Danielle Ammer

Illustrator, Artist, Designer

283

3

The Trail to Cliff Palace

Updated. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. 

I was inspired by a review of Mesa Verde I read. “Ranger Wiener was a real jerk and that’s why Mesa Verde gets only 2 stars.” I thought it was hilarious that someone would rate a National Park based on an interaction with a ranger, so that got me thinking what kind of interaction would that be.


The Trail to Cliff Palace

“Damn it, Tim! Again?” Randy rolled his eyes and gave Tim a long, withering glare. Tim held his hands up as a form of mea culpa.

“Look, I know - I know. It ain’t the first time.”

“Damn it, Tim.”

“But you’ll do it?”

Randy heaved a long sigh, grabbed a Sharpie from the desk, and walked over to the schedule board. Under the time slot 11 A.M. he marked out “Tim” and wrote his own name. Tim beamed at him in gratitude.

“Thanks again, bud! I owe you one!”

Randy chuckled. “It’s three, by my count.”

He grabbed his hat from its post on the wall, and slapped it onto his head. He made certain to button up the top button on his crisp green shirt, tapped his brass name tag - a habit he developed after forgetting his name tag once - and stepped out into the hot late morning sun of Mesa Verde National Park.

The red rock surrounded the ranger station, overlooking the canyon. Sunlight bathed the mesa in a warm glow, and a light breeze tickled the shrubby trees that dotted the landscape. A squirrel chirped near him, resting on its back legs, front paws reaching out to him for food.

Little buddy, you shouldn’t be begging for food. Go find some nuts.

The squirrel, realizing he would get nowhere, ran off.

Cars pulled up to the visitor center, and eager people wearing jean shorts, sandals, and too much perfume ushered past him. He dutifully held the door open for them as they walked by, and sighed to himself a little as they ignored him without a single “thank you”. He strolled over a sign that read 11 A.M. Walking Tour where a woman with long dark hair pulled back into a low ponytail, dressed in ranger attire, and wearing a metal badge that read “Clare”, was attempting to corral tourists behind the sign.

“Please stay behind the sign!” She called out to a couple teenagers who teased and punched at each other. They looked at her sheepishly and ducked back into line, disappearing into their phones. 

She glows like the sun.

The woman glanced over at Randy and flashed him a bright smile. “Thank goodness you’re here. I have to pee.” She muttered to him as he approached her. “Where’s Tim?”

Randy rolled his eyes. “You know Tim.”

She shook her head and laughed. “How many is that now? Three? Four?”

“Don’t ask.”

“You can’t let him walk all over you.”

“I’m all right.”

She touched his arm lightly. “Hey, you okay? I can take this group if you need a break.”

“Clare -”

Why can’t I find the words?

She pulled back, quicker than Randy would have liked, and smiled sadly at him. “I know, I know. We’re not there. We’ll never be there if you don’t - You know what? This isn’t the time. See you when you get back.” Clare turned on her heel walked back toward the visitor center. 

Randy’s gaze lingered after her. 

Idiot. I’m gonna ruin this for myself, just like I always do.

A piercing scream sharply pulled him to attention, and he sprinted through the crowd toward the sound. 

“Excuse me!” he called as he pushed through a circle of people and came face-to-face with a bawling child and his exhausted mother dusting off a small white bear. 

“Is everything okay here?” He asked the mother.

“It’s fine!” She snapped at him.”He just dropped his toy.”

“Okay, well, why don’t you put the toy away for the tour. This is a sensitive area, and you don’t want it falling over the cliffside.” He knelt down beside the boy. “Hey, kiddo, you dropped your friend?”

The child hiccuped and stared at Randy. He nodded.

“No worries. How about you put your friend away for now?”

The child erupted into piercing, fresh sobs. Randy quickly stood and muttered an apology to the boy’s mother who threw him a fresh glare, scooped the child into her arms and began to bounce him lightly. 

Randy hurried back to the front of the line, enduring the heated gazes of everyone on the tour as he passed them. But he had a job to do, and it would only last an hour, tops. Then he could take his lunch break. Maybe hike out to the harder trails, where he was more likely to be alone. 

Silence. Sweet, heavenly silence.

