Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Cliff Dwellers of Mesa Verde

Me, Betsy, and Allison
There is only one reason we went to Cortez, Colorado and that was to see Mesa Verde National Park (NP).  This park was not on our list of things “we really want to see”; instead, it was on the “we really should see” list.  When I worked for the National Park Service as a Natural Resource Specialist my counterpart in Cultural Resource, Allison, was always trying to open my eyes to her specialty and appreciate the ethnography, anthropology, archaeology, and countless other “ology’s” that defined her job.  She tried to instill in me that our natural world and cultural worlds are closely linked.  O.k., I get it.  But the thought of going to see an ancient civilization carved into the cliff did not seem all that interesting.  Yet it was on the list of “we really should go see” and as we travel the country we feel an obligation to explore all of America.
Cliff Palace - the largest dwelling.

 Mesa Verde is Spanish for "green table"

Mesa Verde NP was established in 1906 to preserve a fascinating reminder of an ancient culture of the Ancestral Puebloans that spans roughly 700 years from 600 A.D. to 1,300.  It was the first NP established with the purpose to preserve cultural resources.  The park encompasses over 52,000 acres in southwest Colorado, an area rich is archaeological sites. The park itself includes over 4,500 archaeological sites, of which 600 are cliff dwellings.  What is remarkable is that these people hunted and farmed on the high flat top mesas but chose to live in the alcoves of the canyon walls.  They built highly detailed communities some of which had up to 150 rooms.  They chiseled out carved holes in the rock to create hand and foot holes in order to climb up to the mesa tops.  It is not known for certain why the people of Mesa Verde moved from the mesa tops down under the cliffs.  Possible reasons include protection from enemies, or more likely, because of the protection from the elements that the cliff dwellings provided.

Ranchers Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason unexpectedly came upon the cliff dwellings in 1988 while searching for stray cattle.  The following year, more exploration ensued and an additional 182 cliff dwellings were discovered.
We decided to stop at the visitor center for more information on the guided tours that are offered. Many of the cliff dwellings are accessible to visitors for self-guided tours but we were interested in one of the ranger led tours to make the most of our visit (which cost a mere $3).  We opted for the hour-long tour of Cliff Palace – the largest and most famous cliff dwelling in the park.  Our guide was great!  He was really knowledgeable and presented the facts in an interesting way that held our interest.  


The path in and out of the cliff dwellings does not involve hand and toe holds but it can be a little challenging.
Our great guide, Ranger Kim.
Looking down into a kiva.  Kiva is a Hopi word for ceremonial room.  These were gathering places that would have been covered with a roof and entered through a ladder.  The fire pit in the center kept the room warm and a sophisticated ventilation system channeled the smoke out.   
Sandstone, mortar and wooden beams were the three primary construction materials for the cliff dwellings.
All of this cultural history that was flooding into our brains was making our stomachs grumble so we decided to have lunch at one of the parks' cafes.  A Navajo taco was on my list and after devouring it I was ready to take on more of Mesa Verde.  The nearby museum had an informative movie about the park and numerous exhibits displaying a minute fraction of the three million artifacts that have been discovered over the last 100+ years.   

For a flag ship cultural park, the museum needed some updating.

After five hours in the park it was time to head home to Spirit and cross Mesa Verde NP off our list.  I called Allison on the drive home and told her that Mesa Verde was not my thing but conceded to her that it was interesting.

More pictures from Mesa Verde NP...







Allison was right, the natural and cultural worlds are connected.

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