Title: Letters from the West
This is a non-fiction book of about 50,000 words that consists of two dozen or so essays on travel into and through American mountains and deserts.
At age 40, having never actually seen a mountain or desert, I packed up my wife and young children and took them camping in New Mexico and Colorado. Since then, with various family members, I’ve made about twenty-five similar Western trips. The book is a collection of observations about the places we’ve been and the things we’ve seen and done.
What the book is not: (1) A travel play-by-play; (2) A heart-warming collection of cute anecdotes about the hilarious escapades of a family camping. Instead, it covers (with intelligence and wit, I believe) such diverse matters as hiking on high trails, touring the Stanley Hotel (of The Shining fame), the Taos Pueblo, encounters with bears and snakes, and the Tabor Opera House in Leadville, CO where Oscar Wilde made a stop on his U.S. lecture tour.
Here are some excerpts, including the Introduction and a couple of chapters.
In the summer of 1984 I was 40 years old and had never been west of Kansas City, and had never seen a mountain. It wasn’t really clear to me what “in the mountains” meant, and I had no grasp of how you could camp in them. Wouldn’t you fall off? Did you sleep on a ledge or at least on a slant? My mental image of mountains was a cartoon — not anchored in any reality – and the idea of going camping in them was intimidating. But I was beguiled by stories told to me by an adventurous friend about high mountain trails, fragrant forests, majestic peaks, and campfire nights, and so I talked my family into taking a run at it.
The friend, Charles, was a smallish, studious-appearing fellow with a beard and thick glasses who did not have the look or demeanor of a mountain man. If he and his family could manage it, I reasoned, we could, too.
So it was that we left our home in St. Louis for the wild West with tent, sleeping bags, cooking and eating equipment, clothes, etc. jammed into our Chevy Blazer’s wayback and a borrowed car-top carrier. Jammed into the rest of the Blazer were my wife Penny, 38, kids Sarah, 13, Maggie, 10, and Jack, 7. And me. We survived that trip, and have made many similar ones since, principally to the states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming. (A lot — not all, by any means — but a lot of what I generally thought of, and still think of, as The West is in those states: Rocky Mountain peaks, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, desert and cactus and slickrock, the buttes and mittens of Monument Valley, Indian reservations, gold mines, cattle ranches, bears, mountain lions, jeep trails, and cowboys.)
Family member-wise there have been drop-offs over the years. Sarah opted out after the second or third trip. An enthusiastic participant in all other family-related activities, she has stayed a permanent and unrepentant western-travel dropout. Not her thing. Others have been on and off the bus over the years, offering up a variety of lame excuses for their absences like entering college, starting jobs, or giving birth to children. On a number of trips it was just Jack and me. Lately, what with our offspring involved in child rearing and jobs and such, it’s been just me and Penny.
Penny has been on most of the trips and I would describe her attitude toward the entire enterprise as – how to put this delicately – skeptical. Particularly in the early going. But she has always been able to put her game face on at crunch time — get in the car, drive a thousand miles, and camp out in the woods with enthusiasm, or something very much like it. She’s been, all in all, darn nice about it.
The principle activity engaged in by our little band of travelers has been walking; specifically, walking on trails through desert canyons and up the sides of mountains. To the average flatlander who is as ignorant of these matters as I was, the sense is that actually climbing 14,000-foot mountains, such as those in Colorado, involves things like pitons and carabiners and ice axes and goggles and base camps. What I learned on that first trip, back in 1984, was that the only thing climbing to the very top of most of the highest peaks in Colorado requires — including the highest, Mt. Elbert (14,433 ft.) — is legs. And, yeah, okay, lungs and a heart. But you don’t have to be a mountain climber. Just a walker. It’s not an ice climb. It’s a trail hike. This isn’t to say that getting up and down these trails is easy. In fact, it can be very taxing, and most often is for people of my age and condition, and even for the young and strong, as well. But it is, for the most part, do-able by ordinary mortals.
The only mountain we ever got to the top of was Flattop Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. This is a 5-mile walk to the summit at 12,332 feet above sea level. The trail rating is “strenuous.” It was, um, difficult, and is something we almost certainly would not attempt now. In fact, looking back, I’m amazed that we attempted it then, let alone made it. But the driving force then was ignorance. We didn’t know any better. Anyway, we’ve done that once – “summited” a mountain – and haven’t felt the need to do it again. It is, as they say, the journey, not the destination.
