The fifty mile drive from Durango to Mesa Verde brought to mind all the college lectures and lessons that I learned while majoring in Anthropology. Mesa Verde and the Anasazi was a prominent topic in more than a few classes that I took. Mesa Verde is the only national park devoted to the preservation of archeological sites and is a site where the Anasazi lived 700 years ago. It includes over 4,500 man-made archeological sites. Mesa Verde is so unique that not only is it a national park but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Sometime between graduating with the degree and now, a decision was made that these proud people should not be called Anasazi. Anasazi has a few meanings. The first meaning is “ancient people” and the second “enemy ancestors.” It may also mean “the ancient foreigners.” Since the modern Ute, Hopi and Navaho nations claim to be decedents of these people, the Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloan.
As I entered the park, the imposing Mesa Verde Point stared down at me. It is the highest point within the park. As I continued down the road, acres of bare, burned pine and juniper trees dotted the landscape. There are several areas of the park that had experienced irreparable fire damage. However, the remains of these trees give a haunting image of hands with outstretched fingers reaching out to the heavens. As I continued my drive through the park, I saw amazing views of the landscape. Mesa is spanish for table, and while driving throughout the park, I saw many of these flat tops and the ravines between them. Below these flat tops are where the cliff dwellings are found.
While driving though the park on the way to the visitor center, my anthropology classes came to mind again as well as my fear of heights. I recalled from one of my classes that the cliff dwellings involved vertical climbing. I didn’t exactly recall the height of the dwelling, but I remembered that they were steep. I struggled with the idea of leaving Mesa Verde without walking though one of the houses. After arriving at the visitor center and evaluating my options, I decided to visit Cliff Palace. Cliff Palace has a 100 foot vertical climb and five 8 to 10 foot ladders. The other two sites, Balcony House and Long House were beyond my comfort zone. Long House has a 130 foot elevation and Balcony House has a 60 foot open face climb.
To avoid damage to the dwellings, sightseeing is supervised by Park Rangers and limited to a number of people per hour so tickets are required to visit the dwelling. I attended the 11:30 tour with a park ranger called Zac. He pointed out that he joined the service two weeks earlier and that this was his fifth tour group. It was his second for the day and that the other three were done the day before. Even though he was not a seasoned ranger, he was very knowledgeable. He pointed out that the term Anasazi is no longer favored and that the park is the only national park devoted to preserving man-made and not solely natural resources.
My time down in Cliff Palace was astounding. To see how people lived so long ago and to see how they can build a dwelling out of stone with 150 rooms was amazing. The park ranger explained that in order for that to be accomplished, the one hundred people that lived there must have worked in unison, sort of like a barn raising. The stones would have had to have been carried from other locations to the alcoves in the cliff. He explained that some of the people would have had a lot of motivation to complete a wall by showing examples of the intricate brick work of some of the rooms. In other places, the brick was laid haphazardly. My own experience working on my own house came to mind. I would describe the renovation work I did with each room’s sheet rock as excellent for an amateur. Renovating my own house was the best motivation. When I sell the house, I’m sure the future owners will describe it as haphazard as they laugh at the workmanship.
Cliff Palace may be a archeological ruin, but it is also a piece of artwork and a photographic treasure. My camera worked overtime. I photographed the site from every imaginable angle, under the watchful eye of the ranger. The rooms could not be entered. The walls could not be touched and my time was limited. All of this was to rightly protect these resources for generations to come. I’m glad that I could put aside my issues with heights, to walk in the shadows of the Puebloans.
After leaving Cliff Palace, my next stop was the self guided tour of Spruce Tree House, another cliff dwelling. This one did not need a ticket and did not involve any ladders or time limit, but the rooms were also off limits. Nevertheless, this too was a piece of artwork and a photographic treasure. I spent at least a half hour photographing the shapes of the ruins. My camera was smoking at this point.
My last stop in Mesa Verde was the Ancestral Puebloans’ ancient farming community of Far View. Here too were some photographic gems. It was not a cliff dwelling but consisted of homes built on the mesa top. It is the ruins of a village with three houses and was a great photographic opportunity, with its contrasting brickwork.
I ended my visit at Mesa Verde and spent the night in Cortez, Co. My goal for the following day was to continue with the second half of the San Juan Skyway, taking me north on my journey back to Denver.