Monday, September 14, 2015


September 10, 2015

I woke up early to the sound of crunching gravel as fellow travelers pulled out of the makeshift campground.  I got up, boiled some eggs, and overcooked some bacon.  The museum didn’t open until 9:00 and I was packed and ready to go by 8:00.  I was nervous about finding gas and wanted to get to Canyon de Chelly in time to see it that day, so I reluctantly decided to forgo visiting the Hopi villages and made a break for Keams Canyon, the only town of any size on the reservation.  Fortunately, there was a gas station there.  They only had regular gas and my car takes premium, but I bought five gallons, which was enough to get me to civilization.

Alcohol is prohibited on Indian lands, but the specter of alcoholism loomed everywhere.  I listened to the Hopi radio station and there were public service announcements advertising various methods of drying out.  Every town had a detox center.  I wondered if they really had a higher percentage of alcoholics, or if they were just more open about it.  I also wondered where they got their booze, since it was a long way off the reservation (100 miles or more) to the nearest liquor store.  I took my beer out of my cooler and stashed it with my spare tire, observing the ban while I was visiting.  My neighbor in the Hopi campground did not.  He had a large bottle of tequila perched on the roof of his truck, which I considered very bad form.

Eventually, Highway 264 intersected Highway 191 and I turned north and drove through the Navajo reservation to the town of Chinle.  For my entire time in Arizona, I never knew what time it was.  Arizona was on Mountain time, but they did not observe daylight savings time, which made them the same as California except that the Navajo did observe daylight savings time and the Hopi did not.  For some reason, my cell phone thought it was two hours later.  I was perpetually confused.  By the time I stopped for my morning coffee in Chinle (I had left my coffee in Marina del Rey), it was the lunch rush at Burger King.  The Burger King parking lot was overrun with men begging for cash.  They had two employees whose job it was just to run them off and apologize to customers.  The Navajo reservation appeared much more prosperous than the Hopi, but they also had more big-city problems. 

From Chinle, I drove into the Canyon de Chelly National Monument and stopped at the visitor center.  I oriented myself and picked up a map.  Canyon de Chelly is a series of branching canyons shaped like a tree with a short trunk.  The canyon walls are red and sheer and the canyon floors wide and green.  Visitors without guides are confined to the mesa top, with the exception of one trail down to the White House Ruin.  This makes a lot of sense, as it would be easy to lose oneself in the maze of canyons.  I decided to drive along the South Rim, stopping at each of the overlook points which offered good views of cliff dwellings on the other side of the canyon.  At the second stop, I met a Navajo vendor named Many Stars.  He was very chatty.  I bought a pair of silver earrings from him and he told me about the house he was building down the road.  I had always assumed the cliff dwellers had built their structures for some good reason like security, but I started to wonder if maybe they weren’t just regular people who wanted to build a house and took advantage of a site that provided ready-made walls and roof, not to mention energy efficiency.
I wanted to walk down to the White House Ruin, but didn’t want to do it in the heat of the day, since it was nearly 90 degrees out.  I stopped at all of the overlooks on the South Rim, but saved the White House one for the end of the day.  There are no park service campgrounds at Canyon de Chelly, but there is a Navajo run campground at Spider Rock.  It is a fairly primitive affair, but does boast solar heated showers for $3.  At the Spider Rock overlook, I encountered a couple from Tucson in wheelchairs.  His was motorized and he was very slowly pulling her up the hill.  I asked if they were happy or could use a little help.  He was quick to answer that SHE could use some help.  I gave her a push to the top of the hill and, without the extra load, he was able to keep up with us. 
Modern Petroglyph
North Rim Overlook
View from North Rim
                After exploring the South Rim, I then took a drive along the North Rim, which offers fewer views of cliff dwellings, although it had some lovely overlooks with modern petroglyphs marking the path across expanses of stone.  It was 5:30 by the time I returned to the White House overlook and started down the path to the canyon floor.  It was difficult to tell how some of the cliff dwellings had been accessed, but it is likely that the original pathways have eroded away.  I doubt that the trail down to the White House Ruin has been there for more than fifty or sixty years, but the cuts already look very weathered.  Eight hundred years could have erased a substantial path.  The path descends for 600 feet to the canyon floor and then follows the stream around the corner to the base of the cliff.  At the White House Ruin, there were buildings on the canyon floor and also in the alcove part of the way up the cliff above.  The name comes from one of the buildings in the alcove that was plastered with a white covering.  The walk was pretty, but there was some sort of biting insect along the stream that feasted on my calves.  It was late in the day and I encountered few tourists, but was surprised to see a number of Navajo who must have lived in the canyon and were using the pathway to commute to and from their homes.  I climbed out of the canyon just before sunset and drove down the hill to the Holiday Inn.

