S2:E3 – Ruins, Rats, and Realizations

What are ruins, really? A trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico digs up memories of Lisa’s favorite childhood playground. And, Hartman Rocks is an amazing place to mountain bike in Gunnison, Colorado but…be prepared with rodent repellent if you’re there in pack rat nesting season! It was a battle of Paul vs. the pack rats – and the pack rats won.

This episode was written, recorded, edited, and produced by Lisa McNamara, with additional editing by Paul Olson. Music by Michael Kobrin from Pixabay.


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Photos from this episode: visit our blog, Driving Inertia


This is Road Tripping in America, a podcast about life on the road. I’m Lisa and this is Paul.

We’re exploring the US in a pickup truck with a camper – we named our setup The Bobs.

If you daydream about long-term travel or overlanding or #vanlife – or maybe you’re already on your own adventure – join us every two to three weeks for some entertainment from the road. We’re in search of off-the-beaten-path adventures and new experiences after a year and a half of standing still.

Today: what are ruins really?, making a podcast in the wild, and the evolution of our stuff – a sneak peek on that one…we had to add some rodent repellent to our arsenal…we’ll get into that story a little later on. This is series two, episode three: Ruins, Rats, and Realizations.

This episode was recorded in the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest near Steamboat Springs.

I grew up on a piece of land in upstate New York that once was a farm but that had long since returned to the forest. Across the road from my house, the one room farmhouse foundation of the Schraas, the farmers, stood on the top of a hill beside a pond. The hill leading down to the pond had been used by the farmhouse occupants as their garbage disposal for years, an early 20th century midden. Anything non-compostable or non-burnable they tossed down the hill – out of sight, out of mind – like everyone else did in those days. For a few years as a kid, this was one of my favorite places to play. One year, my parents decided to clean up the trash hill and they brilliantly got me invested in helping without complaint by turning the cleanup into a game where we were discovering what we could find in that hill. I scratched away at the dirt with my grandma’s old potato hook for days, unearthing broken dishes, tin cans, severed dolls’ heads, and tiny glass medicine bottles. I arranged the best finds in the foundation itself, which was still a neat hole in the ground lined with stones, even though no other parts of the house remained. A narrow stairway led down into the foundation, and I lined my treasures up along a shelf that ran down one side of the foundation or hung them from the twisted, rusty metal bed frame that someone had thrown into the foundation at one point – the rusty metal springs were great hooks for displaying my artifacts. Someone had pushed an old car into the foundation too, and that was also covered with rust and my treasures and a small, mossy microclimate that formed in the rainwater that collected on the dented roof. A few small trees grew in the midst of this tetanus playground. I loved it. It was a great place to grow up.

When we excavated the hill, other than the treasures that I kept in the foundation, most everything went along on my Dad’s next dump run. We didn’t catalog what we found, or work with the descendants of the original owners to see if they wanted anything or if they wanted to leave things undisturbed, we didn’t keep much of anything long-term. My parents eventually had the old car hauled out of the foundation and scrapped, along with the bed frame and my treasures, once I was too old to care about them anymore. Now all that’s left is a small, neatly laid rock foundation that is slowly crumbling into the earth.

Much like the ruins in the American west. Here there are multiple overlapping areas of deterioration. Because many building materials are stone, because wood and other organic materials decay so slowly in this climate, because there’s so much land, the American west is full of many things that could be called ruins: Native American structures, mining camps, prospectors’ log cabins, rough adobe farmhouses, ghost towns. The past is very visible here.

Along the road to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico – the recommended road, which requires only 16 miles of “mostly unpaved” travel instead of 20 or 33 miles of “rough dirt” on the alternatives – there is a continuous procession of abandoned modern houses lining the dirt road. These are the relics of people who more recently tried living out here, who tried farming and ranching, only to likely be driven away by many of the same reasons that led the native inhabitants to leave – harsh climate, lack of water, the long, dry high desert winters. These houses are slowly melting into the desert, their roofs stripped more and more by each storm, their siding bleached by the sun, their wallpaper and paint peeling, their windows and doors broken by so called urban explorers, looters, or those interested in destruction for destruction’s sake. Even though it’s all private land, there are no No Trespassing signs, no gates, only basic decency to keep you out. Because these look like houses you know, that you might have grown up in or that your friends might have lived in.

