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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Macy's & Mesas: Four Corners and Mesa Verde NP

After leaving Overland Expo on Monday morning, we caravanned into Flagstaff with our friend Mel for what has become a standing tradition: breakfast at Macy's European Coffee House.

Flagstaff is to Arizona as Portland is to Oregon, a funky, hip island in the midst of a retiree sea. It's got a hippy vibe that goes along with the college town atmosphere. And when in Flagstaff around breakfast time, you simply have to go to Macy's.

Now, I don't drink coffee, but from the expert opinions of my fellow travelers the coffee is pretty darn tasty there. My main obsession is sticky buns, which they bake on the premises to the approximate size of your head. They also have some pretty awesome waffles that are cooked up fresh to order, with a topping of butter, syrup and fruit. Just what the doctor ordered after eating dust for four days straight. Mark, Mel and I ate until we couldn't eat anymore, then sat there dazed for a bit, our stomachs not sure what to make of all the deliciousness.

Macy's roasts their own coffee blends. This one had me stumped the first time through--I mis-read the label as "Wiener Massage." Their coffee is good, but that would be quite a promise. 

All good things must come to an end though and we had to say goodbye to Mel, with promises to get together again before another year goes by. He was headed back to southern California and we rolled out of town toward the Four Corners area and Colorado.

Four Corners Monument not only divides four US states, but also marks the boundary of the Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reservation. Although I understand that subsequent measurements have put the actual boundaries a little to the east, it's still pretty cool to stand in a place where four states come together, even if it's only in a symbolic way. We took the required shots of us standing in the spot, then turned our attention to the various vendors that surround the monument. It was close to 2 o'clock and our breakfast had long been digested.

The monument is surrounded by four long rows of cement cubicles,  and I assume the vendors rent space to sell their wares. One of the stands was offering Navajo fry bread tacos, and that sounded like a great idea. A young lady took our order and disappeared into the back, which was an area behind the cubicle partitioned off with tarps. She made the bread to order on a little camp stove, and piled it high with ground beef, lettuce, tomato and cheese. Very tasty, and not the least bit greasy.

Notice the dark clouds
gathering behind us.
Had to get going if we were to reach Mesa Verde National Park in time to get a campsite, so off we went towards Cortez, Colorado. We were still being buffeted by the ever-present wind on the road, but up until this point it had been sunny. As we traveled north we could see the clouds were building and getting darker.

We reached the park just five minutes before the visitor center closed. Since Mesa Verde is home to fragile archaeological sites, it's not the typical National Park--you can't just wander around at will poking around the cliffs--you have to sign up for tours to see most of the cliff house areas. Each guided tour costs $3.00 and they typically leave every hour. We squeaked in and signed up for the 9:00am tour the next day for Balcony House, then a 10:30am tour of Cliff House, all we'd have time for since we had to leave the park by noon the next day.

One of the beautiful sculptures outside of the brand new
Visitor's Center at Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde is huge; the campground was 4 miles from the entrance, with the main attractions 17 miles beyond that. We were warned to allow an hour to get to Balcony House from the campground in order to make our tour appointment in the morning, and we had just lost another hour crossing into Mountain Time, so we thought it best to get to bed early that night. Found a spot in Morefield Campground, the only campground inside the park. May is actually early in the season in Mesa Verde, so about half the campground wasn't open yet. We had no trouble finding a nice spot among the oak trees that were just starting to leaf out. The clouds looked pretty ominous but it wasn't raining so we broke out the camp stove. Just as we started it up the first rain drops plinked down, then it started to pour. Then the hail started up. Then we decided we'd cook inside.
Pea-sized hail
(not conducive to cooking outdoors)

In the morning we got up early, packed up and headed further into the park. Up and up the road wound around the mesa canyons and to the top. The clouds were gone and the views were stunning. We made it to the entrance to Balcony House with a little time to spare and watched the ravens catching thermals in the canyons below.

The view down canyon, Mesa Verde NP

Our tour started with all the dire warnings about the steep cliffs, the tall ladders, the high altitude, etc. etc. Interestingly, we were told to leave all food items behind, and in fact the ranger made one guy spit out his gum. Any crumbs or sweet drinks that are spilled can attract rodents, that in turn start digging, undermining the walls; effectively ruining the ruins. Although he presented it in a humorous way, our guide was very serious about this. He had a vested interest in the park; he was not just a Park Ranger, he was a Navajo interpreter and his ancestors had most likely inhabited the very houses we were to visit.

Ranger Clyde Benally gave the most outstanding tour we've ever taken in a national park (and we've taken many.) He began by making us look around and try to find what we could use to clothe and feed ourselves. He explained what was used to build the houses and how the Ancient Puebloans got to the cliff faces in the first place. But the most incredible part of the tour was his explanation of the beliefs and spiritual elements of the people. He used the example of the Circle of Life--how the generations passed on stories and wisdom from one to another creating an unbroken chain leading through to this day. Toward the end he spoke to us in Navajo, which is a haunting language that sounds nothing like any other language I've ever heard. We had a couple of rangers-in-training along on the tour and all I could think afterwards was: boy, are you guys screwed. How could a regular Joe Ranger ever live up to that?

The trail down to Balcony House

The ladder leading up from the trail to Balcony House

Grinding stone, Balcony House

Interior Balcony House

To exit the ruins, we had to squeeze out through a very narrow tunnel then go up another ladder and a flight of stairs. I understood why the ranger who sold us the tickets looked us over before offering this tour; if you weren't in fairly good shape you'd never get out.

Up and out of Balcony House
After that, the tour of the Cliff House was a bit of a letdown. It's much larger in scale, but it's also been picked over by generations of pottery hunters, "archaeologists" who tore the houses apart, took ancient artifacts and generally mucked up the ruins for future generations. It didn't help that on our first tour there had only been ten of us and this one was a tour bus mob of elderly folks mixed with families fresh from the lodge. Sanctity always suffers in a crowd it seems.

The Cliff House, in a rare moment of calm

Unfortunately, we had a lot of ground to cover if we were to make it to Great Sand Dunes National Park by evening, so after exploring the museum and gift shop for a bit, we had to leave. Yet another item on our list to visit again. We're really going to have to concentrate our efforts on winning the lottery so we can spend more time exploring all these wonderful places.


  1. Please focus your main efforts on winning this lottery so you will be able to spend more time discovering all these incredibly wonderful places.