within a few miles of the official Four Corners marker and snap photos as the cloudscape lights up with satiny purples, glowing orange and cherry-blossom pink.
Farther west, the sky is ablaze with lightning, as bolts arc between twin thunderheads. We roll downhill through Kayenta, then swerve off the highway at Navajo National Monument, once again pitching our tent by the light of our headlamps. The monster thunderstorm has moved away, and the earth is steaming, breathing in sweet relief. The next morning we cook the wild fungi with eggs, peppers, onions and cheese, slathering the concoction over bagels as a Navajo ranger sits on a juniper log and points out faces and cliff dwellings on distant sandstone walls.
Ain’t life grand!
We pack our gear and continue on toward the north rim of the Grand Canyon, racing through Page and dropping down into the great Colorado River rift at Marble Canyon. Just as quickly, we climb the Kaibab Plateau past gaudy rock layers and into a cool upland shaded by ponderosa pines. Here too, recent fires have left their mark, charring huge swaths of forest in the wake of an epochal southwestern drought. I’ve been traveling in this territory for 25 years, and like at Mesa Verde, regional ecosystem changes are in plain sight, as generations of forests gives way to the next.
Is it climate change or global warming? Or is it part of some other cosmic cycle that we don’t yet understand?
Nobody knows for sure, but there’s even odds that future scientists may be able to backtrack and identify a point of no return, when human impacts threw ecosystems into an uncontrollable and irrevocable spin. For now we can still enjoy the national forest campsite, where we pitch the tent in a cluster of giant ponderosa stumps, killed by bugs, burned and then snapped off ten feet above the ground by a windstorm. These were big trees, much bigger than the puny lodgepoles back home, but subject to the same cycles of drought, insects, fire and wind. We’re within a stone’s throw of the national park boundary, and next to a 40,000-acre wilderness area that juts into the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. The views encompass large slices of the park, into the depths of the hazy gorge.
It’s not exactly a secret spot, but it’s not the kind of place you want to write about too much, either. The dispersed camping management of the remote mesa seems to be working because low-impact use, often by hunters, shows a balance between recreational use and resource conservation.
Comet, the golden, is ready to explore. So after a leisurely brunch, we wander across the goose-neck, heading out toward the point. The wilderness trail slants down past a few giant ponderosas, then becomes a mosaic staircase of sandstone slabs. We rest at the pinnacle, taking it all in and eating apricots stuffed with raspberries, until a black squall line above the North Rim sends us scurrying back up the trail, eyeing potential shelter from dangerous lightning.
The cloud bank hovers, but breaks apart in the evening, dropping only a few splatters of rain. No matter how dark things may look, there’s always hope ahead. That’s what a rainbow is all about, right?
We take it as a sign a few days later, when the dark skies once again give way to a brilliant arc of color across the skies of Monument Valley. The rainbow rests on the ground, near a Navajo village. When we stop along the road, we hear 1,000-year-old chants carried by the wind, prayers of thanks for the life-giving rain. We headed home, tired and dirty on the outside, our souls and spirits nurtured by adventure and discovery.