Once the hearty soul makes it back to Chaco Culture Park, after marveling over the return to paved roads within the park, they will find an amazing concentration of ancestral Puebloan great houses. The Chacoan great houses – sixteen within the park – are the largest, best preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America.

People who are into this history stuff or descendants of the original residents don’t care that the road is long and bumpy, crosses a stream, can often be impassible, and as further proof of the difficulty, that there are three towing companies listed on the park info signs (where there isn’t even cell service to call said towing companies). They get here in Jeeps and Priuses and towing fifth wheels five miles an hour down the rocky and rutted road, who cares how long it takes, because this place is special.

Humans lived in this area for a very long time, for more than 10,000 years. The great houses we can still see today were built from the mid-800s to the late 1100s AD and had hundreds of rooms and no one really knows why they were built here or what they were used for, though there are a few theories – that it was a sacred “center place,” that it was a trading hub, that it was a food and resource distribution center. In the Chaco Valley, the great houses are all in line of sight of one another, and it is fascinating to move up the valley from one to the next, some easy to access from the road, some requiring a hike of a few miles through a fissure in the rock canyon wall to visit, and feel the continuity from one to the next. Even though the building techniques and materials vary slightly depending on when they were built and they are in various states of restoration, you can still see the connection.

These aren’t ruins to the descendants of the people who once lived here. They’re sacred sites, strong connections to past ancestors, some of whom are buried here. Native people then living in the area, whose grandkids or great grandkids might be alive today, watched as white people came in and dug up their ancestor’s land and hauled away their stuff and now their grandkids watch as various people tramp through the remains of the great houses that were left behind. Things that were used here, that would give context to the perfect stone corners, the low doorways, the corner passageways, the stone steps and ledges, have all long been removed and dispersed to various museums. It’s my old foundation at home, without my treasures. The architecture is amazing but a huge piece of the story has been carried off.

It wasn’t until 1981, over a hundred years after the first museum-filling excavation, that, according to the park’s official history, a major philosophical change in archaeology shifted attention from costly, large-scale excavations and Native American beliefs started to be prioritized – mainly, the belief that the buildings should not be disturbed. The park service now focuses on oral histories and remote sensing techniques to continue to gather information without disturbing the sites. But artifacts from Chaco Culture Park are already spread across 24 museums in the US and around the world.

There’s a nice museum at the visitor’s center but the exhibit cases designed to display objects are all empty and a letter printed out on official government letterhead taped to the glass on a few cases explains why. There are HVAC issues serious enough that the museums who own the objects they promised to lend do not feel comfortable lending them; they are concerned that the objects will not be able to be preserved without the appropriate climate control. The letter is from May 2017 and promises that park employees are working on the HVAC system and that the exhibit will eventually include more than 380 Chaco artifacts from five institutions. I’ve worked on construction projects where there are HVAC issues that just plague you and are so hard to resolve that you feel cursed, they defy all reason and logic, so I understand it, I do. But it’s been four years now. Subtract out these pandemic years and they still have had a good two and a half years to work this out. It’s a really nice museum, with well-designed interpretive exhibits explaining the significance and history of objects that aren’t there. It’s surreal and feels very symbolic. At least print out pics of the objects that were intended to be displayed there so the exhibits make sense, so they aren’t just empty glass boxes.

