I left Oklahoma with my bestie, our kids, and our pets in a minivan pulling a rusty 1987 Palomino Pony popup camper named Bill with the intention of spending
a month camping across the american west and to kill some time during my husband’s year overseas.
We spent our first night in the camper in West Texas near Palo Duro Canyon and the next few nights in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You can read about that here.
While I had several “ultimate ideal scenarios” I alternated between, the first, least-ambitious goal was to make it to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
I figured once we made it that far, we’d decide if we had it in us to bother to go all the way to the coast. We had to at least make it to that one major, iconic destination for me to feel like we made a decent attempt at a road trip.
It may seem odd, then, that instead of continuing westward from New Mexico in a beeline for Arizona, we headed due north. As badly as I wanted to get to
the Grand Canyon, I had a couple of things I had to see first. 1. Whitni 2. Arches National Park. Those items are in Colorado and Utah, respectively. That’s a pretty intense detour, by the way.
We chose a a longer, more scenic route from New Mexico to Durango because Carson National Forest sounded prettier than whatever cities were on the faster route. We experienced some wild altitude and scenery change from the desert up into the mountains. We didn’t expect to make any stops, as it’s only a few hours’ drive, but we found ourselves whipping our heads around as we passed a place called Ghost Ranch. We almost immediately decided to turn around and check it out. The first opportunity to turn around was its own fascinating find. We’d stumbled upon the Echo Amphitheater, a natural sandstone amphitheater in Carson National Forest. The views are stunning and the amount of echo you experience just talking is really fascinating. It was a huge hit with the kids.
We headed back to Ghost Ranch. The ranch is now a retreat and conference center but it was once the home and Studio of artist Georgia O’Keefe, and now it is open to the public as an art museum, dinosaur fossil museum, historic homes tours, and a nice little ice cream shop. Brooke and Ridlee checked out the museums while my girls and I sat at a shady picnic table eating ice cream with the pets, then we switched. I took very few pictures of all the cool stuff…but lots of pics of my kids eating ice cream. Oh well!
Ok, for real going to talk about Colorado now.
The main reason I was headed back to Colorado after having just moved away from there is because, having done almost zero research, I was determined to see at
least one of Utah’s many national parks. I realized that if I stuck to the parks on the eastern edge of Utah, I could also conveniently visit my friend Whitni in western Colorado, plus take the kids to see Mesa Verde National Park before going to said parks.
Anyway back to Colorado. I lived in Colorado for three years and visited many times as a child. You’re probably well aware that it’s beautiful and there are mountains.
So, crazy as it sounds to zip through gorgeous Colorado, it was one of our “just passing through” states. (I had a canyon and an ocean to see, guys. You understand.)
To my extreme good fortune, my #1 and #3 favorite things in Colorado are very near the Utah border. #1 is my friend Whitni and #3 is Mesa Verde National Park. If you
must know #2 is Pike’s Peak but that’s elsewhere. Shh don’t interrupt.
That Time We Chickened Out
Since we’d made two unplanned stops that ate up the entire day, we didn’t get to Colorado until late afternoon, and we found ourselves racing the sun to get camp set up.
As I’ve mentioned before, one way we planned to save money was to “boondock” or camp for free/cheap on government land as often as possible. I’m a member of a few camping groups and my peeps on the web told me how this is done. In some places, you can find free (or at least super cheap) designanted campsites on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land and in National Forests (not to be confused with National Parks. Those are expensive.) These campsites are not terribly far off the road, but usually have few or no amenities. They’re just small clearings. We decided that Colorado would be our first time to try this. I assured Brooke that my internet friends whom I don’t actually know in real life would not steer me wrong and that these camp sites would present themselves to us. Lo and behold! They did! I had to pretend I wasn’t surprised when I saw a sign. We were half an hour from Durango, half an hour from anywhere. High in the mountains, deep in the woods. So we turned down the narrow gravel road and straight up. Further up the mountains, deeper into the woods. Narrow road, pulling a trailer, no promise of a place to turn around. This is fine. It’s fine. We’re totally fine. We could not help but observe that this would be our first night in proper bear country…our first night in proper mountain lion country. And nobody around to hear us. No phone signal. But it’s fine. We passed up a few clearings hoping we’d find other campers. We didn’t want to be super close to other campers, but we also didn’t want to be alone. Finally, we saw another camper. A lone man with a rifle slung over his shoulder. We pondered for a moment that he was probably a super nice grandpa type, and would be nice to have around if we started to be eaten by bears. But we also knew he wouldn’t be pleased to have kids and dogs around while he was trying to hunt, and that we didn’t want him to mistake a memeber of our party for whatever he was hoping to shoot at, and maybe we also secretly thought he might be a serial killer.
