Friday, July 23, 2010

a note from the road

july 17, 2010

the day started out perfectly, on a cool morning in chiricauhua national monument, in southeastern arizona. i'd been camped there for two days, loving the respite from the heat and sun. after a week in the southern arizona desert parks & the urban heat island that is modern phoenix, chiricauhua was a sub-90 degree oasis, complete with trees for shade. i had already decided, when leaving, that instead of retracing my steps west and north to willcox and the interstate in order to head east, i'd follow the double grey line on my map that wound just south of the monument, right through the mountains. double grey indicated "local road - typically improved, gravel surface" which seemed doable in the jetta. i tried to solicit more information out of the woman at the visitor's center, who wasn't a park employee. "well, let me see", she said, perusing a list somewhere in front of her. "says it's 26 miles to portal. i think it's a fine road, just a bit slow." "so, maybe an hour?" i venture. "oh, i don't think it'd take that long," she replied cheerfully. "but it doesn't require 4-wheel drive, right?" i ask. "no, definitely not", was her answer. 

it turned out to be definitely more than an hour's drive, but definitely worth every minute of it, on a solid second gear road, that as often dipped down into first as rose briefly into third. it wound and switchbacked right over the mountains and exited with a view that was even more spectacular than the origin point, as it dropped down into portal. truth be told, that's just about my favorite kind of road; roads that curve back and forth, through a forest, with views of the surrounding mountains and plains below. i was supremely happy, music loud, windows down, rolling through the ponderosa pine and juniper, which had that wonderful resinous heat smell that these high forests get in the summer.

my destination for the day: gila cliff dwellings national monument, north of silver city, new mexico. first came a long, typically western drive across the high grasslands, the two-lane road stretching arrow-straight in front of me, rising and falling over the ground. just me and, yet again, the border patrol. i hadn't seen them in a few days, but their green-sided SUVs were again more common than passenger cars, and their green-uniformed officers were again out cruising on ATVs in pairs. 

new mexico state highway 15, which runs north of silver city into the gila national forest, was another joyous drive. just two lanes - but paved - it also ran up and down and around corners, through the trees. this one, however, was far from deserted. campgrounds lined the road and it was clearly a recreation oasis up here in the cool, forested mountains. it crosses the continental divide, at over 7000 feet. the park service signs at the beginning of it estimate the travel time to the monument as two hours to cover a mere 44 miles. as usual, though, they are overestimating things, as it didn't take that long. or maybe it's just that it's my favorite kind of road. i was briefly stuck behind a truck with a camper canopy on it from new york state. signs on the back read, "retired", "when guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns", and "no riders, except for blonds, brunettes, and redheads". when they pulled to the side to let me around, i got a glimpse of a tanned man with white hair, smoking a cigar. this seemed to fit the collection of declarations perfectly. i waved my thanks and continued on. 

first stop at gila cliff dwellings - the visitors center, where i and four ladies from tennessee watched the educational film together. they were dismayed to learn that you can't see the cliff dwellings from the road. "mother can't walk," they told the empathetic rangers at the center in their sweet southern drawl. clearly now the woman who was mother spoke. "you've got to go up there, we've come all this way!" she exhorted her fellow travelers. but that was the last i saw of them. i didn't see them on the trail up to the dwellings, or at the parking lot at the bottom. probably the heat, trail, and the impending thunderstorm dissuaded them. 

it's too bad, because i think they would have really liked the dwellings. there was a volunteer interpreter at the bottom of the trail, to get you started, and another one at the cliff dwellings themselves, to orient you while you're up there. both were older men, probably retirees. "can i answer any questions?" was how the man at the top began, somewhat startling me. "um..." i really want to ask something, but i didn't have my mind on questions right now. he was experienced, though, and jumped right in there, explaining some of the stone work i was gazing at. "see the t-shaped doorway?" he asked while pointing in front. "that's a chacoan-style doorway, the only one here in the park. it may be that the people who built these cliff dwellings were advance scouts, or volunteer settlers, from chaco. i like to think of them as the avant-guard architects for this area. like, what's that place that lloyd wright built in arizona? talesin west, that's right." 

he's a cheerful man, clearly liking his job, clearly enjoying talking to tourists. the place isn't deserted but neither is it busy; there's a steady trickle of visitors. the group before me is working on a group photo, kids whining that they want to go back, father needling them to sit still on a particularly photogenic bench. other that that, there's no one in the ruin at this time. it's nice, quiet and shady, with the rumble of encroaching lighting and dark clouds contrasting against the green trees. the volunteer offers to take my picture, and then asks where i'm from. this initiates a conversation about oregon, of course. he volunteered at malheur for a while, and at yaquina head in the wintertime once. "it rained 10 inches in january and february that year," he said in disbelief. i believe him, though. "and they'd close it when it got too windy, and it was often closed." 