It’s complicated. I just miss seeing the stuff. When we visited Chichen Itza in Mexico, I was really disappointed to find that there wasn’t much of a museum there, that the majority of the artifacts removed from the site were displayed all over the country and world; some we had seen in the past at the National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City, more were at the Gran Museo del Mundo Maya in Merida, the town we had just left after exploring for a few days. (That was an example of how my new relaxed planning style I talked about in the last episode has let me down.) That was also just a series of bad assumptions, that I assumed that of course one of the most significant archaeological sites in the world would have a museum onsite and wouldn’t have also had its history spread around the world so thoroughly. But that was wrong.

And looking at something from Chichen Itza somewhere else feels detached, feels less memorable than it would be there. The same thing has happened to any place that could be considered an archaeological site, all around the world. The pyramids, Machu Picchu, smaller places with less recognizable names.

Back in upstate New York, a decade ago after years of research, my Dad found the homestead his ancestors had established when they moved to the US from Ireland in the late 1800s. He discovered that the barn the early McNamaras had built was still standing, almost 150 years later. The guy who now owns the property had hired a contractor to demolish the barn the year before my Dad knocked on his door, but the contractor never showed up. The owner agreed to let my Dad take the barn down and keep all the materials, as long as he could finish the job that summer. My Dad put together a regular family reunion to tear that thing down, and parts of the barn have been incorporated into new buildings, landscaping, and other heirlooms by many family members. I know it made my Dad feel closer to his ancestors to pull that barn down, piece by piece, to examine their building methods, to see where they had scratched the dates of construction into the mortar, to see their hand and fingerprints from setting the stones of the foundation. How wonderful and rare and lucky that he had the chance to excavate and keep his family’s history.

In Chaco, as we visited these great houses and other sites, I felt a deep sense of gratitude to the descendants of the people who lived here who have no choice but to let tourists like us walk through their family homes. Maybe it’s easy to forget that people lived, worked, worshiped, loved, and died here just like they did in those other houses along the road back to Chaco, because this feels so much older, so detached, so stripped of the little things that remind us of those who once lived here who were not so different from us. But their fingerprints are in the mortar, their petroglyphs are on the canyon walls, their hands shaped, carried, and stacked the rocks in the walls. So many rocks.

While we were looking into the foundation of a great, standalone kiva, slightly dehydrated and overheated, someone blew a few long, low notes on a flute at the great house across the valley behind where we stood. Behind that great house, there was a natural amphitheater that had been enhanced to project sound across the valley to the kiva where we currently were. That sound gave me all kinds of goosebumps. I didn’t record it, because that didn’t feel right and it was so unexpected that I could only just stand and listen, glad Paul had talked me into walking up one more hill so that we could be in the right place at the right time. We need that human link to the past to humanize these places.

Visiting Chaco made me reflect on my Dad and his unique opportunity to collect a big piece of his family history, and on how I dug up a family’s history all those years ago. My sincere apologies to the descendants of the Schraas of what was once Schraa Road in upstate New York. I still have one of your medicine bottles.

As I was finishing up the last episode of this podcast and starting the outline for this one, Paul commented on how the whole process of making a podcast in the wild is a little comical, bordering on absurd.

The afternoon after our couple days in Chaco, I was sitting outside at Angel’s Peak in northwestern New Mexico, trying to finish up my notes and collect my thoughts for episode two. We had detoured into New Mexico from Colorado after a few days of heavy rain with more in the forecast for Colorado. We wanted to go somewhere to dry out, and there were a few things in this corner of New Mexico that I had been wanting to do but the timing was never right. And that’s exactly what this trip is for – doing the things that are too far to do on a one week vacation.

