Day Five – Thursday, September 16: The Green Table
And now, a few words about bugs. After four full days on the road, the front end of our car had become a vast graveyard of insect remains, a veritable repository of entomological innards, outards, exoskeletons, wings, antennae, and just about anything else associated with flying insects. I’m talking about a bazillion bugs who had unwittingly dashed themselves to their own demise against the glass, plastic and steel of my Honda. They would buzz, bite, and bother no more. They had ceased to be, bought the farm, sucked their last drop of blood, leaving thousands of bereaved little larvae behind. What I’m saying is, my car was a mess.
I had the bright idea of driving all the way to New Orleans without washing off any of this goop, other than the windshield, of course. That’s a safety issue when you can no longer see the road for all the bug carcasses. But the rest? Leave it be, baby. This, naturally, is a guy’s way of thinking.
Cool, dude, look at all those dead bugs.
For the wife, however, twenty pounds of caked-on bug remains was something less than cool. Disgusting, revolting, intolerable… well, you get the idea. I give her credit, she humored me and let it go for four days. By morning in Cortez, though, she laid down her ultimatum. Either the bugs come off the car or she would not be riding anywhere in it. After several minutes of serious deliberation on my part over this choice, followed by a spirited debate (this means an argument) I decided it was not worth the grief to continue the great bug collecting experiment any longer.
I took some photos for posterity and as we headed out of town, stopped for gas and then took the windshield cleaning squeegee and went to work. What I hadn’t counted on was that four days of baked-on bug splatter would have the physical characteristics of hardened cement. What I needed was a hammer and chisel, but not having those tools readily available, I did the best I could with the plastic squeegee. I soaked the bumper, headlights and hood repeatedly until the goop softened enough to remove about eighty percent of it (with a liberal helping of elbow grease) and vowed never to repeat this particular mistake.
(Ascending to Mesa Verde National Park)
So…on to Mesa Verde National Park we went, only a short distance from Cortez. I’d been looking forward to this particular day ever since I’d begun planning the trip months earlier, and heading out of Cortez, the day seemed full of good omens. The sun beamed bright and the sky shone blue once more. Even the car felt lighter with the dead bug weight removed.
Oddly though, after about twenty minutes I got the vague sense something wasn’t right – not exactly wrong, but not quite right. That can be an important distinction sometimes. For one thing it seemed to be taking longer than I’d expected to reach Mesa Verde Park. And why were we passing signs directing us to turn off toward Hovenweep National Monument and the Four Corners Monument, but nothing about how much farther to Mesa Verde? Suddenly there loomed up at us a large sign that said “Welcome To New Mexico.” I knew that couldn’t possibly be right, because we were heading east toward Mesa Verde, not south to New Mexico, so how could…and then it hit me like a two by four upside the head.
“What happened?” Irina said with some alarm, knowing I only say “bleep” in moments of extreme duress.
“We’re going the wrong bleeping way! Bleep!”
I yanked the steering wheel violently and scrunched to a halt in the gravel on the shoulder of the highway. I hauled out my trusty road map, studied it intently for a minute as the car idled in the shadow of the welcome sign. I realized with a mixture of stunned chagrin, disbelief and just plain embarrassment that I had hauled out of Cortez going south on 491 instead of heading east on 160.
I studied the map again. I looked up at the gigantic New Mexico welcome sign looming above us, stubbornly refusing to vanish from my sight. Nope, not a mirage. I had screwed up big time. Me, mister I-can-find-anything-I’ve-never-been-lost-in-my-life had taken the wrong stinking highway out of a two highway town. I couldn’t even hide behind the excuse of being confused in some megalopolis with too many options or missing my exit.
I shriveled in the seat, knowing I was going to have to eat a big old slice of Humble Pie. Oh, the shame, the humiliation. I would rather eat worms than admit to a mistake like that. Worse, we’d lost half an hour, and with backtracking, a full hour out of our day. But there was nothing to be done now except turn around and go back, taking out more bugs who had evaded us on the first leg.
