Ready, set , wait…

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” -Carl Sagan

Well, all of the plans are set.  Travel is booked.  Cabins are booked. The rental car is booked.  And so begins the art of test packing what I’ll want need  to take with me.  I’m struggling with this.  I really am.  This is the reason I drive most places – it’s the reason I drove all the way across the US last year.  I’m the type of person that likes to be prepared.  I’ve seen, read, and listened to too many accounts of accidents happening where unprepared adventurers become a statistic because they didn’t account for the possibility of their trip encountering a problem.  I don’t mind flying at all.  In fact, if I had my own plane that I could stuff full of, well, “stuff”, I’d fly everywhere.  But now I’m limited to what will fit in a checked bag and a tiny overhead bin.

I’m well aware that I have a problem.  Some professionals call it “Fortheloveofgodjustrelax”.  (I think it’s Latin.)  But it’s in my nature to account for the unknown.  It’s who I am.  I’m the guy that knows he has a long exhausting hike ahead of him but chooses to carry that extra 5 pounds on his pack anyway simply because you never know when an ice axe might be needed in the desert.

Last year, on my road trip, I had the luxury of bringing the kitchen sink simply because I could.  It wasn’t just my obsession with being prepared, it was because I was traveling somewhere unknown to me, very remote at times – and I was doing it alone.  If I could dream of a possible scenario where something could happen, I took the measures to counter it.

It turns out that, thankfully, I didn’t need to use any of my “emergency” supplies, but it did give me the self-confidence I needed to push myself to go to places I might not have gone without knowing my safety rope was there.  And that is why I do it.  To cautiously take the chances to really live life and see what’s out there in the world.  You don’t get to see places like this without a little risk.  And experiencing these places are what keeps me feeling alive.

With just over a month to go, once again I sit in quiet anticipation of meeting a new culture, exploring a new land, walking on a glacier, relaxing in a geothermal spring and re-energizing my life.   If you would have asked me 15 years ago what I thought life was about, you would have gotten an answer about climbing the corporate ladder, partying, and slowly working toward some tangible form of success.  I only wish I’d realized how naive that kid was a lot sooner.

Getting antsy

camping_in_iceland_national_park-wide

“All travel has its advantages. If the passenger visits better countries, he may learn to improve his own. And if fortune carries him to worse, he may learn to enjoy it.” – Samuel Johnson

Just over 3 months to go until my Iceland departure.  I’m starting to get that itch again.  The one where I can’t concentrate on the things that I should be doing.  Working from home only intensifies it.  It’s like a little devil on my shoulder saying, “hey, you should check out this website” or “now is a good time to brainstorm what gear I might need”. “Don’t forget that power outlet converter!”

Dammit.

My homework over the Christmas break is to research the island and come up with a “Top 10” list of things I’d like to see or do with our 8 or 9 days in country.  We have about 830 miles to cover in that time which isn’t bad but knowing you need to compete the loop of the island because you have a plane to catch is like a work deadline in itself.  In many ways, that’s why I loved driving across the country last spring.  I had no deadlines.  No evil plane ticket that said “thou shalt be in this cramped seat drinking a watered down drink on this date at this time.”  While I strongly believe that every trip should be about the experience of living in the moment, there’s a lot to be said for freedom of roaming around with no rules.

It looks like we’ll be trekking around the country make our way from farm-house to farm-house.  This definitely beats staying in a hotel and lets you interact with the Icelandic people even more.  I’m even starting to practice my Icelandic.  It’s a beautiful language, but very difficult to replicate the accent without a lot of practice.  My friend Natalja made a video below and I’m studying her, um, er, pronunciation.  OK, she’s not really my friend.  Yet.  (Note to self:  add “Find Natalja” to Top 10 list.)

Once I learn it well enough, I’m going to tell people I speak elvish and apply for a role in The Hobbit.   I have a weird fascination with languages.  True story, I once found a Rosetta Stone CD for Arabic and I was learning phrases inside of a week.  Of course I forgot them all now.

See how easily I get distracted?