So there I was, with a beautiful view, nice dry air, great campsite, but the stable flies were driving me crazy. A stable fly is a housefly that loves to bite you below the knees and is the bane of boaters everywhere, aka the knee fly. Their bite is a really strong pinching bite and it feels like they are only biting you for fun, but they’re actually biting you to feed on your blood. Just in case you have been lucky enough to not encounter these bugs and think I’m exaggerating, let me explain what they do. They use their jaws to cut a slice in your skin, then they lap up your blood with their tongues. Think about all the things you also see flies using their tongues to lap up. And they don’t use Purell in between feasts. When there are no animals around to chomp on, they turn to humans. They really like feasting on ankles. I couldn’t really see my laptop screen outside anyway, because it is so shiny and the day was so bright. So despite the heat, I put on jeans and socks and sneakers and got my notebook to finish the outline, at least. But the damn things could bite through my socks! I gave up on writing and took advantage of the great internet access to read some news on my phone. But the flies kept biting me and I couldn’t take it anymore.

I retreated inside the camper, which was like a sauna in the heat. I changed back into a dress and pointed our tiny rechargeable fan at me and went back to writing on my laptop. The battery was getting low, but I would be OK for an hour or so. Suddenly, a fierce wind blew up and rocked The Bobs vigorously. The site we were at, which was the best in the campground for views, was on the top of the hill and I realized that, while I was fighting the stable flies, a storm had blown in. The wind was fierce and the weather app confirmed this was going to go on for a while, which was emphasized by the lightning that flashed all around us. We would have to move sites.

We went on foot to see which of the other sites felt most sheltered from the wind. Luckily there was only one other guy at the campground that day, so we had our pick. We took down the camper top and moved everything down to the site we had been at a few days before, which had a great view from the picnic table and a nice sheltered area to park the car. We hunkered down as the storm blew through and cooled everything down nicely and produced a great rainbow. And then it was time for dinner, and all writing efforts were dead for the day. Trying to hold my thoughts until I write them down is like trying to hold onto an armful of apples without dropping them, and sometimes I drop them all.

A few days later, once I had managed to get my thoughts together on a calmer day, in a spot where the stable flies did not roam, it was time to record. We were camped off a fairly busy dirt road in a dispersed spot in the national forest near Pagosa Springs. Behind the site was a very popular ATV trail. My throat was sore from how hard I have to breathe to mountain bike out here. It was raining again (don’t get me wrong about the rain – while it is a giant pain for timing outdoors things and attempting to keep Bob the camper from getting wet and moldy, it’s fantastic for the drought and fires. It’s just inconvenient to Lisa the human, which I readily acknowledge does not matter in the grand scheme of things.). Paul took dibs on hanging out in the camper so he could nap (it was a long bike ride), so I went up to the cab to record. After I recorded everything, I realized that the car door wasn’t fully closed so the background noise was a lot louder than it needed to be. Luckily I had just learned some good editing tricks for filtering out a lot of background noise. Over the next few days, in the afternoons after we’d gone for a bike ride and while it rained, I edited the recording, listened to the draft cut with Paul, finished the final edit, and exported the MP3 files. A few more days went by without wifi, until we were at a hotel on a Sunday night. After doing laundry but before going to find dinner, I uploaded the episode using the super slow hotel wifi, posted our transcript and photos, and it was done, time to get a happy hour beer and start all over again tomorrow!

And it’s great. I love it. This is a mid-episode thanks for listening!

A few episodes ago I talked about the generic demographic data I can see on Anchor, the podcasting distribution app I use. You may have heard an ad for it here or there. You might hear one again soon! In the US, Illinoisans are still the front runners by far – Chicago peeps, you are the first city in my world. And there are lots others represented in Illinois – Country Club Hills, Bloomington, Geneva, to shout out to a few. After Illinois, the top five states are rounded out by New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California, their relative placement changing probably based on which of our friends, family members, and former coworkers just listened before I looked at the stats. And there are listeners in 33 other states and DC too. And at least one listener in 18 other countries, from Italy to Mexico to Israel to Turkey to Thailand. I feel like I’m traveling the world again through all of you.

For our international listeners, I’m curious about what a road trip means in your country, if there is a road trip culture where you live. I’d love to hear your thoughts, you can email us at info (at) roadtrippinginamerica.com and we may share your stories on an upcoming episode.