Irina was fine with it. “No problem,” she reiterated several times, but for me it was hard to let it go. I cast about for some sort of lame excuse for this appalling disaster as we zipped back through Cortez, passing our motel again (and not for the last time, either). All that bug-scraping must have distracted me, yeah, that’s it. Took my mind off more important things that I should have been thinking about, like directions. Who cares about cleaning the stinking car, anyway?
As we drove back through the junction in Cortez, I noticed the subtlety I had missed earlier. The highway we’d driven coming into Cortez was 491. Leaving town to the east – toward Mesa Verde – we needed 160. But the one I’d mistakenly taken south toward New Mexico, was 160/491. If you’re not paying attention, which admittedly I was not, it’s a mistake waiting to happen. Still, for me that was merely a lame-o excuse for lame-o screwups who don’t know how to read a map.
I hear all the technophiles out there screaming “Get a GPS, you troglodyte!”
Never. Not in one million years will I succumb to the pressure of the newest, trendiest, gotta-have-it gadget. I’ve been accused of resisting technology on many fronts, and there is some truth to this. If I was a mathematician, I’d probably still be using an abacus. Nevertheless, I don’t care if your shiny new thingamabob is the greatest invention in the history of mankind since the wheel, I remain convinced that if you can’t find your way with a decent map and road signs, you don’t belong behind the wheel in the first place. Not only that, but no matter how advanced your technowidget is, it’s still no smarter than the dolt who designed it and the dolt using it. And I’ve seen and read enough sci-fi to know I don’t want to voluntarily hand over any more control of my life to machines than they already have.
Hey, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
So, finally, we came to Mesa Verde, which means, of course, Green Table in Spanish. It’s a fantastic drive into the park, up and up and up with many scenic viewpoints to the north, east, and west, until finally you reach the top of the mesa at a dizzying 8500 feet in elevation. Then it’s as flat as a, hmm, table? Yeah, that’s it. This goes on for quite a while as you head south across the mesa through forests of scrubby, low pines. About fifteen miles in you come to the aptly named Farview visitors center where you have to sign up to reserve a spot on one of the ranger-guided tours into the cliff dwellings.
(Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde N.P)
Unfortunately for us, we arrived at midday among a crush of visitors and by the time we stood through the line it turned out to be a two hour wait for a trip into Cliff Palace, the largest and most well preserved of the ancient dwellings, and the one I’d most wanted to visit. Not wanting to wait that long, however, we opted instead to take the self-guided tour through Spruce Tree House.
(Spruce Tree House, cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde N.P)
At first I felt a little gypped, but in the end, we were happy with our choice. Spruce Tree House turned out to be a delight. We poked our heads into various rooms of the dwellings, taking scads of photos and videos. We also descended into one of the dark and dusty below ground chambers used by the Indians for religious rites back in the day, and I gotta tell you, those Pueblans were some tiny folks. I am not a large man by any stretch, but it was very cramped in there. Or maybe they just liked things real cozy.
Surprisingly to me, these rooms are still used today by local Native Americans for the same ceremonial purposes. Now I’m not sure what goes on at one of these conclaves, but if it involves some magic mushrooms or peyote smoking, well, about thirty years ago I, ahem, knew some people who might have signed up. Ah, yes, good old college days.
The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum near Spruce Tree House is a fabulous place to learn just about anything you could ever want to know about this fascinating area and its inhabitants, including dioramas of the pueblos in various eras, and rooms full of artifacts: pottery, weapons, clothing, you name it, they’ve got it.
Since this is a travel piece and not a historical article, I’ll give just a brief overview. About A.D. 600, Indians from the surrounding plains migrated up here, scraping out a hunter/gatherer existence, or perhaps subsistence would be the better term as the archaeologists tell us they endured a harsh, short, and brutish life in this dry and unforgiving land of blazing summers and frigid winters. The average life expectancy hovered somewhere in their 30’s for most of the time they inhabited these mesas, a period which ended mysteriously about 1300 A.D. No one is certain of the exact reason they abandoned these dwellings. The best guess is the game had been hunted nearly to extinction, and this, coupled with a twenty year drought, drove the inhabitants south to greener pastures.
