The “road to ruins” doesn’t have to be some disastrous series of events. In this case, it was an amazing drive from Park City, Utah to Cortez, Colorado to visit the ancient ruins of Mesa Verde.

Trauma As A Journey

This trip was a special one for me on many levels. I’ve always wanted to visit Mesa Verde and this was my chance. I say, “chance” because in actuality, my wife and I have encountered a potential road to ruins a couple of years back. She skied into a tree at a local resort and had to be life-flighted to the University of Utah ER. Her injuries? Well, let’s say she was a poster child for wearing a helmet. Her face on the other hand, didn’t fair too well. The impact exploded her left occipital lobe and she lost most of her teeth. Over 3 years, she had to have reconstructive surgery on her face, jaw and teeth. During this extremely challenging time, road trips were the last thing on my mind. I wanted the love of my life to heal and I stayed with her and helped as much as I could.

If the physical healing wasn’t enough, the emotional healing that often accompanies trauma, can linger for years. Before I felt ready to venture out on the road, solo-style, I had to know my wife felt comfortable being alone. I know this sounds strange but since the accident, we both have become closer and holding one another for long periods became the norm. My wife’s anxiety level slowly diminished over time and I had come to realize, after holding so much space for her, it was high time for me to wander the west to let some steam off.

Windows Are Rolled Down
Amos Lee
Look up child
The world is born
Shoe’s untied
And your soles are worn
Windows are rolled down
Sun is setting high
Windows are rolled down
I’m fixin’ to die
Corn rows have companion feel
This rocky road and this steering wheel
Who do you call to ease your pain
I hope for you to get through this rain
Windows are rolled down
Moon is hanging low
Windows are rolled down
Think it’s time for me to go hey-ay-ay-a…-ay
Is it what you dreamed it’d be
Are you locked up in this fantasy
Oh this miles that have
Torn us apart
My new found faith
And my broken heart

For me, the road is a good place to clear my head and lighten my heart. Before I put the car in drive, I set my favorite Pandora station. (See music mix below if you’re interested in what played.) As the random line up plays, each song seems strangely synchronistic with what’s swimming around in my head. Certain tunes and lyrics ferret out suppressed feelings and I take a deep breath and begin to actually FEEL. The vehicle rolls as do the tears; I had been numb for too long. I look for a place to pull over.

What better place is there to open up the throttle of my heart; in the car, a remote desert road, alone? It’s sort of a private space, a compartment such as the hidden places and wide open spaces where I neatly tuck my feelings away from plane view. Out of sight, in my car, out in the middle of everywhere, I’ve had some great rants. This time, it wasn’t a rant, it was a much needed release of pain. It was the kind of pain that had embedded itself well beyond my capacity to deal with it directly at an earlier time. I exit the highway onto a dirt road and as the smoke screen of the rising dust hides me, I release a long and deep moan. Tears, the emotional detour to an otherwise routine journey. It was exactly what I needed, a whole new meaning to a “road flare”. The hazard lights of my soul are set flashing.

Music Mix

After 20 minutes of experiencing one of the most cathartic emotional releases I’ve had in a long time, I pull back onto Highway 6 and head to Green River, Utah. I planned to have lunch along the banks of the, well, Green River! There’s few places on Earth where you can drive to a spot along a wild river and get the kind of views that mesmerize! “What better way to lift my spirits than to sit by a rapids while enjoying the sandwich my wife lovingly made for me?”, I thought. The towering buttes that line the banks along the river, dwarf me. I get my camera out and shoot some images before I continue to Cortez, Colorado.

As I point the car due south, the “Art of the American West Road Trip” begins to innately unfold. I feel lighter and free! The magic of the journey takes on deeper meaning as all encounters, people, places, sights and even vanity plates begin to serve as playful metaphors. To me, the experience of being on the open roads of the American west is mythic! Taking life to the level of myth, at least for me, makes things so much more fascinating. I stop to shoot a photo of an old Model T flat bed truck. The pain I had been harboring was now out, sitting in someone’s ranch, bleaching in the sun. I merge onto I70 east to the Moab, Utah turn off just 29 miles ahead.

