Monday, April 6, 2015

Travels with Krispy and Noddy (And Karen!), Day 5: Adventure at the Edge of the Future.

I awoke at exactly 6am on Wednesday in the Miss Kitty Room of the Strater
Hotel. What woke me up? Well, I've heard a lot of strange and wonderful sounds in hotels over the years, but having your room right next to a busy railroad yard is by far the loudest coupling I have ever heard.


Okay, I'm up - I'm up! Geezooks, you didn't have to slam two goddamned trains together. I used the Emergency Escape Pile of clothing and stumbled down to the lobby, not sure whether I was in the Luxor, the Inca Inn, the Hampton Inn, or, oh yeah, I'm at the Bella Union from Deadwood. Cool. 

All was quiet. In the parlor that faced Main Avenue was a large picture window, and in front of that was a beautiful table. I dragged a chair over to it, and voila! I had one of the nicest places I've ever written at. I got all of my notes together, iPhoto'ed all of the pictures of the trip so far, and watched the sun in the East slowly illuminate the Wild West. Sublime.

I want to write here every morning,
please. Thank you.
I was so entranced with the Strater - I mean, directly above me was where Louis L'Amour wrote most of his books - that I bought the book about the hotel. I also picked up the requisite fridge magnet of the place.

I had neglected to do this back in Grand Junction, which lead me to wonder what that Libertarian town would have on its official Fridge Magnet. 

I pictured the Colorado National Monument on the left side, Mount Garfield and the Bookcliffs on the right, and in-between just a grayish-yellow haze of cigarette and pot smoke obscuring the entire town, except for the top few floors of the gigantic St Mary's Medical Center poking up. With a helmetless motorcycle rider flying through the air towards the hospital.

But all that was in our rearview mirror. Over the excellent breakfast buffet in one
The Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
of the saloons Karen and I had the delightful realization that there were still 4 more days to go on our Epic Road trip. We had seen VEGAS, UTAH, ARCHES and the snowy scenery above DURANGO, but now we were headed into the big-ticket items on the agenda.

Mesa Verde: As Above, So Below

And today would be one of the biggest: Mesa Verde. We were out of the alpine elevations, but still in snow country. A CD brought us from our hotel (by this point in the trip we were calculating distance via the number of mix CDs) to the Brand Spankin' new visitor center for the National Park, and lordy aint it an improvement over the Depression Era Taco Bell Bus Station we encountered later on in the park.

The Spruce Tree "House". With snow!
We were still in Winter, technically, and so only one of the many cliff dwellings was open for viewing: Spruce Tree House. The plus side to this though was that we pretty much had the place to ourselves.

Well, there was one other couple there, but like many other tourists we've encountered over the years, they spent the entire time in the ruins talking to the Park Ranger on duty, instead of, you know, SEEING the thing that they came all this way to see.

I first encountered this phenomenon on a Hearst Castle tour, where my group spent the entire time facing the tour guide instead of just listening to her while they inspected the treasures.

Then, as now, I wanted to yell at them: "Hey, Sheeple! She's describing all this
Admiral Karen, having a grand time

inexplicably beautiful and priceless stuff that is RIGHT BEHIND YOU!! Turn. The. Fuck. Around."

But, whatever. This left the whole village free for Karen and I to explore pretty much on our own. Or, rather I tried to stay out of the way of the Admiral, who was an Anthropology major, and so was All Over this shit.

What surprised me was that this mud, stone and wood village set in a cliff felt......comfortable. Yeah, this was subsistence farming, in an extremely inhospitable environment, with a 'commute' up to the corn fields on top of the mesa that would make a professional rock climber gibber in fear. But the village itself felt like a real Community. 

I've lived in worse places.
It was easy to imagine the 8 or so families living right here, working, talking, laughing, singing - kids and dogs and turkeys darting this way and that, meals being prepared, clothing being mended, flutes and drums being made and played. It's, homey.

In the back, behind the ceremonial round kivas in the ground and the 2 and 3 story apartments, was a long, low flat area where the natural cave tapers in to its end. This was the live turkey corral, but it also had a sizable fire pit and a BIG black stain on the ceiling. The broken bits of pottery here had been ground into utter powder, in a wide circle around the fire area. Conclusion: These people knew how to throw a good dance party!

The HuffPo level of story here is that the Anasazi people "Vanished" or were
The neighborhood. Colorful, but harsh.
assumed into flying saucers or some such hucky-pucky. The reality is that drought conditions or water table shifting meant that the natural springs that supplied these open cave villages with water (and remember, corn is an incredibly thirsty plant), dried up.

