Summer hiking group fun and why Bode can stay in his BOY corner

One of my favorite things in the entire world is exploring and discovering trails, particularly in my own backyard. So imagine how thrilled I was to recently stumble upon some new-to-me sites intermingled with my long-time favorites.

The Hike

My church friend Dawn organized a summer hiking group on Tuesday mornings. Early-June, Dawn decreed our first hike would be the Castle Trail at Mount Falcon Open Space, which is is a great, moderate trail for younger kiddos.

One of my favorite memories is when I was REALLY pregnant with Bode, we decided to go for a hike and picnic. We were only a few minutes into our hike when our little 2-year-old cherub decided she was not walking another step. And when stubborn miss doesn’t want to do something, she will not do it. Nice parents that we are, we didn’t give in to her meltdown and so she threw herself onto the middle of the trail and raged for about 10 minutes.

We walked a safe distance away. No, we were not worried about her safety (because who would take her in that condition?) but rather, ours. We pointedly ignored the other parents who judged us while we let her scream it out. If she’d been in a store, it would have been another matter but since we were in the great outdoors, we let her roar with the mountain lions. It ended up working. She eventually gave up, jumped up, dusted herself off and kept on walking. She was a delight the rest of the day.

Here Hadley is seven years later at the scene of the crime. Doesn’t she look so much more docile?

We’ll compare notes again at this spot during the hormonal teenage  years.

The Castle/Meadow Trail had all the makings for a perfect outing: a wide trail, beautiful wildflower-strewn meadow and rocks for climbing. The boys reenacted being chased by Orcs in Lord of the Rings while I tried not to take offense of being mistaken for a sallow-skinned, fanged humanoid.

Our final destination was the stone-wall remnants of the John Brisben Walker family castle that boasts stunning views of Denver. Though the ruins are fenced off for climbing, we were fully engaged as we read about his rags-to-riches story that included the fire that destroyed this early-1900s dream home.

Parmalee Gulch

The easiest route to Mount Falcon is via U.S. Highway 285. Take the Indian Hills turn-off and follow the open space signs up Parmalee Gulch Road. On our return trip, my kids and I were stopped in our tracks at a stunning property just outside of Mount Falcon with a white fence that stretched as far as the eye could see. When we saw the “For Sale” sign, we pulled in.

Because we just happen to be in the market for a multi-million-dollar property.

As we dreamed of having a mountain retreat, we eventually wound back down to a new-to-us part of Parmalee Gulch Road, happening upon a fantastic playground within Parmalee’s town limits. “We HAVE to stop!” my son announced and I agreed.

For the next hour, we scaled logs, climbed rock walls to the top of the slide and climbed on bears at this awesome playground.

Turned out I wasn’t too good at the latter, which is probably a good thing.

Bear Creek Canyon

I frequent Bear Creek Canyon regularly when en route from Denver/Morrison to Evergreen. After driving down the canyon,  we landed in the funky mountain town of Morrison, devoured sundaes at The Blue Cow, threw rocks in Bear Creek and I then told the kids we were crossing the street to visit two shops I’ve driven past a hundred times but have never set foot.

Both were love at first sight: Sundance Sensations appealed to my Bohemian side while La Boutique des Bourdreux was a whimsical, vintage gift and clothing shop where Hadley and I were enthralled at every turn and could have spent an hour in there.

If it wasn’t for Bode.

As every minute passed, he grew increasingly inpatient. When Hadley and I started trying on the large selection of hats, I cooed, “Hadley, I want this hat.”

Bode interjected. “Mommy, WANTS ARE NOT NEEDS.”

It would seem he’s been taking lessons from his father on more than just pumpkins.

Hiking to non-existent reservoirs is still a day of Colorado bliss

Remember our adventures atop 14,265-foot Mt. Evans and how I vowed to go back to the eccentrically charming Echo Mountain Lodge’s gift shop and restaurant? Two days later, it happened.

Upon returning home, I checked my email. My friend Dawn organized a summer hiking group with gals from church and I was shocked to see that Tuesday’s hike was to Idaho Springs Reservoir and the trailhead was right at Echo Lake. We skipped swim lessons that day and I declared yet another mountain adventure was in order. On previous hikes, there were plenty of kids but no one Hadley’s age so we invited her bestie Alex along for the ride.

