You learn a lot about yourself on a driving trip, on an exploration through canyons and across vast desert plains and valleys, up mountain paths whose boulders have been loosened by deep droughts followed by heavy rains.
Aah, the Wild West.
I am a cowgirl by birth, born in “the basin” of Tucson, Ariz., surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges. Taking my kids out to the land of open skies and open roads is crucial for me. They cannot just know city sidewalks and 24-hour bodegas. They have to understand the way tumbleweeds cross sand-strewn highways, just in front of the mirage, and the fact that you sometimes don’t come across a food establishment for hundreds of miles.
Let’s face it, my 14-year-old missed a lot of the vistas we came across in our two-week trip, with his face in his phone. But coasting through northern New Mexico and into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in our rented
Jeep, he saw plenty.
The greatest thing about the West is the way in which weather plays out in front of you as if on a stage. You can see the rains falling from the sky in sheets and, often, the rainbow that follows. From the Far View Lodge, just below the 9,500-foot apex of Mesa Verde National Park, you can even see the bottom of the rainbow, unblocked as the view is into four southwest states.
This summer, New Mexico and Colorado have been plagued by droughts and fires and, now, heavy rains. It was a little risky to book hotels a week out, not knowing where the fires would still be burning, but we took it as a good sign that we found vacancies because the firefighters had just left places like Lake Vallecito, outside Durango, and at the super authentic Western hotel in Ouray.
My sister and I were a little sad we didn’t have any firefighters to hang with in the saloon, but we were happy for these towns that the fires had abated. They count on tourists, and many people had cancelled their trips.
Water sports were a bit less adventurous than usual because the lakes and rivers were at historic lows, but we managed to have a great time. Driving to Taos, looking at the Rio Grande below, I wondered how the rafts were going through the huge exposed boulders usually covered by foamy rapids. We found out: carefully.
On a trip down the waterway with New Mexico River Adventures, my son Oscar and I were somewhat saddened to learn that the morning would be spent mostly coasting along, navigating handily around boulders with the lovely brave Emily (a ski patrol in Taos in the winter.) After a hot fajita lunch riverside (nothing in New Mexico is served without chile peppers), we were on to the Level-2 rapids.
I do love rapids. Navigating the rocks was pretty fascinating. It took a lot of pre-planning on Emily’s part. The guides were amazingly adept at helping total amateur kayakers negotiate the rocky terrain without too much bloodshed. I can hear Emily yelling to a Texan mom who kept falling over, “Get back in your boat!” Ha. As if it was so easy.
Bertrand Russell wrote about the metaphor of rivers and life. It is not hard to see the link between how one navigates a roiling waterway and how to live. Funny. I wanted to go faster. I wanted desperately to see around the next curve. Oscar and I were both giddy with laughter when we had to paddle like hell to make it through the rapids wedged between slippery boulders. The payoff for hard work was the ecstasy of bouncing over fast-moving waves.
Hours back east, I am lonely for the openness of the West, for the emptiness of the peaks and valleys, dotted only with prairie dogs and cows. I’m glad my son at least got a little glimpse, and a chance to travel rivers and risky mountain paths. It was better maybe that he was slightly unaware that our travel along the steep curvy Million Dollar Highway between Durango and Ouray (the 12th-most–dangerous road in the world) was both before and after major rock slides. When the sirens rang through the canyon upon our arrival to the historic town, it was to mark a search and rescue mission underway.
The Wild West keeps you on your toes.