So I’m off to try and plan an itinerary, or as they say in Icelandic, itinerary.

Harmonic Convergence

“I love England. It’s no coincidence it’s the first place I moved to for a more cosmopolitan life, which is the only thing Iceland lacks.”  Bjork

Coming to an Easter near you!

Well, it’s been settled.  Iceland, here I come.  I sure hope the Easter Bunny will be able to find me over there and get me my basket of candy.  Otherwise, we may have an international incident – if I don’t get my candy that is.

I mentioned before that it didn’t take much convincing, but my good friends at National Geographic only fanned the flames by publishing this article.  I hate it when I’m right.  While we still have a good deal of planning to do, I’ve started digging in to logistics, things to see, weather, and culture.  Turns out they eat some, er… “odd” things over there.  I’m not a picky eater and in fact I’ll try anything once as long as I can mentally convince myself it’s just like chicken.  Although I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to convince myself that svið, (singed sheep’s head) is just like chicken.  But let’s face it, I’m not going there for the food.  I’m going there to play Beowulf and defeat Grendel for the view.

The entire country is nearly energy self-sufficient in that most of their power comes from geothermal or hydroelectric generation.   For now, the plan is to travel the 830 mile long main road that rings the outer edge of the country and see what we can find along the way.

Those who have read this blog and followed me during my western trip last May know that part of the greatness of that experience was taking my Jeep across the country and just turning off the road and heading out in to the middle of nowhere.  Well, this is not America, and they don’t have big gas guzzling V8 and redneck Jeeps where one can just tromp all over the countryside….

THEY HAVE LAND ROVER DEFENDERS!

 

Ok, back down to reality.  Yes, they have them to rent, but they are much more than the average rental car.  😦  But, but, how often do I get to travel the countryside of Iceland – IN A DEFENDER!?!?

These.  These are the things we have to work out.  You know, along with the little things like lodging / camping / food / plane tickets / gear / dates.  Truth be told, as long as I get to personally witness the Northern Lights, and get to unplug from work for a while I’d rent a bike and pedal my way across the island.  (But did I mention they have Defenders? )

Which brings me to another point.  I am out of shape.  Seriously.  From the time I got back from my trip in May, I’ve done very little physical activity other than sliding my office chair back and forth around the room.  Thank God my house has two flights of stairs, otherwise I’d be some kind of blob.

It doesn’t really matter what Land Rover vehicle  we end up renting, there’s going to be hiking involved.  And where there’s hiking, there’s a backpack and everything that goes along with it.  It’s time to get back on the exercise horse.  Besides, from what my dreams travel sites have told me, Iceland is filled with beautiful blond women. Just like America is filled with overweight, gun-totting, inbred war-mongering, rednecks, right?  No?  Well, there better be blondes or I’m asking for a refund.

It seems there’s a lot to do before Easter rolls around, but I love it when a plan comes together.  Icelandair, we’ll be seeing you soon, keep my seat warm and my drinks cold.

Ice Ice Baby

Happiness is not a state to arrive at, but a manner of traveling.” – Margaret Lee Runbeck

A few days ago I was having a few beers after work with some friends and the topic of vacations came up.  I started to outline what I had in mind for 2012 as they are well-traveled and I always love getting advice.  My friend looked at me and said “Iceland“.  Wha….?

His “hear me out” speech was really just the icing (no pun intended) on the cake.  As it just so happens, in my search of the Interwebs for great photographic destinations, I’ve always found a few shots from Iceland.  The preconceived notion that it’s just a patch of dead ice is far from reality.  In fact, Iceland is quite beautiful. Take a look.

(Yes, those are cars parked at the mouth of a lava flow from an active volcano)

What I hadn’t known, until my friend’s speech, was that it’s only $600 round trip to fly there and the actual travel time isn’t that long leaving out of New York.  The idea is to fly over, camp our way around the countryside, live the experience and fly back.  When it’s all said and done this would be one of the cheaper vacations I’ve been on.