Besties at Echo Lake

Idaho Springs Reservoir

Though I’ve hiked 90 percent of the trails on the Front Range, the Chicago Lakes Trail to Idaho Springs Reservoir is over an hour from my house and deep in the backcountry so I was not familiar with it. As we started hiking, a mom whipped out her guidebook for directions and lo-and-behind it was Best Hikes with Kids, the book I was contacted about revising a few years ago!

The publisher shipped me a copy when it came out last year and I was mostly relieved I turned down the project and pleased that the author did such a nice job with it. Mind you, if I was contacted about doing something similar now, my kiddos are of a more suitable age for me to take it on.

The guidebook is thorough but here’s one thing the author neglected to mention: this hike is not great for young kiddos. For about 12 minutes, we skirted along a narrowish ledge with a steep drop. We had a few preschoolers, which made for an ulcer-inducing time. Even more stressful was I was up front with the older kids while the other moms helped the youngin’s at the back. My friend Dawn has two darling twin boys who are Bode’s age and let me tell you, those boys are mischievous. One of them tried climbing DOWN the steep cliff while the other tried to race past us while still on that ledge.

We eventually sent them back to hike with their mom and everyone was much happier. Well, except for them.

The guidebook suggested we start at the Echo Lake Campground but the host said it was quicker to commence from the north side of Echo Lake. There was a simple map in the guidebook but we had no idea how far our altered route was. We stopped a lady on the trail who had a topographical map and lo-and-behind, the Idaho Springs Reservoir wasn’t even on it. You know, OUR DESTINATION.

Echo Lake, the group at the creek and that lovely ledge.

We kept blindly hiking for another 15 minutes with glorious views of Mount Evans looming in the background. Upon reaching a creek, we opted to turn back. Who knew if we were even going the right way and we had already been hiking an hour.

If there’s anything I hate, it’s unfinished business and that is particularly prevalent with hiking. If I don’t summit, I have to go back or I obsess about it. Upon turning around, we were a few minutes from the trailhead when we ran into a hiker. I started talking to him and mentioned our turnaround point. “Oh really? You should have kept going. Idaho Springs Reservoir is only 1/4-mile from that creek.”

I guess the only positive side to that is I’ll be back.

The Scenic Route

As promised, I let the kids each pick out a souvenir at Echo Lake Lodge but opted to hold out to try the restaurant until we could return with Jamie (he was only a little bit bitter about being left behind). Then, instead of heading back on I-70, I announced we were going the scenic route via new-to-me Squaw Pass Road to Evergreen, one of my favorite mountain hamlets. My bribery? I’d buy them ice cream.

Of course, with views like this, it doesn’t take too much arm-bending. The great thing about traveling with kids is they have a radar for anything fun. We stopped at Baskin-Robbins in Evergreen and upon sitting on the creekside benches, they noticed a charming area to climb trees and play in Bear Creek so that is exactly what we did for the next hour.

Bear Creek, Evergreen

Oh, to be a kid again. But living vicariously through them is the next best thing.

96-mile journey

The Johnson Family’s Shortest (and worst) Camping Trip Ever

I have tried to instill a love of nature in my kids–just last week we went hiking four times, my daughter recently returned from YMCA of the Rockies’ traditional overnight Camp Chief Ouray and at the end of July they’re both enrolled in Avid4Adventure’s Survival Skills Camp. We are an outdoor-loving family!

But my favorite childhood memories are of camping and that is one area in which we’ve fallen short with my own family.  There is nothing like the sense of community at campgrounds, playing with new BFFs, eating tin foil dinners and s’mores, exploring and exploring some more, and telling stories around the campfire.

Here’s a recap of our camping trips since having kids.

Trip 1: Hadley had just turned 1 and was a horrible sleeper so she wailed all night long two nights in a row. Our campsite at Golden Gate Canyon State Park was on a slope. Hadley had just learned to walk so was falling over every few feet and when she wasn’t face-planting, she was trying to crawl into the fire pit. Our three-day weekend was cut a day short.

