Four Corners, Part V

Red Rock Canyon * Zion * Bryce Canyon * Capitol Reef * Arches * Mesa Verde * Monument Valley * Grand Canyon

"Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" is Kelly's least favorite Chicago song.  (Personally, I'd vote for something from the later Peter Cetera period--"You're the Inspiration," perhaps.)  I never found the lyrics especially problematic or meaningful, personally, but I did begin to appreciate them in Cortez, Colorado on March 9th, because I had no freakin' idea what time it was.

The trip had begun in Eastern Standard Time, but the Powers That Be saw to it that we'd have to reset our watches four times in four days.

1) Reset to Central Standard Time at Houston's airport on 3/5.  Noon becomes eleven.

2) Reset to Pacific Standard Time in Las Vegas on 3/5.  Eleven becomes nine.

3) Reset to Mountain Standard Time once we crossed into Utah on 3/6.  Nine becomes ten.

4) Reset to Mountain Daylight Time when we woke up on Sunday morning, 3/8.  Ten becomes eleven again.

At this point, we were too confused to feel any real jet lag, but we were at least (we felt sure) done with the adjustments.  We were also up very early on a Sunday morning and heading east from Cortez toward a national park about which I knew next to nothing:  Mesa Verde.  We reached it at 8:30, and we were all but alone.  There was snow atop every peak of the mountain wall to the south of highway 160, but we'd seen on the news that morning that it could have been worse: we could have been in Ohio, where 20 inches had fallen the day before.  All we got was clear roads and gorgeous scenery on the way to the park.

Mesa Verde is unlike most national parks in several ways: first, it's known primarily not for its natural beauty, but for its man-made attractions.  It's the home of some of the most spectacular and extensive pre-Columbian structures in North America.  For several hundred years, a group of Pueblos built their homes and temples and gathering places within its boundaries, but in about 1250 or 1300 CE, perhaps as the result of drought and famine, the builders abandoned them.  The buildings are still there, sometimes in the lee of the cliffs, sometimes perched on the Mesa itself, their adobe protected from the elements by the climate, the area's designation as a park, and often by the same cliffs that protected the builders.

The other protection they enjoy is sheer distance.  The cliff dwellings lie far to the south of the arresting mesa wall that stands at the entrance to the park.  In fact, the park's Visitor Center lies in roughly the same place--which is twenty miles into the park.  There's a small kiosk at the entranceway, but that's the only official presence until you've wended your way along twenty miles of cliff-hugging switchback road.  In short, you don't go into Mesa Verde without making a serious commitment.

Luckily, the trade-off for your commitment is a gorgeous drive.  Immediately beyond the kiosk was a thick forest of Utah juniper which demanded my attention almost at once.  I pulled the truck over, jumped out of the driver's seat, and followed a variety of birds in and out of the trees: a Western Bluebird or two, a Spotted Towhee, even a Golden-crowned Kinglet, but nothing new.  I may have heard a Mountain Chickadee, but I never laid eyes on it.  I gave it a few more minutes, then decided to pull up stakes and head further into the park.  When I opened the door of the truck, Dad was still sitting in the passenger seat, but now he had his cell phone to his ear, conversing with Mom, who was either one, two, or three hours ahead of us.  Since cell reception in this area had already proved to be tenuous at best, I opted to spend a few more minutes outside, rather than move the truck and cut off the call.

At roughly the same moment I made this decision, I glanced into the rear-view mirror outside my window and saw the silhouette of a bird atop a juniper on the far side of the road.  Carefully sliding down from the high-mounted driver's seat and closing the door with special delicacy, I returned to the road with binoculars trained on the top of the juniper.  A juniper top isn't that far from the ground; the tree is a little bigger than the typical Christmas tree, but I doubt there was one in my field of view that topped twenty feet.  This one was probably a bit under that, and its pointed crown was surmounted by a slim grey bird that seemed unusually nervous.  Its wings fluttered every few seconds, as though it were somehow working itself up to take off, then thinking better of it at the last moment.  The white eye-ring gave it a wide-eyed, slightly goggly look, and its call was entirely in line with that impression:  a short, not-quite-panicky "Eek!"  All in all, the combination of its twitchyness, wide-eyed appearance, and voice indicated quite clearly that if Don Knotts had been born a bird, he would have been a Townsend's Solitaire.

