Off the deck and into the wild: Mesa Verde, Durango, Ouray

Saturday May 25, 2013, Mesa Verde to Durango to Ouray, Colorado

My good friend Loren Lapow, MSW, director of Maui Hero Project (I did my master’s internship under him in narrative adventure therapy with youth) has relocated his operation to Durango, Colorado, where he’s working with Native American youth in prevention and character ed. Once we were going to Mesa Verde, it’s only another hour to Durango, and when I contacted him to tell him we’d be in the area he offered to take us on a “river float.”

I texted him. “Beginner level only. We want to photograph the whole thing.”

“No worries,” came back. You see, he knows me.

He’s challenged me to climb cliffs, take ten twelve year olds into the bowels of a lava tube in total darkness, endure a sweat lodge, jump off a fifty foot waterfall. He knows I’m a chickensh*t when it comes right down to it, anxious as hell, but I’ll always go for it when challenged.

Unfortunately, rafting in Durango meant we didn’t have long to explore Mesa Verde, and since most of the Puebloan sites are guided tours, we didn’t get to see them up close. We tried to get another night at the lodge (after our rafting trip) but both lodge and camping were full due to Memorial Day weekend. (What? How’d that happen?) So, we got up early and did a whirlwind drive through-version which left me haunted by questions—why did they live so high in the cliffs? What was the advantage (other than defensibility) and also admiration: these were some badass, tough, hardworking people. I got winded just going down to the lookout sites by the elevation, let alone climbing on the hand-and-toeholds they’d used.Puebloan "palace" in the bluffs.

We went (regretfully) on to Durango and met Loren at St. Rita Park in the middle of town. The minute I saw the raging brown flood of the river I felt my heart go into overdrive. “I’m not doing it,” I said to Mike, my hands sweating as I got out of the car.

“Uh huh, it’s your choice,” Mike said, with that twinkle in his eye. He knows me very well, too. Loren arrived in a big Silverado pickup with a camper on the back—a hard-core mobile man-cave full of various kinds of sports equipment. We hugged and I said, “I hope that’s not the river we’re going on.”

“Let’s take a walk,” said Loren, in that low mellow voice he uses to hypnotize kids and nervous moms. We walked along the river and he took us straight to the rapids at the edge of the park. “This is a class 3 rapid called Smelter. It's the worst we'll go through.”

“No way. I’ve never done this before. I was thinking, like, a mellow jade-green river, looking at the sky, taking pictures…”

“I know what you were thinking, but this is spring, and we had some more snow melt. You’ll be fine.”

“Let’s go!” (Mike was chomping at the bit, of course.)

We were meeting some other people, and everyone was running behind, so we took Loren to breakfast and got a visual on the arty-culture-cowboy-athletic vibe that is Durango, then met the others on the banks of the Animas River several miles from where we’d “eddy out.”

It was a bit of a madhouse at the launch site—seemingly hundreds of people, buses full even, trailers stacked high with inflatables, and a casual, holiday, festive feeling in the air. We got in our own small raft with Loren piloting and two other bigger rafts of his friends, (all cute twentysomethings of both sexes, everyone in bikinis and surf trunks) and we got going.

I discovered I really really like river rafting and I hope I get to do it again. Loren was great, gave clear direction “Forward two! Dig deep!” “Left turn, pull hard!” and Mike and I paddled in sync really well. We made it without incident through the Class 1 and 2 rapids leading up to Smelter (eddying out on the banks a few times for the young people to fuel up on beer and flirting) and then we ran the big rapids across from the park.

It’s a lot like taking off on a wave surfing: paddle paddle paddle, the drop, the turbulence, the excitement of pulling it off. I found it a familiar feeling in the end. We got all jacked up with adrenaline and when we’d safely “eddied out” at the departure point, Loren told us it was the first time he’d piloted solo.

The brat. He’s like the little brother I never had. But, he has a great gift of leadership, keeps a cool head, and I’d learned to trust that in my years of working with him (and hundreds of teens) professionally.

We hugged Loren goodbye “living our myth, man!” and got on the road, headed for Black Canyon National Park some three hours north.

On the map it was a relatively straight line, but we found ourselves going higher and higher into snow-capped peaks. Forests all around, gushing waterfalls and snowmelt creeks bursting their banks…and it was after 5:00 p.m. and, in spite of a hat and tons of sunscreen, 4-5 hours of direct sun had taken their toll on this fair redhead.

I’d got severely sunburned, an effect amplified by the medication I was taking for that weird rash that’s plagued me on and off on the trip, (tetracycline) and now I just wasn’t feeling good. We wove on through the beauty but I was getting tearful and exhausted, fantasizing about getting a plane home from Grand Junction. We finally crested another mountain (we were in the San Juan Mountains, which I’d never heard of, I had to get out the map to find out) and spotted an oasis of beauty. Nestled in the cup of valley surrounded by green, snowy mountains with the setting sun in the background—was a little town called Ouray.

We consulted TripAdvisor and worked our way down the list to the Twin Peaks Lodge, which is actually the nicest place we’ve stayed in the whole trip, with fan-folded towels, tons of amenities and great people. I took a shower, ordered room service, slathered myself in cortisone cream and crawled into bed with the AC on.

We’re both, despite the “wows” we continue to find, rather road-weary and overwhelmed by it all.  In the morning, Mike said (one look telling him I hadn’t recovered) “let’s take a day off. This town is gorgeous, you can walk around if you feel like it, or stay in bed all day; and I’ll explore around, do some fishing.” So that’s what we’ve done—visited a lovely church called Ouray Christian Fellowship for Sunday service, did a gentle walk and photo explore of the amazing Box Canyon Falls, and I stayed out of the sun and napped the rest of the time.

We drive on to Moab tomorrow where Mike’s main goal is Arches National Park. Even though we’ve begun to have “beam me up Scotty” fantasies, there’s no easy way to get back to Hawaii from here—so onward we go.

In the future, I think three weeks is the most I’ll want to be on the road—and today makes twenty-one days of travel.

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