On mesas and rock scrabbling

So in the middle of Internet vacationing lnhammer and I also took a real vacation, out to Mesa Verde National Park. Known for its cliff dwellings, Mesa Verde is at least as interesting for its landscape and geology, flat-topped mesas above steep sandstone and shale cliffs.

While there, I hiked the park’s Petroglyph Point Trail.

The first half of this trail was down below the mesa top, beside and among the cliffs. It was a rock-scrabbling climb over slippery rocks, uneven stone paths and stone staircases leading up and down (but mostly up) through beige sandstone–calf-straining work, although the sort of work that was also accompanied by splendid stone-and-mesa views beneath the deep blue sky, if only one stopped to look.

I had to stop to look, often, because at 7000 feet the climb was also panting, breath-stealing work. Balance-testing work, sometimes daring me to hold out my arms and keep steady as I climbed the stairs, other times forcing me to brace myself against stone walls that pressed in close.

And then.

One final climb, following a trail arrow that pointed straight up a couple of boulders, the footholds within them at first hidden, difficult, and short ways more (made longer by a wrong turn where I took a not-really-a-trail, because after the boulders I’d stopped expecting the real trail to be clear to the eye), and all at once I was atop the mesa, the stones and the scrabbling were beneath me, the tree-lined trail ahead was all flat sandy soil.

The mesa views remained stunning, but they no longer came at a calf-straining, breath-stealing cost. The way on was suddenly easy, the trail clear, and with every step of it, I had the feeling I was just in a good place. The top of the mesa felt right, and easy, and I understood why the ancient puebloans had farmed and built here first, and only later (and even then, only some of them) moved down into the cliffs below. Who wouldn’t want to stay in this good place, this easy place, this hard-earned place, once the climb up the cliffs was through?

Yet I found myself thinking, as I walked on–stopping to admire the views because I wanted to, not because I had to–about how one doesn’t get to stay in the good places all the time, because there will always be things we need down below.

For the ancient puebloans, one of these things was water. Water didn’t remain up top waiting for them; it seeped down through the mesa and the porous, difficult sandstone, only stopping and weeping and puddling when it reached a layer of harder shale. Even when the ancestral puebloans lived above, they would have had to climb down for water, possibly daily. That scrabble would have been a regular part of their lives.

But we want–okay, I wanted, on this hike and in general–to stay above once we’ve finally gotten there. I’d already done the hard work, after all. I wanted that to be enough. I wanted to be done with it.

The trail worked that way, looping around back to the starting point without forcing me down again like it’d thought it might. But much of life doesn’t work that way. We push through the hard places, move beyond them, and then we return to them again, because there are things we need down there and life isn’t a carefully constructed and graded loop trail. There’s not even always an arrow waiting to tell you which boulders can be scaled.

Yet knowing we’ve actually navigated the difficult stones and steep places before–there’s comfort in that. It means that maybe/possibly/probably we can do it again, not because it’s suddenly become easy, but because we know now that it’s at least doable. That helps. It matters. It tells us the scrabbling parts are no more forever than the mesa top is.

And even those scrabbling parts–well, it turns out that some of that sandstone, that breakable, slippable sandstone, has a certain rough grippiness to it, that holds onto the soles of the feet, helping us to remain standing amid all that precariousness a little better than we first realize, though we may not–I did not–realize it, at first.

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