Trip 2: We took a few years off from camping to get pregnant and have our son Bode. When he was 2, we joined our good friends at Eleven Mile State Park. Never been? Keep it that way. I’d read about it in FamilyFun magazine and it was a huge, barren disappointment. In addition to camping, capsizing and crying, my baby had the most disgusting, explosive case of diarrhea and I spent hours at the camp laundromat cleaning out his car seat and clothes. (Ugly details here).

Trip 3: Waterton Lakes National Park, Canada. This is my favorite place on earth and I was ecstatic to introduce my kids to this wonderland that borders Glacier National Park. Sure there were minor hiccups (such as near-hurricane-strength winds) but it was our best camping trip to date.

Trip 4: Bear Lake State Park. Last year, Mile High Mamas partnered with Coleman for the Great American Campout. It had all the fixins for an amazing weekend with horseback riding, games, gourmet camp meals and kayaking. But do you remember that record-breaking 105-degree day last June? ‘Nuff said.

Trip 5: Camp Dick last weekend. This was going to be our year. The kids are 7 and 9 and the perfect ages for camping. Check-in wasn’t until 2 p.m. so we had a few hours to kill when we arrived at this campground set in a glacial valley just off the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway.

The kids caught butterflies and threw rocks in the adjacent Middle Saint Vrain Creek and we hiked a portion of the Buchanan Pass Trail.

We have been united with our fellow Coloradoans in praying for rain to defray the horrible wildfires…we just didn’t want the drought to end right then. All was going shockingly well until we felt our first raindrop. We’d waded through near hurricanes and diarrhea; a bit of rain wasn’t going to deter us.

Then it started down-pouring so we raced back to the car and ate lunch. Earlier, we’d spotted the remains of the previous night’s hail storm but miracles–the weather broke a half-hour later and we still had plenty of time to explore before we could set-up our tent.

Adventurous Hadley (who no longer falls every few feet and cries all night), discovered a faint trail on the other side of the creek so we bush-whacked our way to my children’s version of wonderland: a massive boulder field. We spent the next hour free-climbing these rock monsters and Hadley and my husband braved a steep slope to a cossetted cave. I hung back with my more-cautious Bode who called out encouragements such as “you know you can crack your head open and slide all the way down.”

Kid needs a lesson or two on pep talks.

Then all hell (or rather, hail) broke loose and it could not have come at a worse time. We were forging back through the forest when Bode slipped and hurt himself. Not even 5 seconds later, hail started pounding us and blinded, we lost the trail that was already barely there, forcing us to wade over a swamp land and practically toss now-hysterical Bode across the creek.

When we arrived at the road, we still had over a mile to where we’d parked our car at the trailhead but our soon-to-be acquired campsite was right around the corner. “I’ll run and get the car and you go to camp,” I bravely volunteered. Come hail or high-water, I would lead my family to safety!

I raced through the campground, hail pelting and drenching every inch of my body. It seemed like an eternity before I reached the car but I raced back to our campsite and saw my poor little family hunkered down under a tree trying to shield themselves from the frozen sheets of ice.

“We’ve taken a vote,” my husband announced.
“What is it?” I already knew the answer.
“We’re ready to go home.”

I looked at our campsite, the mud puddles thick from the previous night’s storm were now filled with snow. We could have toughed it out if we were staying in a camper but there was nowhere to setup our tent.  And most importantly, the sky ‘s furry was just getting started.

We called it a day at 1:30 p.m., just 4.5 hours from the time we left our house.

Better luck next year.

June Travels: Our Crazy Life According to Instagram

My work-life balance has been nil with waaaaay too much playtime with the kids. I’m hoping to write about all our hiking adventures (and believe me, there are MANY) but until that time, my iPhone tells the story of our first month of summer break.

Chautauqua in Boulder

Our month-long party started with a glorious getaway to Chautauqua in Boulder complete with a charming cottage, emerald hikes bursting with jeweled wildflowers, a gourmet meal at the Dining Hall and Snow White reenacted by Theatre-Hikes Colorado.

Chautauqua in Boulder

Chautauqua meadow outside of our cottage

Snow White Theatre Hike!

