Thursday, July 01, 2010

Last ride of the codgernauts (Part 5): The deserted valley

An unrelenting sniffle, sinus drainage resistant to allergy medication, a dry cough. With each mile it became more apparent that it wasn’t hay fever affecting me, but a cold.

The news did not bode well. The previous night my incessant coughing had no doubt kept the others awake, and I hated to be an imposition. When I wasn’t coughing I was trying to stifle a cough, which only prolonged the ordeal. My nose dripped like a faucet. A quick stop at a grocer garnered a box of tissue and cold medicine sure to make me loopy. How loopy, and under what circumstances, remained to be seen.


After the limitless restrictions of the national park, the open road was a dream of flight and freedom.

We cut through Cortez and veered toward the airport on a small two-lane blacktop that shot like an arrow toward Sleeping Ute Mountain. Past the airport the road descended into a narrow serpentine canyon, marked by a fringe of verdant growth, irrigated brome fields and homes that ran the gamut from well-tended ranchos to tumbledown shacks. Several crumbled adobe ruins marked the antiquity of man’s reign on that increasingly arid notch, for as the miles dropped away the land turned brown and dry and sterile, stunted trees and withered shrubs succumbing to stones and towering bluffs and a desolate moonscape. The speed limit was 45 to which I kept the gauge locked. Ours was a rollercoaster ride down that sinuous path, screaming around the curves, zigging and zagging while my codgernautical companions uneasily gripped their seats. I was in my element, though. I knew that type of road well.

Our running joke about time and distances—”But it was only a few inches on the map!”—was born from a native Kansan perspective where the vast majority of the state was laid out in true Jeffersonian order. As a Westerner I knew that terrain dictates route, and the terrain on the far side of Sleeping Ute Mountain was a maze of sunblasted stone, endless barrancas and ethereal glimpses of a tortured land unfolding into the crystalline distance. It was a dry, dusty, inhospitable place. It was beautiful beyond words.

After what seemed an interminable distance, the canyon opened and the road straightened. I punched the gas and we rocketed forward. A few miles farther and a side road branched off to the north, with a small bullet-pocked sign announcing our destination: Hovenweep.

The place is the antithesis of Mesa Verde. Where the latter is almost impossible to miss, the former is almost impossible to find. Visitors to Mesa Verde hear dozens of languages and a steady hum of traffic and voices, while visitors to Hovenweep are privy to the chitter of cliff swallows, the melodic waterfall notes of a canyon wren and the sigh of wind through junipers. The National Park Service has stabilized, improved, reworked and enhanced most of the ruins at Mesa Verde while leaving those at Hovenweep to the wind and the rain. The primary dwellings of Mesa Verde are hidden in alcoves and overhangs scooped from sheer cliffs while those of Hovenweep are prominently arrayed in the towers flanking the canyons. Mesa Verde is where you go with thousands of others to see the cliff-dwellings of the Anasazi. Hovenweep is where you go to hear their ghosts.

Even their names are decidedly different. Mesa Verde—green table in Spanish—seems a curious appellation for the realm of a vanished Native American civilization. Hovenweep, named by pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson, is taken from a Paiute/Ute word meaning deserted valley. The name has a redolence that fits the character of the land, for deserted it most assuredly was.

And changed, too, since I was last there with my wife and two young sons. A new visitor center anchors one end of the canyon sheltering the Square Tower complex, a low squat building blending into the terrain as if sprung from the soil. Inside we found a very helpful ranger who invited us to watch a short video. We politely declined and set off on the trail.

Curiously, there were no signs advising visitors to watch for rattlesnakes. I mentioned this as a comical warning, for on our last trip along the Oregon Trail through Nebraska and Wyoming we’d been cautioned by such a sign at every stop, only to run into a rattler at the one place lacking a sign. The implications were amusing if not questionable.

There was nothing amusing nor questionable about Hovenweep. The solitude crept in before the visitor center was lost behind a screen of junipers, so that we wandered a meandering trail bridging then and now, suspended somewhere in the middle between the aftermath of one civilization and the rise of another, three solitary figures moving in tandem along a sheer precipice dotted with stone towers of varying sizes and shapes, some round, others square, while the sky grew partially overcast and the sun slanted lower in the west casting our shadows behind us. It was sacred ground, ringed with sacred mountains, silent as a cathedral. We circled the head of the canyon and followed the trail into the abyss, Chod disappearing ahead and me wary of Jim’s unsteadiness on the steep decline, hearing his sharp intakes of pain and the tap-tap of his hiking stick as we made our laborious way to the canyon floor where the air grew heavy and still. Without speaking we passed through waist-high grass where we listened for the telltale buzz of rattlesnakes, stepped across a small clear trickle of water and struggled up into the boulders, pausing for a moment in the shade of an odd tree whose name we did not know. “Whoever designed this trail was a sadistic bastard,” Jim spat between breaths. We were suddenly conscious of the lateness of the afternoon, and perhaps even of our years, and sat there for a short spell before I lumbered to my feet and took his photograph. He laughed and swore and commanded me to hold still for my own impromptu portrait, and together we started climbing toward Chod and the road back to Cortez.

(To be continued)


Prairie GAl said...

I've really been enjoying your vacation, Tom. Thanks so much for sharing it with me.

Tom Parker said...

Carol -- Thanks for sharing the journey. However, I must correct your terminology. Vacations are for ordinary people. Codgernautical expotitions are what three cantankerous old geezers do when endeavoring to partake in high adventure.

Bill & Vikki said...

Whatever you call it, it's been fun to read about, Uncle Tom!

shoreacres said...

You know that one of the basic life choices is "Compass or map?"

It's nice to follow along with someone who carries a compass.