So, yeah, these Pueblo Indians did leave all together in a big hurry, but so would you if your one water faucet stopped working. And their destination was also rather mundane: Like millions of other people over the centuries, they all just moved to Phoenix, where they mixed in and disappeared into the Pueblo, Hopi, Ute and Apache civilizations.

Square Tower House. Inaccessible? Oh, a tad.
For me, the Story at Mesa Verde was that all 600 of these spectacular buildings were all erected in a single century of frenzied activity - right before everybody left. That’s one of the reasons the villages are still in great shape; they weren't lived in very long.

The Anasazi flourished here for 600 years before then, living on top of the mesas in mud and wood pit houses. Then they got the bright idea to move down to the open caves where they kept their turkey herds, for several reasons:
Your slightly chilled chronicler.
  • South facing meant they escaped the freezing Northern winds
  • The high riding sun in Summer kept most of the village in shade for most of the day
  • The place is pretty much fireproof
  • Keep an eye on those damned, suicidal turkeys who keep running over the edge
But the experiment failed, and right at the height of their 100 year building spazout they all took off and abandoned the entire neighborhood. Haha! Total psych on ya - we're off to retire to a suburb of Albuquerque. Sorry about all the turkey shit.

Mesa Verde reminded me of the builders of Stonehenge IIIB (the thing we see today), and also of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island. In each case Monumental Building took place immediately before the extinction of the group as an individual people. Hmmmm......there's a puzzler for ya.......

Roofless kiva at Spruce Tree House
After the Spruce Tree House, Karen and I did a loop of the ruins of the above groundstructures and I found these to be equally intriguing. Pit houses were the design of choice during those 600 years before everybody when masonry-happy. You just dig a large, shallow hole and cover the whole thing with log ceilings and a whole bunch of mud. Boom. Home.

All of these structures were similar - even the ones built on top of the ruins of earlier Pit Houses: One room for sleeping and working, and the Kiva for the ceremonies. It was like every family house had its own built in church. 

Every Kiva is round, subterranean (even the late ones in the caves) and faces South. There is a stone bench all the way around the walls, interrupted for 6 stone pillars to support the roof. In the South is the air vent chimney which empties onto the floor.
Mosaic of the interior of one of the kivas of the Spruce Tree House.
Photo info: "Kiva". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons.

In the floor, directly in front of the vent opening is a deflector rock which moves the incoming air in and around the fire, which is directly behind it. 

Behind the fire is the most curious feature of all of these Kiva: A small, shallow, perfectly round hole called a 'Sipapu'. This is the place where their ancestors entered this 4th world, from the 3rd.

Artist rendering of a mesa top village.
The entrance to the Kiva is center right, which
included a strange tunnel to the tower next door.
I was thoroughly charmed to see the homey Spirituality and continuity of these remarkable, ingenious, tough-as-nails people. Karen the Admiral was fascinated, but Karen the Anthropologist was not so starry-eyed. The 'Ancestral Puebloans' (as the Hopi prefer them to be called) short-saled their Cliff Palaces only 800 years ago. And she needs a least a million years to be intrigued. 

An anthro major co-worker of mine was even more dismissive, and conveyed upon them the ultimate Anthro put-down: They were 'modern'. Oooooh.....what a burn.

Four Corners: Adventure at the Edge of the Future.

White tailed bambis in the juniper forests.
We had spent all morning clambering around in the juniper forests, and we still had a serious drive ahead of us. A "many CDs" drive.

But there was one more side-trip that we had to take. Four Corners was 25 miles off of the highway, so it would be a lost hour, but hey, you don't pass up the opportunity to stand in 4 states at once. That's a must whether you are 8 years old, or 80.

Here's why: When you look at a map you can say you've been to this-or-that state or this-or-that country, but you can't say exactly where you've been in those places; the map isn't going to be big enough for that.
Karen, barely able to contain her
excitement at actually standing

But every map of the U.S. contains one place where I know precisely where I've been: The point where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico come together is a perfect cross-hairs. A pin-point. A quadripoint! So once you've been to Four Corners you can stab your finger at any map of America and say: "THERE. Right there. I have been right in that. Exact. Spot."

Your friends, however, may not be as impressed with this salient fact as they should be. They may even point out the embarrassing fact that the monument is about 1,800 yards of the actual borderial meeting place.

