When life seems all up in the air, what better to do than take a nice road trip to celebrate a national holiday? Memorial Day was one week ago today, and I teamed up with my longtime traveling companion, Miss Gokey, to make it happen. We planned together on the phone and booked our campsites at the Coal Mine Campground in Grants. It had been a minute since we’d pitched Miss Gokey’s splendid orange tent and slept under the stars. On Saturday the 27th, I left Grand Junction, and she left Las Vegas. We each drove for 7 hours and met at the Wal-Mart in our destination city. We parked my car in the lot of the El Malpais/El Morro administrative building (closed for the whole weekend) and took off toward El Malpais, where we informed the ranger we were looking for an easy hike. She sent us to El Morro. I have a precious portrait of myself standing at the sign, but it won’t download. Hopefully my other images fare better.
We walked the inscription loop, where the motto is, “pasó por aquí,” or (roughly), “I was here,” which is what various Spanish explorers and others carved on the big rock shown below.
I named the photo, “Several inscriptions,” but while inspecting it, I realized you have to blow it up 27,000 times in order to see anything good. Below we have “example inscription,” which you might be able to see better.
An alluring feature of the inscription loop is “the pool.”
I reclined on a bench after the 1/4 mile walk while Miss Gokey read me a story from one of the traveler’s journals. To hear him tell it, he was on the brink of death when he came across the pool and drank himself back to health from its refreshing waters.
A little bit further down the trail, we found a nicely preserved petroglyph of bighorn sheep.
The 15-minute film in the Visitor’s Center at El Morro, aptly named Pasó por aquí, won an award at the WorldFest International Film Festival in 2014.
That concluded our tour of the inscription loop and El Morro. I couldn’t leave without grabbing the traditional hippie quote.
We had plenty of time before the sun set, and El Malpais was on the way back to the Coal Mine Campground, so we returned to the El Calderon area to find the Continental Divide Trailhead. The mile of the trail that we walked is flanked by lava rock.
And finally a gorgeous portrait of Yours Truly
Within four hours of arriving in New Mexico, we had covered two national monuments and set our feet on the Continental Divide trail. It was time to retire to the Coal Mine Campground, where we had Christmas and then threw the last of the first-ever fire starters (pictured here with Miss Gokey)
into the fire pit.
We had some trouble with the fire. We bought our firewood at the local Smith’s grocery store. It was in a plastic bag and labeled, “Hot wood.” You know the wood. Treated somehow. We threw in four, five, or six firestarters (I don’t remember now), a ton of twigs and pinecones, and still only got three, four, or five of our signature pie iron pierogis before giving up and going for the camp stove and skillet to cook more pierogis and blintzes.
I nearly TripAdvisored Coal Mine Campground, but something stopped me. It was Memorial Day weekend, and we only had a few neighbors. I was just about to hit “send” when I remembered another trip to another National Park back in 2010. The night ranger, after showing us the night sky program, said, “Do you love it here? Good! Don’t. Tell. Anyone.” My TripAdvisor reviews have a lot more readers than this blog does. I don’t want to jeopardize my own parking spot at Coal Mine Campground some future holiday, except to you, my loyal readers (hi Mom! <3)
Sunday was our big exciting day to go to the $$$ park, Chaco Canyon. I say $$$ park because it’s the one featured on the Anasazi page of all U.S. history textbooks. I confused the photo with one from another park Miss Gokey and I visited in 2011, Mesa Verde. But I did verify today that Chaco Canyon is indeed in the textbooks.
Question for you: why visit three national monuments or parks, when you can visit FOUR? We decided that Aztec ruins wasn’t too far away, so we stopped there first. I’ll make this portrait of myself smaller because of the camping grime. It’s not as good as the CDT one.
Aztec ruins is incorrectly named. As everybody knows, Aztec civilization flourished in Mexico after the Olmec and before Hernan Cortez. Bless their hearts, the explorers of the 1800s mixed it up. The structures at Aztec ruins were constructed by the ancestral Puebloans (the ancestors of today’s Hopi and Zuni). Check them out.
You can walk around inside the ruins and even go into one of the buildings.
The eastern part of Aztec Ruins is only partially excavated. It is exciting that in 2017, there are still so many structures built 1,000 years ago that have yet to be discovered and unearthed.
We enjoyed a traditional camping picnic of cheese sticks, protein shakes, peanut butter crackers, Doritos, granola, yogurt, and water.