He looked out over the crowd of people that had assembled for the 11:00 tour, counting them. Some people shuffled their sandled feet under the hot sun, toes exposed to the rocks and pebbles of the desert, some with water bottles in their hands, others had backpacks with water bladders in them, and a few had no water at all. Most of the younger tourists were preoccupied with their phones or game devices, and Randy knew they likely wouldn’t appreciate the history of the pueblos. The sun was already hot, and a bead of sweat trickled down Randy’s back. 

That bald man isn’t wearing a hat. He’s gonna regret that decision.

“All right, everyone, are we all ready for the 11:00 tour to the Mesa?”

Affirmative grumbles sounded the reply.

Well, this will be fun. Damn it, Tim, you owe me big time.

“Great! We’re going to take this trail down to Cliff Palace, where we’ll get a close up look at the structures left behind by the Puebloan Indian tribe that used to live in this area. Please follow me and watch your step. Some of the trail follows along a steep cliff, so if you have young children with you please be sure to hold onto them. And please remember the Leave No Trace policy - take only pictures, leave only footprints.”

Randy began to walk down the trail, keeping a close eye on the group behind him. For an hour, he would be responsible for entire group. 

And responsible for their actions. 

He quickly fell into his usual hiking gait. His brown boots hit the familiar trail with a soft crunch. Tiny granite pebbles kicked out around him, and he saw a vulture gliding off in the distance. The blue sky was dotted with tiny white clouds, and the sun was hot. He used to despise the heat, but over time he realized that there were fewer people on the trails when it was hot outside. Now, he welcomed it. 

They had only walked for a third of a mile when he heard a scream from behind him. He spun around, eyes darting across the crowd of people, so see a woman wearing designer sunglasses and flip flops paralyzed in fear, her finger pointed at the ground. 

“What’s wrong, ma’am?”

“That! That! Eeeeeeee!”

Randy’s gaze followed the direction her finger was pointed. A horned lizard was spread out on a rock, bathing in the warm sun. A single eye was open slightly, and stared back at the woman. It blinked slowly.

“Well, ma’am, that’s just a horny toad.”

“Is it poisonous?”

Randy chuckled, “Nope. He’s just sunbathing. Lizards do that to regulate their body heat.”

A couple children had crowded around them now, eager to see the lizard. The woman gathered up her pride.

“Well, you should really get these animals out of the way of where people are walking! It’s dangerous! I don’t like reptiles!”

Randy blinked. “Well, ma’am, I mean - this is a wilderness area-”

“Ugh! No it’s not! It’s a National Park!”

Why did she come here, then? 

Randy frowned. “Did you want to go back, ma’am? We’re not that far out. There might be more critters on our way to Cliff Palace.”

“Unbelievable! No, it’s fine! But you should really clean up your park!”

Randy tipped his hat to her and moved back to the front of the line, and the group continued their trip. 

Randy knew every stone and every tree along this trail. He pointed out features of note as they traveled, and recited facts about the Puebloan people. He even showed them an arrowhead laying on the ground. The crowd mostly ignored him. The teenagers took selfies, faces scrunched in a silly pose. Someone complained about a blister. The bald man’s head had turned red. The woman in flip flops looked all around her for more creatures, a sour expression on her face. The little boy still had his teddy bear in one arm, dragging it on the ground.

At last, their destination could be glimpsed through the brush ahead of them.“Up ahead you can see Cliff Palace!” Randy called out to the group. “This next bit is going to be a narrow trail along a cliff side, so please watch your step and hold onto your belongings.” 

The group began to file into a single line, slowly taking the trail. To their left the cold stone wall rose up above them, brown and streaked with grey from age and erosion. To their right, a sheer fall of about 15 feet. And ahead, the white pueblo structures nestled deep within the stone overhang. The valley spread out below them, its rugged beauty struck Randy, like it always did. He smiled to himself. Remembering how he felt when he first arrived to his posting here. He wondered, not for the first time, what life was like back then. What was it like to wake up and step outside of a pueblo home to this view?

“Oh no!” A woman’s voice, followed by a child’s scream, startled him from his reverie.

What the hell?