As I write this, it’s thirty years after that 1984 departure. Our most recent foray was this past summer – another trip to Rocky Mountain National Park, this time with three of our grandchildren. In between, there’ve been only a handful of summers without western travel. All of this, I hasten to point out, has not added up to a religious experience for me, and I’m no evangelist for the “outdoors.” It has just been (mostly) fun; occasionally, exciting; infrequently, frightening. There is also the sense of adventure – a man-vs.-nature component which may be a bit manufactured but still an exciting feeling; and also the sense of entering and exploring what was, to us, terra incognita.
What follows here is a randomly organized collection of stories and observations inspired and informed by those twenty-five or so trips. Many of the places we’ve been are touched on, but this is no guide. If you use it that way, you will get lost and die. There’s plenty in print and on the Internet including lots of detailed maps. For more information, consult your government.
By the way, the word “awesome” has been largely robbed of its special meaning, having been appropriated to describe things that are merely good or nice or pleasant. You hear it ten times a day, when you should really only hear it (or use it) once or twice in your life. But, be assured that awesome in its original meaning can be used freely – with reckless abandon, even — when it comes to America’s great natural western treasures.
Negro Bill Canyon
When we first went to Moab, Utah probably in the late 80s, it was a dusty little wide spot in the road – couple of gas stations, tattered motels, a grocery store, a few disreputable looking restaurants, a bunch of goofy little rock shops and map stores, and lots of sun-burned, pony-tailed refugees from the 60s offering themselves (and their beat-up jeeps) as tour guides of the redrocks and canyons. When we were back there a decade later, it had two chain grocery stores, each of which had a latte/cappuccino stand out front. It had a microbrewery with a parking lot full of shiny SUVs. It had fancy motels with swimming pools. The sunburned burnouts were gone, replaced by buffed up, sun tanned, backpacked young people riding high-tech trail bikes.
We were there again a year or two ago and it was pretty much the same – more touristy and less rustic than long ago. The area has long had considerable allure for photographers, hikers, rock climbers and four-wheelers, and has lately become a Mecca of sorts for mountain bikers. Now, we are told, it’s in the process of being gentrified by vacation home owners, sending local property values up and displacing local low- and middle-income folks, as has happened in Colorado towns like Aspen, Vail, and others. It’s still a swell place, though, with an out-of-the-way small town feel in a spectacular setting and remains an excellent HQ for visiting some of the most wondrous places anywhere – the incomprehensibly vast and magical redrock canyon country of eastern Utah.
To get there from the Interstate, I-70, you can take one of two roads south, 128 or 191. The latter is wider and faster and unquestionably has some amazing sights alongside, but 128 is just stunning. The views from on high down into the canyon of the Colorado are crazy beautiful – I’m running out of adjectives here – and the dreamscape of redrocks you go through to get to those views, including the incomparable red, brown, purple, and maroon spires known as Fisher Towers, is mind blowing.
Once down in the canyon, you travel alongside the river for 8 or 10 miles –300-foot canyon walls, talus slopes with boxcar-size rocks — until you come to the intersection with 191 – a left turn there takes you into the town. We camped several times right next to the river along that 8-10 mile stretch.
Along here, about three miles from the 128-191 junction, is the entrance to and trailhead for Negro Bill Canyon, a box canyon that ends about two and a half miles up.
This is an extraordinary but not very difficult hike mostly alongside a clear, cool stream amid cottonwoods and willows and under great rock escarpments to a remarkable formation called Morning Glory Arch. Morning Glory is not technically an arch but a natural bridge about 60 feet high and 240 feet across with a shady water pool under it.
The last time we – Jack, his wife Lindsey, Hanna (their dog), Penny and I — did the hike, there was a family of Canadians rappelling off the top of Morning Glory; they had come to it by way of the mesa above instead of up the canyon trail. We had our lunch there while we watched the rappelling, then headed back down. (The canyon was named after William Granstaff, a local prospector and cattleman in the 1870s who vamoosed after being accused of making and selling bootleg whiskey to Indians in the vicinity.)
