Travel/Family: Into the fire zone

Book excerpt published in the Cortez Journal (CO), March 2004:

March 13, 2004
Tourists journey into fire zone
By Lori Hein

Special to the Journal

EDITOR'S NOTE: The summer after Sept. 11, a globetrotting writer from Massachusetts and her two children traveled 12,000 miles of American back roads and byways. "Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America" (, 2004) by Lori Hein ( is the story of the trio's road odyssey. In this excerpt, the travelers visit Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park at the height of wildfire season:

The parking lot of our Cortez motel gave onto a postcard Rocky Mountain view, so I parked New Paint so she could look, enjoy and be rejuvenated. When I went out the next morning to begin the tasks required before daily takeoff, New Paint sat in the early sun facing the Rockies, and a white truck marked OJIBWE Wildcat Firefighters sat next to her, its driver drinking coffee and working a cell phone.

As part of each morning's pre-departure ritual, I'd dump the melted ice from the coolers and send the kids to the motel ice machine for new stocks. There was no way I could throw water away in front of this man, so I hauled the coolers to the room and dumped the old ice in the bathtub, and still felt plenty guilty.

A wildcat firefighter in our motel parking lot meant fire was near. We'd come to Cortez, and Colorado, for Mesa Verde, and, when we got to the park, parts of it, including Cliff Palace and Balcony House, were closed due to fire threat. Wildfires had now affected us personally.

The only way to see anything was to go with a group on one of the tours they'd patched together and were still allowing to go out. The Park Service wanted everyone in one place, to count heads and ease evacuation should fire start. Both temperature and tempers were high as rangers dealt with frustrated tourists who'd traveled the country and world to get here. We were assigned to a 10:30 departure on a yellow Dolores School District bus to Spruce Tree House on Chapin Mesa. We killed time in the Visitor Center watching a film of Cliff Palace, the closest we'd get to it, and joked with a couple looking through postcards in the gift shop that it would be hard to find one of something we'd actually see.

But Spruce Tree House was magnificent, and the tour had an unusual edge to it because of the tense, frightening circumstances. The minute our school bus filled and the driver pulled away from the Visitor Center, all of us on the bus became a club and started talking. We sat next to a family from San Francisco whose two daughters, baby Hailey and 11-year-old Amanda, both fell in love with Adam. He gave them equal time, bouncing Hailey on his leg during the bus ride, and climbing into an underground Spruce Tree House kiva with Amanda.

All the tour kids went down into the cool, dark kiva. I sensed a silent contest taking shape down there after the smallest kids had come up. The older ones stayed in the hole, and I was tempted to ask the other parents if they wanted to wager on whose kid would win the test of wills and be last up the ladder. I'd have put my money on Adam to win and Dana to place.

Sure enough, after the other kids had caved and climbed out, a conversation like this was going on down in the pit:

"You go ahead, Dana."

"No, Adam. You go."

"No, you go up first. I'll follow you."

"Adam, you're just doing this because you want to be last."

"I do not."

"Yes, you do."

"Be quiet, Dana."

"Thanks, Adam."

Dana capitulated, and Adam was last man standing in the kiva.

Our tour group connected quickly because we had similar thoughts. We felt lucky to have nabbed a tour spot. (Becoming rarer by the hour, I imagined tickets being scalped in the parking lot in whispers to families in RVs.) We were optimistic that Spruce Tree House, not the first choice of anyone on our bus, would be "worth it." We were strangely titillated by our flirt with fire. We trusted the rangers, people we'd we never met, to protect us. And, we couldn't wait to see the cliff dwellings, then hightail it out of Mesa Verde.

None of us had missed the hellish landscape on the 15-mile mountain drive from the entrance up to the Visitor Center. Charred, eerie remains of a year 2000 fire covered the mountainsides. Black limbs and trunks. Gray, leafless trees reaching up like skeletal hands. Almost counterintuitive, this already-burned landscape was, in fact, a safe zone. It had no fodder or fuel left, so wouldn't ignite again. It allowed us safe passage into Mesa Verde, and it was safe passage out, should trouble flare.

Copyright © Lori Hein ( 2004. Excerpted from "Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America" ( Reprinted with permission.