With a kickoff to summer like that, it’s hard to go wrong. And we haven’t.

Giving Back

One day, we did a tour of the Food Bank of the Rockies where we learned about their kid’s program Kung Food Fighters to teach kids how to help fight child hunger.

Food Bank of the Rockies

But obviously not how to do Kung Foo moves.

Kicking It

Then there was the Colorado Rapids, our first-ever professional soccer game.

Colorado Rapids

We expect greater things from our soccer-playing son now.

Cave of the Winds

OK, technically our trip to Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor was late-May but I need to fit in our awe-inspiring cave tour of the 500-million-year-old Cave of the Winds, which was discovered in 1881.

Cave of the Winds

An exciting new addition to the already-cool caves is the Wind Walker Challenge Course. This three-story obstacle course is located on the rim of a 600-foot drop into Williams Canyon and has a challenging maze of steel beams, swinging ropes and ladders. Bode barely met the height requirement and I was proud of him for trying.

Wind Walker Challenge Course

Though it may take him a few years to recover from it. #Scary

Utah Fun

While Hadley was at Camp Chief Ouray for a week, Bode took his first solo flight to Utah. But then I crashed his party on the last day by scheduling a business trip in Park City where I also crammed in a quick hike to the Living Room, roller-bladed the Jordan River Parkway for the first time in 10 years (we’ve both changed!), had a cousin sleepover with the edible twinnies and storytime with Grandma.


Talk about a memorable trip!

Carnivores Unite

Then, Bode and I headed straight up to YMCA of the Rockies near Winter Park where we got a tour of Hadley’s camp and had some fun adventures of our own. Sane people would have turned around after picking her up but not us. We headed further west into the mountains for our Father’s Day tradition: the Frisco BBQ Challenge where we met up with carnivore-loving Jamie.

Golden Breckenridge

But the fun didn’t stop there during that masochistic week (I crammed in four trips, but who’s counting?) Breckenridge is just a 15-minute drive away from Frisco and if we were to have a cabin anywhere, it would be there. It was like coming home as we spent the morning at Peak 8 Fun Park, which boasts the most awesome line-up of summer activities of any of Colorado’s ski resorts with an alpine coaster AND slide, gold panning, a maze, bungee trampoline, miniature golf and a bounce house.

Breckenridge Peak 8 Fun Park

We were thrilled to be in Breckenridge during Kingdom Days, which celebrates the town’s colorful history.

Or rather, lack of color as you can see from this old-fashioned photo. Note to self: Next time stay and watch Kingdom Days’ uproarious Outhouse Races.

Breckenridge was founded back in the 1860s thanks to the many gold discoveries. I have always wanted to go on a mine tour and was thrilled when Country Boy Mine Tour was a part of our itinerary.

Country Boy Mine Tours

There is still gold in them thar hills but it costs more money to extract it than it is worth. Following the tour, we panned for gold and Hadley unearthed a real sliver of gold, which I then proceeded to lose.

So much for our chance at millions.

Breckenridge is part of an extensive paved trail system that connects to mountain towns Frisco, Dillon, Keystone, Copper Mountain and Vail. That evening, Hadley was exhausted after her week at camp so Jamie stayed behind while Bode and I took to the trail. I had an epiphany: almost exactly two years ago, Hadley took her first solo flight to Utah (like Bode) and she first tested out her new mountain bike on Breckenridge’s trail system, just as Bode and I did that evening on his newly-minted mountain bike.

New bikes on the Breckenridge bike path: Hadley (2011) and Bode (2013)

His ride went smashingly on the dirt trails…until he ended up slowly smashing into the bridge. Luckily he made a quick recovery.

Party Boy

For the past few years, we have been in Canada for Bode’s July birthday, which has resulted in a number of “pretend birthdays” leading up to the real deal. He wanted to celebrate with his buddies at Big Time Fun Trampoline Center and it was the cheapest, easiest party I’ve ever thrown: Invite friends, buy cake, show up.

Big Time Partiers

Why have I been killing myself all these years with parties, food and entertainment at my house?

Finally a Fish

For the third year in a row, I organized summer swim lessons for some of my good friends from our ward. It is a two-week pool party for the kiddos and a lot of fun to hang out with the Real Housewives of Jefferson County.