Another extraordinary walk is up to Corona Arch. Unlike Negro Bill, this one is all on slickrock, completely out in the open all the way. The trail, which goes up Bootlegger Canyon, is marked pretty much only by rock cairns, so if one left the trail, one could easily get lost and be seen again nevermore. This is a beautiful and amazing place. The hike to the arch is not too difficult, less than two miles, but it is completely exposed, all the way, except for a tiny clump of trees you can rest under before making the last part of the hike. Carrying sufficient water on this trip is non-negotiable. A hat and sun block are advisable. There are a couple of spots that can be disconcerting — one crossing is on a fairly steep left-to-right slant, at the bottom of which is the abyss, a drop-off of hundreds of feet — but it sounds and looks scarier than it actually is. On slickrock, good shoes with a trustworthy tread are important.
It’s pretty easy to find: North from Moab on Main Street (191) about four miles to Potash Road; left on Potash for about ten miles. The Corona Arch trailhead sign is on the right. There’s a big parking/picnic area on the left next to the river.
(Since our last visit there, people have taken to using the arch as a rope swing, and at least one person has been killed by miscalculating the distance to the ground and the length of rope needed. When we were there, in 2009, there was no other soul around and the vast canyon and its environs were as silent as a cathedral. That what was an adventure for us– an exploration – has apparently turned into something of a theme park ride, is dismaying.)
Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are the main attractions in the Moab area. Arches is where Delicate Arch is located – one of the most iconic images of the American West and definitely worth the relatively short walk up to it – a mile or so. There are many, many other things to see in Arches, which, in general, calls to mind words like strange, unearthly, vast, and, of course, beautiful and majestic. Famous and pretty crowded, too. There is but one campground within the park and all of its 50 sites are generally reserved in advance. The Park Service and Forest Service in town are good about recommending camping options outside the park. We camped at Deadhorse Point State Park, a place with truly incredible views of canyon floors 2,000 feet below. The camping here is very civilized – sites with canopies and concrete pads and a restroom with indoor plumbing. Also, you can stay in a yurt for 80 bucks a night.
Among other things in Arches, we drove the jeep trail – definitely a 4-WD undertaking — and made the hike up to Delicate Arch. On a couple of visits there, we also did quite a bit of just driving around and rubbernecking, which is plenty fun. There’s a lot to rubberneck at. The Arches NP web site describes it as a “redrock wonderland” with over 2,000 natural stone arches, hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. It is, the site tells us “a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms and textures unlike any other in the world.” Amen to that.
Canyonlands is both larger and more rugged – fewer amenities, wilder – so huge that it has three different “districts” – The Maze, the Needles, and Island in the Sky — and entrances that are many miles apart. The writer Edward Abbey described it as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.” We’ve driven all over the place in there – Island in the Sky, a sandstone mesa 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain; Green River Overlook, high above the river which, along with the Colorado, created this landscape; Upheaval Dome, a 5-mile-diameter impact crater; and many other “attractions” — but haven’t covered a billionth of the space.
Jack and I mounted an expedition up Elephant Canyon trail in the Needles district to another extraordinary formation, Druid Arch. This is a ten-mile round trip that goes mainly along the bed of a desert wash. It’s fairly easy except for at the end where a strenuous hand-over-hand rock scramble is required to get to the finish, but very, very fun and amazing. The reward is lunch on a boulder with a close-up view of Druid, 450 feet tall with a squared off top that makes it look like it belongs in Stonehenge; hence the name. At that size, you’d think it would be visible from other points along the trail. It isn’t. You have to go all the way to the end. If you don’t pay the price, you don’t get to see the arch. Magic, eh?
The main roads in the park are paved (mostly) and easily drivable most of the time, and there are many trails in Canyonlands, for walking and for 4WD-ing. But this park needs to be understood as wilderness. People can and do get lost and disappear. And conditions can change quickly and dramatically. Here, for example, is a warning from the park web site: “The White Rim Road is in rough condition, especially from Murphy Hogback to the western park boundary. It is very likely that vehicles without a 4-low gear will not be able to complete the loop in its entirety. If you are going to attempt to drive the road in a vehicle that does not have 4-low gear, carry extra fuel and be prepared to self-rescue.” And this: “Thunderstorm activity can quickly change unpaved roads to four-wheel-drive condition or make them impassable. Due to the heat and low visitation, carry extra water in case you have to wait a day or two for the road to dry out.” In other words, bad things can happen and you’re on your own. None of this is to discourage the ordinary tourist from visiting this extraordinary place. But people shouldn’t be deceived by the word “park” in its name. And they shouldn’t try to do more than they’re equipped to do, experience-wise and gear-wise.
