The Great American Road Trip II - 22 - Cliffhangers
We left the hotel a little before 11:00 and got on the road to Cortez, Colorado. We passed through more rock formations similar to Arches or Canyonlands, saw swirly grass patterns and passed by a tourist trap called "Hole in the Rock" (though there are a great many holes in rocks in that area of the country), and encountered a bit of road construction but not enough to slow us down considerably.
A bit after noon we entered Colorado, a state I've never been to before until today; we hit all of Colorado's surrounding states last trip. The scenery featured a bit more trees than the consistent scrub-brush of Utah, but was not all that different altogether. Within the hour we were in Cortez and turned to backtrack slightly along a 38-mile route to our first destination of the day: the Four Corners monument, the only place in the United States where four state corners meet. It's officially on an Indian reservation, so we paid the nominal fee to get in.
There were more people there than I had anticipated, but getting parked and walking to the monument (which is essentially a large circular plaque on the ground) was still easy. This means that this trip also features Arizona on the list of states/provinces - we got to 25 last year and we're aiming to get to at least that number this time. (So far, we're at an even 20, so I don't think getting to 25 will be a problem.)
(Side note: roads through Indian reservations are generally not very good. They're bumpy - as if the asphalt was poured directly on top of the terrain sans grading - and feature an insane amount of potholes. It always seems to be like this and I don't know why. We did run into road repainting - something the road very much did not need!)
While our route did not take us to the official borders of Monument Valley, we got near there enough to see rock formations similar to what is found there. After Arches, though, I'm not sure what much Monument Valley has that could be better.
We went back to Cortez, as that was the only way in and out that did not involve even more desolate roads than the ones we traversed. We finally found the Colorado welcome center, which, I have to say, is the worst welcome center I've ever seen. It was clean and all, but they simply do not make it easy to find. The sign is practically camouflage and there are no road signs to point it out. However, they did not, for some reason, have an official Colorado road map. I don't understand why - they're a freaking welcome center. What welcome center doesn't have maps?
We got gas on the outskirts of Cortez and went a few more miles up the road to Mesa Verde National Park, the famous site of ancestral Pueblo homes constructed inside large holes in the mesa cliffs. The park was a bit different, as most of the tours up into the famous archaeological areas were led by park rangers. We discussed getting tickets for these, but with our feet still very sore after the many hikes in Arches yesterday and with all of us (for some bizarre reason) not having gotten enough sleep after said hikes, we skipped the longer tours. I didn't feel too bad about doing so, as we were later informed by a park ranger that the free tour of a dwelling called Spruce Tree House was better than the ranger-led tours as it was in better condition than the other, larger dwellings. (The same ranger told us that some bear had been spotted in the park recently - just our luck. We didn't see any, though.)
Soon we were on the road through the park, and climbed up a huge number of switchbacks up to the top of the mesa, where the views out over the flat fields below were insanely cool. We didn't do any trails aside from the paved walk down to Spruce Tree House, which was basically a very small town consisting of three or four extended families living in stone-and-mortar dwellings halfway up a sheer cliff underneath a massive overhang. Average ancestral Puebloan size was roughly five feet, life expectancy was around 30 years old, and the infant mortality rate is estimated to have been about fifty percent. The windows and doors on the now-crumbling structures were quite small, and even if folks were allowed inside them I don't think very many people could fit.
Circular underground ceremonial rooms, known as kivas, were sacred places for the Puebloans, and a reconstructed kiva was provided. I squeezed through the small hole down the slightly slippery ladder into the cool circular chamber - quite a nice place to beat the heat when you're dealing with southwestern temperatures.
The Puebloans used the area behind their dwellings, where the overhang joins with the cliff, as a refuse area, where trash and animal carcasses were incinerated. (Soot can still be seen to stain the overhang as it goes back.) These unsanitary practices likely led to the poor conditions described earlier.
With the heat becoming stifling and the lower halves of our bodies complaining after the effort they collectively expended yesterday, we headed back up the trail, where we saw an incredibly cute chipmunk nibbling on tree leaves.
Barely able - and totally unwilling - to get out of the car further, we went along a small loop trail until we could get to a good view of the Cliff Palace, the largest of the Puebloan dwellings. The fact that these things are constructed literally inside the cliffs - and that the Puebloans had to climb up and down tiny handholds and footholds in the rock face daily - made them very impressive.
(We also saw a wild turkey in there, and he was a big one.)
As we went out of the park and descended the steep curves and hills, we spotted a group of wild horses. The descent out of Mesa Verde never just stops, as the roughly thirty-mile drive was almost all downhill. I was tired enough to sleep through a good portion of it, but was awoken to taking some scary turns at some equally scary speeds. The brakes did their job, but they've taken such an incredible beating on this trip that we're going to have to give them a check-up before we go up to 10,000 feet and down again en route to Alamosa, Colorado.
We arrived in Durango and checked into our hotel. We'd seen a place just about a block from the hotel called Serious Texas Barbecue, and it came with high recommendations from the hotel staff.
This place is little more than a shack with a couple of additions to it. Its dive-like qualities are emphasized by its old wooden construction and highly rickety nature, as well as the many Texas-themed signs stuck to pretty much every available open spot - including many that referenced "Kinky for Governor." When we asked about who this "Kinky" fellow was, and why he felt the need to run for the Governorship, we got the response of "ah ... Texas."
Their apparently famous pulled pork sandwiches - featured on Live with Regis and Kelly - were absolutely huge and rank right up there with some of the best barbecue I've ever eaten. It came with some sort of cherry chipotle sauce which tasted less like cherries and more like delicious. Their sweet tea had about a gallon less sugar than our variety, but it was still tea and we got refills. As it turns out, one of the three girls who ran the place (and cooked up the delicious barbecue) was from just outside of Asheville. The more we travel, the more North Carolinians we encounter.
We got a number of pictures of the quirky interior and headed back to the hotel room, where we're anticipating a good, long night of sleep.
Tomorrow: another resting day as we take a short drive over to Alamosa, Colorado, which will serve as our base camp for sledding in Great Sand Dunes National Park. We'll also probably get the car looked at to make sure everything is still in order before we go up to 10,000 feet above sea level - all electronic diagnostics have come back clean, but there's no substitute for having someone who knows what they're looking at check things out.