Walnut Canyon National Monument, AZ
We’ve been chased by weather for the past few weeks. It seems that lately every time we leave a place, it gets inundated with horrible weather. We fled the upper peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Colorado, each time two steps ahead of cold rain, storms, and even snow. The weather we have experienced has been very fine almost consistently, despite the fact that we have been running on the ragged edge of winter in these northern states and higher western elevations. We’ve been lucky.
As I mentioned, traveling in the shoulder season also means fewer campsite choices, but there are still options. We wanted to visit Walnut Canyon National Monument after leaving Petrified Forest. There’s no campground at Walnut Canyon, and the Coconino National Forest campgrounds closed over the weekend, but there is a Cracker Barrel restaurant and a Wal-Mart just a few miles away in Flagstaff. That’s what I meant yesterday when I talked about flexibility. There’s always a way, even if it is perhaps not the most glamorous. So from Petrified Forest we drove directly to Walnut Canyon, hiked the 0.9 mile Island Trail (with 240 stairs up and down), and then continued on to Flagstaff for the night.
Walnut Canyon is a remarkable ancient cliff-dwelling site, with literally hundreds of ruins in a relatively small area. The Island Trail brings you past 24 cliff homes, many of which you can enter. The trail is a little strenuous if you aren’t in shape because of the 185 foot stair climb at nearly 7,000 ft elevation, but most people seem to handle it just fine.
We’ve seen a lot of cliff dwellings over the past couple of years, but they still inspire a tingly sensation of ancient mystery for me. For hundreds of years, people lived here in these lofty rock homes. They struggled hard to build houses of stone where mountain goats would struggle to walk. They farmed squash and corn in a climate so dry and soil so sparse that large trees cannot live. Generations of people, raising families communally, experienced all the drama of our modern lives, rich with stories … and hardly any record of their experience survives. I can only look at the stone alcoves and wonder.
The park closed at 5 p.m., before we had time to see everything. So in the morning we towed the Airstream back over to hike the Rim Trail (flat) and complete the Junior Ranger program. (Emma now has over 50 badges, nine of which were acquired this summer. We’ll do a full inventory when we get back to Tucson.)
We could have lingered in Flagstaff, or detoured north to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, but we’d already made the decision to head home. From Walnut Canyon it is an easy drive to I-17 and then down, down, down from Flagstaff off the rim of the Colorado Plateau. Farewell, high elevations and chilly weather. In less than two hours we bottomed out at 3,400 feet and then climbed back up to 5,000 in the town of Prescott, AZ.
We are still at moderately high elevation but we’ll continue downward soon enough. We are making one last stop before we return to home base. Prescott is where our friend Rich C now lives. We traveled with Rich for months back in 2006 while he was full-timing and searching for a new home. He found a new life in this funky western town, and has built a small business downtown making art prints and selling his photography. We haven’t seen him in over a year, so it was time to drop in and check on things. As a bonus, our gruff and itinerant friend Gunny also happens to be visiting Prescott, so it’s a reunion of sorts.
The final trip segment is now determined. We’ll spend two nights here in Prescott, then drive 222 miles to Tucson (with a brief stop in Tempe for an extra bag of frozen Swedish meatballs from IKEA). Our summer travels began on June 17 and will end on October 16 — almost exactly four months on the road. The total mileage will come to about 12,000 (including side trips and unhitched travel), of which about 85% is towing miles.
If you are looking for grand conclusions, you might be disappointed. Although our travels will cease again for a little while (perhaps six weeks, perhaps longer), I don’t see this as an end at all. We are simply switching gears for a little while. I can’t conclude my thoughts because I don’t see a conclusion yet. We are still traversing the Maze of life, still trying to grow bigger in relation to our surroundings, still trying to understand the world. At most, we will pause to reflect, but the long walk through The Maze will continue. I’ll keep writing, too.