Just another day in the park

Just another day at Colorado National Monument. Twenty thousand acres of canyons and cactus under baby-blue skies, relentless sunshine and astonishingly few gnats greeted park visitors on a recent Saturday.  All traipsed beneath Old Glory, which flapped loudly, as they entered a sandstone beehive of activity known as the Visitor Center, or simply VC.

Four people left the VC in the cool morning to meander along the Canyon Rim Trail with a park ranger. A woman from Eagle brought her daughter and her daughter’s friend. Soon to be third-graders, both girls set their own pace, wondering where exactly to make their first ascent of a stone wall bordering the trail.

“Maybe later,” Mom said.

The fourth member of our party, identifying himself as an unemployed (“sales and customer service”) resident of Grand Junction, was quiet but observant. He minced fragrant sagebrush leaves and hiked effortlessly.

Half an hour later, these intrepid hikers arrived at Window Rock, an eroded opening in rock that overlooks the Grand Valley somewhat like the prow of an ocean liner. A wind gust nearly blew the ranger’s Smokey hat off his head. If he hadn’t grabbed it first, his hat would have soared to the bottom of Wedding Canyon, 400 feet below.

“Isn’t that the Grand Mesa?” the Eagle woman asked.

Indeed. The imposing two-mile high wall on the horizon failed to impress her girls, who felt compelled to test a chain-link fence protecting them from an accidental fall.

Back at the VC, a small crowd milled about, chatting about their “sweaty palms” trip on Rim Rock Drive. One couple, touring the Exhibit Hall hand-in-hand, sported matching purple shirts with a square dancing logo and the message, “I love to do it.”

A youngster with binoculars held her father’s hand as they sauntered into the building.

“She loves all the rocks,” he said proudly, waving his Cleveland Indians cap in the air.

Meanwhile, vehicles of all shapes and license plates baked in the parking lot. Their owners had come from New Jersey, Missouri, Tennessee, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio and even Manitoba.

“I had a heart attack three weeks ago,” said a tall man using a cane. His wife held his other arm as they enjoyed distractions around them.

A muscular dude crouched in a native-plants garden out front to photograph a blooming cactus while his little boy tapped him on the back with a water bottle. Overhead, the Stars and Stripes flapped like an eagle ready for takeoff. Fortunately, it didn’t.

An elderly woman peered out from the back porch toward Otto’s Trail, a green strip of pinyons and junipers on the far side of Wedding Canyon. Her niece, a teacher from Cincinnati, promised her, “I’ll sure come back.”

A backpacker adjusted the straps of his hydration pack, then bolted across the road and up the Black Ridge Trail. A cyclist clicked into his pedals after a quick pit stop in the restroom.

“Going to be a long day,” he said, and rode away.

A speeding lizard narrowly missed getting squished by three visitors in heavy boots behind the VC. When the trio reached the observation deck, they whispered at the stunning view. Moments later, they mounted Harleys and roared off.

By early afternoon, 393 visitors had stopped in the VC for any number of reasons: water-bottle refills; restroom breaks; just plain rest. A man in cowboy boots fell asleep in the cool dark auditorium during a 12-minute film about the park. His wife woke him up.

A New Jersey grandfather admired the horns of a desert bighorn sheep in the exhibit hall while a toddler rubbed her fingers in the plaster mold of a deer’s track.

“OK to touch?” the man asked. A park ranger nodded, and Gramps felt the curved horn of a wild animal for the first time in his life.

An Oregon couple studied a sign by the building’s entrance about the extreme fire danger in the park. The sign indicated that, due to unusually dry weather, wood fires are prohibited, and smoking is not permitted outside private vehicles.

“We don’t have that fire danger problem very often in Oregon,” the woman said.

At 2 p.m. sharp, a young park ranger captured the attention of a small crowd by describing how the park’s geology intersected with history. She noted President William Howard Taft designated these canyons as Colorado National Monument in 1911 for good reason.

“It’s the different rocks here,” she said, “that make us extraordinary.”

Out on the Alcove Trail nearby, a Christmassy scent of pinyon pines caught the attention of two middle-aged men.

One of them shouted, “Just another day in paradise!”

Eric Sandstrom teaches at Colorado Mesa University and is an interpretive park ranger at Colorado National Monument.


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