Traveling Alone: A 30 Before 30 Update

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17. Go to the Sand Dunes, Mesa Verde, and Four Corners

It was pretty serendipitous that I was able to switch days with a coworker at the bakery and get a random patch of time off. Fearing that if I didn’t do something I’d go crazy sitting in my apartment while everyone was working normal jobs, I decided to go to a part of Colorado I haven’t really explored before.

The big thing about this trip was that I wanted to do it alone. Ever since I read this article on Huffington Post, I thought that I should do this. While I’ve traveled by myself before to see friends, and when I was London I spent days on my own wandering the city, I never went to one destination by myself and remained by myself.

I didn’t go alone in order to have some ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ or ‘Wild’ type of experience. I don’t consider myself distraught about life or anything. I used to be a pretty independent young woman, and then last summer/early fall I got sick and I had to have help from my family and closest friends. It was awful. Before that I would go and do things alone, it never bothered me, but now I literally could not function on a day to day basis. I had little energy, I lost a job, friendships, and more. Anxiety and depression literally ate my life away. Loneliness, or rather, the fear of being alone, played a huge part in that.

Well, that was a depressing paragraph to type. But not to worry, I got the help I needed, I love my life again, and I function in the world once more. I moved out on my own a few months ago and so the next logical step seemed to be facing my fear of being alone was to travel alone. I would have no one to rely on but myself. It felt like a step I needed to take.

I packed up Matilda (the name of my gold GMC Envoy I’m “borrowing” from my parents) and borrowed some of the camping supplies I didn’t have and set off for southwest Colorado. It’s about a seven hour drive from Denver. I felt sort of bad as I was leaving the city. See, I told a little white lie to my parents. They thought I was going with friends. Truth was it was just me, and I felt bad about this, but I knew they would put up a big stink and I didn’t want to deal with it. Ah, maturity. (Sorry Mom and Dad, if you read this.)

Anyways, my plan was to stop in Durango for an early dinner and then set up camp in Mesa Verde National Park. I made it to the halfway point at nightfall and knew I wouldn’t make it in time. I was too far to turn back, so I just kept driving to Durango. I got to the town, had a quick bite to eat, and then debated my options.

I had my dad’s tent and vaguely knew how to set it up, as well as a head lamp, but I didn’t want to do it while it was dark. I quickly looked up hotels on my phone. They were all either a little expensive for a last minute booking or they looked either like the motel from the first season of Breaking Bad or like they had bed bugs. I parked at Wal-Mart to use the restroom and then I remembered something my friend Lisa told me on our road trip through Michigan: You can sleep overnight in your car in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

I mean, it makes sense right? In Where the Heart Is Natalie Portman’s character LIVED in a Wal-Mart! Still, I kinda turned my nose up at this. Isn’t sleeping in the parking lot for people who are broke or recently evicted or running from the law?

It was my cheapest option though, so I decided to try it. I drove to the back of the massive parking lot, put my seats down, set up my sleeping bag and after I stopped judging myself, I fell fast asleep.

I woke up in the morning a little stiff and disoriented, but otherwise in good spirits. I put everything away and decided to drive the two hours or so to the Four Corners first and then settle in at Mesa Verde. The terrain on the way there is vastly different than what I’m used to in the rest of Colorado. It’s super flat, super dry, and has lots of random rock formations. It’s basically Arizona.

It looks like a real desert!

It looks like a real desert!

