We have resigned ourselves to not visiting national parks for two reasons: 1) in almost all national parks dogs are not allowed on trails, only in parking areas, and never off a leash; 2) national parks are typically overrun with visitors. We made an exception to go to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico, where we witnessed an ascension of leadership.
A scenic 2-hr drive from where we were staying in Pinos Altos NM, we were joined by my grand-nephew Sterling, his parents Dave and Audrey, and my sister-in-law Linda. Sterling, it turns out, was on a quest to become a Junior Ranger. He is seven. This was his second visit and he had clearly done his homework. He led us on the trail and was a font of information and data.
A Mogollon community built the dwellings in the 1280's but lived there for only a generation, 20-30 yrs. No one really knows what drove them to move into the caves, or why they left. Sterling gave us a tour of the dwelling, showing us where family members slept, where they cooked, and where they stored their supplies.
When the tour was finished, Sterling reported back to the Park Ranger -- he was in line to earn a Junior Ranger designation, signified by a patch and pin. She grilled him, but like a grad student defending a thesis he came through with shining colors.
"How long has this dwelling been here?" asked the ranger.
After a pause Sterling replied "700 years."
"Yes!" exclaimed the ranger, "and what should visitors do if they find interesting things along the path like a piece of pottery?"
"Don't touch them" said Sterling.
"Why is that?"
"So others can see them" replied Sterling.
And on and on. It didn't take long to realize the Junior Ranger designation was now just a formality. Sterling impressed us all with his knowledge, his curiosity, and his leadership abilities.
On the way down we were joking that there should be a Senior Ranger designation for us older folk, and that the questions would be: What's your name? What day is it? Where are you? (Perhaps too close to home for those like me who are genetically prone to dementia). And sure enough we found out there is indeed such a thing as Senior Ranger, but once again a test was administered. Amy was the star, recounting that this monument was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 and that the Mogollon people made feather blankets to keep themselves warm.
With that, the generous ranger provided us all Senior Ranger badges. Sterling even helped us with our pledges, captured here: