I’ve been dreaming of going to Arches National Park since I stumbled on images of Delicate Arch a few years ago while researching US road trips. I saved a couple images of the arch to my computer and decided that it was the first place I would go when I could take a trip out west. When Katie and I started planning our road trip beginning in Boulder, CO, I immediately looked up the distance from Boulder to Arches and told her it was my number one destination to include. She happily obliged.
We planned to spend half a day at the park and continue on to Canyonlands, but once we settled in Moab the evening before we realized we wanted to take our time and see all of the park. After days of camp food the burgers and fries we ate at a restaurant near our hotel tasted like heaven. We settled into a motel room with boxed wine and Mary Oliver poems and it felt like the most luxurious night of my life at the time, ha!
The next morning we packed up and headed to Arches early. We stopped at every arch, hiked (nearly) every trail, and I finally got to stand in the presence of Delicate Arch. The hike to Delicate Arch was sort of excruciating for me for some reason — I had a terrible headache that no amount of water could fix and at one point begged Katie to stop in the one place of shade we could find so I could rest before we got there (as 10-year-old kids passed us…). Once we rounded the corner, though, all pain was forgotten. We climbed around the area and then sat near the arch and watched it for over an hour. I was completely mesmerized, and between that and my exhaustion I never wanted to get up again.
After a full day exploring the park we drove back to a random campsite we found in Moab (photos from the campsite directly above). It ended up being one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and we were the only ones there. More wine, a spectacular sunset, more fireside chats, and then we laid on the huge rock formations and picked out planets and constellations for what felt like hours. It was the last night of the camping trip so I was determined to soak in every last drop of goodness. I can’t recommend Arches or camping in Moab enough; it was the highlight of our trip.
Mesa Verde National Park, the land of Ancient Aliens. We arrived at Mesa Verde around 6:00 one evening, tired after a long day of driving and talking and generally being overexcited. I reserved a campsite for us a week or two in advance, so we drove into the park, checked into our site, purchased some firewood, and then signed up for two different cliff-dwelling tours the following day.
That evening Katie and I made a fire, drank red wine and ate the most delicious instant mashed potatoes we’ve ever tasted, and stargazed for hours and hours. The sky was so dark we were able to see the Milky Way; the universe appeared to unfold before us.
For most of the next day we hiked through two different cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace and Balcony House. I just about peed myself when I saw Cliff Palace, the iconic Mesa Verde cliff dwelling, for the first time, casually below an overlook I had been standing on for 10 minutes prior to noticing the dwelling. It’s bigger and more intricate than it seems in pictures, and there’s really no way to describe the way it feels to see a home of Ancestral Pueblos from so long ago in a place so desolate. The dwellings were abandoned around 1300, and although drought is suspected to be the reason, no one really knows. There are over 600 dwellings in the park, but visitors can only explore a small handful of them. They are all incredible.
It was at this park that Katie and I learned about the Junior Ranger program. At every national park site there is an opportunity to become a Junior Ranger of that particular park. There is a short guidebook of questions and activities to complete, and then the Junior Ranger takes an oath to protect national parks, pick up litter, etc., and she or he receives the Junior Ranger badge for that park (there’s a unique badge for every park). What started as a joke became one of our favorite parts of visiting the parks. The activity books facilitated learning and interacting with the park, including asking the rangers questions, looking around for different types of plants and animals, and remembering historical facts we learned along the way. The Rangers of the parks have huge enthusiasm that was endearing and infectious, and Katie and I were both so proud to earn our badges at Mesa Verde and Arches. You can also collect park stamps in a passport book, which we both bought at Mesa Verde, so the whole situation made me want to visit every national park site in the country to earn my stamps and Junior Ranger badges.
*Katie and I camped at Morefield Campground, which was really nice and a convenient spot for the tours the following day.
There’s nothing like a road trip. Sitting in the car, gazing out the window at the most incredible views, and talking to a best friend about anything and everything. Katie and I laughed, we cried, we talked politics and religion and relationships and feminism and sexuality and love and loneliness, we forgot to listen to music most of the time, we stopped for picnics on the edges of lakes. It felt like an exhale, a release of some kind.
We began in Boulder, CO, and drove south through Buena Vista to Poncho Springs. We headed west to Montrose and then turned south again to pass through Telluride and the San Juan National Forest until we finally reached Mesa Verde National Park near Cortez. After a day in Mesa Verde we drove northwest into Utah until we reached Arches National Park, and then we headed east back into Colorado through Grand Junction before continuing on to Boulder.
Other than the national parks and our time in Utah, which will be their own posts, some highlights of our trip were driving through Telluride, CO, the most beautiful town on earth; stopping for homemade donuts in Buena Vista, CO, the town where Katie’s mom grew up; swimming at Glenwood Hot Springs, the largest hot springs pool in the world; driving between Grand Junction and Denver with those beautiful mountain/river views; and the veggie burgers and jalapeño poppers in Glenwood Springs, a life-changing meal after a few days of tuna packets and pretzels.
I’ll never be able to describe the truth of our journey — physical, mental, and spiritual — but I will always keep it with me. Colorado is stunning and the landscapes are completely different from those I’m familiar with. It was like being in a new world for five days. Experiencing it with Katie gave me joy, and I felt loved and understood — held by her. I left Colorado filled with peace, healed in many ways. It was one of the most beautiful weeks of my life.
I don’t know much, but I do know that nature heals. It heals me, at least. I’ve had one of the loneliest summers of my life. That’s not to say it’s been bad — it hasn’t, far from it — but I’ve held my loneliness deep inside me through these last few months. There were days when it spilled over. Sometimes that meant tears, sometimes it meant desperate phone calls to my mom or a friend, sometimes it meant reading an entire novel in a day. Sometimes it meant curling up with my favorite poetry collection by Mary Oliver, who speaks words I can never quite muster, getting some of the loneliness out. Or maybe just holding the loneliness in a nicer, kinder place.
I spent an afternoon in July in Boulder, Colorado, hiking an unknown trail at an altitude I’d just discovered and with elevation gains that left my legs and lungs screaming. Not only was I lonely – I was also very much alone. I rarely passed anyone on the trail. As I walked I focused on my breathing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. I focused on what I could see and hear: trees thick with leaves, birds, the crackling of leaves signifying an unseen animal, the stream that curled around and below the trail, the sound of my boots on the rocks.
When I reached the top there were a lot of people. It’s a popular hike that leads to a beautiful arch in the style of Arches National Park with a stunning view of Boulder and Denver from the top. I snaked through the small groups and claimed a spot at the edge. I made a chipmunk friend and a couple of human ones. And then I left.
I didn’t write much in my journal about this day. There weren’t many words I could use to describe the weight that was lifted. The things that left me and the things that came. “I felt the layers of loneliness peeling from me like old skin. I cried more than once and I remember knowing, at least for a little while, that I have a place in this world.” As a little girl my sacred space was a nook in my favorite tree in our backyard together with a small stack of books. That hasn’t changed.
Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking
into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing—
that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and falling. And I do.
-Mary Oliver, “The Ponds”
(This is the beginning of a series of posts about my time in Colorado and Utah with a dear college friend. Day 1 was spent solo-adventuring in Boulder while Katie worked. I sat in the sunlight with a coffee and sweet potato muffin. I bought incense at a beautiful store around the corner. I took a nap. I hiked the Flatirons. And then I met Katie and her husband for a beautiful dinner before we left on our four-day road trip. Road trip posts coming soon.)