After a hearty breakfast cooked over the campfire at Grand Canyon National Park, we secured the camper and headed out on the road for what we thought would be a 3-5 hour drive to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The plan was to have a day and a half there before moving on to Carlsbad Caverns.

Plans don’t always go the way we think they will.

After taking the wrong park exit due to lack of GPS reception, our new route was looking like 5-7 hours—also because the most direct route there had been completely shut down. We had to take an extensive detour through a desolate vastness of desert, an adventure in and of itself.

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A dense evergreen forest, presided over by faraway snow-topped mountains, faded into a flat and yellow region. It was hard to decide if we were looking at prairie or desert; there were still so many plants, and it I only spotted a few tiny cacti. Yet the consensus, after many many miles of dry, patchy grass and bridges over dry streambeds, was desert.

It was a totally new world to drive through. At a distance, mounded piles of grey earth flowing into each other looked like dumped construction resources, but up close were curious clusters of hills that seemed weirdly out of place. The horizon was crowned by massive peaks whose white coats defied the rising heat. Then, as if we’d crossed a drawn line, all at once, the yellow land was painted a clay red and scattered by fragments of rock and isolated, towering monuments of red stone. Layered red plateaus stretched out in angled rows like reaching fingers, carved by eons of high wind.

It was so hard to get good pictures through the car windows.

I’m a little disappointed in myself for some of the pictures I didn’t get on the road; it wasn’t always lack of opportunity. At one point, for instance, we came up on a strange pair of towering white monoliths. They were like bleached vestiges of a lost American Stonehenge, whiter than the walls of Sacre Coeur—a miraculous thing, when you think about the red dusty winds that constantly sweep over and through them. I had plenty of time to line up a picture, but I was too busy staring and wondering.

I would have liked to share a picture of those here, but the truth is, sometimes I just want to enjoy the view. I don’t always want to be consumed by recording it.

It was a good thing we had a full tank of gas, because we didn’t see gas stations for what felt like 300 miles at a time on the road. For hours on end, all we could see out the windows were the stark rock formations, empty waterways, and the occasional random clump of modular homes amid the red landscape patched with dry scrub and occasional stunted trees. If we ever really did try to colonize mars, it would look remarkably like the area along that stretch of highway.

It turns out that Mesa Verde National Park closes at only 4:00 pm, which was well before we at last arrived at our campsite in nearby Cortez, Colorado. All we could do was make dinner, make a quick grocery resupply run, and watch a family movie on the puttering old laptop we brought along just for such an occasion.

Tomorrow, we were going to see something I’d been wanting to see my entire lifetime: the ancient cliffside dwellings of the Pueblos peoples of the American Southwest.

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