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(Previously: the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.)

K. and I drove back east and then north, heading for our last few stops: Monument Valley, and then later, Mesa Verde. Instead of just driving through Monument Valley (as I'd originally intended), we decided to stay the night there, in order to -- what else? -- see the sunset.


Driving in provided a classically western vista: long straight road dwindling to a vanishing-point, and those buttes!


Monument Valley is a Navajo Tribal Park, and we stayed at The View hotel. It's really a gorgeous place, with a gorgeous setting, really good rooms, and a very good restaurant. Highly recommended!



The view from our room's balcony:



So we just settled in on the balcony and watched the sunset progress across the valley. (The main formations close to the hotel are the East and West Mitten, and Merrick Butte.)





Having one's own private balcony to sit on was fantastic, because unlike the experiences at the Grand Canyon, we got to really sit there and take it in without any surrounding noise or nearby activity of a few hundred other people also milling around. Like, it's just you, and the landscape unfolding forever, and some distant cars from time to time.

Then as twilight had really descended, the peace and quiet was interrupted by a blare of music, and we looked over to the left, at where the block of the restaurant stuck out over the patio (see above), and found... that they were projecting the film "Stagecoach" onto the wall.


Monument Valley, of course, is where John Ford loved to film his westerns, and "Stagecoach" was John Wayne's first big starring role. K had never seen it, so we said, "what the heck", and went down to the patio (where it was indeed cooling off a bit from the day's 100 degree heat), and sat out under the emerging stars and watched the movie. As far as we could tell, the point on which the hotel was built was the precise point from which Ford had shot the above introduction of Wayne's character. Watching the movie while being IN the valley also brought home to us all the times he re-used it in the film, from a different angle, when the characters were really supposed to be someplace else. ("Ah, they've looped back around to Monument Valley again -- are they just going in circles?")

So if you have been wondering why these shots look so distinctly like "the West", that's why -- it's where countless Western films were shot.

The next morning, we did the 17-mile loop drive through the valley, on a dirt/sand road, which takes you amongst the various mesas and buttes for more scenic vistas. The closer you get to these things, the more their enormous scale becomes apparent.




Then we left and drove up towards Mesa Verde, which is in southwestern Colorado. Along the way, we stopped at Four Corners, because at one of the highway junctions we were just 5 miles from it, and how could we not stop?


Colorado brought us into territory yet again completely different from everything else we'd been seeing -- the start of serious mountains with actual trees. Below the view from the B&B we stayed at in McElmo valley, of Sleeping Ute mountain.


Mesa Verde National Park is, as the name would suggest, up on a mesa, which involves a long, slow drive up up UP along ridges and hairpin turns. But I'll give the park this, they do at least give you guardrails at MOST of the scariest points. We were also amused to discover, while waiting in line to get our tickets for one of the Cliff Palace tours (you have to be part of a tour to go into most of the cliff dwellings), that they had set up replicas of the ladders you have to climb to get into and out of the three key cliff dwellings, as well as a replica of a fairly narrow tunnel you have to crawl through to get into Balcony House (which I think was described as the most strenuous of the three options). I can only assume they did this after many years' worth of tourists over-estimating their abilities, size, and comfort levels, and then backing out (while complaining bitterly) at inconvenient stages in the tours.

We signed up for Cliff Palace, which is the biggest and most famous of the cliff dwellings, and also NOT the most strenuous of the tours.



Yet it still involved a steep staircase down, then a ladder to get up into it; and three ladders to get out. Which is so much better than the teeny hand and foot-holds that the Ancient Puebloans used, that I can't even tell you.

And then we were in Cliff Palace, OMG!!!!

For me, I guess, Cliff Palace is one of those places where you have seen photos of it your entire life, and it just looms large as this awe-inspiring thing. And then you're THERE, and it's still awe-inspiring, because you can feel the scale of it, and see its context, and really see the people in it -- the people who built it, and lived there.




Something we got to talking about with the ranger who led the tour was... people are always asking, why did the Ancient Puebloans build these cliff-dwellings? (Of which there are, like, hundreds.) They lived up on these mesas for hundreds of years before they built in these alcoves. According to archaeologists, there really isn't much evidence of warfare or raiding that would suggest an explanation for needing to build in such an inaccessible and easy to defend location. The alcoves provide some shelter from the elements, but not categorically -- Cliff Palace, for example, gets afternoon sun in the summer, as we discovered, which means it's not helping to shade the village and keep it from getting hot. Some of the cliff "dwellings" are things like granaries, and those do tend to be very protected, but Cliff Palace is much more than that. So why?

Well... why not?

It's kind of a modern fallacy to view the accomplishments of ancient peoples purely through the lens of practicality, as if every decision they made had to have had some practical value or else they wouldn't have expended the time and resources to do it. (Note that we're willing to consider "religious beliefs" to have had practical value -- the pyramids of Egypt, for example, aren't "practical", and are an extravagant gesture, but we can accept religious belief as a "reason", even though we also accept "ego".) I also think we (by which I mean, Europeans) have tended to search for these practical reasons more when it comes to ancient people whom we view as "less civilized", which obviously opens up a giant can of worms.