And most noteworthy? Bode has finally figured out how to swim and graduated from Squids, which is the first time he has ever passed a swim class. There may be hope yet.

Camping Disasters

I was looking forward to our camping trip yesterday to Camp Dick in the Roosevelt National Forest. Like so many of our adventures, it started well with blue skies, beautiful hikes, creek-playing and boulder-scaling.

Camp Dick

But then ended so very, very badly. Details tomorrow.

Lyons Soda Fountain

But I suggest you drown your sorrows with ice cream sodas, floats, freezes, phosphates and classy sundaes at Lyons Soda Fountain, one of the state’s best preserved and oldest soda fountains in Lyons, Colo. Because ice cream makes everyone feel better.

A Little Bit of Magic

Lest you think we haven’t had any downtime in June, think again. Every chance we got, whether we were at the park, in the car driving 14,265 feet to Mount Evans’ summit or in the basement, I was reading the kids their newest obsession: Time well spent in what turned out to be a magical month.


Colorado has been in the national media waaaaay more than I would like–between the horrible wildfire season and the Aurora theater shooting.

Most recently this little girl was kidnapped and her body was found in my community last week. I went mountain biking near the site on Friday and was touched a makeshift memorial has been set up in her honor.

An LA Times reporter contacted me last week and asked to accompany me to our bus stop to gauge the temperature of local parents. In a few words: caution, sadness and fear. (Read the article in the Sunday edition).

On Sunday after church, we went for a walk at Standley Lake, one of my favorite areas. We had a nature-exploring, log-crossing, rock-throwing good time.

But at one point, Hadley took off as she is often prone to do when we’re outside. She and Bode were chasing prairie dogs in a vast field and she was almost out of sight.

And suddenly my stomach dropped.

We were in the very epicenter of where the little girl went missing and was later found. I lost it. Started screaming for her to come back. The wind drowned out my cries. I chased after her. An overreaction? Sure.

I’m determined not to stop living and exploring as we have always done. But until this man is caught and our little community is healed, things are going to be very different around here.

Four Corners Region—Trailing the Ancients

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 1999. © Photo: Philip Greenspun.

The Four Corners region means different things to different people. To Terry Tempest Williams it is Navajoland, where every conversation, every sigh uttered by the “longtime-ago people” circulates around you. To Edward Abbey, the ancient canyon art of this region was the first world language that represented images ranging from the crude and simple to the elegant and sophisticated.

To me, it was a headache to sort through what the Four Corners meant to different people. OK, so my definition is a bit of a downer. But in my non-prolific defense it was overwhelming to determine which archaeological sites, modern communities and Indian lands to cover in an area that smacks of a primeval and intangible world.

My friend John and I turned to the Visitor’s Center in Monticello for the inside scoop on following in the footsteps of the Ancients. Little did I know those ancients would be by way of the local geriatric ward. A sweet grandma greeted me at the main desk. Haltingly, I asked her if she could help me find some backcountry routes in the region.

“Of course, sweetie,” she replied. “If I can’t help, then Herbert can.” OK, I didn’t exactly capture the name of the ancient, sun-worn man she pointed to at the end of the counter. But if any man looked like a Herbert, he did. It took mere seconds to confirm that they would not be good resources. They loaded me up with brochures and John and I headed to the BLM Ranger’s station a couple of blocks away for the real scoop.

We came away with concrete plans. We would start at the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park and cut over to Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch. From there, we would hit Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and then Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Our final pinnacle experience of the lopsided loop would be to stand on the Four Corners marker to symbolize the end of our own Trail of the Ancients.

Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park
We headed south on U.S. 191 to the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park in Blanding. For $1, we were introduced to the largest collection of Anasazi (pre-historic Puebloan) pottery in the Four Corners region. Located on the site of an ancient ruin, the museum has a collection of archeological treasures from the Ancient Pueblo Indian, Navajo and Ute Indian cultures that includes pottery and a ceremonial kiva, home to the Anasazi between A.D. 825 to 1220.

