After wrapping up day six in Canyonlands Island in the Sky district, we spent the night in Moab to escape the heat and have a pizza. It was a good choice. The hotel bed was welcome and the pizza was first rate. We woke rested and headed out for Arches at 7:00 am to beat the crowds and catch some good light. If you are ever in Moab, Utah, stop at Wicked Brew and have the best cup of straight Americano ever made. It got us to the park with the motor running.
Good thing too, because our first spot was the 3 mile or so climb/hike to Delicate Arch. This structure is, as the name implies, impossibly delicate for its size. It really does seem as though it could topple over at any minute. Several arches in the park actually have and it is the fate of every arch to do so eventually. For now, they seduce us with the wrongness of their grace and lightness amidst the soaring rock faces and jagged edges. The same forces actually create structures that look like they are balanced – poised between the possible and the unimaginable, they carve a space out of the blue sky and give us pause for wonder. Gravity and wind and water will win out, but not today. Arches National Park is remarkable and we never got tired of seeing yet another arch as I at least thought we might. Each one seems to find a different way to display itself, to frame a vista, to tempt gravity. If you go, get out of the car. Walk among the structures up close (as close as allowed) and look at them from different angles. Their balance isn’t a trick of the eye, or hidden support, it is the determined resistance of stone to wind and water that will stand even without a middle as long as it possibly can.
We travelled east to Mesa Verde for the night and camped out in the cool breeze of the high Mesa. Day eight would be a different kind of park we thought. One of cultural significance more than sheer natural wonder. After a breakfast of ham and eggs we packed up and headed out for the first of two ranger led tours of the ancient puebloan cliff dwellings that are the heart of the Mesa Verde experience. For 700 or so years, the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and other puebloan people made Mesa Verde their home. By all accounts they thrived here moving from rather insignificant pit house in holes up on top of the Mesa to elaborate palaces mortared into the alcoves of sandstone cliffs below the Mesa top. Then they left. Almost overnight, archaeologically speaking, the community that had grown and thrived for hundreds of years, stops. We know of course that they would reappear in New Mexico and other areas of the southwest, but still, to just walk away from all they had built seems well, odd. Nobody really knows why they left. Theories abound from climate change (severe drought), to soil depredation (you can only farm the same ground for so long), to tired hunters (they were having to go further and further in search of game because they were hunting out the Mesa), but my favorite came from our guide at one of the dwellings – she said they heard about a better place with running water. Extensive trading networks would have meant they could know about land where there was running water (rivers) instead of the finicky seep springs in the cliff alcoves and, according to this theory, they packed up and headed for a better life. I don’t know if they found it, but I certainly understand the reasoning. So do the folks from those old towns on Route 66 where we started out.
Sometimes the rocks fall. Sometimes the best planning and sharing and communing use up too much resource, or fail to satisfy the spirit. Sometimes there is too much wind, or too much corn and not enough rock or venison. Things get out of balance and they have to change. We can choose to hang on until out middles are gone and we fall over, or we can pick up and move in search of something better. I can’t say one way is right and one way is wrong, but I can say you have to choose, otherwise you just get blown around from one pile to another and you never are any one thing.
Which brings us to the last park of the journey, Great Sand Dunes. There is the biggest, prettiest, most awe-inspiring out of place pile of sand in the corner of the Sangre de Cristo mountains that you have ever seen. At 8000 feet of elevation with a huge prairie in the foreground and the mountain range in the background, lie the shifting, glowing dunes of Great Sand Dunes. Wind pretty much determines what they look like at any given time, but the light makes them alive. If you go, they won’t look to you like they looked to me, because the won’t be what I saw, but they will still be as out of place and strangely wonderful as anything you will ever imagine. They are a living argument to certainty.
We travel home now. It will take a while and that is as planned. We have a great deal upon which to reflect and driving is good for that. The forces of creation and light and dark and texture and layers and balance and life and death are at work in the world and in our lives constantly. Setting out to see something wonderful with no agenda can, it seems, help us discover some perspective on it all. Take a trip with someone you care about. Do it on the ground. Slowly. And if you can include one of the remarkable national treasures as you travel, I hope they do for you what they have done for me.