After my winding drive through San Juan National Forest, I arrived in Durango. My goals for the day were to catch up on some minor projects that I had pushed to the back burner and to get a handle on my application for an upcoming NOLS Instructor Course. With uninterrupted productivity in mind, I headed for the Steaming Bean, a coffee shop in the heart of Durango.
Normally, I do a little bit of research before I choose where I am going to work for the day. Sometimes, I don’t have many options, but I often have at least one or two. The Steaming Bean had been heralded for its speedy wifi, but condemned for its lack of customer service. Today, I cared more about the wifi, so I overlooked the negative reviews aimed at their employees. Upon arriving at the Steaming Bean, however, I quickly learned that the Internet had been totally wrong about this place. With multiple baristas working behind the counter, it was one of the friendliest, most relaxed environments I had been in thus far. One women, who might have been the owner, was consistently hopping up from her computer to hug all of her regular customers as they dropped by for their morning java. The sense of community was apparent in each and every interaction in that coffee shop.
After a few hours of writing, my stash of quarters for parking had run out and I went off exploring. With a few gear stores located on the main drag, I went browsing and chatted with a few storeowners about Durango. My most important retail destination was the Durango Gear Exchange. Although the outward appearance of the store led me to believe it would be relatively small, my assumptions were immediately corrected when I opened the door. Inside, I found a consignment shop chock full of outdoor apparel, ice axes, backpacks, hats, gloves… just about everything one might need to head out for a night in the woods. Since the weather had been rapidly cooling over the past few days, I decided to beef up my cold weather gear with a pair of gloves, a killer headband, and a collapsible shovel. I could’ve spent hours there, and probably should have offloaded of my own pieces of gear, but I left before the desire to spend more money had taken hold.
My next stop was the Durango field office of The Wilderness Society. Based in the Smiley Building, a totally amazing renovated and revamped school, the office was relatively empty that day. I did, however, get to spend an engaging hour with Melyssa Watson. Although the meeting was very last minute, we delved deeply into my own project, The Wilderness Society’s different programs, recommendations for Durango, and spent a considerable amount of time mulling over the complexities of the ever-shifting definition of “wilderness”. It was nice to know that I am not the only one struggling to define my relationship to the term. My visit with TWS was definitely the highlight of my time in Durango. Not only did it give me much to think about as I continue to unravel America’s relationship with wilderness, but I left the office feeling inspired and ready to effect positive change. If anyone hasn’t heard of The Wilderness Society or wants to learn more about their efforts in the United States, check out www.wilderness.org.
I spent a few more hours working in the Smiley Building and playing on its indoor monkey bars, but eventually continued westward to Mesa Verde National Park. With so much of the park open only to ranger-guided tours, I knew tomorrow would be a big day.
In the morning, I made a beeline for the brand new, LEED-certified Mesa Verde National Park visitor’s center, hoping to snag a spot on one of their ranger-guided tours to Balcony House, Spruce House, or Cliff Palace. Unfortunately, my luck had finally run out. Mesa Verde’s peak season ends in mid-October, when they slowly phase out many of their ranger-led offerings. This meant that none of the cliff dwellings were actually accessible to the public. Frustrating as it was, I had known this would happen at some point. Many parks can operate only at a minimal capacity during the off-season to keep costs low and to allow for routine maintenance. I had always known I would run into this problem. It did suck, however, that Mesa Verde was where it happened.
Theodore Roosevelt set aside Mesa Verde National Park in 1906. As a result, this park technically predates the National Park Service itself, which was formed in 1916. The cultural significance of Mesa Verde made it a perfect fit for the Antiquities Act and Roosevelt exercised his power to effectively protect this amazing historical site. In just over 50,000 acres, Mesa Verde National Park contains more than 600 cliff dwellings and thousands of other sites of historical significance. Alongside those sites of important human history, the park also contains a diverse population of alpine and high desert wildlife and plant life.
The history of the Pueblo and their life in Mesa Verde has been an object of archaeological fascination ever since Gustaf Nordenskiöld of Norway began excavating the ancient sites. This network of cliff dwellings, kivas, and ceremonial sites holds far greater importance to the native peoples of the region today. One ranger, who gave a brief lecture about Spruce House, narrated the interplay between the history and the spirituality of Mesa Verde. As a local with both Chickasaw and European blood, Ranger David spoke enthusiastically and emotionally about what this site means to Native Americans, as well as to historians and archaeologists. Much can be learned from Mesa Verde, but he highlighted also that mystery is still engrained in our understanding of Mesa Verde. Why did the Ancient Puebloan people descend from their homes atop the mesas into cliff dwellings? Why then did they abandon the site altogether and head deeper into the desert? There are archaeological, historical, cultural, and spiritual answers to all of these questions that often differ. What matters is that we all share a deep respect for the Ancestral Puebloans and their ancient homes.
After David’s brief introduction to Mesa Verde, the group split off. I went into the museum to check out some of the exhibits before wandering around some more. As I was grabbing some water, a woman I had seen during the talk asked me if I was going to hike down to see the petroglyph panel. I said that I had considered it and we decided to hike down together. She introduced herself as Hudson and we soon realized that we were both on a similar journey. She had just graduated from Rice University and was taking six months to visit all of the National Parks in the Lower 48… Just like me! Obviously, we had a lot to talk about.
After preparing for the hike and snagging some food, we set off down the trail asking each other question after question about our experiences thus far on our respective trips. We walked slowly down the trail, admiring the deep valleys and epic mesas of the park, while talking about our favorite parks (and least favorite parks), car troubles, lack of showers, best hikes, best stories, etc. We both agreed that having a full kitchen would make a trip like this far more appetizing. Since our routes were nearly opposite, we shared tips on each other’s upcoming parks. In the end, we spent the rest of our time at the park together, wandering through mesa-top villages, past reservoirs, and giving tours of our respective homes. I must admit, her 1988 Volkswagen Westfalia had so much more room than mine did, with plenty of space to relax after a long day on the road. Her tales of costly vehicle prep and intermittent repairs made me realize that my decision might have been wise. I would not give up Sam for anything though! That being said, we both agreed that a Sprinter van would be a luxurious way to see America…
Later that afternoon, we parted ways and I headed to Telluride, CO to spend a few days with another friend from my days at Apogee. It looked like snow…
This marks my last westward travel for awhile!