He recognized the scream, but the narrow trail kept him from rushing back to the tired mother and her little boy. He slowly made his way back to them, muttering “excuse me” as he pressed past people. He knew what had happened as soon as he saw them. The boy was inconsolable, his tiny fists pressed into his reddening face. The mother gazed longingly over the edge of the cliff, her arms around the boy. Relief washed across her face when she saw Randy approach.

“Oh thank goodness! Look! He threw his bear! You have to go get it!”

I knew this would happen!

Finally, something snapped inside. “Well, we’re not going to be able to get it right now. I did ask you to put it in your bag before we started this hike.”

Why didn’t she listen to me?

The woman’s face flushed, and her relief turned to rage.

“Danny wanted to carry it with him. How dare you-”

“No, ma’am, how dare you! This is a sensitive area, with several protected and endangered species in this habitat. We’ll get your toy, but it’s going to take a while, and it’s going to have to involve a couple other rangers so we can make sure to work our way through the brush with minimal impact! You’ll have to leave your name and address with the visitor center so they know where to send it.”

Randy turned and began to work his way back to the front, past stunned tourists.

“What is your name?” The mother stood now, holding her son, and fuming at him.

“Randy, ma’am.”

“Randy what?”

“Randy Wiener.”

A few of the teenagers snickered. Randy glared at them, and they immediately shut up. He moved to the front of the line and began to continue down the trail, continuing the tour as if nothing happened.

When the group made it back to the visitor center, the woman stormed to the front of the register and began to shout at Clare behind the counter. Clare’s eyes looked over at Randy, and his guilty gaze told her all she needed to know.

Randy sighed and went to the back office. Tim was there, reading a tabloid, with his feet up on a desk. He beamed as Randy walked in and placed his hat on it’s post.

“How was it?”

“You owe me, man.”

“Yeah, I know-”

“No. I mean it. You owe me.”

Tim looked at Randy. 

“Jesus, Rand, you look like shit.”

“I yelled at a lady.”

Clare stepped into the back office.

“Randy, we need to talk.”

“I know. I lost it out there. I don’t know why it got to me so bad.”

“I think you need a break. You’ve been under a lot of stress. Why don’t you take some vacation?”

“Hey, can I take vacation, too?”

“Why don’t you go man the front, Tim. There’s a line of people out there.”

Tim heaved a dramatic sigh and stepped out of the room. Clare sat down next to Randy. He held his head in his hands.

“I can’t believe I lost it out there.”

I need help.

“Rand, you haven’t really been yourself lately. You’ve been a bit withdrawn. You’re not being honest with me. You obviously have something going on, and - and you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, but it’s getting to you. I - I really think you should see someone.”

Clare, I think I love you. And that scares me.

Randy looked over at Clare. He knew she was serious. And he couldn’t disagree.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.” He looked back into her dark eyes. “I’m sorry. I-”

I’ve never had a healthy relationship in my life.

“Hey, I know. It’s okay. Look, I’m your friend, and I just want to make sure you’re all right. You know?” She placed her hand on his arm. Randy lifted his hand and placed it on top of hers, for just a brief moment. He stood up and stretched.

I heard back from the doctor.

“I’m going to go on garbage duty. Saw some folks didn’t have their water bottles on the hike back.”

Clare shook her head and smiled. “So much for Leave No Trace. See you in a bit.”

Hours later, Randy settled on a red boulder in the meager shade of a Pinyon Pine, a small bag of trash at his side. He had collected water bottles, and snack bar wrappers, a band-aid, and even a t-shirt. He stared out over the valley and at Cliff Palace in the distance where he could see another ranger leading a tour of people around the structures. He watched as they moved through the site, taking pictures, pointing, and exploring. Off in the distance, he saw one of the children in the group wearing the a Junior Ranger vest talking to the ranger leading the group. A strange sound filled his ears, and he realized it was himself. He was crying.

He wiped his face with his crisp shirt sleeves, but the tears kept coming.

I can’t have children.

How can I think of starting a relationship?

After a moment, Randy stood and dusted off his pants. He felt lighter. Sitting out in the woods always made him feel better. He began his way back to the visitor center, taking the trail much slower this time.

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