I want to say the decision to push on to Durango and stay in a crappy city RV park was mutual but I feel like I have to own that one. I think we had a bad feeling and followed our gut. But we were also chicken. A little bit. Brooke did a lot of impressive things on the trip, but turning around on that narrow mountain road whilst pulling a trailer was among the most impressive.
The best part is, we went all the way into the city of Durango, found a super crowded (but really nice) RV park in town and black bears raided the dumpster next to our camper, and left big claw marks on my van door, two feet away from us. We ordered pizza that night and it was, if I remember correctly, the only time we broke my rule of “no food in the camper!” I think we felt safe in the city. It was a good lesson to learn, though, that crowds don’t protect us from bears. It helped us going forward to accept that safety is an illusion wherever we go, and gave us some comfort that our dogs barking was enough to scare bears away. Black bears, anyway. We weren’t in grizzly country just yet.
Whitni, her husband, and their million kids (more than we have, even) are not from Colorado but we moved from Oklahoma to Virginia then Europe then Virginia then Oklahoma then Colorado, and they’re stalking us so they did all those things too.
Just kidding, that’s not why we lived all the same places in the same order, but it’s pretty wild amirite? Especially since they aren’t military. They never move in time for us to enjoy their company, they wait til we’re getting ready to go to a new duty station so we always just miss each other. Anyway the menfolk went to school together and Whitni and I bonded over rolling our eyes at them and this one time in college where we used a toilet in a creepy abandoned building that nightmares are made of outside Austin, Texas. And the whole million kids thing. We took up an entire coffee shop with our horde of children and talked for hours while Brooke and Ridlee took one for the team and went to a laundromat with ALL THE LAUNDRY since I’d been washing it by hand. She’s a trooper, but don’t worry! She did get some coffee and what she describes as a “life-changing” almond croissant. She looks for excuses to go back there and get one. Funny story, Brooke’s husband collects antique arcade games, and Brooke found one that he’s been hunting for at that laundromat. There were many discussions of strapping it to the roof of the camper, but alas, we had to leave it in Colorado, much to Lane’s disappointment.
We can’t wait to go back with Daniel and spend way more time with these guys.
I love the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verda National Park and I knew Brooke, Ridlee, and my girls would love them too so I was delighted to be able to make a stop there.
If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it. Even having seen other cliff dwellings, none compare to the ones at Mesa Verde. They’re incredibly well-preserved stone
structures built into the cliffs by the ancestral Pueblo people over a thousand years ago and inhabited by them for almost a thousand years. I was eager to see them again,
The only catch was that I hadn’t been since I was a teenager, and I remembered it being a somewhat harrowing drive up the mountain, with steep drop offs and hairpin
turns. I distinctly remember my mother white-knuckling the handle above the passenger side, constantly reminding my dad to be careful, as if he needed reminding not to send us plunging over a cliff.
Now, mom can be a bit of a spaz (sorry mom. I come by it honestly though) But if my memory was serving me properly, I kinda thought maybe it was legit pretty
scary. I’ve never been a brave driver, so the fact that I’d been pulling a trailer through uncharted territory was huge. I never had to drive anywhere scary
because I have two parents and three older siblings, then I married a control freak. I mean, a guy who hates driving but not enough to ever ask me to drive.
Anyway, no matter. Brooke, being a very confident and experienced driver *cough never asks her husband to drive for the same reasons Daniel never asks me to drive cough*
volunteered to take that driving shift.
The views going up the mountain were absolutely gorgeous. Brooke decided to just take my word for it and keep her eyes on the road, because good driver or no, it’s a
hairy drive. I kept saying cheerfully that it was good practice for if we somehow magically made it to the Pacific North West. Brooke was not comforted. Even though she didn’t complain, I made up my mind that it was time to put on my big girl panties and I was resolved to drive on the way back down. We took the short hike to view the cliff dwellings, and they were just as super cool as I’d remembered them. Isabella took a lot of pictures on her polaroid.
There is so much more to Mesa Verde than just the cliff palace, but we didn’t hang around because we wanted to get to Moab in time to set up camp while we still had daylight. Nervously I got in the driver’s seat of my van and prepared for the winding, steep descent. Instead of being an insecure, indecisive wreck of a human being, I found
myself oddly exhilerated. It was fun. I was giddy. It was like “hey, look at me not being a useless ball of anxiety. I can do this!” I think Brooke was pretty amused watching this unfold. It was like I leveled up in driving. New skill acquired: Mountain roads. And just like in games where you have to fight the little bosses to work up to fighting the big boss, Mesa Verde did end up being a helpful step in preparing us for what seemed at the time to be just a far away, elusive bucket list item: the Pacific Coast Highway.