This fact was acknowledged by the Supreme Court in 1925, and then, with a totally straight face, denied. The North-South line is supposed to be on the 32nd Meridian, but the various surveyors between 1863 and 1901 suffered from several ailments including being blind in one eye and having one leg be longer than the other.
The monument was more modest in the 1920's.
Photo from:

Their surveying methods were also rather crude by todays standards; basically they would just spit as far they could and then walk towards that spot, repeating the process until they came to some line or another.

So, for example, the 275 mile, arrow straight border between Utah and Colorado, as shruggingly upheld by the High Court, actually zigs and zags like a drunken burro - in places as much as a mile and a half from the 32nd Meridian.

No matter: We paid the $5.00 admission fee, took photos of each other in the concrete pit (that must be a scorcher come summer), bought the fridge magnet and were quickly back on the road back to the highway.

Little known fact: Monster sized elephants used
to roam this land. Some of their fossilized
feet can still be seen.
(Trick question: To which two nations does the admission fee go to? Why your money goes to Navajo and Ute Nations, thankyouverymuch.)

Heading back to the Highway, Karen now at the wheel, I looked at the map on my phone to double check our situation and calculate how many CDs worth of driving we had left. And my phone gave me the 'no signal' finger and refused to show us where we were.

I should have known. On the way out to the Monument the Sirius Satellite radio had been fading in and out, giving us only glimpses of "Lola",  "The Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys" and 70's Who ("Squeeze Box" in this case). We were not in the range of the Earth's satellites: That's how you know you are well and truly OUT THERE.
Rain? and Desert? The boys LOVED this day.

But we were headed back the way we came, which was right, right? Right? Well, I wasn't sure. I had driven us into the monument, meaning I wasn't looking at the phone map. I just followed the signs after we left Cortez, Colorado.

(My favorite sign in Cortez, by the way, was a roadside sandwich board that read: "Soup of the Day: Whiskey".)

My internal compass told me that we were headed the wrong way. I doubted it for a few miles, convinced that it was just my stomach growling. (We hadn't eaten anything since breakfast back in Durango.)

And so there we were: The Edge of the Future is when you get so far away from Civilization that your electronic devices fail you utterly. We were lost, and hungry and tired and still had a loooong way to go. Some way. Somewhere.

miles and miles, of miles and miles.....
I eventually trusted my empty gut and had Karen turn the minivan around and drive back, past the monument and on into the unknown. I watched the little dot on my phone map blink forlornly, desperately searching for a bar or two of connectivity. Nothing.

(From the Navajo Nation Parks webpage about Four Corners: "This location is very remote as you will experience when visiting." Ayup: Roger that. Remote in about 7 dimensions.)

Nothing in the radio spectrum, nothing on the Wi-Fi wavelengths, nothing on the horizon. Just the road, wandering all over the wasteland of the Navajo nation. Jesus - no wonder the surveyors did such a whiz bang job out here a 100 years before this road was built.

Our route of the day. If we had gone back to highway 491 from
Four Corners, we would have ended up with a sizable detour
in New Mexico.
I've been frustrated before. I've been hungry before. But frustrated AND hungry is a pretty toxic combination. But then, a bar, on the phone! A random, stray bar, sent in from a savior somewhere! Thank you, Universe!

The phone map filled in with glacial slowness, and just before it disappeared again it gave me a single glimpse of the network of highways ahead of us, and YES! The Grand Canyon was at the end of one them. Close enough! Onward!

On and On into the Grand Canyon

Soon we came to Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, which I hesitate to call a town. Officially its a "Census Designated Place", which is about the lowest rung on the municipality totem pole, but all we saw was a trading post. With gas! And bread! And peanut butter! And an orange and an apple that our bodies pretty much just absorbed directly through our hands. SCHLUUPP!

Karen emerging from our salvation.
While I filled the minivan up (I never kept track, but I'm pretty sure its MPG were more GPM [gallons per mile]), I noticed three round, brown women off at the edge of the property, huddled over a portable propane stove, which was shielded from the ever-present wind by pieces of cardboard duct-taped together.

They were talking to a car that had pulled up, and when it left I went over and saw that they were making Navajo fry bread.

I had never heard of such a thing before, but I would have eaten a raw lizard by then, so sure, whatthehell, I'll take one. I watched the Mom Lady knead a large ball of dough with hands like steel plates and arm strength that could have lead to a side job for her as a car jack. I didn't ask what was in it, but the smell told me that there a substantial percentage of lard on the premises.

