Breakfast in the morning was mint chocolate chip donuts, procured from Sedona Arizona’s eponymous “Sedonanuts” and lunch was a ham hoagie ordered from the Subway in Meteor Crater’s gift shop. Ordering dinner in Shiprock New Mexico’s That’s A Burger, I was feeling a bit disoriented, as one does when they’ve driven 350 miles in a day and have passed through multiple states, on their way towards another.
Feeling drained, each bite of my green chile cheeseburger began to bring the flush back to my face, as did the hominy stew and net bread. The food: Amazing. The atmosphere: Less so. Shiprock is one of those towns that’s heavily impoverished while every establishment has a “Help Wanted” plea on its door. Instead of signs, businesses spray paint their services on the building facade itself. We gulped down our burger next to a xerox promising a reward for information identifying a local arsonist. Years ago we’d first seen Shiprock on our way West, and the town is one of those places I want to pass through whenever we’re nearby. Few places make me feel so much in so little time — Previously we’d seen several people walking along the side of the road just after sunrise. Plastic bag in hand, no destination for miles. Leaving Shiprock today, we watched the sun set on a gorgeous Southwest landscape, passing both picturesque horse ranches and half a dozen dogs lying in the road. I’ve spent less than 90 minutes of my life in this town, but I remember those minutes more vividly than most weeks.
No clouds hung in the horizon, only a fading red sun. When it set, the darkness set in quickly. Driving North we passed through the neon main street of Cortez, Colorado, then back into darkness winding towards Mesa Verde National Park.
The majesty of the park system is that you’re fully absorbed into nature, and at 10:00pm in Mesa Verde the blackness of the sky is exacerbated when caught in the dense forest. As we paid for our campsite — already unsure how we’ll set up a tent sans light — we were promptly given a site number and several handouts, one covering the park’s bear population and another advertising an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.
Spotting a black bear in a black night is an alarming prospect, especially when our only defense is a flashlight we’ve shoved into a pine tree, shedding a strand of light as we clip our tent up and unfurl our sleeping bags. As I walk to the bathroom on a one-lane road I flit the light to the left and the right then back again. My bearxiety even leads me to do things like walk backwards for a moment to try and spot the bear I’m sure is slowly and surely catching up to me, hiding behind trees each time I turn my head.
When we finally laid down in our sleeping bags sleep came quickly. Waking, morning meant two things: we hadn’t been eaten by bears. And also: bisquick. The camp mess hall offers up mountains of pancakes and sausage, as much as the belly could want, for $8.00. Ready to break some records I was provided two pancakes to start. Large as dinner plates and served with four sausage links, I couldn’t finish the first plate. I am no good at all you can eat buffets.
Carl, who’s tall and slender yet can garbage-belly a burrito the size of an eggplant, cleaned up my syrup soaked pancake leftovers. Finishing the dregs of our black coffee we plopped into the car and drove onward and upward into the heart of the park. In the late 12th century the Ancestral Puebloan people built homes underneath the overhanging cliffs of the American Southwest. Mesa Verde alone features 600 cliff dwellings, including Cliff Palace, a 150+ room dwelling, believed to be the largest of its kind in North America.
Though the area of Mesa Verde had been inhabited for centuries, in the late 13th century war and drought caused the Puebloans to relocate, moving south to Santa Fe and other regions of Arizona and New Mexico. The dwellings were left behind, and in 1906 Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park. The 7th National Park in the States, designated before the Grand Canyon, The Great Smoky Mountains and Zion. Roosevelt stated that the park was intended to “preserve the works of man” and each year over half a million men, women and children enter the park to see what man was up to centuries ago.
It was our luck that we were able to snag a spot on the Long House guided tour. It was our privilege to have Pattie Bell as our guide. A plucky woman in her 70’s, though she stood no more than 5 feet tall she was a booming figure. Some that venture onto Mesa Verde’s cliff dwelling tours are nervous about the amount of walking and stairs involved. Pattie’s mindset was that if she could do it, everyone else could do it, should do it, and should do it without complaint. Her short gray hair curled tightly underneath her ranger hat, her khaki trousers were belted directly beneath her bosom in a fashion I can see all the hipsters appropriating within the next few years, and her hands were frequently stationed on her hips as she spoke of the Ancestral Puebloan day-to-day.
I imagine Pattie as one who has had a big life and has left behind dozens of broken hearts. I see her as the inspiration for a Roy Orbison song. Or the woman in the white Thunderbird in American Graffiti. The woman the word “moxie” was created to describe.
Having someone like Pattie forcefully explain why Mesa Verde is a vital historic site is all that’s needed for me to get into it — I look harder at each block embedded beneath the cliffside. I came to the park for the natural splendour and historical significance, but my fondest memories are of a tiny woman who dwarfed her surroundings.