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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Personal Blog - Rocky Mountain Travels

There are places in the Rocky Mountains where the air is so clear that you can see for over 120 miles, the sky is so blue it nearly hurts the eyes to look at it and there is no view that isn't beautiful. Even pictures don't do it justice. To say it took my breath away is no more than the truth - altitude sickness had me gasping. No joke, folks. I'm a writer, so I'm not the fittest person anyway (I've got to get back on my exercise regimen), if you go be prepared for that. A little advice - if you're from the lowlands, step up to the altitude, slowly. Start in Denver, the mile high city - at 5,280 feet it's still below the fourteeners - mountains that stand at 14,000 feet. At Denver's height, golf balls travel 10% farther, and so does alcohol, but not oxygen. So watch when you're drinking, you'll breathe better!

Even so, it was still breathtakingly beautiful.
Our plan was to do a driving tour, take the Miata, put the top down, visit the pre-puebloan ruins and do a little research for a western novel I'd started some time ago. We found all that and more.
BTW, with all due apologies to the residents of those states, but skip OH, IN and southern IL. Outside of a metal dinosaur and a large pink elephant holding a martini glass, it all looks the same - post rust belt.

Bent's Fort
Our first stop in Colorado was the restored Bent's Fort a trading post. Contrary to much of what you read of the west, the Bents and St. Vrain (the son of French aristocrats) understood how necessary it was to maintain peace between the native population and the traders. It's a fascinating place and like much of what we saw an exercise in contradictions. The fort itself was burned and abandoned, much like the pre-puebloan ruins we would visit later, a victim of the Mexican-American War and the government policy toward the natives. The Native Americans there were destitute, having hunted the buffalo they depended on to extinction in order to supply the fort with buffalo robes for sale. Just outside the fort is a patch of wetlands that didn't exist when the fort was built, a side effect of irrigation.

As a writer one of the habits I've tried to avoid is falling into the familiar pitfalls of judgment, preconception and perception, and instead to see things a little more clearly the way they actually were. So it was interesting to hear the guides at some of the pre-puebloan sites refer to the lives lived there as 'hard'. I imagine to those people it wasn't any harder than ours. It was just life. Both men and women had their sacred places within their cultures. The women gathered and ground the corn with mano and matate and prepared the food. The men hunted and some wove the cloth they wore.
What they built, without mortar, though, was truly astonishing.
At Chimney Rock we were lucky to be joined by a woman of the Zuni culture, who helped us better understand the purpose of such places - gathering sites for those ancient peoples that were forefathers to her own. In fact, many archaeological sites now consult the native cultures and have been asked to stop referring to such places as 'Anasazi' or 'abandoned' since they are neither. No one knows what those people were called and according to Native American ways they weren't 'abandoned', it was simply time for them to move on. Those people who used those places live on through the people who live now.
I have to wonder if they weren't smarter than us. They didn't invent the wheel but they didn't need it. Unlike us what they did do was build their gathering places like Chimney Rock, Mesa Verde and others in high, barren cliffs and then they made them beautiful, while they reserved the good land on the mesas or in the valleys below for farming.
Oh, fair warning, if you're afraid of heights, be prepared. One glance at the shale covered slope of Chimney Rock and my legs would not move. Simply would not. My husband took the picture you see. The ladder at Mesa Verde was much easier although still a little spine-chilling. *grins* He now understands just how terrified I was when we rode the Pacific Coast highway on the motorcycle. (Although I don't think he's quite realized that's the reason I was sometimes a little cranky.)