I was 90% sold but then it hit me, Iceland is one of the best places to witness the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) – a natural phenomenon that not many people ever see in their lifetime.

Reykjavík, here I come!

Want to get away?

“Choosing to live your life by your own choice is the greatest freedom you will ever have.” -Dr. Shad Helmstetter

Last year at this time, I was well on my way in to planning what was the best vacation I have ever taken.  This year, not so much.  And it’s not from lack of interest, just lack of time and the small detail of not having picked a destination yet.  Pfft, details.

The good news is that I have figured out where I don’t want to go.  The southeast US is out.  I’ve seen everything there is to see there and many things I really never wanted to see in the first place.  From palm trees to pines, from rednecks to rampant tourism, been there, done that.

So what IS on the list for the last year before the world ends? Well, I figure last year, as awesome as it was (and would repeat it in a heartbeat), was mostly desert backed.  This year should be a little different.  So without further delay…
Option 1:  The Great American Road Trip Part Deux.  This trip would involve a drive back across the country again, retracing my tracks from 2011 only to break off toward Yellow Stone National Park.  I’d revisit Rocky Mountain National Park because I only got a half day there last trip.  Then at Yellowstone, I’d spend a good deal there hiking and exploring, and truth be told, could easily spend my entire trip there.  From there I’d head northwest towards the coast, passing through Idaho and on to Seattle for a little civilized tourism and hike Olympia National Park.  Leaving Seattle I’d head south and drive down the coastline along highway 101 and then back east.  If there’s time I’d head back to Zion National Park to FINALLY hike the Narrows.  As you may recall that dream of mine still remains unfulfilled.  Then back home retracing that drive of mine that I’ll never forget and the sunset the acted as my copilot.

Option 2:  The Great North Atlantic Adventure.  I’ve always said that I didn’t get enough time in Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor (one of my favorite places on earth).  This time, with my kayak on top, I’d make my way back up the eastern seaboard toward Bar Harbor, ME, spend a few days in Acadia again to pick up the things I didn’t get to do last time.  From there I’d head north to Baxter State Park to get my hiking fix and jump over to Allagash Wilderness Waterway State Park.  From there, I cross the border in to Canada and live out the rest of my life head to the coast through Fredericton with the goal of Nova Scotia.  Then I’d ferry on over to St. John’s for views like this:

It’s true.  I will probably request political asylum.

Option 3:  Getting LOST in Hawaii.  Without a doubt the most expensive option, but possibly the most rewarding.  The plan involves visiting Pearl Harbor to pay my respects and then getting the hell away from everyone on the most unpopulated island and tracking down vistas that look like this:

Yeah, exactly.  I’m not going to beat around the bush here.  Drop me on this path and you may never see me again until they film Castaway 2.  I’ve already purchased a volleyball.  Other than exploring an active volcano, I have no interest in the commercialism of Hawaii.  Just me and my rented Jeep are all I need.

So those are my top three choices for 2012.  Knowing what it took to reserve the prime locations that I did for last year’s trip, I’m concerned that I’m starting my planning late.  With Option 1, I’d have to research Yellowstone, figure out campsite, trails, and the same for the subsequent parks.  Option 2, I could probably do on a much shorter notice and spend more time because it’s closer, and Option 3 is just a money sink, which again I’d need to do a lot of research on.

I have plenty of time before May rolls around, but I value my vacation time like nothing else, and so I put my all in to making sure I get the most enriching experience I can out of it.  The goal to to try and top the previous year’s trip.

2011 set the bar pretty high.

When worlds collide

“Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don’t know and I don’t care.” –Jimmy Buffett

I don’t want this post to turn in to a rant.  That’s not how I want this blog to be and that’s certainly not the message I’m trying to get across.  However, it would seem that each step I take to try and move my train to the other track so-to-speak is being pushed back on with an opposite and equal force. The way I see it, there are two possible ways for one to transition a career into something more fulfilling; slow and controlled, or cold turkey-fueled chaos.

The slow and controlled method, while preferred, doesn’t seem to be working.

