The hardest logs to write are those that I’ve left far too long. On-going pressures of work along with driving halfway across the country for medical appointments and family visits have kept my fingers off the keyboard these last four weeks. So, in an attempt to get us up to date, here’s a whistle stop tour of the highlights from Arizona to Wisconsin.
As planned, we camp just outside Petrified Forest National Park in New Mexico and get down to another serious bout of work. Sitting on the doorstep of a National Park, we can only gaze longingly over the fence for so long: we take an afternoon off, jump on the bikes and cycle to the handful of short trails in easy reach.
Petrified Forest is an odd park. It has no campgrounds, very few trails and the majority of its eighty-five thousand square miles are inaccessible private lands. In spite of this, the high dry grasslands, the petroglyphs and ancient pueblo remains, the multi-layered strata of the badlands and the startling colours of the petrified wood make it an engaging visit.
Red Rock Park is not far outside Gallup and we pull in as a convenient place to do a few more days work. I remember stopping here back in 2003 but Sterling cannot call it to mind. One or other of us will often remember a particular place while the other has no recall of it. We sometimes doubt our own memories and it is only by checking our campsite database or looking back through old logs that we can be sure whether we’re heading somewhere previously visited. Pulling into a campground usually triggers the memory cells but not always.
Last time we stopped here the wind was up and great clouds of sand swept across the campground scouring the rig, the surrounding red cliffs and obscuring the view more than ten feet away. We moved on after one night. This time we’re more fortunate and after each day’s work are able to set off exploring on the trails. Any unenthusiastic feelings that may have lingered from our previous visit vanish as we discover the wonderful world of sandstone canyons, sculpted rock formations, beautifully carved intermittent water channels, ledges and slickrock. Dusk is descending as we drag ourselves away from the magic and return to the camper for increasingly late dinners. While we’re here, there’s a full lunar eclipse that has us out of bed in the small hours and we stand watching the slow progress of the shadow and the gradual appearance of the red moon in the chilly night air. We leave feeling that we have still not done this park justice and it goes on our ‘Must Return” list.
Sterling’s wish to drop in on a Google Developers Group in Albuquerque determines one of our next stops. They’re due to meet in a small brewpub which coincides with one of his other interests! The following day, on our way out of the city, we stop at Petroglyph National Monument: a concentration of ancient symbols rendered by the people who lived on these lands long before the Europeans arrived.
We decide to linger a little longer in New Mexico before we start the concentrated drive northeast and head for a few days’ stop at Bandelier National Monument. This park captures much of the typical feel of the area: the mesa tops with their grassland and sparse tree cover, the deeply cut steep sided canyons and the widespread evidence of ancient populations. We allow ourselves a full day off and set off on the Frey Trail from the campground on the mesa top down to Frijoles Canyon where the remains of the ancient pueblo of Tyuonyi nestle on the flat floor, their associated cave dwellings occupying the surrounding walls. It’s a wonderful walk with views across the mesa and as the course tilts into the canyon, looking down on the pueblo itself.
For me, the most memorable part of this excursion has to be the hundred and forty foot climb on four wooden ladders up to Alcove House. My fear of heights sometimes gets the better of me, preventing me doing something and leaving me with a sense of defeat and disappointment. Other times I find the wherewithal to push past the fear and embark on a course of action that then requires an ongoing internal battle to keep the panic in check and prevent it overwhelming me. I’ll let the photograph speak for itself. The bruises on my shins from leaning so heavily into the rungs of the ladder, and the tightness in my hands and shoulders from gripping so hard act as a reminder of this venture for days to follow.
There’s a couple of towns in the area that we want to take a look at with a view to considering for future settling. The first is Los Alamos but in spite of high expectations, it doesn’t make the list. The second is Taos and while we liked the location better there is still an on-going debate about whether it makes the list.
Not far from Taos, the Rio Grande Gorge cuts an impressive canyon through the mesa and we stop in a Forest Service campground looking down on the distant waters. The following morning we set off on the trail down to the river, meandering through sparse woodland, massive boulders and across open canyon ledges until we reach the racing water. The hike back up is a little more demanding but enjoyable nonetheless. We’ve read warnings that the dirt track into this location becomes impassable in heavy rain, and given the weather forecast and our previous experience, we decide not to risk it and we leave while the going is good.
Time is beginning to press and we have a few days left to cover the required distance as well as stop to do some more work. In the matter of a day we cross into the south west corner of Colorado where we glimpse the snow covered Rockies as we cross miles of grazing land on the seemingly empty high plateau before heading into the much more cultivated lands of western Kansas and finally Nebraska. The skies are heavy and we drive in some remarkable rain, the winds lowering our milage and making the experience a real chore. We clear the leading edge somewhere around the Colorado/Kansas state line and I’m not sure that the photographs do the sky justice but the important thing is that we manage to stay ahead of it, driving instead under blue skies strewn with fluffy white clouds.
Our final stop is in Illinois where we park under yet more steel grey skies, alongside the Hennepin Canal. It’s our last chance for some work before taking the next two weeks off and we feel pressured to make good use of it. This is no longer a commercial waterway and in fact its life as such was short lived. Nowadays it is incorporated into the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park and offers recreational opportunities. As with other American canals it is wider than its British counterparts and while it does not have a tow path it does have a maintenance access path that serves the same purpose for today’s users. At the end of one day, we stroll along the path towards a nearby lock and lift bridge, the latter built solely to allow access to farmland, its cogs and winding mechanism no longer needed but looking as though they’d turn with very little encouragement, maybe just a small squirt of oil.