Up before the sun with the monumental shadows looming in the distance calling us towards them. There are other roads that get you near the buttes and formations for free, but I think it’s worth the $5 this morning to get a closer look. We are one of three cars that opt not to watch from the parking lot, but from between the West and East Mitten Buttes. There is red dirt with patches of green grass and spots of yellow flowers. There are shades of blue hills on the horizon and purple clouds on an orange sky.
To watch the sun rise we are always staring at the sun or maybe watching it bring color to the world behind us through trees and over mountains. I wonder what the sun’s view is like always bringing light to what it sees and leaving darkness for the moon to reflect its light on. That makes it sound like the sun rotates around the Earth, but it’s just a burning star that averages a distance of eight light minutes away – close enough to warm and far enough not to cause fire and only burn human skin after long exposure.
Now that the sun is up we can start the Valley Road tour. There are 11 numbered spots on the map of mesas, buttes, and spires, but plenty more to see. Some fit their descriptive name easily and others require more work on the imagination. We make it to stop 5 where there will be food and jewelry and other vendors available to tourists that visit later in the day and decide to turn around. The road is obvious, but not very weathered.
Back at the visitor center we look at the rugs, pottery, postcards, books, and t-shirts of the trading post. I was hoping for something special in the restaurant – unlike the eggs and corn flakes they had available on the simple buffet – so sandwiches will be had at the car. On the drive south the terrain begins to look familiar and I start to describe canyon dwellings that I saw on a trip with my dad in February – the same ones Caleb and I tried to see years ago and the same ones we will be seeing today at Navajo National Monument.
My first time here we took a dirt road, the second time everything was covered in snow, and today would be perfect – considering we didn’t know what time it was because Arizona doesn’t participate in Daylight Savings Time, but all the reservations do. Where there was snow there is lots of rock. Where there were freezing toes there are now warm wiggly appendages anxious to see more – like the Aspen Trail that branches from the Sandal Trail – the sign and path had been covered in snow.
Caleb notices men working in the Betatakin Dwellings and we point them out through the scope provided to the elderly man who is standing next to us. Then we all wonder how we can get down there and join them. We are quick to learn in the visitor center as a guided tour is five minutes from departure – perfect timing, but we have dogs in the car that probably won’t last 3-4 hours. We really should find a sitter for them as they keep us from doing so much on the road. Tours are offered the last week of May to the first week of September – at least this season.
Arizona is covered in national parks and monuments dedicated to nature and Native Americans, having almost as many as California that has 49,000 more square miles to accommodate their landmarks, the state of New York with only 54,000 square miles of land area to show off early history and old buildings, and the District of Columbia coming in with a measly 68 square miles to represent presidents and wars. It will still take us two hours to get to the next stop – Wupatki National Monument.
As soon as I see the entrance sign I can’t help but remember coming here with my dad too. It was one big tour and a great way to build on our father – daughter relationship. I remember posing in the window of the sign and then standing on a bridge in front of Sunset Crater distanced about 29 miles from each other. This land was used for farming in the 1100s, cattle ranching starting in 1880, and in 1924 became a monument that is today 33,000 acres larger than what President Coolidge established.
The pueblos look like extensions of the land that surrounds them, stone homes built upon the limestone and sandstone with chunks of basalt and local soil mortar to hold it all together through weathering and vandalism for over 700 years. There is an Asian family that moves quickly by the Box Canyon dwellings and a woman that resembles any explorer in a popular film that has joined us at the Citadel Pueblo – excellent views, but still ten miles from the Little Colorado River when no rainwater was caught.
So much effort had to go into living – hunting large game, searching for water, gathering nuts and seeds, making clothes, and building homes. They had to survive drought, floods, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, and snow storms. There was fighting for land, trading for goods, and teaching the next generation how to work hard and die young. If ever someone in the modern age feels bored they could resort to doing things the way their ancestors did or get inspired to create something that will give us even more free time and longer lives.
I like to think that the Sinagua people had it easy and maybe they did until they were forced to move from their land of making a living, so that new settlers could use the land to make money. And as easy as I live today, a spoiled navy wife, I wonder if in the future we will appear as simple-minded as Australopithecus or will human kind be worse off in the future and make us look like the Stephen Hawking to Terence Tao era of our planet has reached its peak.
Through the visitor center and there is some small talk about travel, military, and love of history. Outside is the Wupatki Pueblo, possibly a gathering center for ceremonies and trade. The side facing us is closed off for either archeologists or for repairs. Either way, we go around back to see the different building styles and to learn more about what happened in which rooms and why. The pamphlet described items in the surrounding area – a shard pile, the ballcourt, and the blowhole – a crevice in the Earth that breathes (blows out or sucks in) depending on the barometric pressure above ground.
On our way back to the parking lot we meet Ranger Holly who earns herself a signature in Caleb’s passport companion by talking more about the architecture and history of the place. Then we are off to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Visitors were once able to climb the cinder cone until the park realized the damage to the volcano and to the fallen hikers – falling on igneous rocks that are sharp and brittle is no fun.
