A Snow Job?

Monday, December 17, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Moab, UT to Cortez, CO
Before leaving Moab (pop. 5,101) this morning, we tracked down a couple of local letterboxes, including a terrific box from Raven's Song commemorating an incident in which her father, tired of having his garden harvested by neighborhood squirrels, began to humanely trap the vegetable thieves and release them a few miles away.  When he became convinced that some of these bushy-tailed pests were the same culprits returning for more of his produce, he began painting the squirrels' tails blue before releasing them.  Of course, this made the fellow an easy mark for his neighbor's mischief.  The neighbor captured a squirrel on his own property, administered the blue-tail treatment, and released it next door, leaving the hapless gardener convinced that his suspicions about the vengeful squirrels was correct. Not only did we enjoy the amusing story, the container and stamp were fiendishly clever—just a perfect package.  (Though we'd love to share a photo, that would be considered a spoiler, and that's taboo in the letterboxing code of conduct.)
From Moab we headed south on US-191 to Monticello (pop. 1,981) where we would turn east toward Colorado.  As we neared Monticello, we began to see a good coating of snow along the roadside.  Although the road had only patches of slush with isolated icy spots, conditions were worsening the farther south we drove.  In Monticello, we asked one of the locals if she knew anything about the condition of US-491 to Colorado.  "I know it's clear to the border," she stated, "but can't tell you how it is in Colorado."
As with so many things, 'clear' is in the mind of the beholder.  For someone in an area that sees an average of 60 inches of snowfall annually, the idea of a 'clear' road is completely different from a resident of Georgia, which probably doesn't collect a total of 60 inches in 30 years.
US-491 near Monticello, UT—the 'clear' road
Though no snow was falling, the wind was sending the roadside snow onto the cleared highway, making for pretty limited visibility from time to time.  This was only our first experience of the day with regional variances in road condition assessments.
Continuing southeast toward Cortez (pop. 8,451), we were reminded how a good coating of snow can transform even a mundane scene into something beautiful.  Though significant snow had accumulated in the past few days, the road was very clear and dry in this section of Colorado, so we made good time and arrived in Cortez just before noon.
After a quick lunch, we headed to Mesa Verde National Park.  We had tried unsuccessfully to visit the park the last time we were in the 'Four Corners' area.  At that time, we found the park's entrance gate locked because President Clinton had vetoed the Republican spending bill, resulting in the suspension of non-essential federal services.
No locked gates today
Theodore Roosevelt created Mesa Verde National Park in 1905 to protect the well-preserved cliff dwellings of ancient Pueblos who lived there from 600 to 1300.  More than 4,000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings have been found in the park, and today would finally be our day to see some of them.  We checked in at the gate, and the friendly ranger on duty didn't mention road conditions in the park.  When we inquired, he assured us that the road to the dwellings was fine today—packed snow—and we should have no problems.  He obviously had not seen our Georgia license plate.

From the park entrance, the road climbs steeply to the rim of the flat mesa top.  And Mr. Ranger was correct about the part of the road he could see from his gatehouse—it  was perfectly fine.  As we continued to climb, however, the temperature dropped steadily.  What started as patchy slush became snowpack, as Mr. Ranger had indicated.  Perhaps he didn't realize, however, that as the road climbed to 8,000 feet and higher, it was enveloped in a cloud.  Visibility at that point made this morning's little drifting snow seem like a children's game.
Elevation:  8,156      Temperature:  22°      Visibility:  Not so much
Since the cliff dwellings were on the top of this mesa we were climbing, we began to wonder whether we'd even be able to see any of these famous ruins.  With conditions deteriorating, we decided to return to a lower elevation, where we could use our time more productively.  Another snowstorm is forecast for Cortez tomorrow, and we still needed to find a letterbox and plant a box in Colorado before we hightail it out of here tomorrow morning.
After finding a couple of boxes, we were desperately seeking an interesting place to hide the letterbox we brought to leave in the state.  Finally we consulted the Roadside America app, where we learned about a local yard art sculpture display using hundreds of mufflers and other spare car parts.  Self-taught like most folk artists, Mr. Floyd has been building his gallery since 1993 and paints all his sculptures white.  In fact, a sign warns visitors not to sit too long on the benches there lest they get painted white themselves.  Whereas the humorous sculptures probably look great in the midst of a grassy field, they were pretty well camouflaged today.
Some of the residents of Mr. Floyd's exhibit
In addition to the snow cover, we encountered another sight on the way to Mesa Verde that we just don't see in Georgia—a cattle drive down a federal highway.  Three hours later we saw the cows again, about six miles further down the road on the way to their winter feeding grounds.  This must be the local Livestock 10K.
Git along, little dogies!
With both our missions accomplished, we settled in to the hotel for the evening.  Tonight we'll fall asleep with visions dancing in our heads of someday actually seeing the Mesa Verde cliffs.  Tomorrow we hope to beat the weather to Gallup, New Mexico, and slip over the border into Arizona for a bit.