Silverton
So, if I can offer a little advice? Don't miss visiting the Rockies, but go in the off seasons of spring (May or June) or fall (September and early October, before the passes are closed by snow) unless you like crowded ski slopes. The temperatures are much more comfortable - it gets very hot in the summer and very cold in winter - but the color of the trees is amazing! Get one of the scenic trail maps and follow them, but be aware that some are accessed only by four wheel drive. (Despite that, my husband took the Miata up one of the mining roads. I hung on for dear life and hoped the mountain wouldn't come down on us.) The Silver Trail is a great route to follow.
Go for the atmosphere and experience, too, and skip the chain motels. Most towns have restored some streets to period 1800s and there are some marvelous inns and taverns in the historical sections, many family owned. All of those we tried were clean with wonderful period accents. Most charge rates comparable to the chains but offer many more amenities beyond hi-speed internet and a 'breakfast' bar with bagels and toast.
Wyman Inn
In the lovely, family-run Wyman Hotel and Inn in Silverton they provided robes and wine glasses in each room. Other rooms had non-period whirlpools. (Suggestion: If you stay there, get the breakfast. It's worth it.) Our room overlooked what had once been Blair Street, the red-light district, and was decorated accordingly. We had a massive high four poster bed, a small dresser stocked with books while the TV sat on top of a large chifforobe.
You can also reach Silverton by one of the narrow gauge railways found in the region.
After breakfast, explore the towns, there are great shops to be found in most of them - some distinctly touristy and some quaint - like the old hardware store we found.
In Creede, Mineral County, there's The Old Firehouse historic building and B&B. They have an assortment of accommodations, some with attached rooms to fit the entire family yet still offer some privacy to the adults. And breakfast is great - the owner is the cook and he makes GREAT omelets. That's also where that old mining road was located.

Four Corners w/Chihuahua
For those of us from the US, the Four Corners is a unique confluence of four states coming together in one location. In reality it's a pure tourist trap maintained by the Navaho Nation. It's still a must see and if you're looking for Native American silver/turquoise jewelry, you'll find it ringed with vendors. How authentic it is I can't answer, although it's highly unlikely Native American culture celebrates the joining of four states smack in the middle of the reservations they were forced to occupy. You can find commemorative Four Corners jewelry there.

Great Kiva at Aztec
For our last stop on the pre-puebloan trail, we dropped down into New Mexico to visit the Aztec site. Actually a Chaco culture ruin once thought to be Aztec, it's situated in western New Mexico and a precursor to Mesa Verde.
The size of it is still astounding and the Great Kiva there is incredible, a massive circular space ringed with small rooms accessed by ladders. It reminded me very much of a church with meditative or monastic chambers looking down from above. 

We saved the Great Sand Dunes National Park for last and it turned into a treasure trove in more ways than one.
First of course was the view - miles of rolling sand dunes, the accumulated result of the ceaselessly blowing winds across sandy soil coming to a stop at the base of mountains or sifting into the streams. In the spring and early summer water streams around these towering dunes before they dry up completely in late summer. To give you and idea of the size, the little dot on the dune toward the left of the picture is actually a person. That's how big they are. Unfortunately altitude sickness kept me from climbing them. 
Remember that western I'd started to write? Well, I was somewhat hampered by a lack of knowledge of the life of most women in the Old West. There's a good bit of information about the lives of the men - and a lot of western movies - but the depictions of women mainly portrayed them standing in the doorways waiting for the 'menfolk' to come home. That was truer in some ways than I knew. Until barbed wire and fences arrived, pioneer women spent most of their time alone, sometimes for days, taking care of things around the ranch. For many it was truly a 'hard' life, coming from the more settled east, and facing daily threats from the environment, wildlife and the native populations. 
Although I had done some research and new that much of the preconceived notions were inaccurate, I wasn't certain that the characters I proposed would work in the manner I envisioned. Thanks to several books I found at the National Park, I found out they would and will. I expect you'll probably see that book sometime in the spring.
To tell the truth, though, I wish the pictures did the Rocky Mountains justice, but you really can't imagine how blue the sky truly, or how clear the view, until you've been there. One night I looked up and for the first time in a very long time, I could see the Milky Way clear and sharp, that brilliant river of stars. I hope someday you get to see it, too.