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Driving the Continental Divide

Boutiques along Galena Street, in Aspen, Colorado, at dusk.

Photo: Kevin Cooley

Two thousand miles in a car can make anyone long for release. In Colorado, we found it soaring on ziplines through a canopy of ponderosa pines at the end of a canyon where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a.k.a. Newman and Redford, leaped to the Animas River. For once we were both passengers, up in the treetops and aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the only means of accessing the canyon. We found it strolling among the heirloom hollyhocks in the gardens dense with color at Blue Lake Ranch. We found it tucked just under the mesa top in the recesses and platforms and arches of Balcony House, a cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde. And we found it emanating from the earth itself in New Mexico.

Here, mountains—as if put through a giant plane—emerged shorn of their peaks, rising randomly across a high desert floor as tables draped in gold and red. After the cool of Colorado, we welcomed a warmer palette, higher temperatures, hotter food, and a deeper culture. That Pueblo Alto, an 89-room 11th-century dwelling in Chaco Canyon, still stands, and that Acoma Pueblo was ever inhabited, and is still lived in, are reminders that we should be as conversant with ancestral Chacoan (formerly known as the Anasazi) as we are with their contemporaries King Arthur, Leif Eriksson, and William the Conqueror. Why is enlightenment so rarely sought in our own backyard?

New Mexico made us thirsty. Crossing Interstate 40, we stockpiled bottled water before entering the swirling volcanic terrain of El Malpais National Monument. For the next hundred miles, we encountered not a single vehicle, coming or going, as we crept across a black crust shattered by cinder cones. Iced tea cooled the afterburn of green chile cheeseburgers at Largo Café, in Quemado. More water carried us through the final leg of our long descent from Canada, skirting Arizona in former Apache country, then winding through the Gila National Forest before plunging down into colorful Silver City. South of town the landscape would finally level off toward the Mexican border, but hilly Silver City itself sat right atop the Continental Divide. Cloudbursts here regularly turn the streets into rivers, and one practically needs a step stool to mount the high curbs. Lynn and I would not be staying for the next storm but instead would divide and head home, like the waters, to our oceans.

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