But really, why can't you look at something like Cliff Palace, and imagine Ancient Puebloans a thousand years ago doing it because they had this radical, neat idea, and they wanted to show that they could? Because it seemed cool enough to do, even though it was terribly hard to do, and hard to live in? It doesn't "just" have to be for "defense", does it? As the ranger put it -- why not think they did it because they wanted it to stand there, after they left, and advertise to anyone else who saw it what they had been capable of? Isn't that the goal of some of the things WE build? Why can't those people have had the same agency?

The other point to be made about the cliff-dwellings of Mesa Verde and the surrounding area is that they shouldn't be thought of as the work of a mysteriously vanished people. That was the popular view for a long time -- we called them the Anasazi, and their departure from their spectacular cities and villages seemed "mysterious", because, why did they leave and where did they go? Well, duh -- they didn't really go anywhere. They left those particular dwellings, probably because of prolonged drought, but they still live in the area, as the Hopi and Zuni and a few dozen other nations. That's why the term "Ancient Puebloan" has now gained currency, to emphasize that the Cliff Palace builders were just the forerunners of the Puebloans of today.

(We also now don't called them "Anasazi", because it turns out that scholars adopted that term from the Navajo, for whom the word Anaasází means "Ancient Enemy". And the modern Puebloans, not unreasonably, do not want to refer to their own ancestors by a word that means "enemy" in another tribe's language.)

Cliff Palace is apparently still slowly settling, and may be gradually sliding off its cliff. There's a big debate going on right now about what to do about it, and one of the possibilities may be that people are no longer allowed to go down there and walk all over it. Which would be a shame, but at the same time... well, it's better than the early days, after Europeans found it, when they would charge $5 and you could go in, and take out any artifacts that you could carry. (If you wanted to carry out more, you had to come back the next day and pay another $5.) Seriously. It's amazing that anything at all is left.

Getting out again:



Then we drove around and went on a few modest hikes to get views of some of the other cliff-dwellings. Here is Balcony House, the "strenuous" tour:




Yellow variety of the flowering prickly pear cactus:


Yet another ruined cliff dwelling:


Square Tower House and its canyon:



Mesa Verde was really cool, and I only sort of wish that we had hit it at a point where I wanted to do more walking. Hitting it at the end of 10 solid days of being on the move, I was a lot less up for doing various climb-y and hike-y things. (It was, again, hot, about 100, and I was really getting to the point of being DONE with that, too.)

Meanwhile -- it turns out that McElmo canyon (named for the creek running through it), in which our B&B was located, was also part of the overall Ancient Puebloan settlement area. (At the time, the estimates are that the area supported 40,000 people; today, the town of Cortez and surrounding population is near 9,000.) Our B&B, Kelly Place, had a bunch of ruins on its property, which the family (and I guess previous owners) have been excavating since at least the 60s. So before we left the next morning -- to drive down to Phoenix for the flight home -- we took the little walking tour around the property. It included a reconstructed kiva (subterranean Puebloan religious structure), which was neat, as we had seen plenty of ruined, roofless ones. So it was neat to see what one would have looked like when in use.



We drove south down through the upper corner of New Mexico, both to add another state to our list, and also because I wanted to see Shiprock, a huge butte outside of the town of the same name, important to the Navajo. It's really impressive, although my "photos from the moving car" didn't come out all that well. But Google it -- it's really cool.

All I need to tell you about that drive through northern New Mexico can be conveyed by the conversation that K and I had at lunch in Gallup:

ME: Do you want to drive the next leg to Petrified Forest, or do you want me to take over?

HER: You should take over. I was practically nodding off on the drive here.

ME: Well, it can't be much further to Petrified Forest.

HER: It's 96 miles.

ME: .... I keep forgetting we're in the west. It feels like we've been on the road for half the day.

HER: We've only been driving for 2 hours.

ME: ... It felt like FOREVER.

So finally we got back on an actual interstate highway (it was weird), and stopped at Petrified Forest National Park, because it was on the way. I wasn't actually prepared for how interesting it was. I know, that sounds stupid (why even stop there?), but I was prepared for the actual petrified wood stuff to be interesting, I just had no idea what the greater context of the park was or what it would be like. I guess I thought it would be more of that flat scrubland we'd been driving through, except with pieces of petrified trees scattered around.

First we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, which was built by the CCC in the 30s. I'm not sure it was ever actually an "inn", as such? But it used to be, like, a soda fountain. It's all restored inside, although they no longer actually serve lunch, which is a shame. But, they did have complimentary iced lemonade, which was thoughtful.


Inside, we got to see what I gather is the most famous petroglyph from the park, the Mountain Lion petroglyph, which is the most hilariously cheerful thing:


I think it's smart of them to have brought it indoors. I'm actually kind of amazed it survived, un-stolen, until the place was made into a park. I'll have to look up its history. It's really big, like 3 feet long. There are other petroglyphs still out there, in situ, that you can go see; we stopped at Newspaper Rock, which is kind of funny, because they basically give you a lookout point and several telescopes, and just sort of tell you "the petroglyphs are over there *waves vaguely*, see if you can spot them". I mean... interpretive signage? Hello? But we did manage to spot some, so that was fun.