White House Ruin

Holiday Inn in Canyon de Chelly
Cliff Above the White House Ruin
Usually I wouldn’t pay the exorbitant price for a hotel at a national park, but I had been living out of my car for six days and needed to reorganize.  I also needed to charge my computer and the inflator for my air mattress.  A shower didn’t sound bad, either.  The Holiday Inn at Canyon de Chelly was expensive ($141/night including taxes), but it was a lovely setting with pueblo style architecture.  I took a shower and had a Navajo taco (chili on Navajo fry bread) in the restaurant.  Then I retired to my room to work on my blog post and rearrange my ridiculously heavy luggage into a more portable version for camping.


September 11, 2015

Driving to Four Corners
Four Corners
Four Corners Monument
I didn’t wake up as early as I had planned, but I had stayed up late the night before, writing, and did get a good night’s sleep.  I ate a hard-boiled egg and a banana and made some coffee in my room.  Then I reorganized the car and pulled out of the hotel about 10:00.  I filled my tank with premium gas in Chinle and picked up another block of ice.  Then I headed up the road towards Four Corners.  At first, I drove through red rock mesas, but gradually the rock became more drab and the formations less fantastic.  After a couple of hours, I reached the Four Corners monument.  Thirty years ago, my father, who was a ham radio operator, had strung an antenna around the marker and transmitted from four states at once.  Today, there is a large monument with flags from four states and two Indian nations (Navajo and Ute), surrounded by stalls for craft vendors.  I bought a present for Scott’s mother and hit the road. 

Mesa Verde Visitor Center
Less than an hour later, I arrived in Cortez, CO, where I bought lunch before continuing a few miles further to Mesa Verde National Park.  My first stop was the visitor center.  I had paid for a tour online and needed to figure out where and when to meet the group.  After looking at the exhibits in the visitor center and admiring the scenery, I continued up the road to the Morefield Campground.  There is a small village just before the campground with a store, laundromat, restaurant and ranger station.  I registered at the store and then selected one of the tent sites.  The Morefield campground is large (250 sites), but was fairly empty when I arrived about 1:00.  I picked a shady site and set up my tent and inflated my mattress.  I sat in the shade and enjoyed a cold drink while I planned my afternoon.
My Campsite

About 3:00, I headed up the road towards Chapin Mesa.  Along the way, I stopped at the Park Lookout, which is a fire lookout on the highest spot in the park.  Most of the park had burned at some point in this century and fire damage was evident everywhere.  There was a tremendous 360 degree view from up there.  Mesa Verde is a big slab of stone that was uplifted on one side and then carved into canyons.  The top is nearly 8600 feet above sea level. 
View from Park Lookout

                                                                                                                                                        At Chapin Mesa, there is a nice museum dating back to the early years of the 20th century.  From there, you can walk a short way down to the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling.  While Mesa Verde isn’t nearly as spectacular as Canyon de Chelly, the ruins are much more accessible.  You couldn’t climb on them, but you could get close enough to touch and to look into the kivas (circular pits used for ceremonial and domestic purposes.) While the inhabitants of Canyon de Chelly farmed the canyon floor and climbed up to their homes, the citizens of Mesa Verde farmed on top of the mesa and descended to their homes.  The canyon walls were not sheer and it was easy to access the alcoves where they built their dwellings.  In fact, the population originally lived
Museum at Chapin Mesa

Inside Spruce Tree House

                                                                                                                                            in pueblos on top of the mesa and only moved to the alcoves during the last hundred years or so before they left the mesa altogether.  The cliff dwellings were not inhabited for longer than we might inhabit a house today.

Spruce Tree House
View from Petroglyph Trail
After checking out the Spruce Tree House, I hiked the Petroglyph trail a mile and a half or so along the ledge containing the ruins to a spot where a number of petroglyphs had been carved into the stone.  It was an interesting path and I had to squeeze between boulders and climb up and down stairways made of stone or carved into the rock.  It gave me an idea what it would have been like to live in such a place.  After reaching the petroglyphs, the trail climbed steeply to the top of the mesa and then followed the edge of the mesa to the head of the canyon where it crossed above the Spruce Tree House and offered nice views of the same before returning to the museum.

