Into the Desert Pt. 4

We awoke slowly the next morning, dusting off the haze of the happy hour the night before. Our visions of getting an early start on the day’s adventure were not to be, and that was just fine. We were together, in a new place, experiencing life on the road and growing together as a family. As this was the first travel experience the four of us had shared, it meant a lot that we were all having such a great time. We made our way down to the resort restaurant with the breakfast buffet, as we had the past two days and grabbed a table on the patio in the sun. The boys ran off to the buffet line to put in their waffle orders and Nicole and I waited for our server to come take our drink orders. It was Memorial Day and we didn’t have to be back at work for another week so bloodys and mimosas were definitely called for. They would also surely help with the lingering effects from the night before. Our plan was to leave the resort and head northwest through the desert and up into the mountains to Valles Caldera and Bandelier on our way to Santa Fe where we had dinner reservations that evening. As we sat in the sun sipping our drinks, which perhaps were the best part of the meal, we felt absolutely no rush to get back on the road. The sun was warm that morning and we had adjusted to the dry air and altitude and as the champagne made its way to our brains, everything was just right.

With the sun getting high in the morning sky, we finished up, packed our bags and checked-out — the boys wishing that we could stay and swim all day as they had been doing while we were in the workshop all weekend. They pleaded that we come back sometime. As we pulled away from the resort and wound back up through the entry drive, I kept looking back at the Sandia range that had been the backdrop for three days. I knew there was plenty more to see on this trip, but something about that mountain had taken a little piece of my heart — maybe because it seemed to stand alone, or because it was the first mountain I’d seen west of the Mississippi, or that I’d grown to know it over the last 72 hours as a confidant and guardian — it stirred something in me. I imagined the Tamaya Indians, on whose land we had been staying, looking to that mountain before anyone else had shared in the vision and how longingly they may look at it now that it was surrounded by resorts and highways and other reminders of the colonization that has disfigured their sacred lands.

I turned west out of the resort, past the casino, and kept that mountain in my rearview as long as I could. We drove past desert suburbia — adobe having replaced the vinyl of the midwest — until all that was ahead of us was the desert and mountains of Northeastern New Mexico. We soon turned off the main road onto a two-lane with a warning sign about altitude and mountainous terrain. The ascent and excitement began. We weaved ever further upwards and the terrain continuously shifted providing as many breathtaking views as our eyes could take in. Giant mesas and buttes, canyons, sheer cliffs and red rocks as far as the eye could see. It was yet another world, to be sure. An alien landscape not for the faint of heart. This was a land of toil, and we were experiencing its raw beauty from the comfort of an air-conditioned vehicle. As we climbed through the Jemez Pueblo we found ourselves increasingly in a coniferous forest that sits atop the plateau created by the now-dormant volcano of Valles Caldera. We wound around its rim and before us stretched a magnificently large valley, essentially an ancient volcanic crater, now a high plain, dotted with trees and Elk. The opposite edge rose up and was lost in trees thousands of feet away. It was a stunning landscape. We continued past and the forest became drier and looked as if it had seen fire in the not too distant past. Many stands of dead trees flashed by on either side now but new growth was coming up from the volcanic soil underneath. The grade shifted and suddenly we were flying down the other side of the plateau, into the canyons that housed the ancient Anasazi people and their cliff dwellings at the Bandelier Monument.

We paid our entrance fee to the park ranger and made our way to the parking lot to await the shuttle that would take us to the bottom of the canyon where the visitor center and ancient dwellings were. There is something very weird to me about the commercialization of national parks. I felt like a tourist in a land that wasn’t for me. We pay money to be shuffled through—along an easily accessible hiking trail—a preserved museum where an ancient people lived and worked and died and at the end we boarded the bus and were lifted out of the canyon and back into the modern world above. In the end, I was glad to have had the experience and see that truly awesome place. To walk through and imagine what life would have been like on that canyon floor was truly awe-inspiring and harrowing. Coming from the world above, the canyon world seemed like a peaceful place, but I’m sure that was not always the case. We often forget as we escape to the wilderness for rest and relaxation that there is a reality to the harshness of life to be found outside of our urban luxury. The desert where we stood was not meant to sustain much life, and yet the indians who lived there mastered living in harmony with their environment and would have continued to do so in the absence of American conquest. Our colonialism takes on a different form these days — as thousands of people stream into the ancient places to be awestruck by their magnificence, how many feel the weight of the real history of this nation and the lands we now claim?

We disembarked from the shuttle and drove out of the park on our way to Santa Fe that night. As we descended, the terrain shifted back to rocky desert again and we passed Los Alamos and saw all of the signs and fences warning of explosives. A fitting reminder of the value our country assigns the once-sacred and beautiful lands that were not always ours. We made our way to Santa Fe and checked into our next hotel in time to clean up before dinner.

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