A sun marker stood just beyond the ruin. The Anasazi used this solar sculpture to calendar when to plant and harvest crops, connecting them with solar, plant life and ceremonial cycles. John moved in for a closer look as I stood back to analyze the dance of shadow and light. I gave up after two minutes of intense scrutiny and resolved there was a very good reason why I live in the 21st century when all connections with time are made with my trusty calendar and digital watch.

My favorite part of the Edge of the Cedars was the Observation Tower. This circular room’s expansive windows traced many of the Four Corner’s ranges, starting with Sleeping Ute Mountain and extending to New Mexico’s famous Shiprock and Utah’s Grand Gulch Plateau. Sometimes called Cedar Mesa, this 1,000-square-mile recreation area includes many archeological sites and was next on our agenda. The Abajo Mountains rounded out our view in the semi-circular tower.

Grand Gulch Primitive Area
I was eager to explore the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, one of the premier backpacking areas in Southern Utah. A friend had raved about an unparalleled 22-mile backpacking trip from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon, which winds through ancient ruins. John and I stopped at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to get the ‘411’and permits. If the building was any indication, we were in for a primitive experience—the station was in a condemned trailer transported from Hovenweep National Monument.

The gal on duty gave me a detailed play-by-play of Cedar Mesa, home to numerous rock art panels and prehistoric ruins. Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the canyons and mesa tops between 700 and 2,000 years ago, and many of their dwellings remain in tact and fragile. For this reason, permits are limited and required for all overnight and day trips.

She tipped me off on an area outside of the Gulch in Cedar Mesa: Mule Canyon. I was immediately attracted by her description of this 10-mile roundtrip hike. Two fairly easy hiking areas are found in the north and south forks of Mule Canyon, which cut through sheer sandstone walls and ponderosa pine. But the true appeal of this trail is that it contains the highest concentration of ruins found anywhere on the plateau—more than one ruin per mile. We were sold.

Mule Canyon
We arose to the predawn colors of the desert and watched as pink, magenta, silver and purple shafts of light enticed the sun over the horizon. We were on the trail by 8 a.m.

John portentously wore his new trekking hat that his friends allegedly bought in Nepal. He bore a strong resemblance to Paddington Bear but I decided I’d have more fun with exploiting the Nepalese claim and asked if this meant he was Sherpa for the day. He was not amused. But when I pointed to his CamelBak—“the Sherpa”—he resigned himself to his station of servitude.

As we hiked, the canyon deepened and eroded alcoves lined the cliffs. The majority of cultural sites were on the south-facing slopes among typical high desert vegetation. The north-facing slopes were verdant with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine that spilled down from the Abajo range.

We had hiked about 0.75 mile when Sherpa John suddenly stopped. “Do you think that could be something up there?” he breathlessly asked. I gazed at the sandstone wall shrouded by ponderosa pine. What could his stealth Sherpa instincts be telling him? But then I looked at the ground—a giant arrow had been traced in the sand, pointing to the wall. So much for instinct. His sighting did not amount to anything, but he pulled through about 1.2 miles up the canyon where he discovered the first of a string of Anasazi ruins.

We spent the rest of the hike perched on the sandstone walls exploring the various alcoves. We crawled into the ancient settlements and marveled at the fallen masonry of the dwellings. Shards of pottery, worn but still proof of the artistic refinement of the ancients, were strewn around the rooms and organized on rocks by other hikers. The desert sun had shifted by the time we made our way out of the canyon, the colors, textures and shadows of our surroundings changing with the angle and intensity of the sunlight. Mule Canyon had come to light—and life—before our eyes.

Monument Valley
We then followed U.S. 261 through Grand Gulch until we reached the Moki Dugway overlook where we gazed down upon the Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley’s compendium of silhouetted buttes. We descended three miles on the graded gravel road and then explored the 16-mile loop through the Valley of the Gods—often called a miniature Monument Valley. The rock/clay surface road was a roller-coaster ride through a sandstone museum that included Castle Butte, Rooster Butte, Battleship Rock and Setting Hen Butte.