The Four Corners was super small and definitely out in the middle of nowhere. Also, it’s a part of Navajo land, which I found terribly interesting. I parked, paid my fee and went in. The area was different than what I was expecting. It’s basically a bunch of stalls with people selling things, then there’s a big circle with markers eloquently declaring this as the site where “four states meet.” I wandered around, took my picture in the center, and then I was on my way out until I saw a food truck with authentic Navajo fry bread. I bolted for the stall. Not only was I hungry but Navajo fry bread is delicious! I hadn’t had any in so long. The nice guy working the stall doused mine in cinnamon and then I went back to my car feeling like the two hour trip was worth it. That’s how good this bread is.

om nom nom

om nom nom

It was finally time to go to my intended first destination, Mesa Verde. I was supposed to be excited, but as I neared the park I started to get a little crabby. I was tired and did not feel like being out in the hot sun for my planned hike. I also didn’t want to do all the work of setting up a tent. I craved a nap. Plus, it didn’t help that when I got the camp site and went to fill my CamelBack that I discovered one of my containers of water leaked all over my cooler, soaking everything, including some of my food. Now, on top of feeling lethargic and fat, I felt stupid. It was definitely an amateur move.

I got to my camp site, which took FOREVER to get to, and only increased my bad mood. I opened the back hatch and promptly lay down on my dad’s folded blue sleeping bag. I thought about just driving past the cliff dwellings, hitting up the sand dunes quickly, and going back to Denver, even if it meant arriving in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to be out here “roughing it” anymore.

But no, I argued with myself, I am being dramatic. I told myself two nights and I’m going to be a woman of my word. I forced myself to eat some carbs and protein and then I start to feel better. I laid my soaking things out to dry in the car, praying that no one would break in and set off on my hike.

According to the information the lovely park ranger gave me when I entered the park, the cliff dwellings were supposedly built in the 1200s by the ancient Pueblo people, or Anasazi. They were definitely minimalists. The dwellings were simplistic and the lines surprisingly straight for an ancient civilization. Building their homes in the shade was a good call. I sat on some rocks a little ways off and it was perfectly pleasant.

Cliff dwellings

Cliff dwellings

Most of the dwellings were roped off. Apparently if all the visitors of the park were allowed to walk amongst them, they would erode away within a year. I was able to climb down a ladder into a below ground room that was circular and I imagine used for religious practices.

Close up of the dwellings.

Close up of the dwellings.

After chatting with the park ranger, I set off on my hike through the canyon. For the first mile or so, I was totally alone, which was nice. I felt energized by it. Along the second mile, I ran into two guys, probably in their late 20s, who went on the super extensive hike this trail was connected to. I can be a little shy at times, so I said the standard quick hello hikers always exchange and went on my way, but one of them, Endell (yep, that’s his name), kept asking me questions, so I finally relented and had a conversation with him.

He was tall with light brown hair stuffed under an Atlanta Braves hat that had the tiny white waves on salt on it. He had the most genuine smile, so when he asked if he could have my contact information, I gave it to him eagerly. He told me he was driving up to Alaska, and stopped here in Colorado to see a friend (his very quiet hiking buddy I’m assuming). Apparently he just left an incredibly high stress job and was going on this epic road trip before picking from a buffet of other demanding jobs that made him an offer.

“I’m impressed you’re doing this alone,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I figured, why the hell not?” he replied. He had plans to go kayaking the next day and he asked if I wanted to go and I told him yes, if it fit in with my schedule. We parted ways with his silent friend patting him on the back…whatever THAT means.

Mesa Verde displayed its full beauty on my hike through the canyon. For the uninitiated, ‘mesa’ means ‘table’ and it literally looked like one giant table on the drive up. Who knew it had canyons and cliffs and so much greenery? I was by myself for the rest of my hike, which was perfectly fine with me, and I took my time.

I went back to my campsite, a little out of breath but in good spirits, and set up the tent without swearing once (to me, that is a true sign of accomplishment). I settled in for the night, tired from the sun exposure, the hike, and my tiny meltdown earlier. I read the book I brought with me, The Bell Jar, while tucked in my sleeping bag with the golf club I found in my car right next to me for protection. It occurred to me that there might be bears, and although if a bear did stumble upon little ol’ me in this green tent a golf club would do me no good. But it’s all about peace of mind.

I finished the book and lay there, waiting for sleep to take me because surely it would after that exhausting of a day, but it didn’t.

And then the loneliness crept in.