he continues chatting, pointing out petroglyphs, making sure i see all the good stuff. then he asks if i go to osu, since i live in corvallis, and what i'm studying. "forest economics", i say. "good!" he seems pleased. "you're going to keep them from cutting down all the trees, right?" "i'm an oregonian!" i say. "we love our trees." "well, but there's some out there who'd cut them all down, right?" at this point in time i'm halfway down a ladder descent. i stop, and contemplate the difference between management styles, the various forest protections acts, the difference between old growth and plantations...but i'm ready to get out of there, and don't want to get into it. "i suppose so" i say, "thanks for all your help." and continue on. 

back at the bottom, i stopped to take off my backpack and look around the parking lot. there's cars from michigan, oregon, california, the truck from new york, and new mexico. there's a car with an obama and a "hay is for horses, straw is for houses" sticker on the back, and a minivan with the entire back window covered in a eagle & flag motif, with plates indicating a veteran. and this is what i love about national parks. they are absolutely, without reservation, for everyone - regardless of politics, regardless of origin. i understand fully that park visitation is underrepresented by african-americans and poor people. part of this is that, with the exception of the urban historical parks in the east, most of them you've got to drive to. and there is an entrance fee. still, i revel in these moments. everyone on the trail is cheerful, and friendly, and relaxed (with the exception of a petulant child or two, but that's to be expected). we're all in this together at these moments. we're all here to learn something, to be amazed at this connection to our country's history and beauty - to people that lived here and built something incredible 800 years ago, to the remnants of populations that stretch back 10,000 years. we've all trekked up this long, winding road, dragged our out-of-shape asses up the trail, in order to revel in the views and vistas that present themselves before us. and we'll all continue on our paths to wherever. 

it's still early, too early for stopping. there's too many great shady roads with lovely corners and bends, calling to me still in the warm afternoon sun. i was planning on staying at the forest service campground that is right near the monument, but that won't do now. now i'm in full road-warrior mode. how far north can i get, towards the next destination, el malpais national monument? a quick perusal of the map and i pick out what looks like a promising spot. whitewater, it's called, and it's just outside of a very small town called glenwood. as i get closer, with excitement i realize that it's the same spot i picked up a brochure for at gila cliff dwellings - for a trail called 'the catwalk' that had enticing pictures of bridges and suspended metal pathways in a narrow canyon. yes! this is perfect. i can stay the night there, hike the catwalk first thing in the morning, and continue on. and it's going to be perfect timing, too. tiredness is setting in and the road warrior vibe is ebbing. 

there's the sign for whitewater, 5 miles off the road. i follow the narrow road down, slamming on the brakes at each mad dash by a little cottontail rabbit. the sun's going down, and the final approach is through a small creek. that's when i realize that the lack of campground symbol on the sign at the main road was not a fluke, not an oversight, not a lack-of-an update from a recently revamped camping spot. and i suddenly realized that subtle but oh-so-important difference between the solid-outline tent symbol on map and the hollow-outline tent symbol on the map. campground, vs. picnic area. 

damn. i'm tired, hungry, and i know from earlier perusals of the map that the next campground shown is at least 20-30 miles further up in the mountains. not only will the sun set soon, but i won't be able to walk the intriguing catwalk. no way am i going to want to come back 20 miles the next day. there's no choice, though - i turn around and head back to the main road. and am almost immediately surprised by a forest service campground, just north of the town! eureka! it's not lovely - hard by the highway, few trees, no view, no water. but it's free, and looks deserted, except for a van nearby that looks broken down. the hood is up and the passenger window is covered with plastic instead of glass. there's no people to be seen though, so i relax, cook some dinner, and enjoy the solitude. 

suddenly there's the sound of a sliding door closing from the direction of the van - whoosh-whomp. unbidden, the image of javiar bardem from no country for old men springs to my mind. shit. i quickly slam a car door, to let them know i'm here. as if, like a bear, making noise will deter them from injuring you. then it's just time to wait until they - he? - can be seen; but it's not what i expected at all. it's a man and what appears to be his daughter, setting out from the van, walking - maybe to town? i hear her small voice, at first indistinguishable, then becoming clearer. "...don't know why there has to be all the bugs." "well, says her father, a voice of reason, "you have to remember that god made all the little bugs, to do something important." it's an odd snippet of conversation to overhear. do they often ponder the presence of god and why certain creations were made? could it be that they, like any wild animal, are more afraid of me than i of them? remember they hadn't seen my 5-foot person yet. maybe the dad was imagining the face of javiar bardem, too. maybe their words were talismans, just like my car door slam, to ward off potential harm. 

who knows. they continued on without a look in my direction. and i went to sleep, finally, looking forward to walking the catwalk tomorrow morning.

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