The next part is the part that involves me crying. We headed back to Chaco Canyon, the $$$ park. I was driving. I knew that entrance to the park required driving on 15 miles of unpaved road but pssht it’s the National Park Service, so it will be fine. Right? WRONG! It took us an hour to go the 15 miles down a road that consisted of, in alternating sections, flying gravel, washboard, and sections where Miss Gokey said, “even the potholes have potholes.” At one point I took a cattle guard too fast (like 12 mph), heard a giant crashing noise, stopped, and burst into tears. But that was already like 9 miles in, so I forged ahead, feeling stabbed and betrayed by Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen Mather, and Ken Burns. Remember that my car is new and gorgeous, and it is not high clearance. I couldn’t see out the back window, so I turned on the back wiper and heard Miss Gokey say, “Wow, that’s a whole lot of mud.” Needless to say, since I am writing this, we made it to the park and out again, alive. As soon as you enter the NPS land, the road becomes paved again. When we stopped for our photo at the sign, I spread-eagled myself on the pavement to check and make sure the underside of my car wasn’t hanging down in shredded bits. It’s been a little over a week and the car is fine. I made a scowlyface in my sign portrait.
You will notice that I have been typing “Chaco canyon” while the sign says “Chaco culture.” You will also notice that the sign designates Chaco as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I had never heard of Chaco Culture, thinking that the buildings at Chaco and Aztec were the work of the Anasazi, so I looked it up. As far as I can tell, Chaco is another name for the ancestral Puebloans, based on this location. If any reader knows any different, please leave a comment. I like to know what I’ve seen. Anyway, here at the park we saw ruins somewhat similar to those we reached via the nice paved road to the beautiful sign at Aztec. This time, I will leave all of the photos nice and large so that you can benefit from my traumatic experience. First stop, Chetro Ketl.
And here’s one I took before crouching to enter some of the ruins.
See those little doorways? Yes, you can go through those, but they are little. You have to crouch, and stay crouched for a while, which while entering one of them I neglected to do. CRACK! My head. Whereupon I burst into tears for a second time in one day. I have recently finished reading Dr. Daniel Fulkerson’s splendid autobiography Nothing Good Happens at the Baby Hospital, so my first thought was, of course, SUBDURAL HEMATOMA! I am terrified of hematomas, as one killed Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson. Although the victim can be symptomless for weeks, I am hoping that I am out of the woods. The next few photos come from the point in time when I was convinced I was going to wake up dead on Monday morning.
While entering Chaco Canyon at the Visitor’s Center, we met a man in a floppy hat who told us that according to his friends, the way out of Chaco Canyon along a road called 57 was worse. The ranger told us that 57 was better graded, and it turned out that the ranger was correct. For 17 miles, I drove again on unpaved road to get us out of the canyon, slowing to 3 mph for the cattle guards and tasking Miss Gokey with warning me when we were approaching one.
I gave Chaco Canyon only three little green dots on TripAdvisor, and it is all because of that drive. Miss Gokey and I have seen many, many sites dedicated to Indian ruins. The only reason to torture yourself off-roading to get there is so that you can say you have been to the $$$ park. I will now say it again. I have been to the $$$ park, and I have the cancellation stamp and the brochure to prove it.
We got off of the rez and back to Grants in time to be rewarded with two fun surprises.
- This kitschy Rte 66 sign.
2. This sunset as seen from our campsite.
We skipped trying to make a fire and Miss Gokey used the skillet straightaway to expertly fry our pierogis and blintzes. I must admit that although it has been a VERY long time since we have been camping, we know how to do it right! We slept well, had our oatmeal and cocoa for breakfast, and went back to El Malpais on Monday to look at La Ventana Arch before parting and driving back to our respective homes. All’s well that ends well in New Mexico.
Watch out for the cholla cactus!
About halfway back to Grand Junction, I decided to veer off the road to visit Hovenweep, another national monument.
Little did I know it was 50 miles off the road. I arrived at 4:56 p.m. on Memorial Day. The rangers were literally turning the lights off. I got my stamp, had a picnic, walked a sum total of 0.25 miles, and took two photos.
I had bragged to Miss Gokey that despite the time it took, at least the road was paved. I found an alternate road out that meant my detour would only cost me an hour of travel time. Of course, the route surprised me with nine miles of unpaved road, at which point I sighed and muttered, “whatever,” and forged ahead toward home.
I would like to tell myself that I’ll go back to Hovenweep, but the fact of the matter is that nobody knows what will happen or where we will be in the future, so I will say that I hope I get to do it justice one of these fine days.
In the meantime, to get your car to nearly 3300 miles, I highly recommend five more national parks in four days.