We stick to the path and a volunteer tells us about the view of inside the crater from atop O’Leary Peak – an 8.7 mile hike that brings you to 8,916 feet of elevation in the Coconino National Forest. It takes awhile for plant life to come back after being destroyed by an eruption. There are enough ponderosa pines and Scarlet gilia to add a touch of green and red to the landscape of black in variants of sand and rock covered in lichen.
In the visitor center we learned about the devastating effects of ash when it buries 64,000 acres of farmland and about the effectiveness of seismometers to detect even the tiniest of vibrations in the earth. They are spread out in low-risk regions and concentrated in high-risk areas. I wonder about their coverage area as I start the car to go to Walnut Canyon National Monument. On the way we debate whether we will be able to see another park and camp there or drive to my dad’s house to spend the night.
I call him to settle the issue and there won’t be enough daylight to enjoy the other park today. We will visit the cliff dwellings of the Sinagua and then make our way to Phoenix. We are one of five cars in the parking lot along with the construction vehicles. There is some landscaping going on and something involving a pulley system to deliver materials along the west side of the Island Trail that is closed to visitors while they work. While getting the stamp for my passport one of the rangers notices a badge from another park and ask if we would like to become a Junior Ranger for Walnut Canyon – sure!
A lot of the answers can be found in the museum and in the educational video. Caleb gets to write a sentence using some Hopi vocabulary and interpret a petroglyph and then draw one of his own. The Island Trail consists of 240 steps to ease the 185-foot climb back up to the rim. Going down is fun, easy, and exhilarating – thinking about the work it took to build homes here and then catch animals and cook them in the cliff side, but also the health benefits of all that exercise, or the sore knees and back from all the climbing.
I get all giddy when I look across the valley and see more dwellings. Caleb assures me there are plenty in the area, but each one brings more excitement and a smile to my face that more history has been preserved and that I’m lucky enough to see it – and to be close enough to go inside some of them. I can see their fingers packing mud between rocks to glue the wall together and smell roasting pronghorn. The rooms are camouflaged well and Caleb smiles as I seem to notice more of them on the return trip.
Going back up the stairs I notice the steepness and the heat of the day more. Once Caleb’s workbook is reviewed he is sworn in by Ranger Erin who encourages me to take pictures of the accomplishment of my bearded man-child. I’m glad that the junior ranger program isn’t restricted to 12 and under (like the children’s menu at restaurants). I think adults need to learn things (and eat small meals sometimes) through the eyes of a child.
The road leading into the canyon is the same one we will take out of the park and towards Flagstaff. The fields are blanketed in yellow – what a sunny, bright, and happy sight. There are plenty of detours that we could’ve spent the rest of the day on, but the decision was already made to join my dad for dinner. I would get on Hwy 17 that would take us all but 20 miles of the way – the fast, don’t-look-out-the-windows way.
We arrive a little after 6:00 pm and this will be Caleb’s first time seeing an Oculus in person, so my dad lets him try it on and shows him a video of a rollercoaster ride – the one where lots of people have experienced motion sickness because their bodies are still, but their minds are being tossed around on rickety old wood pieces built through a village with a jump connecting the track before it loops back to start over. Caleb almost falls out of the chair and lets us know it’s hard not to lean your body with what your brain is seeing.
We take showers to wash off the last few days before Caroline gets home and then we drive to a new Indo-Chinese restaurant, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, across town. My dad was looking forward to ethnic inspired drinks, not Coca-Cola, and entrees with a different flavor, not all the same. This place charges a $1.00 to make a meal without sauce; weird to be charged for something you’re not using. The service was bad and the food didn’t stand out, but we had dessert at Cheesecake Factory to look forward to. Caleb and I split a piece of chocolate raspberry cheesecake and we all got a cup of coffee.
Back to the house some time after 8:00 pm and we are settling down for a night in our pajamas of talking, knitting, and watching YouTube videos. I think I was tending to the dogs when my dad asked me to go near the window. I thought I was going to move the curtain and let some air in, or get a magazine for him to reference something, or grab a sample of one of Caroline’s weaving projects, or pose for an image capture via the Kinect. Then I was asked to look inside the mouth of a purple rabbit about two-feet wide by three-feet tall.
Inside this giant rabbit’s jaws is a mirror. I was asked what I saw and named something behind me. My dad commented that it was a weird description of myself. Then he tells me that the person in the mirror is the new owner of it. What?! This and his purple couch were the things I fell in love with when I first saw them. It is being gifted to Caleb and I as a fifth anniversary present. I would’ve been more than grateful for any one of their smaller Bungled Jungle creatures and find it hard to grasp that they are willing to part with one of their larger pieces.
Relationships are greater than any material item that represents them, but if one couple can share a piece of their history to build on another then it makes the item and the two relationships stronger. Feeling loved and lucky I want to cry; we joke that the rabbit could use the bath after being on the wall for so long. I will blot some of the dust with a handful of paper towels. The coffee and excitement and joy of being around each other keeps us up until midnight before we decide to hit the mattress. Good night.