After spending a leisurely hour or so exploring Spruce Tree House, we decided to take a hike down Petroglyph Point trail. This turned out to be a far superior choice to our previous day’s hiking misadventure in Arches Park. For one thing, they’ve actually heard of trees in Colorado, and have a lot of them. Second, the trail heading out to Petroglyph Point is mostly in the shade of said trees. And third, the temperature was only in the mid 80’s as opposed to the mid 90’s of the day before.
(Atop Petroglyph Point with Spruce Canyon below)
The petroglyphs themselves are something of a letdown after you’ve hiked a couple of miles out to see them. They’re interesting but few in number, and about half of them are basically handprint outlines, you know, the kind we all made in first grade? But that small caveat aside, it’s still a great side trip. The views along the way of Spruce Canyon are spectacular, with eagles constantly soaring and swooping in and out of sight. At one point we counted five of the majestic birds visible at the same time.
After you stop and see the petroglyphs (which took us about two minutes) you have a choice: turn around and head back the way you just came, or head up the cliffside on a “stairway” with some of the steps cut directly into the rock and dirt while others consist of teetering stone slabs. It’s a brief ascent – about a hundred vertical feet – but very steep, with no handholds, and not for the faint of heart or the unsure of foot. The distance back to the visitor center is about the same whichever way you return.
We visited briefly with a group of four senior citizen hikers, two men and two women, who’d reached the petroglyphs ahead of us. When they decided to push on and ascend to the top of the mesa, one of the women seemed especially reluctant. As she slowly took the first few steps, her husband snapped a picture. She turned to him and said, “Yes, make sure you document this. It’s probably the last thing I’ll ever do.”
For us – okay, for me – it was an easy decision to take the road not yet traveled. We attacked the incline with varying degrees of enthusiasm – gusto for me, trepidation for Irina. She suffers from mild vertigo, whereas I never met a high place I didn’t like. But she’s a trooper and followed me up with a minimum of cajoling and assistance. In fact, I was the one who tripped on a root and almost pitched head first off the side of the trail at one point.
Once on top it’s nonstop wildly expansive views to the neighboring mesas across the canyon. You’re exposed to the sun more up here, so it’s hotter but also quite flat and an easy walk of forty-five minutes or so back to where we started.
We spent half an hour cooling off in the museum before climbing into our car, at which point we learned yet another valuable lesson. A plastic cooler in a parked car is no match for several hours of sun blazing through the back window. We’d been looking forward to a nice, cool refreshing lunch/dinner only to find that our block of ice had been reduced to a cube awash in a puddle of lukewarm water. Meanwhile, everything on the top half of the cooler had reached that temperature food achieves when it sits under those warming bulbs in a cheap buffet. Yummy.
After our repast we circled the roads around the southern end of the mesa, stopping at viewpoints and overlooks, then making one last stop at the visitor center gift shop (I’m an incurable t-shirt collector). Reluctantly, we spiraled out of the park with the slanting rays of the setting sun casting sheets of rose and orange across the yellow ocher dirt and green pines of the mesa. We left with another day of great memories made and another location added to the “revisit someday” list.
At the highway, another decision faced us. About 75 miles east lay Durango, but it was already on the dark side of dusk and, as always, we hated to push on in the night through virgin territory. So for the second time on our trip, we made the practical but unhappy choice to backtrack. We turned west and in fifteen minutes were once more stepping into the lobby of the Mesa Verde Inn of Cortez.
We didn’t get the exact same room, but rather its mirror opposite on the other end of the motel. Unfortunately, our neighbors this time were apparently (judging from the volume of their tv, anyway) deaf insomniacs, and the wall separating the two rooms constructed of onion skin typing paper. At some point after midnight – and after my wife physically restrained me several times from inflicting grievous bodily harm on them – the yahoos next door finally switched off the boob tube. Either that or they blew out the speakers. Whatever the case, blessed silence (or something vaguely resembling it) finally descended upon us and sleep crept in.
And no, the next morning, I did not drive the wrong direction out of Cortez. But I did still kind of miss my bugs.