Canyonlands, by the way, is where in 2003 Aron Ralston got his hand trapped under a boulder while hiking in Blue John Canyon, stayed that way for five days until it became clear to him that the hand was not going to come free, no one was going to find him, and he was going to die there if he didn’t do something, and amputated his arm with a pocketknife. He then rapelled one-handed down the 65-foot canyon wall, and hiked out. A movie about the episode, “127 Hours” starring James Franco, was made in 2010.
Entrances to the two parks – Arches and Canyonlands. — are more or less across the street from each other – the street being 191 north of Moab. As with Arches, campsites within the park are hard to come by.
Our hike up to Druid Arch in the Needles was during one of only two trips we took that were not in the summer months. It was during Jack’s college spring break, probably March in the late 90s, and when we left the Moab area, where it was warm and sunny, we headed east and then north for a visit with Jack’s pal Nick in Aspen. That was the only time I saw the mountains in snow, before or since. We came north on Highway 550 from Durango, and there, far below, was the town of Silverton, for which the phrase “nestled in a mountain valley” seems to have been invented. Each turn as we came down the mountain gave us a slightly closer view of the town, and each view was a Christmas card. A ski operation started on nearby Silverton Mountain in 2002, but when we came through there, it was pretty much a summer tourist place only – the northern terminus of the excursion railroad from Durango. So on that wintry day, blanketed by a soft-falling snow, as we drove into town, it was as still and silent as a church. There was no one around and nothing appeared to be open. One small restaurant was. We got coffees to go and tiptoed out of town, continuing north through the Uncompahgre National Forest, past the Black Canyon of the Gunnison river, through the Gunnison National Forest, the Grand Mesa and White River National Forests to Carbondale and into Aspen.
So enchanted was I with the Taos, New Mexico bed-and-breakfast Hacienda del Sol that I made two paintings of the place and gave them to the owners, Gerd and Luellen Hertel. One is now hanging in the owners’ residence and one in the little library-gallery area; or so I am assured by the Hertels. I have to take this on faith. The last time we were there I didn’t have the nerve to ask to see the one in the owners’ residence, and the other one was yet to be painted. I hope it’s true, though, and they aren’t just saying it to make me feel good. The idea of having artwork on display anywhere in this art-rich community, even if I had to give it away to make it happen, definitely does make me feel good. I am therefore most grateful to the Hertels.
Our first visit to Hacienda del Sol was in 2009. That summer, son Jack called us, more or less out of the blue, and asked if we were up for a western trip with him, his wife Lindsey, and their dog, Hannah. We were. Lindsey is good at trip planning and put together an itinerary that included a few nights camping and a few in nice hotels. One of her bookings was this Taos B&B, a place we were not familiar with.
We probably should have been, because it has quite a history. It was once owned by the wealthy heiress, socialite, and arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan who grew up as Buffalo, NY gentry and after sojourns in New York, Florence, Provincetown, and Santa Barbara, settled in Taos in 1919 and in 1923 married her fourth husband, Tony Luhan, a native American who lived in the nearby Taos Pueblo. What is now Hacienda del Sol was then a four-room adobe on a property that included an apple orchard and farm fields. It was used by the couple as a temporary residence and as a guesthouse, stayed in at various times by, among other notables, D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe and Willa Cather.
Mabel Dodge Luhan is generally thought of as the person most responsible for creating Taos’ identity as an art colony, and so the present-day Hacienda del Sol can be considered at least somewhat hallowed ground. (It’s not to be confused with the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos. That was her primary residence and where most of her salon activities took place. There she hosted the people mentioned above and many other artists and poets, including Ansel Adams, Martha Graham, and Aldous Huxley. It is now an inn and conference center.)
Hacienda del Sol now consists of four adobe buildings on 1.2 acres and is adjacent to the 95,000 acres of Taos Pueblo land. It has a grassy courtyard area in the back with Adirondack chairs, in two of which Penny and I found ourselves, several years after that first visit, sipping cold white wine and staring wordlessly at Taos Mountain as the late afternoon Southwestern light filtered through the elms, cottonwoods, and willows.
Hacienda del Sol’s property touches Taos Pueblo’s land, but the pueblo itself is a mile or so away. Taos Pueblo, because of its history, multi-story adobe architecture, and simple sunlit beauty, is an extraordinary place and a national treasure, but not a high-profile tourist attraction. If you asked the guy sitting next to you on the bus if he’s familiar with it, the answer would almost certainly be no.
