Four Corners, Part 6 (Reflections)

On August 20, 2017 · 0 Comments

I decided to have a little fun in the final article of the Four Corners series. A couple of my earlier posts mentioned a trip through the same general area many years ago. It served as a short leg of my longest road trip ever, eventually covering 8,000 miles (12,900 kilometres) in 28 days during the early summer of 1992. I wondered how memories tucked away for a quarter century would compare to the present. I hadn’t returned to Four Corners, Chaco Canyon or Mesa Verde in the intervening twenty five years so this would be an interesting experiment.

Four Corners

Well of course we stopped at the famous Four Corners marker. You didn’t really think I’d name this entire series of articles "Four Corners" and never mention the actual geographic spot, did you? The marker made its first Twelve Mile Circle appearance back during the earliest days of the blog in a post I called Four Corners- USA. The photograph I chose to illustrate that earlier article came from the 1992 trip.

1992


4 Corners

A much younger me stood on the exact spot necessary to split my body into equal portions of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

2017


Four Corners

Obviously the location didn’t change after 25 years. However, wow, the Navajo Nation certainly spruced it up and made it look nice. The earlier image showed what amounted to a marker plopped onto a parking lot protected by guardrails. Now an attractive masonry and stone patio neatly encased the entire area. The set of stands where Navajo artisans sold their wares also improved remarkably. Permanent wood and stone structures replaced what previously looked like those flimsy temporary stands hawking fireworks around the Fourth of July.

It didn’t seem as remote as I’d remembered either. Sure, it was still out in the absolute middle of nowhere. This time we stayed overnight in Farmington so the drive to the marker took only an hour. That probably made the difference.

However, standing on that spot produced the same exact thrill. Bestill my geo-geek heart. Even the kids enjoyed it.


Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Canyon quickly became one of my most cherished memories from the earlier trip. I’d never heard of Chaco before that. That single viewing impacted me profoundly. I was so excited to return there, more than any other site on our trip. Check out these compare-and-contrast photos of the Kin Kletso pueblo taken from approximately the same spot atop the mesa twenty five years apart.

1992


Kin Kletso - 1992

That dark smudge on the right didn’t come from a bad scanning job, it came from a bad photo. Those of us of a certain age will remember the days before digital cameras. They probably existed in 1992 although a casual photographer such as myself didn’t know anything about them. I probably couldn’t have afforded one even if I had. I used a crappy point-and-shoot Kodak Instamatic with 110 film. That little blob was my finger straggling over the lens. We never really knew when a photo might be wonderful or horrible. With film, casual tourists didn’t snap a dozen photos of the same thing and delete all but the best one. That was too expensive. So I took the photo, sent it off to be developed after I got home, waited another week to get it back, and hoped for the best. Apparently I deemed it "good enough" to keep.

2017


Chaco Culture

The recent image came out much better. Some of the scenery changed a little, the bushes and access road most noticeably. However, Kin Kletso itself didn’t seem to change at all. Every stone in place in 1992 appeared to be remarkably the same after all those years. I tip my hat to the National Park Service for their great stewardship and preservation.

Getting there seemed a lot easier. I can’t recall if U.S. Highway 550 had four lanes back then or not. It certainly did not have a 70 mile per hour (112 kilometres per hour) speed limit. Even if it did, I doubt the camper we drove would have hit that speed. The sixteen-or-so miles of gravel and dirt road from the highway to the park remained as lousy as ever though. I still found it unnaturally amusing that the park itself featured nicely paved roads. From any direction, visitors had to travel over dirt, a roiling dust storm behind them, only to arrive at a blessed asphalt oasis in an otherwise empty desert.

The park itself gave me the same thrill even after so many years. I’d love to return and spend a few days probing the remote corners I’ve not been able to reach yet.


Mesa Verde National Park

Did it really take us more than half an hour to get from the Mesa Verde visitors center at the park entrance to the main attractions? I’d totally forgotten about that. It didn’t create any real hardship although it cut down our exploration time a little. The best photo contrast took place at Spruce Tree House.

1992


Spruce Tree House - Mesa Verde National Park

The earlier photograph actually turned out pretty well given the limitations of the camera and the person behind the lens.

2017


Mesa Verde

As with Chaco, everything remained pretty much the same at the actual ruins. Even the soot from ancient campfires along the mesa rim retained familiar patterns. The big spruce tree blocking the view disappeared somewhere over the course of time. However, other than that, I couldn’t tell much difference.

Mesa Verde seemed a lot more crowded this time. That might have been due to time of year rather than increased popularity. Last time I visited in late May, right before Memorial Day and before the summer vacation season. This time we arrived in late July at its height. We couldn’t see some of the features I’d visited earlier because they required tickets that sold-out for the day before we arrived. Nonetheless, we improvised and had a fine time. Our pivot to the Petroglyph Point Trail wouldn’t have happened otherwise and I got to see something new.

My memories of these places held up pretty well. Naturally I’d forgotten a few of the details although I did confirm my favorable impressions of three remarkable places.