I’m torn between being thankful that I have a good job in this economy, and getting aggravated that my workload keeps increasing, projects keep getting bigger, I’m getting drawn in more, and my free time keeps getting shorter.  My apathy is growing exponentially.  This is bad.

As I sit and work at my desk, I look up out of the window of my home office and often think of how my work life has changed.  I went from sitting on a stool at a light table in a government building (with no windows):

…to sitting in a cubicle in another government building (no windows):

This wasn’t so bad.  I worked with good people and got to take the occasional flight over the state to check out projects.  I even once spotted this corn field shortly after 9/11 that I took a photo of and it ended up in the newspaper. (I also ate a greasy cheese steak when we landed for lunch which would haunt me on the flight back.)  Needless to say, I spent a good long time after we landed cleaning out the interior of a Cessna.  The point here being, that I got out of the office a bit and my day was STRICTLY 8-4:30 every day.

From there it was on to the private sector and my own office complete with windows and plants and a real wrap around desk!  And of course more responsibility.

This brings me to today.  Now my home is my office.  Technically my extra bedroom is my office, but at least it has a window! (and a mess)

My desk is filled with too many computers and too much dust.  Not pictured:  the rest of the electrical equipment in the room that is raising the room temperature by a good 10 degrees and is almost certainly going to give me cancer. (Seriously, I don’t need to heat that room in the winter.)

The point to all this is that in 12 years all I’ve really done is upgrade chairs and increase my workload. (Right about now, you’re going to scroll back up and check out my chairs – told you.)  I’ve also managed to fully immerse my work world with my home world now working from home.  This is compounded by the fact that I have calls with people around the globe, so my typical 9 hour day is extended because I have to conduct a conference call with someone in Australia at midnight.

Awesome.

As much as I need to change this, I am very uncertain about the economic future of this country (different subject altogether) and that affects my drive to change the status quot just as much as my need to  not sit at a desk with 5 screens wearing down my vision – figuratively and literally.

Now days, when I look out my window, I see the inevitable collision of “uncertainty”, “happiness”, “success”, “frustration”, and “time”.

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Epilogue

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” –
Winston Churchill

I have a confession to make.  I started to write this post the day after I got home several months ago.  Then I deleted it after a few days and started new.  Then, I repeated that again. With each reflection, I was never quite able to convey what I was really trying to say.  I’m not a writer.  Sometimes my brain dumps what it wants to say, but most time I tend to leave most of what I want to say jumbled up as a world cloud in my mind.  Here’s to one more attempt.

Now that I’ve been back for a while (a LONG while), “life” has started to fall back into its rut.  I knew this would happen eventually, I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon.  I did a lot of driving with the music off on the way home from that trip.  Nothing but the sound of the wind and my own thoughts for 3 days.  It was the both the shortest and longest drive of my life.

I took a longer route home to keep me off the interstates.  In many ways I felt more isolated passing through some of the smallest towns in America than I did exploring the remote deserts of Utah.  As I drove east, my mind started to wonder how I was going to cope with coming down from this 17 day outdoor high that I was on.  It was the first time in my life that I wished the drive was actually longer.  My mind began to wander and I was thinking about life when I noticed that the most beautiful sunset was escorting me home.  The first photo (which does not do it justice at all) was taken with my point/shoot camera while doing about 50mph.

As I drove on, I  noticed that the clouds would part just enough for rays of light to shine down on these small towns as I passed through them, adding a calming afterglow on the landscape.  I’m not a religious man but it was almost as if something was telling me to remember this time.  To savor it.  To appreciate every minute of what I’d been through on this trip.  It was also telling something else:

This is my life, I do what I want, with only myself to hold me back.  This experience doesn’t have to end.

But it does have to pause for a little bit.

On that drive home I realized that I’ve been wasting my life working toward some self-imposed goal of being successful.  Working my ass off trying to climb a corporate ladder, seizing career opportunities as they surfaced.  And for what?  A false sense of accomplishment. I’ve manged to delude myself in to thinking the harder I work, the happier I’ll be because I can keep climbing up and up and one day I’ll be the boss when that’s really not what I want at all.  What I want is to be happy.  And I’m honestly happy when I’m outdoors doing something.