Like I said earlier, one of the big reasons I went on this trip was to learn how to combat the loneliness, since it’s a problem in my life. You could say it’s my harmatia—my fatal flaw. It makes me do royally stupid things. I started wondering if this trip would fall into the ‘royally stupid’ category.

I didn’t have good internet reception on my phone, but I could still text. Earlier in the evening I sent my friend Susie a text in a panic because I couldn’t remember if I’d ever been kayaking or not and she kayaks and I had no idea what to do. Almost as if she could tell I was feeling a little lonely, she replied and we had a nice conversation. I ended up falling asleep right after that.

The thing about camping is that you don’t need an alarm clock because the sun is your alarm clock. When it gets up, I get up so I tore down my tent and piled back into Matilda. By this time I’m feeling a little gross since I haven’t showered since before I left on Tuesday (it’s Thursday morning), and I hiked the day before, but I know showering would be silly since I was about to go and play in a giant sandbox. Before I set off I put on an album I hadn’t listened to in a while, Of Monsters and Men’s Little Talks, which turned out to the be perfect soundtrack for my scenic drive.

I stopped in Alamosa to recharge and then I drove to the Sand Dunes, another national park that I wanted to go to, basically to see if it was true that there were giant sand dunes in the middle of Colorado. It was maybe the most beautiful drive I’d ever been on. I was surrounded by gorgeous mountains. It was still early enough that the clouds were low, draped and stretched over the purple formations like wisps of cotton.

Then came the sand dunes. Every picture I took just makes them look lame. Seriously, it doesn’t do them any justice. While I drove I stared at the green fields leading up to the massive mountains and then out of nowhere, some tiny beige blobs appear, and those are the Great Sand Dunes. It’s so out of place that it looks like someone just dumped a huge pile of sand there. It’s hard to believe it’s not man made!

See?! It's kinda random!

See?! It’s kinda random!

When I got to the park, the ranger at the gate told me that I could explore anywhere I wanted on the dunes. This also surprised me, since, in Colorado at least, they are particular about people staying on designated trails. Sand has no trails though, or at least not permanent ones, so I quickly drove to the parking lot, put on my trusty CamelBack and headed towards the towering dunes.

What also surprised me was the creek that greeted me right when you stepped through a small stretch of forestation. It was almost like being on the beach. The place was crawling with kids making sand castles and adults walking through the stream with their shoes off. I dashed across, anxious to get the dunes.

The "creek"

The “creek”

It’s hard work to run in sand and it’s even harder work to climb in pure sand. I was out of breath by the time I made it past what I thought was the second row of sand dunes. Lucky for me, as I stood sipping my water, a group of guys who had to be no older than twenty were descending from the highest dune, laughing loudly. One of them decided to roll down the dune and did so. He didn’t just do the thing where you’re on a grassy knoll and roll down like a burrito. He tumbled down, head over feet, with limbs and sand flying everywhere. It looked painful…and hilarious. I could not stop laughing. The cherry on top was the conversation when the guy lost momentum at the bottom:

Dune Tumbler: Dude, there’s like a lot of sand in my mouth.
His Friend: You didn’t close your mouth?

I played on the dunes some more, which included an attempt at snowboarding. Like it was an actual snowboard, only it was harder than real snowboarding. In fact, it was kind of a pain, so I ditched the snowboard on some other unsuspecting tourists and went up to what looked like the third highest dune and then walked back, out of breath and out of water. I took off my shoes and walked through the sandy creek, enjoying the clear water weaving it’s way through my toes.

My footprints after walking down a dune.

My footprints after walking down a dune.

I had a long drive a head of me, and though I had no deep, soul-defining revelations and I got back to Denver and back to my little apartment feeling like the same girl who left it 48 hours earlier, I felt rejuvenated and reminded that I can handle most anything. I can drive long hours. I can sleep in a car. I can camp by myself. I can explore and dream and witness. I can do so much on my own. After last summer, where I lost the ability to do so much, it felt good to remember that it wasn’t really lost all along, just misplaced.

With that I leave myself with a simple reminder:

I can.

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