The four of us are crammed into Mel’s CRV along with two tents, four sleeping bags, four sleeping mats, two coolers, two paper bags full of food and cooking utensils, three bags of various camping gear, pillows and blankets. There is just enough space for exactly everything we have, nothing more. All four windows are down. Arms are dancing like snakes in rhythm with the air currents. Toes are tapping on beat to the soulful cries of Fiona Apple. The sun is shining as we pull out of Denver and onto the open road.
Our original plan was to drive to Telluride, but work schedules delay our departure and we decide we don’t want to pitch our tents too late at night. So we settle for a halfway point to sleep and will continue our journey tomorrow. Mel picks a spot on the map. “Grand Junction-” she says, “we can camp there for the night.” We know nothing about the proposed city, and we expect nothing from it. A place to camp and wait for daylight. No objections.
We drive for hours, protected by a fortress of mountains, a new comfort. Patches of blue sky punctuate puffy clouds. Verdant spruces and pines shoot up from the earth like arrows, saying “this way, climb higher, venture further.” Nightfall comes sooner than expected. It’s already becoming difficult to see beyond the blurry glow of headlights. The road is steep and winding, flanked by vertiginous drops to red rock valleys below leaving little room for error. But we don’t know it. For now, both the perils and the beauty of the vistas that surround us are obscured from view. We see only the darkness. We hear only stillness.
There is an eerie and exciting sensation that leaves one to run away with imaginative possibilities–of what we’re hurtling towards, becoming engulfed by; of what lies ahead. I crane my neck out the window to feel the difference–there’s always something different in a new place. It’s subtle, but it’s there, and it forces me to adapt, to feel different too. The air is cool and crisp, gently loosening wisps of hair from my ponytail.
We arrive to a quiet campsite. We throw our tents up in a hurry and get to sleep, eager for the next day. For daylight to reveal our geography. For the light to make known if we’ve picked a good campsite. Or if we’ll discover new treasures in this strange land, something we can take with us and hold on to.
It’s Mel who wakes first, walking back to the campsite with raised eyebrows in her earth-toned outfit matching the landscape. “You have to see it. Walk that way.” She points to a nondescript area behind some bushes by our campsite. There appears to be nothing there.
After a few steps, a canyon, deep and warped, like a terra cotta bowl made just for us. Like the impulsive decision of God at the wheel, creating pottery in a frenzy, trusting us to comprehend the significance. It’s red and sandy, rustic, flawed. Yet perfect. It’s my first experience, I realize, with the quintessential American Wild West. Some say it’s the “heart of the world,” or, at least, the U.S. Stripes of mahogany and vermillion etched into buff-colored rocks. The tint of sepia that saturates everything. The intense feeling of being so small, let loose in a giant’s world. I keep repeating in my head “It’s for me; it’s for us.” But it’s not. It just is.
Little did we know we had chosen Colorado National Monument as our campsite, or that the largest flat-topped mountain in the world was nearby. Terms like “national park” and “sandstone masterpiece” place perspective, but they’re not needed. We’re already in awe. We hike through it; we’re in it. I’m not yet awake. I’m still asleep inside this dream.