And so began my mental blueprint.  As I crossed through small town after small town, I began to formulate the details of what it would take to make me perpetually happy.   I asked myself at what point did I stray from doing what I enjoyed to end up where I am. Can I go back to that point and take the other path now?

It all boiled down to wisdom, which comes with age.

I came to the conclusion that the younger me simply did not realize the path I took, as awesome as it was at the time, would take me further and further away from anything I was interested in.  It took a trip of this caliber to break the status-quoit, to open my eyes and realize that doing what you love to do holds more value than any paycheck.  And if you manage to collect a paycheck for doing what you love, then good for you – you did something right.

So 3 months later, here I am, carefully planning, scheming, slowly moving the train back to the other track.  While I’m doing that, there’s nothing to stop me from revisiting what I love doing in small stints.  That means more trips, more blog posts, and more enjoyment out of life.

If only I had come to this realization so long ago.

That recurring feeling

Souvenirs are perishable; fortunately, memories are not” – Susan Spano

I don’t usually buy a lot of souvenirs when I travel.  Everything I want to remember is in my head as a memory and (hopefully) captured within my photographs.  I may pick up something small here or there, or if I find that I need something that I may have forgotten, I’ll purposely pick up a replacement that is branded with the place I’m visiting.

That said, this trip was a little different.  Sure the 1,600+ photos instantly transport me back to that moment in time but this trip was so epic (in my mind) that I felt I needed something else.  A totem that would, with one glance, pull me back, not just to one park, but the entire region.  What could possibly remind me of all of the places I’ve been?  What are the constants?  At the very core, I decided it all came down to two things…

Rocks and sand.

As I explored the tourist trap gift shops they all had the same items.  Some stores even solely dedicated their business to selling rocks.  Kids loved the polished rocks, I was drawn to the sandstone art.  Hmm, sand and rock.  I guess you could say, that kills two birds with one…..  *puts on sun glasses*     …stone.

Yes, I know they are touristy and I know I paid way too much for a large sandstone paperweight, but the rock striations caught my eye and every time I pass it sitting on my shelf I’m reminded of hiking the canyons and the campgrounds I spent so much time in.

Another thing I have gotten in to the habit of doing is picking up a “DVD postcard”.  (See top image)  Another touristy item, these are professionally produced DVDs that are wrapped in a cardboard envelope that is designed to be written on like a postcard.  I’ve found these to be a constant at each National Park I visit.  They are nothing but scenic shots of the park with some soothing background music in some cases.  I’ve started to collect them as I hit these parks.  They come in handy when relatives visit or when I just feel like quickly revisiting the park without digging through my photos.  My disc from Acadia is absolutely beautiful.  I haven’t had a chance to watch my new ones yet.

Browsing the “book stores” and I emphasize “book store” because it seems National Parks no longer have “gift shops”.  They have changed their name to “book stores” .  They are now, and always will be gift shops to me.  I come across a book that I’ve seen before, have always wanted to pick up, but just never have.  Yes, I could have gotten it for half the price just about anywhere else, but I thought where better to buy Ansel Adams’ National Park book than inside a National Park.  It wasn’t about the cost, it was about the fact that whenever I look through that book now, I’ll be reminded where I got it and the joy that the trip gave me.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to page through this book, do yourself a favor, swing by a library or Barnes and Noble and do so.  This Google Image search will give you a taste of his talent.  In an age before digital cameras, Adams’ photographic eye was king.

Last but not least, I bought a cheesy recycled glass coffee mug.  This was one of those items that I intended to use for hot chocolate while I was camping or on the porch at night, not wanting to “contaminate” my water bottles with coco mix.  Never.  Even. Used it.

I’ve been extremely busy trying to dig out from the work I missed, but in between I’ve also started drafting the epilogue for this trip.  To say a trip was life changing is a pretty strong label.  But during all that time outdoors doing what I’ve always wanted to do, something changed in me  I’ve had a lot of time to figure out what I really want out of life and how I can go about achieving that. The blueprints of my master plan have been drafted.