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

Four Corners, Part 2 (Hikes)

On August 6, 2017 · 0 Comments

The vast empty spaces of the Southwest offered great scenery with with long distances between stops. That didn’t bother me. I liked driving and enjoyed the view. We found plenty to do along the way too, mostly outdoors. Every place worth a detour also included a signature hike of some sort. Even the most crowded parks seemed quiet when we took trails bypassed by more sedentary tourists. Unfortunately my lungs, long acclimated to life barely above sea-level, struggled with altitudes that sometimes topped ten thousand feet. I felt short of breath at times although I bounced back like a pro by the end of the trip.

Agua Fria Peak


Angel Fire Resort

The first hike might have been the most strenuous even though it took us directionally downhill. We began the morning by riding the chairlift up Agua Fria Peak (map) at the Angel Fire Resort in northern New Mexico. From there, we hiked all the way down the mountain, a distance of four miles plus change (6.5 kilometres). We were warned to stay on the trail and avoid ski runs because mountain bikers used them during the summer. I didn’t really want to get clipped by a bicycle under momentum so I followed that advice.

The trail began at an elevation of 10,600 feet (3,230 metres) and descended all the way to the valley below. That was high enough to make me feel a little woozy although at least we were heading downhill. Forests of pine and aspen provided plenty of shade, and a bit of protection when the brief daily summer "monsoon" rumbled across the hills. Highlights included amazing mountaintop views, the aerial acrobatics of mountain bikers on adjacent trails and a wildlife encounter with a grouse of some type.


Tsankawi Ruins Trail


Bandelier National Monument

Most people going to Bandelier National Monument only see the main unit. We went there too although we also stopped at the lesser-known Tsankawi unit a few miles further north. Tsankawi could only be approached on foot using a 1.5 mile loop trail. Paleo-Indians lived in a village on the top of the mesa there, probably until the fifteenth century (map). They chose their location wisely. They could spot adversaries from a long distance away and defend their high ground.

Volcanic ash blanketed this entire area millions of years ago leaving a soft layer that became a rock called Tuff. As my son liked to say, tuff wasn’t tough. People stepped upon the tuff for hundreds of years and carved paths into the stone with their feet. Little walkways climbed over and covered the mesa, the same walkways used by modern visitors today. It felt soft and strange; not quite rocky although not quite spongy either. My hiking boots picked up a distinct gray dusty tinge from the climb.

Pre-Columbian inhabitants of Tsankawi also carved into the tuff itself. They created myriad places to stash their wares in addition to the pueblo they built atop the mesa. We barely saw another person as we hiked the loop and examined evidence of this vanished settlement.


Pueblo Alto Trail


Chaco Culture

Our most remote hike took place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Its secluded location pretty much defined "middle of nowhere." I guessed the several miles of dirt and gravel road leading into the park scared away most people. In a sense that seemed unfortunate because a lot of folks missed out on something pretty amazing. Nonetheless, it offered us a full day away from crowds, and even more so once we hit the trail.

I first traveled to Chaco twenty five years ago and I remembered being impressed by the hike atop the mesa above its signature ruins. My return trip showed that I needed to follow the Pueblo Alto Trail to get there. Unlike that earlier trip, we didn’t have enough time to hike the entire trail so we turned around at the Pueblo Bonito overlook (map), a two mile out-and-back. Officially this was considered a "backcountry" hike that required registration at the trailhead.

Two miles sounded easy enough in theory although I’d forgotten how the trail made it up to the top of the mesa. The photograph above looks like a sheer cliff. However, a fissure cut vertically through the middle. Hikers had to reach the base of the fissure on a steep path, then wriggle uphill through a narrow passageway until reaching daylight. The original inhabitants used this same path for several hundred years. We weren’t used to such acrobatics and it seemed a little scary. There weren’t any safety devices, just climbers versus rock. The whole family managed to make it to the top without incident and we followed the trail along the cliff to view some great ruins from an elevated perspective.


Petroglyph Point Trail


Mesa Verde

Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde National Park seemed like opposite bookends. Few people visited Chaco and hordes visited Mesa Verde. I’m sure the nice paved road to Mesa Verde made all the difference. Even tour buses could drive easily into the depths of the park. We arrived too late in the day to get tickets to any of the major sites, though. We had to satisfy ourselves with glimpses from a distance at viewing platforms on the opposite cliff. However, our mobility and willingness to get away from the beaten path took us places far away from the crowds. This revealed some remarkable archaeological sites.

We selected the Spruce Tree House trail. This one led beneath the mesa rim, into some of the protected shelves where the original inhabitants built their homes. It terminated at Petroglyph Point (map), and the largest array of petroglyphs anywhere in the park. Only hikers willing to move beyond normal park amenities could ever see them. From there, the trail climbed up the mesa and continued along the tabletop to complete the loop. The whole affair lasted about 2.4 miles, some of it rather strenuous.

It felt great to get outdoors. The kids didn’t even complain. Much.


Articles in the Four Corners Series:

  1. Orientation
  2. Hikes
  3. Towns
  4. Native Americans
  5. Breweries
  6. Reflections

See Also: The Complete Photo Album on Flickr

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12 Mile Circle:
An Appreciation of Unusual Places
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