It is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited place in North America, having been built, it is believed, about a thousand years ago. About 150 people live within the pueblo now, many of them selling fine art, jewelry, and crafts in shops within the pueblo’s structures. The pueblo is near Taos Mountain (by which we were hypnotized in our Adirondacks), a sacred place to the Taos Pueblo Indians, and high in the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains is Blue Lake, out of which, in spiritual mythology, the pueblo people originated. It is the source of the river that runs through Taos Pueblo
We haven’t been back there since our first visit in 1984, but we assume it hasn’t changed significantly, inasmuch as it hadn’t changed significantly in the thousand years that preceded our visit. In 1984, you had to pay to get in and pay more if you wanted to bring a camera in. Now, photography is apparently included in the price of admission, which is $16. It is definitely something to see and photograph – a remarkable relic of the pueblo peoples and a civilization that covered large swaths of what is now the American Southwest beginning many thousands of years ago.
Santa Fe, on the other hand, has changed since our first visit there in the mid ‘80s. Mainly, it has gotten bigger. It has suburbs and a freeway with named exits and lots and lots of cars. It just feels much more like a city than it did back then. Still, it’s pretty small at 37 square miles and a population of about 70,000. (The St. Louis metro area is just under 200 square miles and has almost 2-million people).
For such a small place, it has an exceedingly high cosmopolitan quotient. In fact, consumer surveys rank it right up there with Tokyo and Paris on the cosmopolitan scale. Its inhabitants include artists, movie stars, chefs, writers and musicians. About 1.5 million people visit every year. It has a world-class opera and 250 art galleries. (Two-hundred-fifty! I’ll bet that’s more than Missouri and Arkansas combined).
We’ve been among the 1.5 million a few times, and our routine has been to check out the galleries, shops and street vendors on and near the plaza, and then tour Canyon Road, home to about a zillion art galleries and a great place to spend a couple of hours or an entire day. When we were there with Jack, Lindsey, and Hannah the dog, we were on the entire-day plan, ending it with frosty Mexican beers and dinner at an outdoor Canyon Road café. Good times. And speaking of cosmopolitan, the merchandise in some of those galleries has some decidedly cosmopolitan price tags attached..
Our most recent visit was in 2012, and there was a festival of some sort going on – Santa Fe has a lot of festivals – and it was very difficult to move around and there was no place to park. It was kind of a side trip anyway — our main destination was Taos – so without even getting out of the car we worked our way out of town and went back there.
The thing about this part of the world is that when traffic congestion gets you down, you can just hop in the wayback machine and dial up another century. One way to do that is to travel the High Road to Taos Scenic Byway – actually, not one road but fifty or so miles of different state highways that take you through tiny, empty-seeming Spanish-style villages, across spectacular high and windy passes, past 18th century adobe churches, and near a tiny churchyard cemetery whose headstones are adorned with rosaries, statues, and bright flowers and whose inhabitants are spending eternity presiding over a deep and far New Mexico mountain valley.
Highway 285/84 between Santa Fe and Espanola, 30 miles to the north, is a busy and commercial suburban roadway. When you turn east from it on N.M. 503, the first leg of the High Road, you leave all that and enter a silent and ancient place. First along the way: Nambe Pueblo, inhabited for almost as long a time as Taos Pueblo. Then on to the village of Chimayo, most famous for the old church there, the Santuario de Chimayo, to which the lame and the halt make pilgrimages from all over the world. The crutches and rosaries and holy medals left by the healed fill a side chapel. Also in that village is Rancho de Chimayo, a Mexican restaurant and Hacienda in a restored 100-year-old adobe home with outside tables set on succeedingly higher terraces leading to the top of a high hill to which you can take your cocktail and study the distant ridges of the Sangre de Cristos. At the dinner hour, they are blue and gray.
It’s the Jemez Mountains that dominate the horizon as the byway continues on to N.M. 76 and the village of Truchas. To the west the 13,000-foot Truchas Peaks rise 5,600 feet above the village.
Next is Las Trampas, settled in 1751 and home to San Jose de Gracia, a mission-style church that dates to 1760 and is one of the best surviving examples (and most photographed) of its kind in New Mexico. San Jose de Gracia appears in the work of Ansel Adams, Elliot Porter, and many others. The church is open Friday to Sunday and donations are gratefully accepted because it takes more or less continuous work to keep the place standing.