Stay tuned.

The Statistics

Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you have carefully considered what they do not say.” ~William W. Watt

In no particular order, I’ve rounded up some numbers for you that I’ve logged throughout my trip west.

Now before all my hippie, tree-hugging friends start complaining about the amount of gas I went through, please keep in mind that I work from home and most of the time I only get gas every other month, depending on short trips.   So all of you with your hybrid cars, on average throughout the year (with the exception of this one) I’m using less gas than you. So there.  😛  Besides that, there’s not a hybrid on earth that could have taken me to some of the places I went.

  • Trip duration / total days:  17.5
  • Number of National Parks Visited:  6, Number of State Parks: 2
  • Total miles traveled, driveway to driveway:  5,704.0
  • Total gallons of gas used:  349.08
  • Total cost of gas:  $1,404.75
  • Average cost of gas: $4.02/gal
  • Number of states passed through: 12
  • Number of birds that flew in to my windshield:  2
  • Number of critters that ran in front of me and were subsequently run over:  2 (1 squirrel, 1 chipmunk, I tried to miss them both)
  • Number of insects that flew in to my windshield: 14,287 (and estimation based on how long I had to scrub the windshield at each gas station just so I could see out)
  • Number of nights spent camping:  6
  • Number of vehicle-related mechanical issues: 0
  • Number of back country off-road trails explored:  8
  • Number of times I got stuck: 0 (close twice)
  • Amount of reserve water / gas I needed to use:  0 gallons (came close twice with the gas)
  • Number of ghost towns found: 2
  • Number of photos taken: 1,678
  • Number of miles hiked:  41 (estimated)
  • Amount of weight  lost: 7lbs
  • Highest temperature:  97 degrees (strangely in Illinois on the way home.)
  • Lowest temperature: 31 degrees (Grand Canyon campground), closely followed by Central City, CO campground at 34 degrees)
  • Largest nationality encountered:  German, followed closely by French, then American (including park staff)
  • Number of minutes I had a smile on my face:  All of them except for 8: four when I found out the Narrows was closed, two when I got sprayed with gas, and two when I found out they charged a fee at Four Corners.
  • Number of times I thought about work:  Just once, on the drive home.
  • Number of days I felt more alive than ever:  all 17.5 of them

Up next: the epilogue.

The Green Table

There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character” – Henry Louis Mencken

Mesa Verde was more than I was prepared for.  This National Park sits atop a huge mesa (go figure) covered in vegetation (green – verde, go figure again).  Once you enter the park you immediately snake your way around the mesa after about 18 miles, and close in on the top.  The mesa itself is huge, and I was not expecting the park to be anywhere near this size.  I admit that I hadn’t researched this park as I had the others on my trip.  This park was sort of the afterthought.  I see now that I have underestimated this place.

The weather here is pretty much perfect.  About 75 degrees and a slight breeze.  I stop at the campground registration station and see that they have very nice facilities for shopping, showering, and laundry.  Probably the nicest all-around I’ve seen on this trip.  Your reservation here reserves you a spot, not a site.  So it’s first come, first serve.  It’s about 5pm so I figure I’m screwed.  I head on down to the tent area and to my delight, there’s several “neighbor-less” spots still left.  That will fill by the end of the night.  Apparently my site is sitting on top of a huge buried rock because each stake I pound in hit said rock and bends in half.  Nice.  Note to self, purchase new tent stakes.

Except for some screaming kids and a baby that won’t stop crying, the campground is pretty quiet.  (Hey, we just had a baby, you know what would probably be awesome, if we took him/her CAMPING!  What a GREAT idea.)  Lots of backpackers and hikers here.  I fill out some postcards and cook diner when a couple decides to pick the spot next to me.  They are German.  (I’m not kidding.)   I hope that someday I can go visit Germany.  I expect to see nothing but Americans.  I have every intention of making it an early night, being up and packed by the time the Visitors Center opens the next day.  Because of the archaeological sensitivity of some of these cliff dwellings, only Ranger-led tours are allowed to visit them.  I intend to be on the first one.