The Solitaire's ID was further confirmed by a glimpse of its buff-colored wing patches as it (finally) lit from the top of the juniper and flew into the woods, allowing us to depart for the high country at last.  I soon decided that Arches might have a rival for the title of National Park with the Best Natural Defenses; there was no single wall between the entrance and the park's contents, but there were mountains, narrow roadways, and twists and turns aplenty.  An enemy seeking out the Pueblos from this angle would have a devil of a time just finding them.

That enemy's job might have been slightly easier at the moment, however, because as we rose toward the mesa top itself, we could see increasing signs of fire damage.  Many blackened trees stood bare in the snow, and in places the only vegetation was yuccas, which I presume respond better to fire than the juniper, pinyons, ponderosa pines or aspens do.  Still, the view down into the Mancos River valley was stunning, and the snowy peaks all around us and the great blue sky over us were a constant distraction as I carefully maneuvered the Silverado around the curves.

The visitor's center, when it finally hove into view a long while later, offered both a garrulous (and somewhat bored) ranger and a great deal of information on the Pueblos' lifestyle, and since much of the park was still closed due to the snow, Dad and I opted to spend some time there.  We were the only visitors at the time, so we were able to wander about at our own pace.  I learned from the exhibits that:

*Yucca roots are poisonous.  Yucca leaves were the Pueblos' main source of fiber, but the only use for the roots is making tea.

*We had not seen a Clark's Nutcracker at Bryce.  A stuffed specimen revealed that the bird's long black bill and black-and-white wings would have easily been visible to us.  (I suspect it had been either a Solitaire or perhaps a Gray Jay.)

*The kiva house, where Pueblos worshipped, was in fact underground (though holes to let in air and let out smoke were placed in the roof).

*The fire damage we'd seen had come from several summertime lightning strikes.  The combination of dry conditions and high altitude occasionally produces such fires, but the park had been especially unlucky in recent years.

We finally left the museum in hopes of getting to see the archaeology live, so to speak, and chose as our first site the Sun Temple, a large, low D-shaped adobe building nestled in the evergreens atop the mesa.   It had been built circa 1250, possibly by the last generation of Pueblos to live at Mesa Verde.  When the community there became untenable, the theory is that the inhabitants migrated south and west to rejoin their cousins.  They certainly didn't leave because of inferior construction.  The masonry was comparable to anything I'd seen in medieval European sites, though the lack of an obvious entrance was a bit puzzling.  Perhaps it was supposed to be entered through the top, like a more traditional kiva.

Across the canyon from the Sun Temple, however, was the most impressive piece of Native American building I've ever seen:  the magnificent Cliff Palace.  Built into the cliff face beneath an enormous overhanging sandstone arch, it would have been all but impregnable to any enemies who did eventually make into the area.  It's about as long as a football field, and fairly shallow, what with the cliff face on either side, but it was home to between 100 and 150 people, making it larger than several of the communities we'd driven through earlier in the week (and larger than a few in my part of rural Virginia, now that I think of it.)  At somewhere between 850 and 750 years old, it's also the oldest piece of Native American building I've ever seen (other than a mound or two), and it's one I would dearly love to see up close someday when the entire park is open.

The sun was getting high when we headed back out of the park and set our course southward toward the anthropomorphic silhouette of Sleeping Ute Mountain and into the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Reservation (a name that sounds almost as redundant as The La Brea Tar Pits does to Spanish speakers).  As farmland, it looked like a good place for a casino, which is exactly what the pragmatic Utes had built at the side of the road in Tawaoc.  I was seized by an idea that I never quite fleshed out, but it rattled around my mind until after we'd left Colorado: in medieval Europe, Christians got the Jews to handle the money-lending that their religion forbade but their economy demanded; in the U.S., gambling is viewed in a similar light by puritanical whites, but they've gotten the Indians to take on a role similar to that of the Jews before them.  We've even set up the ghettos for them.  Hmm.

In twenty miles or so, we reached the New Mexico border, and I knew that my hopes of spotting a new bird in New Mexico would depend entirely on the next few hours--we would be leaving the state after only about fifty miles.  The entire time we were there, however, the view would be dominated by one thing:  the enormous, ragged volcanic wedge of Ship Rock, a huge dark chunk of igneous rock that stands out in every way from its surroundings.  The top spires reach over 7000 feet above sea level, which is nearly 2000 feet above the surrounding flatlands, and they're visible from about fifty miles away.  It's a dark brown-grey-black, too, making it visible against the sky or against the pale desert colors around it, not to mention radically unlike the rosy sedimentary colors of most of the other rock formations in the area.  And last, it's in the middle of NOWHERE.