(bird songs)

Up next after the break – the evolution of our stuff and how that rodent repellent I mentioned earlier came into play…

(bird songs)

Welcome back. We’ve now been on the road for six weeks, and we very quickly realized that some of our things needed adjusting.

As I mentioned earlier…unfortunately we have had some rodents to repel! In Hartman Rocks outside Gunnison, besides super fun and swoopy mountain bike trails and free camping alongside awesome rock formations, we also found a pack rat or two who decided that our nice new engine compartment would be a fantastic place to build a nest and our nice engine block insulation would be a great primary component of that nest. Pack rats like big shiny things and they don’t budge when a giant many times their size tries to poke them with a hiking pole and/or a sharpened stick. Instead, they poop everywhere and wait until the giants are asleep to tear up their vehicle. Luckily pack rats hate balsam fir oil and they only destroyed cosmetic parts of the engine and they didn’t have babies in their new nests because that would have offered a brutal moral dilemma. So yeah, rodent repellent is part of our arsenal now. The word “sachet” is now part of our regular vocabulary (as in – “have you checked the sachets?” “did you move the sachet off the engine block this morning?”). We plan to get a fresh batch of rodent repellent sachets every month or so.

Less disturbingly, a few episodes ago, I mentioned that we had opted out of a water tank for Bob the camper, because it was heavy and took up a lot of space and etc. But then last time, Paul talked about his low for the first month of road life, which was how hard it was proving to be to refill our smaller water jugs. So we got a seven gallon water tank. It fits nicely inside a milk crate so it’s easy to handle and keep in one place, and now we can carry at least eleven gallons of water at a time, which keeps us in the backcountry and between refills a lot longer.

Here’s another weird thing we didn’t expect. We have a great bike rack, but apparently it flexes enough over the biggest bumps that my bike’s handlebar has been bashing into Bob the camper and noticeably denting the door frame. Paul whittled a champagne cork and jammed it into the end of the handlebars and that seems to help provide a little shock absorbment. Had to drink a bottle of champagne for that, but we’ll do anything for the Bobs.

We also added a YouTube Premium subscription to our monthly budget, so we can keep up with the other adventurers we follow by downloading episodes and watching when we’re offline, waiting out a thunderstorm. Paul also likes to prepare for new dirt roads we plan to drive or areas we plan to explore by watching YouTube videos, while I prefer to be pleasantly surprised or brutally disappointed. After not having TV for a few weeks, it’s nice to introduce a little bit of screen-based entertainment back into our life.

We also ditched some things and habits too. I stopped setting my alarm two weeks in. I usually set an alarm so I don’t sleep in too long. With the warm sunlight that quickly turns the sleeping area from a nice, cool place into a sauna about fifteen minutes after the sun hits it and the small-boat-in-a-swell motion of Bob the camper once Paul gets up and starts moving around, sleeping in is no longer a problem for me.

Physical stuff-wise, we also offloaded a bunch of things at the Fort Collins storage unit that we didn’t end up using for the first month. I way overpacked cold weather gear, so we dropped off a wool blanket, chunky wool sweater, my nicer sneakers. I also learned that black jeans are horrible for road life – they look dirty instantly, and I don’t need that, it’s tough enough to stay clean as it is. We had extra sheets and towels which I knew that we probably wouldn’t need but packed anyway, and which we didn’t actually need. I had a couple handheld mics for recording that took up a lot of space and just weren’t necessary, with the three other ways I have of capturing sound that all work fine. There was the temptation to pack things because we had the space, but then we just ended up shifting stuff around that we didn’t need on a daily basis. It’s just easier with less. The key is still less stuff.

Next time: the things we think about on a daily basis that are routine when you live in a house, our monthly budget assessment, and Dinosaur National Monument: everything but the Dinosaurs.

Until then, check out our website, roadtrippinginamerica.com for more. If you are enjoying this podcast, please share it with a friend who’s also into travel, overlanding, or vanlife. Thanks for listening!