A flatbed Model T Ford truck sits along aranch road in Green River, Utah

Scoping vanity plates is a hobby. I saw only three this trip.




Moab Madness

Highway 191 into Moab descends dramatically towards the Colorado River. The entrance to Arches National Park is strangely quiet but as I cross the river bridge and enter town, I encounter heavy traffic. Spring break packs Moab as warmer temps bring thousands to this “former”sleepy little desert town. Once home to outlaws, cattle rustlers and Uranium miners, Moab has become hugely popular. The town has become quite a circus attracting mountain bikers, off road junkies, river rats, European tourists and a whole host of colorful characters. Each time I drive through Moab, I see something new being built, the area is exploding. It has been for the past 20 years, really.

I usually stop at Milt’s for a killer burger, shake and hand cut fries but I had already stopped for lunch. Instead, I make a quick stop at Gearheads to purchase much needed new sunglasses. I park next to a VW camper van riddled with stickers. (I always love reading them.) I had some miles to crank off so I spent 15 minutes in the gear store and saddled up; Cortez is another 2 and half hours from Moab, so I drive on.

I like to read bumper stickers.

La Casita!

I arrive in Cortez around 4:30 PM. I like to get to my destination during the daylight hours as it’s often difficult to find a remote dwelling in the dark. I had booked the “Mesa Verde Casita” through Airbnb. Gathering from what the host had mentioned about following directions on any device, I thought it would help to be able to see some suggested land marks. The host gave perfect directions and I was able to find, what turned out to be an absolute gem, the little casita. What a terrific location!

The Casita was immaculate and just steps away from where to park, making it a breeze to bring your stuff into the space. The view of Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west was jaw dropping. The sunset image above is what I got to see while staying here, plus I had a “visitor” Heron who came to the little pond just yards away from the front porch. I get settled in, shower and have dinner, which I brought along. Although the casita has all the comforts of a larger home, I have no need to cook. I eat a wrap and munch on chips and hummus. After dinner, I read for a bit and hit the hay early as the next day was going to be full of exploration.

Mesa Verde National Park

After a delicious breakfast of Muesli, fruit and Park City Roasters, French Roast, (I’m such a coffee snob) I load my day pack with lunch and camera gear. Mesa Verde National Park was only a 20 minute drive from the Casita! I arrive at the park entrance at 8:30 am and there are only 10 vehicles at the victor’s center. I had anticipated large crowds since the weather had turned for the better during my outing. It had been forecasted to be partly sunny with temps in the high 70s! “What a much needed relief from the heavy winter we had been encountering in Park City”, I thought. It turned out, I practically had the entire park to myself. There was an obvious reason for this. I learned that I had arrived at the park a week before the official tourist season begins. This meant I would not be able to take the guided tour of some of the ruins. I wanted to get closer to the infamous “Cliff Palace” but I ended up walking to a decent overview where I took a shot and marveled at the structures. They took my breath away.

The Infamous Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park.

Although I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t get closer to the ruins, I did have the opportunity to enjoy the peace and quiet of this magical place. I took a short 1.2 mile hike on the Soda Canyon Overlook trail to get a better look at the “Balcony House” dwelling. I took some more shots and really marveled at how remote these dwelling were. How skillful the architects of these magnificent structures must have been! I turn around and face the southwest and gasp at the view of the flat Juniper ladened mesa and the San Juan Mountains jutting up behind the mesa. Beautiful!

The Awe Inspiring Transition Of Mesa to Mountains.

Sand Canyon Hike

The next area of exploration I wanted very much to hike and explore was 2 and half hours west of Mesa Verde. Sand Canyon is part of the “Canyons of the Ancients” area and its trailhead happened to be off the same road the Casita was. I decided to stop and eat lunch on the front porch of the Casita. Again, quiet and comfortable temps! Song birds filled the air and I see the first hummingbird of the season!

