We were in not hurry and dawdled along the way, stopping at scenic vistas and taking walks along roadside trails. We pulled into Gunnison around 6 p.m. and looked for a place to stay—we still had four hours of driving to get to Mesa Verde and I didn’t want to set camp in the dark. Syd begged me to stop at a motel that had a swimming pool, but the motels along the highway were all full by the time we made it to town. I looked closely at the map, trying to divine where in the Uncompahgre National Forest we’d find a campground. As luck would have it, we came upon a steakhouse and hotel downtown. It was one of those old-timey places where the hotel sat above the restaurant in a clapboard building with a boardwalk out front. The sun had just ducked behind the mountains and the air grew crisp.
We took a suite that was old and worn but clean and comfortable. It had a couple of rooms, both with beds. I’d get to sleep for the first time on our trip without Syd’s squirming and jerking waking me up in the night. We had a good dinner in the restaurant and we spent the evening playing a board game we’d brought with us. After dark, we looked out the window that opened to porch roof at the back of the hotel. We watched the town, now quiet but for the occasional blatting of a motorcycle or truck.
“I sure would like to sit out there on the roof,” she said. We pulled on her jackets and she climbed out on the roof above a porch below us and stayed there a good long time. I told her to stay close to the window, where I sat in a bony chair.
“I bet you never did this before,” she said.
“Nope,” I said. “I never sat on the roof of an old hotel in Gunnison before.”
“Do you think we’re gonna get in trouble?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We may just get in trouble if we get caught, I suppose. But who’s going to catch us? I don’t think anyone’s watching.”
We breathed in the night until Syd began to nod. I took her under her arms as she climbed back inside. I read her a story when she went to bed and then sat at a small desk catching up in my journal. The last few days had been extraordinary. My purpose was to show her things she might never see again, and to be alone with her, a father-daughter experience. I also wanted to lose some of the fear I had about the uncertainty of our lives together. As I thought about it, I realized that no matter how much I worried, we’d wound up being just fine.
The same would hold on this trip. We didn’t know where we were going after Mesa Verde, but we’d wind up somewhere safe. There was plenty of national forest where we could camp. We’d see where we were going next when we did and not before. Besides, Syd was safe with me. She had caught a big fish and bragged to her dad about it. She had seen the interior of a house, the likes of which we would never grace again. She rode in the car through incredible landscapes and, more importantly, she noticed them. She’d kept herself busy in the car between times she stared out the window. Stopping when we wanted and going where we wanted, she had been in charge, saying she’d like to see more of this scene or another. It was, for all my insecurity, a good life and a good trip so far and we had a lot longer to go.
We again started off late, stopping at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. There we went at the visitors’ center and started Sydney to get her activity for her National Park Service Junior Ranger Program. Back in Yellowstone, we picked her up a small, passport-like book in which she could get stamps for each of the national parks or monuments we visited. To get the stamp, she had to do something relevant to the park—list certain sights, animals, plants, or rocks; do a crossword puzzle or word game; write descriptions of events or feelings—and each park had a worksheet for the child to fill in. We did her activity for the park, got her passport stamped, and went to see the sights. The canyon really deserved more attention than we could give it, given that I wanted to make Mesa Verde before dark. But she witnessed the incredible canyon where the Gunnison River wound in tight loops and curves below.
Back on the road, we made our way through South Park. I thought we could stop in the national forest for the night above Ouray, Colorado. I’d loved to have taken in the town’s hot springs and gotten Syd the swim she’d been begging for every day since we took off from Yellowstone. But time pressed on me. I thought since it was already almost 8 p.m., we ought to make camp while it was still light. Outside of town, we wound up a rocky and uneven Forest Service road, looking for a place to overnight. But the road was crowded with campers. People had struck their tents on precarious ledges at the edge of the road. RVs and campers took up spaces that might have been camping spots for us. We could see the town below the mountain, and as the sun had fallen behind the mountains, the town began to turn on it’s lights. We found a turnout and headed back for the road to Mesa Verde. Night, it seemed, was our fate.
We arrived in the park about 11 p.m. Sydney was on edge, wanting to get out of the car and fearful of the night. I was anxious too. Would we find a spot? If not, we’d have to head into Cortez or Durango and try to find a hotel. It was high tourist season, and this part of Colorado made a living catering to the thousands of tourists that made their summer pilgrimages here. As we drove higher up off the valley floor to the main area of the park, where the campgrounds and visitors’ center stood, my mind kept nagging me. What if we don’t find a place for the night?
On the way into the park, we came across a herd of mule deer that walked right up to the car. Syd took her little camera and captured what night be a perfect picture of one with the flash. I still have that picture, the only one of that trip that I’ve been able to find. It’s right here on the side of my computer now. I remember my anxiety and nervousness. I also remember that I had masked it well enough to keep Sydney from getting worried about our accommodations or any of the other care I had in that moment. The picture symbolizes to me the wonder she had at the sites she had seen.
“Look dad,” she said at the time. “I can just reach out and pet it.”
Unsure of what a mule deer might do, I told her to keep her hands in the car. Today, I wished I would have encouraged her to pet that deer.