Early Pueblo at Far View
Kiva at Far View
Far View Site
It was 6:00 by the time I got back to my car, but I had time to visit the Far View Sites, where there were older ruins from the pre-cliff dwelling period.  They were still impressive.  The inhabitants had even built a reservoir.  I made a quick circuit of the sites and then headed back down the hill to my camp where I cooked dinner and spent the evening writing about my experiences.  About midnight, I was awakened by a raging windstorm.  The tent was deforming and would have blown away had I not been holding it down.  I lay there for an hour or so until it calmed down enough that I could go back to sleep.

September 12, 2015
Pithouse Construction

It was a good thing that I didn’t need to rely on my cell phone alarm to wake me, since the battery had died during the night.  Unfortunately, I had been awake since 4:00, not wanting to get dressed and put my shoes on to go to the restroom, but too uncomfortable to sleep.  The whole campground must have been in the same predicament because at 6:00, everyone came alive.  I got up and made some of the coffee I had liberated from the Holiday Inn.  I ate breakfast and read for a bit until it was time to head up the hill to the Far View Lodge to meet up with my bus tour.  I had signed up for a four hour bus tour online.  The tour was conducted by Mesa Verde Guided Tours and it was very good.  The guide had lived in the park for about 50 years and was very knowledgeable.  He took us to different sites on Chapin Mesa and explained how the architecture had evolved from pit houses to pueblos to the cliff dwellings at the end of the occupation of Mesa Verde.   He took us to the Sun Temple, which was a very large complex that seemed to have been abandoned before its completion.

Sun Temple
We stopped at several overlooks to view cliff dwellings and our guide explained how the alcoves were formed when water percolated through the loose sandstone layer until it reached the impermeable Mogollon shale layer.  There, it worked its way to the face of the mesa and seeped out, taking part of the stone with it until an alcove was formed.  These seep springs came in handy for the cliff dwellers who were able to obtain water close to or even inside of their alcoves.  Mesa Verde has 600 cliff dwellings.  Most are just a few rooms and probably housed a single family, but some had up to 150 rooms and housed up to a hundred people.  The pueblo people did not view waste as garbage the way we do.  Everything they used came from nature and they believed that when they were finished with something, they had to give it back to nature.  Their garbage, human waste and even human remains were scattered down the side of the canyon in front of their pueblos, although the dead were buried.  Bodies were not considered garbage, but things that were no longer needed.
Cliff Palace

Eventually, our group joined a ranger led tour of Cliff Palace, the largest of the cliff dwellings and the one you usually see on postcards.  We descended a pathway carved by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression and then actually walked through the city before climbing out via a series of ladders that followed the original access route.  We could still see some of the hand and foot holds that had been carved into the rock.  The city was very impressive, with several towers and some “penthouses” on an upper level.  There were numerous kivas, the circular subterranean structures that served as ceremonial centers and living rooms for the inhabitants.  Being subterranean, they were warm in winter and cool in summer, so were perfect places to hang out and escape the harsh climate.

Cliff Palace from Inside the Alcove

No one knows why the people left about 1300.  There is no evidence of plague or war.  There had been a drought, but they had survived droughts before.  The most plausible explanation I heard offered was that some shaman decided it was time for them to move on.  The pueblo people have a tradition of migration, believing that they must learn to live everywhere before they may settle in one place.  The decision may have been influenced by food or water shortage or overpopulation, soil depletion, or unusual cold.

View from Lookout Point
Knife Edge Trail
   After the tour, I headed back down the hill to the campground.  On my way, I saw a bear ambling down the road.  I was sleepy.  I fried up some bacon for lunch, did my dishes, and took a long nap.  At about 4:00, I got up and went for a couple of the hikes leaving from the Morefield Campground.  First, I climbed up to Lookout Point.  The trail switchbacked up the side of the Mesa for a mile or so and then traversed the top of the Mesa to a point with a 180 degree view of the surrounding valleys and mountains.  It was clear and the view was pretty spectacular.  I charged up there and back in an hour, but it was a pretty good climb and could easily take twice that long.  After I returned to my car, I backtracked to the trailhead for the Knife Edge trail.  That trail follows the old access road along the side of the mesa for a mile before ending at a slide.  It was fairly level, but offered good views and lots of wild flowers and cottontail rabbits and deer.  I knocked the two mile round trip out in 40 minutes, finishing just before sunset.  Then I returned to my campsite, ate leftovers from the night before for dinner and spent the evening chatting with friends over the spotty WiFi connection and writing.

Thirsty Deer at the Pump Out Station

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