I thought I'd seen nowhere back in Nevada and Utah, but until I reached northwest New Mexico, I'd seen only its suburbs.  The land in this corner of the state is federal, and I suspect it's so because the state simply didn't want it; the Feds apparently didn't want it, either, since they allow it to be part of the Navajo Nation.  The town of Shiprock, by far the largest town in the NN, is a dusty, raven-haunted sprawl of buildings and trailers (possibly in the reverse order) next to the San Juan River, but there seems to be no center to it, no visible purpose except the seemingly universal human instict to slap a border up when a certain critical mass of population is reached.

Birding was looking decidedly unpromising, unless of course the ravens or Shiprock's House Sparrow population could be counted.  There simply weren't any places set aside for wildlife.  I couldn't blame the locals for this, of course--there wasn't anyplace around that had been set aside for real human life, either.  The trailers (many topped by satellite dishes) were suspiciously uniform, suggesting government contracts had been signed, while the rural areas were great squares of nothing marked off by barbed wire; if there was anything grazing within them, I couldn't detect it, but at least it couldn't escape. 

We turned off the main road so that we could at least get closer to the mass of Ship Rock, but birds remained absent.  I got excited by something appearing on the fence; it turned out to be a Horned Lark, the first I'd ever seen without companions.  A brief side-of-the-road scan allowed me to spot a few juncos in a bit of scrub within the barbed wire, but that was it.  No hawks, no sparrows, nothing. 

The one noteworthy feature was geological: until I got close to it, I had assumed Ship Rock was like the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit, a strangely isolated hunk of rock completely unconnected to the rest of the landscape.  And yes, it did look like that from a distance.  When we came closer, however, we could see that it stands along a miles-long wall (technically a "dike") of the same rock.  The wall isn't high--maybe thirty feet above the desert, tops, and about ten feet thick--but it extends for miles to the north and south of the mass of Ship Rock.  It's clearly natural, but it looks almost exactly like a gigantic dry-stone wall, the sort Robert Frost and his neighbor might pile up in the springtime if they were about ninety feet tall.

After an hour or so of futilely scouring the dust of the area for birds, we decided there was only one way for a pair of geography geeks to regain their sunny outlooks: to visit the one spot in America where four states meet.  We abandoned New Mexico and crossed into Arizona, then turned right, edging back into an area of New Mexico that was even more depressed-looking than Shiprock had been.  Here, however, the Navajo Nation had figured out how to get a living out of the barren ground:  with the Four Corners Monument.  Many assume it's a national park, but it's not; instead, the meeting of four states takes place under the jurisdiction of the Navajo--somewhat ironic, given that their land was carved up by the same borders responsible for the park's existence, but hey, if anyone's entitled to make a buck off them..

And those bucks are made in some quantity, not only by the collectors of the $3.00 fee for entering the park, but by the dozens of Navajo vendors selling handicrafts, tchotchkes, and fry bread to the tourists.  (Indeed, except for sandstone and ravens, the most common feature of this area ended up being the plywood souvenir stall; there seemed to be at least one next to every wide place in every road in Arizona.)  I found a necklace of lapis and hematite for Kelly and sampled a piece of fry bread--essentially a flat funnel cake--dashed liberally with cinnamon sugar.  Nobody was getting rich here, I suspect, but I sure couldn't see any better way to make a living in this part of the world.  Unless a casino was involved, of course.

I wandered out to the flat bronze circle between the flags of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, noting as I approached that Utah has by far the least interesting flag of the bunch, and did something about which I'd fantasized for years:  I put aside my dignity, sat on the point where the borders met, and sprawled backward, leaving a limb in each of the four states:  my right arm in Utah, my left in Colorado, my left leg in New Mexico, and my right in Arizona.

I may have seen no new birds in New Mexico, but they can't take that away from me.

IN OUR NEXT INSTALLMENT: Colors!  Kayaking in Monument Valley!  Unknown heroines of architecture!  And Condors as yard birds!

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 5, 2008 1:22 PM.

Four Corners, Part IV was the previous entry in this blog.

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