The High Road next goes through the villages if Penasco, Placito, and Ranchos de Taos. If San Jose de Gracia in Las Trampas is among the most photographed of New Mexico’s old churches, the most photographed (and painted and just looked at) is surely the San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos de Taos.
I could take a vacation in northern New Mexico and spend the whole time just traveling back and forth on the High Road. It’s that good. But as alluring and evocative as it is, it’s not a huge tourist thing. Lots of folks do turn up at the Santuario, but the rest of the road, when we’ve been there, has been all but empty. On two stops at San Jose de Gracia, there was nothing around but us and the wind.
About 45 miles northwest of Santa Fe, up toward the Jemez Mountains, is Bandelier National Monument – 33,000 acres of canyon and mesa and the keeper and protector of Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, pictographs, kivas (underground ceremonial rooms), and standing walls that go back thousands of years. These are remnants of one small part of the Pueblo Indian culture that is believed to have started in the Four Corners Region where Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, then spread, over time, to many parts of the Southwest. Just on the 250,000 acres of the Pajarito Plateau, within which Bandelier is located, there are more than 7,000 archeological sites.
The monument was created in 1916 and named for Adolph Bandelier, an anthropologist who studied the cultures of the area and lobbied for its protection.
The central land feature of Bandelier is Frijoles Canyon, which is where the headquarters, visitors’ center, and most of the Pueblo ruins are. The visitors’ center and the road into the canyon were built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the ‘30s, along with many of the monument’s 70 miles of trails. During World War II, the lodge there was used to house people working on the Manhattan Project, and Bandelier was closed to the public during those years.
Trails include a paved loop of about a mile, easy and flat, out from and back to the visitors’ center, that goes very near some cliff dwellings and other ancient ruins. There are also some very long and steep hikes that go from the canyon floor up onto the mesa above. (Bandelier’s campground is atop the mesa and that’s where we stayed). And there is Falls Trail, which goes down the center of a side canyon from Frijoles Canyon. When we hiked it, which we did several times, Falls Trail descended 700 feet in 2.5 miles, a steep and rocky byway with hard and high switchbacks, giant boulders, two waterfalls, piney woods, vast rocky escarpments, ledges and drop-offs and deep defiles. It ended at a level flood plain filled with white Datura trumpet flowers (loco weed), and then the muddy banks of the Rio Grande.
Alas, no more. Falls Trail was among many in Bandelier that were heavily damaged by massive flooding that followed the historic Los Conchas forest fire in 2011. The part of the Falls Trail between the upper falls and the lower falls that had been built by being blasted into the side of a cliff was eroded away by the flooding and there is now no safe way to get from one to the other. Although the trail from the lower falls down to the river remains intact, the trail is closed at the upper falls. Maybe – probably – forever. What used to be a five-mile round trip is now three miles. And the hiker’s reward of soaking his or her aching feet in the silty Rio Grande at trail’s end is gone, baby, gone.
In a copse of trees and brush just off the trail, on its upper part, is a sign warning people not to go back in there. “Danger: Do not go past this point,” it says, or words to that effect. There is a certain type of person — and many people on high wilderness trails tend to be of this type – who would take such a sign as an open invitation to do exactly what it says not to do. We were not that type of person but we were curious and intended to ask about the sign back at the visitor’s center, but always forgot.
What, we wondered, could be back there that was so much more dangerous than the rest of this fairly dangerous trail that a warning sign was thought necessary? A den of rattlesnakes? A hermit with a gun and a knife? Bigfoot? A subsequent communication with the folks at Bandelier yielded this information: “The areas at the base of each falls have been closed for several decades due to the danger of rock falls. I think that is the sign you are talking about.” Mystery solved: Do not go back there lest you get brained by a big rock.
(For the record: Bandelier is a National Monument, not a National Park. The distinction lies not so much in what the visitor experiences, but in what the designation is intended to accomplish. The National Park Service explains it this way: “National parks are areas set apart by Congress for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. The principal qualities considered in studying areas for park purposes are their inspirational, educational, and recreational values. National monuments, on the other hand, are areas preserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. Generally established by presidential proclamation under authority of Congress, occasionally these areas also are established by direct action of Congress.”)