But let me say a little more about the landscape, which was like NOTHING we had seen before on this trip. I hadn't even imagined that this is what Petrified Forest would look like.




The blue-grey-purple effect of the sediments (mudstone, siltstone, and claystone) is really striking. This is the stuff that the petrified logs are eroding out of. (We could see some still stick in the hillsides in some places.) The time period all this dates back to, if you are interested, is Late Triassic, 225 million years, just at the time of the rise of the dinosaurs.

The petrified logs themselves are gorgeous. They aren't unique to this location; there are apparently a number of pockets of them in the southwest, such that as you drive out of the park in the south, you pass a place that is selling literally tons of petrified wood. (And in fact you can buy some in the park itself.) I was also amazed that there was SO MUCH of it left all over the ground. (It doesn't cover every square inch of the park; there are several places with concentrations of it.) I mean, in the sense that for a long time it wasn't a national park, and people could just take it. Now of course they have signs telling you not to, and they warn you that they might inspect your vehicle. But it's amazing that more of it didn't disappear before it was protected.




But there it is, just lying all over the place. Being rock that looks like logs. You can still see some of the bark and knots of the original logs that the stone replaced.




I leave you with a memorial plaque to Stephen Mather, first director of the National Park Service. Every park is supposed to have one of these somewhere, I think, but I didn't manage to find them in the other parks we were in.


To bring things full circle, Mather made a fortune as a young man in borax-mining in Death Valley. (He came up with the marketing strategy for "20 Mule Team Borax", which you can still buy today.) He then used his personal fortune, basically, to enact his vision of what the National Parks should be. National Parks existed before he became the director in 1916, but they were run in a haphazard fashion; there wasn't one entity responsible for them, or that could lobby for resources on their behalf, or even really protect them. He changed that, creating the ranger service, and determining to make the parks popular with and accessible to the people. (In a time period in which it wasn't clear whether the parks would be nature reserves that were so undeveloped that few could really get to them or see them; or over-developed and damaged by commercial interests.)

Following Petrified Forest, we drove south, down through the Tonto National Forest (no, really) and into Phoenix. Where it was still 100 degrees at 9pm, omg.

Fantastic trip. Very glad to have seen all of it, and very impressed with what a huge variety there turned out to be in the landscape and geology. And someday, there are parts that I'd like to go back and do, or things we didn't get to that I'd still like to see.

But I think I will arrange to do that in, oh... earlier spring, later fall, winter perhaps. NOT SUMMER.

(The end.)


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 23rd, 2013 06:43 pm (UTC)
what a wonderful trip - and thank you so much for sharing your pictures and experiences. took me back to my childhood - my father worked for the Forest Service, and we spent most of our vacations visiting all the sites you visited, albeit back in the 70s and 80s. so wonderful to see them again. and so glad you had such a wonderful trip! thanks!
Jul. 23rd, 2013 09:27 pm (UTC)
These continue to be utterly amazing shots. You're bringing back some wonderful memories of being at Mesa Verde Monument Valley, Ship Rock etc...some of those stories being as some of my stories tend to begin. *veg*

Anyway, looks like the light was frelling perfect when you were at Monument Valley, as good as it gets. Despite the heat...meep!
Jul. 24th, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
Yes, this was wonderful, and your photography is amazing! I've shared all these posts with my never-left-NZ partner and now he wants to go West, too.
Jul. 24th, 2013 01:40 am (UTC)
ROUTE 491 HOW SO DULL. I mean, maybe I would've done better at the beginning of the trip?
Jul. 24th, 2013 03:17 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting so many fantastic pictures of this leg of the trip! That sunset at Monument Valley is giving the North Rim sunset a run for its money. And Petrified Forest looks like a freakin' alien planet. Wow.
Jul. 24th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
Wow, just wow. I hope when I actually do move across country, I'm able to make it into a little vacation involving some of this.

It's kind of a modern fallacy to view the accomplishments of ancient peoples purely through the lens of practicality, as if every decision they made had to have had some practical value or else they wouldn't have expended the time and resources to do it.

Excellent point! Reminds me of a discussion I heard about "bottleneck traits" in evolution. They were saying we've assumed blue eyes serve some grand purpose because they're prevalent, but it may simply be that they happened and no one ever died from them before they could reproduce, so they stuck around. Some things exist simply because they don't screw anything up too much.
Jul. 25th, 2013 02:29 pm (UTC)
Your pics of Cliff Palace just dredged up a dim memory that I actually went there on a family trip to the Grand Canyon when I was like six or seven! I'd love to go back now that I'm older and would actually appreciate it. And I'd love to visit Monument Valley... so gorgeous. But yes, NOT SUMMER. ;)

Great trip and pics! Thanks for sharing!
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )