Late Summer Road Trip: Mesa Verde

September 6-7, 2-17

[NOTE: Click on the photos to get much bigger versions with detail I discuss in the post]

When last we talked (September 5)  we had arrived in Mesa Verde, hiked a bit and saw some sites. We had a morning tour set up for September 6 so we walked from our room over to breakfast a few hundred yards away. We had a nice view on the walk over.20170906 0143 FE 24-240mm F3.5-6.3 OSS Mesa Verde National Park

Aramark has the concessions contract at Mesa Verde National Park so we were a little dubious about the quality of our tour. It wasn’t Aramark specifically we doubted – we had though the tour was by the National Park Service.  Regardless, we figured we’d learn something about the history, geography, archeology, and anthropology of the place. Not to worry, our tour guide was a retired principal who had taught in Indian Schools in southern Colorado. I figured we were in good hands. One of my aunts, Barbara, taught on the reservation near Window Rock, Arizona. And my uncle, who was an assistant superintendent in the Verde Valley School District, gave tours at some of the ancient Puebloan sites in Arizona – Montezuma’s Well and Montezuma’s Castle as well as Tuzigoot. So, retired educators? Bring on the knowledge!

As the morning progressed, our tour moved through time from the oldest to the most recent dwellings. It’s impossible to have direct knowledge of the people who lived here because after farming for hundreds of years, they exited en masse around 1200 AD – hundreds of years before Europeans came to North America. Nevertheless, we have learned much about the people through Anthropological studies of the old living spaces. The experts have divided the time span into three eras.  The first era had very primitive architecture with buildings made of adobe walls and thatched roofs. The most distinctive feature was the Kiva – a round building with a fire pit in the middle and air flow through a vent leading  outside. When a family or group would leave the area they would dismantle the building before leaving.

Eventually a second era developed where the Puebloans built new home sites where the old bricks were. This second era of Kivas were more detailed with additional features. The air vent would allow the air to come rushing into the home and kill the fire, so they learned to build deflectors. Here are the remains of a second generation Kiva.

Detail of a Kiva in Mesa Verde. Note the small interior wall to deflect the air around the fire pit in the middle of the floor
Detail of a Kiva in Mesa Verde. Note the small interior wall to deflect the air around the fire pit in the middle of the floor

You can see the additional architecture features of the wood rails along the inside. It is thought that religious ceremonies were held in the Kivas and the people lived in the nearby buildings that had connecting tunnels.

You may have noticed that I’m calling these people the Ancient Puebloans rather than the older, more common term Anasazi. Anasazi is a Navajo term for the old people, but if it is pronounced incorrectly it can be an insult. In addition, the Puebloans were ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni peoples rather than the Navajo. The Forest Service had a project asking for suggestions for a new name. Every tribe had different suggestions – most of which were opposed by other groups. So, the Forest Service and anthropologists settled on the accurate – but not nearly as romantic – term Ancient Puebloans.

These people lived a difficult life; their primary diet was corn and squash. At it’s best corn isn’t really that great of a grain for humans. But it was even harder for the Puebloans. They used big flat stones called metates to grind the corn into powder. It takes hours to grind corn like this. Imagine sitting eight hours a day holding a large stone and pushing it back and forth over some dried corn on another stone. I’d be exhausted in five minutes. To make matters worse, the grinding process resulted in lots of pebbles in the finished product. As a result their teeth were in horrible shape – broken and worn down.

The third architectural era featured the famous cliff dwellings. Considering these people were essentially in the stone age, didn’t know about the wheel, and had no known written language, it is astounding that they developed these elaborate structures that are still standing over 800 years later. No wheels means no pulleys everything had to be brought up by brute force.

In this photo you can get an appreciation for how difficult it must have been to live – not to mention build – these villages.

Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde
Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde

Because it is so soft, the sandstone is not suitable for tool making. If a family wanted some good stones for their grinding or for blades to scrape hides or cut apart the animals they ate, they had to go get it. The best stones are down at the bottom of the canyon in the riverbeds. It is thought the men would travel down, get some rocks and place them in a basket that they held in place with a yucca rope around their forehead. With this in place they’d climb back up the hundreds of feet of cliff wall to begin the tool making process.

As we drew closer to the site we stopped for more pictures.

Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde
Cliff Palace and Mesa Verde

Eventually we were directly across the canyon. This was a highly populated area. It is calculated that there were more people living in southwest Colorado then than there is now.

Closer up view of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
Closer view of Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

If you look closely you can see a tour group in the middle of the village. That was our next destination. Groups gather on the ledge over the buildings – you can see a group on the far left side of the photo. Tour groups join a National Park Service Ranger who tells you not to touch ANYTHING other than the ground you walk on. After descending on down a series of steep rock steps you get down to the main level.

"Street Level" view of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, Colorado
“Street Level” view of Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde, Colorado

This dwelling space is just breathtaking; it’s hard to do it justice in just a photo or two. Look in the foreground on the right side and you’ll see two or three Kivas – the round spaces – which carried through all three archeological eras. If you look closely at the lower opening on the tower at the far right you’ll see some black smudges. This is the result of people over the years walking up, putting their hands on the building to look inside – one of the few places it is allowed. The oils on our hands discolor and ruin the adobe as the years go by.

We were allowed to touch the wall here in order to lean inside the opening and look up to view a beautiful pictograph that looks like a Navajo or Hopi geometric patterned rug.

Our tour guide is part Native American from this area and he feels a real connection to the sites. He is a multi-talented person who carved his own flute. Just before leaving we paused to hear him play a beautiful melody that fit the place perfectly.

Our National Parks tour guide playing a homemade flute at Cliff Palace
Our National Parks tour guide playing a homemade flute at Cliff Palace

We climbed down to get to the site and as a corollary to the old rule, what goes down must go back up. There were a series of three log ladders bolted into the stone we had to take to get back to our bus. I’m not a ladder fan at all so I was not looking forward to this. But it was fine – they are stout ladders with big rungs and going up was a cinch. I was struck by how tiring it was just walking around here – then we realized that we were over 7,000 feet in elevation. Not much oxygen up there.

Travelers’ tip: if you are a woman (or a guy for that matter) don’t wear a skirt; everyone gets a great view of your backside as you climb the ladders.

We piled back on the bus to go back to Far View Lodge where we had some lunch and a rest before heading out for more exploration.

We found a place (Far View site I think) where we could walk among some of the old second era structures. We discovered a few bricks with designs on them. I have no idea of the meaning or importance.

Close up of art work on a brick in Mesa Verde building
Close up of art work on a brick in Mesa Verde building

Maybe they are house numbers šŸ™‚

Close up of art work on a brick in Mesa Verde building
Close up of art work on a brick in Mesa Verde building

After all that hiking and exploring we headed back to our room, had a nice dinner with a couple of drinks and slept soundly.

The next day, September 7, was a travel day but we couldn’t bear to part without just another view. The Ancient Puebloans may not have had the wheel or much technology, but they were very smart. They built a series of reservoirs to hold water for their crops. We first hiked down a small canyon where a series of reservoirs once existed. We saw a few ruins and got an appreciation of the work these people put into living.

Then we went back to the Far View site to go on another hike to see a reservoir that was still in recognizable shape.

Ancient Puebloan reservoir at Mesa Verde, Colorado
Ancient Puebloan reservoir at Mesa Verde, Colorado

Everyone I know who has visited here has been moved. And I now know why. To look back at this ancient people is to see just what a tough life they had. The human spirit is indomitable – we will scrabble and scrape to make a living wherever we can. Eventually, though the water just dried up and the people had to move. It is thought they worked their way down the mountain and into the Rio Grande Valley.

Mesa Verde has been on our travel list for years. I’m so glad we finally got there. It is spectacular. If you go I recommend the tour so you can learn about the people. But leave some time for personal exploring as well.

One thought on “Late Summer Road Trip: Mesa Verde

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.