The first Ranger tour of the Cliff Palace (the largest of all the cliff dwellings) starts at 9:00am and it’s sold out – already.  I grab the 9:30am ticket and drive on down to the meet up point which is an overlook from where the top image is taken.  There is a Ranger there already but it doesn’t dawn on me that he’s guiding the 9am tour.  He’s wandering around and looks at my Penn State hat and asks if that’s where I went to school.  I answer yes and he tells me he’s from Pittsburgh and went to IUP.  Small world.  We chat about PA for a while and he says it’s time to start his tour. He seems like a pretty cool guy, probably a few years younger than me.  He was obviously trained well as he knew a lot about the park history.   I think to myself, bummer I’m not on that tour, he probably has some interesting things to say.  I could learn a lot.

I wander around a little more to kill time and groups of new people start to file in for the 9:30 tour.  They are all German.  In fact, some of the SAME PEOPLE I saw over two weeks ago at Arches National Park!  There are 60 people on my tour, 3 of them were Americans.  It’s blowing my mind.

I’m snapping a few more photos when I turn around and see a female Park Ranger walking down the steps.  She was walking down the steps in slow motion, her hair was blowing in the wind, and I think I heard angels singing at one point.  Maybe it was Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady.  What?  Nobody else saw that?  (I have a thing for women in uniform.) Regardless, my first thought was – tour guide UPGRADE!  She cracks a smile and starts to make her way around the crowd.   All the Germans are chatting with each other (how convenient for me) and so I say “good morning”.  Seemingly delighted to find someone who speaks English, she stops to chat.  Turns out she went to school at Berkley.  As a NPS Ranger, she is required to move 4 times a year and has only been at Mesa Verde for two weeks after being at Arches.  I’m impressed by how much she knows about Mesa Verde for only being here 2 weeks.  She says they are required to ramp up to speed really fast when they rotate.  Of course she could have been talking about mathematical theory for all I care, she had a killer smile.

She leads us down to the palace where she explains that we are not to touch or sit on the ruin’s walls and begins the history lesson.  In between my undivided attention stints, I manage to snap a few photos.

I was generally surprised at how close they let a large group of people get to these ruins.  I was also amazed at the ability that these people had to climb in and out of these structures.  You can see the footholds and hand holds on the cliff side that they used to use more than 800 years ago.  With the exception of the Park Ranger and the guy dead center in the plaid shirt, every person in the photo below is German.  Again, not that it matters, just pointing it out.  By the end of my trip I could pick them out just from mannerisms and clothing.  They always deck themselves in American flag garb.  Maybe in an effort to blend in?

It is largely thought that the Cliff Palace was the “downtown” of the tribes, or a meeting place for ceremonial activities.  There are single family dwellings across the ravine.  She explained that if you were to stand at the top of the mesa at night, you might see thousands of small campfires in this ravine 800 years ago.  Very cool.

To exit the Cliff Palace, there’s a series of connected ladders that retrace the original access that the tribe used.  It was very cool to walk the same path that they did years ago.

There are 5 (visit-able) cliff dwelling locations at Mesa Verde, some more elaborate than others and hundreds in all.  Some take a little hiking to get to, which means even more switchbacks.  At least these were paved.  Many dwellings, such as the Cliff Palace required multiple sets of ladders to get to.

There’s a museum and a few restaurants as well.  I also noticed several groups of wild horses roaming the mesa top, many of which were standing in the middle of the road.  All in all, this was a great park and a pleasant surprise on which to end my trek.

Tomorrow I make my way back home, a day early (due to my extra day at Zion not doing the Narrows).  This is a good thing, because I tend to take some back roads and explore small town America a bit.  I thought about work for the first time in nearly 17 days today.  Now I just have to figure out how to institute a mid-life career change.  I have a long drive to think that one over.

Auf wiedersehen!