If you knew you were leaving the nation where you were born, what would you do to say goodbye? My road trip through New Mexico and Colorado was my first answer to that question.
When I was a child, my family annually launched itself on a two-week summer vacation. My parents wanted us to see all of the United States and even a bit of Canada and Mexico. Essentially, if we could drive there, we were going to try! During those many trips, we visited all 48 of the contiguous United States. We invested significant time in some states, like Colorado or California. Other states we’ve only glimpsed, such as our small touch of southwestern Maine. In other cases we essentially passed through cities (such as New York) that other families would have stayed in for many days. As a result, I can hardly hear the name of a state without having some memory pop up from my experiences. Of course, thirty years later, I’ve muddled many of these places together in my mind.
I began my farewell tour by driving west from Nashville to Albuquerque on I-40. People say you can see nothing from the interstate, but my goal was to get out to the desert Southwest as quickly as I could. My plan was pretty simple; getting to Albuquerque was essentially two full days of driving. I would front-load the work so that the first day was the worst, leaving myself an easier job for day two. The following day I could celebrate July Fourth with my friend from elementary school, Brad.
Those two long days of driving have already melded together in my thoughts. Western Tennessee is hilly and heavily wooded, but once you reach Memphis, you’re in a flood plain. Little Rock, Arkansas, always surprises me because you can drive entirely through the city without once getting a sense of where downtown is located. Oklahoma had changed since last I had seen it. I do not remember where the transition happened, but rather suddenly gentle hills and trees gave way to prairie, and massive wind turbines seemed to be everywhere. My overnight stay in Weatherford, OK, was uneventful; the hotel was long past its prime, but it was clean, and I was safe. Somehow I hadn’t realized that I would pass through Texas, but my brief stop in Amarillo was essentially all I remember. Passing into New Mexico was a bit of a thrill as the car descended from the top of a massive plateau to the desert below. Albuquerque itself welcomed me with sudden altitude and direction changes. Since I am a fan of Douglas Adams, I was very happy to see the road sign that “Gusty Winds May Exist” along with its tattered windsock. Shortly thereafter I was with my friend Brad and his wife Angela.
Mesa Verde National Park has remained very distinct in my memories. When I was a child, the cliff dwellings seemed like something from another universe. I remembered them as being thousands of years old, but they actually come from around the time of the European dark ages. I tried to put it in context for myself by saying that Islam was experiencing a golden age under the Abbasid caliph when the ancestors of the Pueblo people first began farming the mesa top. I had excellent travel companions. Not only had Brad and Angela provided housing by towing their trailer to the park, but Angela had recommended we take the hike into Spruce Canyon. It was a lovely meditative journey, with different flora at each step. I won’t forget the company of my friends– or the gasping of my lungs as I tried hiking uphill in the lower oxygen of 7000 feet. We were able to spend time at Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, and Balcony House before rains arrived in earnest. It’s a magical place.
After the fun of time with friends, it was something of a shock to be alone again as I began my trip east. U.S. highway 160 led through Durango to Pagosa Springs to Del Norte. I was astonished by the beauty of this highway. When I passed Chimney Rock it was quite obvious! I arrived at Alamosa, CO, early enough that I could enjoy the town a bit. The following morning I was delighted to return to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, another location that had haunted my memories from Colorado. I hardly recognized the place. I had previously visited in late summer, and early summer looked very different. The creek was very wide, blocking an easy walk to the dune field, but hearing the water trickle and gurgle its way toward the marsh was very relaxing. I surprised myself by resting on a sand bar rather than climbing up the dunes. My epic bout with mosquitoes during a quick hike at the visitor’s center may have sapped my energy. Soon, though, I was on my way to Colorado Springs.
Garden of the Gods is a very unusual city park. I was happy to intercept my brother’s family, also on vacation, and we wandered around taking pictures of the kids scrambling on the rock formations. I was delighted to learn that the name of the park stemmed from a conversation between two gentlemen: “This is the perfect place for a beer garden!” “Yes, a beer garden for the gods!” We enjoyed our stroll together, and soon I was headed north to overnight with my friends Chris and Meg, whom I’d originally met while living in San Diego. Belatedly, I realized that saying farewell (for now) to old friends was emerging as a major theme for this vacation.
The next day mixed a greeting with a farewell. I had a chance to see my friend Brian from elementary school as I passed through Shawnee, KS. I enjoyed meeting and playing with his family. It’s interesting to me that twenty years may have passed since my last seeing Brian, and yet his mannerisms fit exactly in that cubbyhole of my memory from high school. Old friends travel with you, I think!
After an overnight with my parents, I drove hard for Nashville. Despite a nasty lightning storm at Paducah, I was able to sleep in my own bed after more than a week of travel. There is no delight to match it. I am starting to say my farewells to the United States, and I am sure that there’s much more of that to follow!