Lightening up my daypack, I drove 25 minutes west of the Casita on Road G. Ute Mountain looms to the southwest as you descend into this canyon. The Sand Canyon trail head was easy to find as it’s well marked and several vehicles were parked off the road offering another hint. Although it seemed as though the trail was going to be busy, I had not encountered a soul!

There are multiple trails off of the main access and after some research, I chose to “keep right”. I decided to take this route because I was told there were more ruins along the actual Sand Canyon trail. I read right as I encountered some well-marked grainaries within the first mile of the 6 mile hike in.

One of the many grainaries along the Sand Canyon Trail.

I decided since it was late in the day, I would only hike in for an hour and half. I wanted to take some shots of an old pioneer cabin I saw along the road into Sand Canyon. I returned to my car and drove back to the cabin about 5 miles back towards the Casita. The cabin is probably turn of the 20th century as it has the usual simplistic design to accommodate a lone rancher with his basic needs. It rests at the northern base of Ute Mountain nestled in tall sage brush. I stop and take shots, roosters cry out in the still afternoon. Small gnats hover over the sage, I walk closer to the cabin. The dry desert environment patinas the boards and the dwelling talks about simpler times.

Pioneer Cabin at the base of Ute Mountain
A peek inside.

Beer and Food!

I drive back to the Casita to relax. I shower and get into shorts for the first time since September. I open my laptop and scope out some places to eat in Cortez. As expected, there were at least 4 brew pubs in town. I don’t drink and drive so driving back from a pub after drinking a few beers was not going to happen. Instead, I decide to stop at a liquor store to pick up a sixer of Melvin IPA and bring it back to the Casita. Melvin is a potent beer with a crisp citrus flavor but it isn’t bitter. In fact it’s quite clean for an IPA as it doesn’t leave the usual IPA mank on the tongue. Brewed in Wyoming, it’s one of my favorite beers right now. Sure, I could have indulged in some Colorado craft beers but I have, in the past; Upslope another favorite brew master. In addition to beer, I needed some food.

After scanning many positive reviews on Trip Advisor, I decided to try Thai Cortez. I was pleasantly surprised! I had the Red Curry Shrimp and Jasmine Rice, it was fantastic! In addition, since I worked up a hefty appetite, I had the chicken satay with peanut sauce, equally delicious!

After a few beers and some amazing chow, I logged onto Netflix and kicked back to watch a flick. As I was sitting on the comfortable couch, I noticed an orange glow coming through the west window over the queen sized bed. I step outside to see that an amazing sunset was unfolding. I quickly retrieved my camera and proceeded to watch and shoot in amazement! The light and color show was dazzling!

Sunset at the Casita. Ute Mountain with clouds dancing around it.

The Hopi Indians have a prophecy referring to the “age of two suns”. Some believe we are in this age, right now. If you look at the image above, there seems to be two sources of light on either side of Ute Mountain. Interesting!

Usually red skies at night, means it’s going to be milder weather but in the case of last Tuesday evening’s sunset, this wasn’t the case at all. The next day, the temp dropped from 46 degrees to 34 degrees in less than 10 minutes. I packed the car and noticed the black clouds approaching from the northwest. The wind howled as I struggle to keep the car doors open to load my stuff. I departed for home around 8:30 am. I had a six hour drive back to Park City and the weather was a bit of an issue.

The wind gusts swiped my car and I held the wheel to the left to compensate. I drove into the front head on; dark blackness and the gropple began to pelt the windshield. “A storm to end the road trip?” It goes to show that life never lets up for too long and everything is in constant movement. The car, my thoughts, the Earth and all the stars expand into the one.

The first official road trip of 2019 was all that I hoped it would be; the beginning of a new chapter in my life after a family disaster, a chance to unwind and engage in my childish adventure and the opportunity to visit a place I have wanted to for several years. The opportunity to write a new blog too!

The “Art of the American West Road Trip” is just that, a beautiful depiction of what it means to be free! Free to explore, free to feel, free to create and to wonder about the next road trip. Be sure to come back here and read about more adventures!

Thank you for reading. Oh! I love comments. Please make some below.

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