The Daughter Lady poured about a gallon of repeatedly hydrogenated vegetable oil into a shallow deep fryer (a shallow fryer?), and when it was smoking and about to explode and fricassee us all the Mom Lady placed the pummeled fat cake into the fryer with her bare hands. Grandma Lady stood over them both and
Lunch was about 16 inches in radius. Whoa.
supervised with the occasional word or sentence in the strangest, most 'foreign' sounding language I have ever heard. (Even though her words had been right here since the time of Columbus, and I was most definitely the foreigner.)

Navajo has 12 vowels (4 with 3 intonations each) and a hatful of consonants unknown to the English language. I wanted them to speak more of it, but Mom Lady addressed me in English, while the fry bread sputtered and crackled and grew like a radioactive B-Movie monster in the fryer. Mom lady asked where I was from, and when I said Santa Cruz her face brightened. "Oh! I have visited your land! My son went to school there and I traveled to visit him and check in with my Sisters and Brothers in your tribe."

Here her face darkened. "But when I visited your lands - your tribe is gone -" And she looked questioningly at me, like I knew where several million Ohlone Indians were hiding out.

She let the statement hang there in the air above us, bathing me in shame for what the Spanish Catholic missionaries had done to the Ohlone, which was to convert them to Civilization, a process from which none of them survived.

Our conversation suffered after that. I paid for my $3.00 fry bread with a twenty dollar bill and waved off Grandma Lady who was reaching for the money box. Um, sorry about massacring all of you, and I'm sorry I stuck you out in this shithole that's the size of Sweden.

And, you know, thanks for lunch.

Our map was back online and we were back on track and we zigzagged our way across the diagonal highways of Northern Arizona, with me giving Admiral Karen directions in-between sizable bites of my massive fry bread lunch.

Mmmmm.......salted deep-fried lard. Wonder no more why there is a diabetes epidemic amongst the Navajo, Ute and Hopi nations.

There was absolutely nothing to see out here. It was like the underside of
Our brief Wednesday glimpse of the Grand Canyon,
in the gathering twilight, and occasional rain shower.
Sweden. If you lifted up the entire Swedish nation, what it would look like underneath is the Navajo reservation.

Luckily there was serious scenery in the sky. Rainclouds chased us west, eventually surrounding the minivan, as the sun set majestically into the canyon that we were racing towards. We saw rain squalls all around us, but only got a few splatters on our windshield.

My phone map showed that Grand Canyon Village was a sizable town of tiny, twisting two lane roads that wandered all over a juniper forest like a peg-legged surveyor. This was no place to try to find our motel after dark.

The high ceilings were about the
only item of interest here.
We stopped just once to catch a glimpse of the canyon in the dusky gloom and then we slalomed along its Southern rim until we finally, finally reached Maswik lodge at 7pm.

Or was it 6pm? (It felt like 8pm.) We were back on Pacific time now, but our iPhones had not switched over yet, I think because Arizona is a colossal butt about its Time, like it is about so many things.

In the last glimmer of twilight we dragged our luggage up to the plain, no-frills room, which cost as much as our 3 cheapest motel rooms put together. No matter though: After 11 hours (12? 13?) we were able to stop. Again.

Except it was dinner time now. We removed our sad faces from the comforter and staggered back outside, where darkness had fallen completely. The closest food was a "pizza pub" that was a madhouse, chock-full of people from all over the world, all of whom were wolfing down the worst pizza that anyone of them had ever tried.

(And this was in March, which is still pronounced "Winter" out here. Grand Canyon Village must be a flippin' ZOO in summer.)
All worth it, to see this.

And so ended the weirdest food day of the trip:

  • Sublime breakfast buffet at the Strater Hotel at 8am, 
  • Miles of walking at altitude through snow country at Mesa Verde, 
  • Handfuls of Girl Scout cookies, 
  • 3pm lunch from an authentic First Americans trading post, 
  • Cross-country snacking on salted, deep-fried lard, 
  • And "pizza" that would make a high school cafeteria close its doors in shame.
I'm surprised my alimentary canal didn't turn in its resignation after that day.

Tomorrow though! Thursday would feature a scary hike in the last of our 3 National Parks AND the first of our two sporting events. Woo-hoo! (Buuuurrrppp.) ZZZZzzzz.......

Angus McMahan

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