Painted Desert Wilderness Area Backpacking Trip, November 2006: Day 3

Added 1 January 2007

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

In the morning, which dawned bright, with just enough clouds to give the sky character, there was no sign that water had flowed in any direction but straight down into the thirsty soil. What I had thought that night was absolutely correct. The storm amounted to nothing but bluster. I nodded sagely, knowing that I was right about the storm and was also right about the decision to move. But I quickly got over myself and simply enjoyed a glorious morning. The "photographers light" that I'd been hoping for all weekend had finally shown itself, unfortunately arriving just as I had to get my gear packed up so we could hit the trail. Though I didn't have enough time to take advantage of it in photos, I could at least savor it as I packed, and savor it I most certainly did.

We returned to so-called civilization by angling southeast from camp to intersect a tributary to Lithodendron Wash in order to explore new terrain. We went pretty much wherever our thoughts lead us, and they lead us well, as we continued to find delights both large and small. It is easy to see the large wonders here, and easy to overlook the details, which have a texture all their own, while at the same time enhancing the overall weave of the greater whole. It is no wonder that this landscape bred cultures finely aware of their world. The land here commands attention, not with force, but with the rich voice of an unassuming landscape that has laid itself bare to all who walk with eyes turned downward. Feet here tread upon open arms.

As the wash angled further southeast than we cared to go, we struck out cross country. Our route took us through the Black Forest, which contains large quantities of dark colored petrified logs and pieces of logs. In some places, the ground was completely covered with petrified wood bits.

Our route forced us up and over a number of ridgelines, some of which were steep and loose, requiring careful footing and some on-the-fly route planning. More than once I was reminded of my trip mantra: "Don't follow Steve down a hill!" I'm a slow learner.

Finally, we found ourselves at the base of the mesa on which our vehicles were parked. There was no easy way of going up, so we just charged on up the slope. My goal was simply to get to the top as quickly as possible. I couldn't resist stopping a few times to look back over the terrain we had just spent the last few days in. It's hard to tear your eyes away from it.

Back on top of the mesa, it was a short walk to our vehicles, where we happily shrugged our packs off then went into the Painted Desert Inn to check out and let the park know we made it out alive. While I was in the restroom, Steve sneakily bought a magnet of that Model T Ford we found, which now hangs as a fun reminder of the trip on my fridge. While in the parking lot preparing to leave, I saw a grizzled biker-looking guy get into a shiny new Chrysler station wagon of some kind. I always enjoy incongruousness.

Steve needed to scoot on back to Santa Fe, but I had a more leisurely trip home planned. I wanted to spend some more time in the Park and visit the places we didn't have time to on the way in. My first stop was Puerco Pueblo, some ruins and a petroglyph site near the Puerco River. The biker guy driving the station wagon was there too, and it seemed I'd be following him south through the park for the day.

My next stop was at Newspaper Rock, another petroglyph site. Sure enough, the biker guy was there too, but this time I swung the long way around my truck to say hi. He beat me to the punch, and we struck up a conversation. Turns out his name was Ron. Ron is a Vietnam Vet, Airborne, from Pennsylvania on a long road trip to visit a buddy in Phoenix. We talked about where we were, where we'd been, where to go, the politics of war, and feeding ravens. He had seen Steve and I hiking out of the Painted Desert and asked about our backpacking trip as well. We stood there in the parking lot, biker and backpacker, chatting for 20-30 minutes before parting ways, he to the next stop on the map, and me to the overlook for Newspaper Rock. I knew I'd see him again soon. I hoped to see him again soon. Somehow this Vet from the other side of the country seemed as much a part of this place as the petrified logs themselves. Certainly, his admiration of the place matched anyone's.

The petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock were many and nice, but too far away from the look-out point for great appreciation, so I moved on, stopping briefly at the Teepees. I almost decided to pass by the road to Blue Mesa, but knew that Ron would have gone there, so turned left onto the spur road and headed east. I'm glad I did. Blue Mesa is well worth the side trip. Ron was at the first lookout when I arrived, just preparing to leave. When I got out to take some pictures, he got back out of his car and we ended up within easy ear shot of one another. We talked some more, about the place, and about his life, his being a "greaser" as a kid, and about going to Vietnam. I pointed geological features out to him that he hadn't noticed, or didn't know to look for.

We parted once more, fully expecting to see each other again. I went for a little hike on a short loop trail that takes you down into a small canyon that is really nice, he went moving on. I slowly made my way around the loop trail with a feeling like I was home. No, more like I was connected. Attached to the space in a tangible way.

I also kept an eye out for Ron, hoping to see him at one of the overlooks into the canyon I was in, but our paths diverged. Ron and I could have scarcely been more different from one another in so many ways. We each saw different things as we looked out upon the same landscape. I know this, though I don't how. But this place bound us together. We both came searching for nothing in particular. Each found nothing in particular. Except perhaps that connection, not only to the land but in some way, to each other.

The Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert Wilderness Area have their amazing petrified logs, certainly, and their wondrous canvasses of color, but for me, they are Steve, tiny pebble platforms, evaporites, Ron, windforms, and even a little bit me on hands and knees wide-eyed in wonder.

After Blue Mesa, I figured I'd better pick up the pace and get to my parents house so I could help them put lights up around the house, and still get home at a reasonable hour. So I beat a track out of the park, mildly surprised that my time amongst the heavily trammeled portions of the park proved nearly as magical as the time spent far away in space or time than any other human footprint. That, perhaps, is the truest measure of the place.

And to you, Ron, wherever you are . . . Peace.

Here are some links where you can learn more about the area:

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3