And then it was onto Monument Valley—land of the American West, and backdrop of hundreds of western movies and magazine ads. Where a simple image, the silhouette of a monolith held sacred for the Navajos, is enough to make us dream of infinite possibilities and empty spaces. The Navajo Nation Council designated Monument Valley as the first tribally-owned-and-operated park on July 11, 1958. More than 140 habitation sites have been found on the 17.6 million acre Navajo Reservation that straddles the Utah-Arizona border.

I was initially disappointed with how tightly the Navajo Nation regulates the valley. There is no hiking allowed off the 17-mile road unless you have a guide. We passed on shelling out $30 for a 2-hour tour, bought a $2 brochure and set out to explore the valley on our own terms as best we could.

The first monoliths we encountered were the famous Mittens, which according to Navajo legend were once deities who lived upon Mother Earth in the beginning of time. As we drove, the subliminal imagery of the monoliths, spires, buttes, mesas, canyons and sand dunes invoked a powerful associative reflex, and the distinction between reality and illusion became blurred.

We continued along the rectilinear ribbon of the road until we encountered one such mirage of the ancients. OK, maybe it was only a burro but for a moment I was transported back in time. John insisted we stop for a picture and I rolled my eyes at his hypocrisy. He generally mocks tacky tourists who take pictures of animals in the wild and then get attacked.

And then a Machiavellian plan unfolded. As he made his way back, I deviously exclaimed, “The burro is attacking!” Instinctively, John raced back to the Jeep to find me laughing hysterically. In his defense, he weakly said, “I thought I heard him running.” My query, “Do burros RUN?” did not lesson the pain. He will not be stopping to photograph wild and ferocious burros anytime soon, I’m sure.

Canyon de Chelly
We were intoxicated with the sights and smells of the labyrinth called Canyon de Chelly from the moment we arrived in Arizona’s northeastern desert haven—from the pungent scent of the vegetation, to the purity of the dust and the lucidity of the air.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) is really several canyons that rise as high as 1,000 feet above the floor, overshadowing the streams, cottonwoods and small farms below. The Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 to preserve the land where people have lived for nearly 5,000 years—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. Embracing nearly 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation, the monument is administered by the National Park Service but belongs to the Navajo people.

Backcountry camping was out of the question in Navajoland so we stayed at the Cottonwood Campground, which was free of charge. We stopped as the Visitor’s Center in the morning and learned the rules and regulations were similar to Monument Valley.

With the exception of one designated trail, we were not allowed to hike unless we were on a tour or with a Navajo guide. The tours cost $40 for a half day, or $15 per hour with a private guide, with a minimum of three hours. We opted to explore the south and north rim drives on our own, which took in famous ruins such as the Mummy Cave and the Sliding House.

The highlight of Canyon de Chelly was the 2.5-mile roundtrip hike to the White House ruin. We followed the trail along the rim for about 1,000 feet before descending steeply into a canyon that had been polished by eons of sandpaper winds.

The White House was like an apparition floating in the cliffs. Built and occupied centuries ago by ancient Puebloan people, it is named for a long wall in the upper dwelling that is covered with white plaster. At its zenith, the village housed about 100 men, women and children in 60 rooms. The pottery shards surrounding it testified to the leavings of an ancient civilization.

I could not wait to document the ruin on paper and film. Until I realized I had forgotten my notebook. And then my camera malfunctioned. Regardless, we were in good spirits when we finally made the steep ascent back to asphalt and civilization and prepared for the final leg of our Trail of the Ancients.

Four Corners Monument
The sprint to the Trail of the Ancients finish line had a few speed bumps. Our final stop was at the Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States where four states and two Indian nations share borders. Established in 1912, this monument was to be the capstone of our Four Corners tour.

I had envisioned our crowning moment. The desert sun would blaze down upon us. We’d explore the Visitor’s Center and small jewelry shops on the perimeter of the monument before planting ourselves on the marker. And we would smile like tacky tourists as photographs were taken to document the experience for posterity.

Of course, that was the illusion. Reality was that we got caught in a blinding sandstorm. We skipped the booths and made a mad dash to the marker where we stood for a good five seconds.

And pictures? Get real. Don’t forget the broken camera.

Total elapsed time at the monument: five minutes.

The total elapsed time of finally hearing the silence of a region that many revere as sacred: timeless.

-Amber Borowski Johnson