Mounting Mesa Verde:08-19-2001
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Treading as lightly as possible across the sandy, slightly charred soil of Wetherill Mesa one morning late last May, I listened intently to Ranger Will Morris explain how to spot newly exposed artifacts.
Morris was conducting a small group of writers and photographers on a preview of this section of Mesa Verde National Park, which had been closed to the public since being incinerated by wildfire last summer.
"Look for flat, oddly shaped stones," he said, stepping carefully in a previous foot impression to avoid crushing any more of the dry, spongy earth. "Crypto-gamic" was what he had called it, a term for arid and aerated sand layered over with a thin, fragile crust of lichen that can take decades to form.
"Like this," I answered almost on cue, reaching for a ragged-edged, dun-colored, silver-dollar-sized disk lying at the roots of a blackened pinyon pine tree on the bank of the dry wash. Turning the shard over, I felt a palpable shiver when I saw the characteristic whitewash and black line design of Anasazi pottery.
"Exactly," Morris observed, looking over my shoulder. "This may have been lying there for a thousand years," he said, taking the artifact and fitting it back into its earthly impression. "Better put it back in place so the site can be mapped."
Suddenly, I was an archeologist.
When established by Congress in 1906, Mesa Verde was the first U.S. park set aside specifically to "preserve the sites and other works and relics of prehistoric man."
I'd long been interested in the mystery of the stone dwellings tucked into cliff crevasses of this dry tableland in Colorado's southwest corner. My first experience with this World Heritage Site had come a day earlier. Driving west at 75 mph on U.S. Highway 160 from Durango, Colo., through the Mancos River Valley, my friend Rob Ruck and I could see the mesa growing in the distance. And growing. And growing.
By the time we reached the park entrance a dozen miles east of the town of Cortez, the tiered, wedding cake tower of the Mesa's front wall filled the southern horizon.
The park road that winds dramatically up the mesa's flank is an impressive feat of highway engineering and committed maintenance. Even this early in the tourist season, a steady stream of cars, vans and RVs was worming its way up 15 miles of road to the Far View Visitor Center on the Mesa top.
We crested the rim and drove past the Morefield Village, the only camping complex in the park. Located in the area blackened by the Bircher Fire, which was started by lightning July 20, 2000, and burned for nine days, the Morefield facilities sustained relatively little damage. Along with the Wetherill Mesa fire, which burned for 10 days in August 2000, last summer's conflagrations blackened 20 percent of the park's 53,000 acres.
The effects of those conflagrations are clearly visible at Park Point, a few miles farther up the road. At 8,571 feet, this is Mesa Verde's highest point. Although the scrubby brush around the peak burned last year, the wood-shingled weather station at its summit was rescued. Also saved, perhaps even enhanced, was the stupendous 360-degree panorama, which includes scenery from four states -- Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
The view to the north extended across the Montezuma Valley to the snow-capped San Juan mountains. To the south, entire canyons shimmered charcoal black in the bright sunlight; other canyons bore streak marks of dark green, new growth that had sprung up in the wake of fires from previous decades.
Despite the devastation, it's important to remember that these were never tall forests and that wildfires have been a regular, natural occurrence that is a problem only when it conflicts with the work of mankind.
Several miles farther along, we reached the Far View area, the park's primary activity nexus, with its bustling information center and hearty cafeteria. The nearby Far View Lodge consists of a handsome adobe main building and a dozen strands of guest rooms lining the hilltop. While certainly not plush, the guest rooms are comfortable, clean and well appointed. Best of all, each offers a private balcony with a vista that lives up to the lodge's name, unveiling the dry fingers of the Mesa sloping south across the vast Ute Mountain Tribal Park and into New Mexico toward a distinctive isolated desert peak known as Ship Rock.
After an excellent dinner in the Metate Room, the lodge restaurant, we signed up for a 45-minute slide orientation, which provided a concise history of the Mesa, its ancient inhabitants and the discovery of the mysterious ruins by two local cattle ranchers, Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason, in 1888.
By the following year, these gentlemen had attracted the attention of Gustaf Nordenskiold, a Swedish scholar who was touring the desert as a cure for his tuberculosis. They led him up through the rocky canyons to the ruins tucked into narrow alcoves in the striated sandstone cliffs.
Although he wasn't an archaeologist, Nordenskiold quickly recognized the significance of the ruins. During the next several years, he meticulously photographed and logged the sites, eventually publishing a book that remains a prime resource for anyone interested in the Mesa and its people.
People of the mesa
Since scattered petroglyphs are the only written records ever found in the area, relatively little is known about the Stone Age Amerindians who inhabited these mesas between the years 500 and 1300.
Likely drawn to the area by its abundant game, they became farmers, gradually hacking small fields from the pinyon and juniper jumbles on the mesa tops. Their first dwellings were built by digging shallow, squarish, stone-lined pits that they roofed over with adobe clay. Extended families lived in communal clusters constructed around a ceremonial center pit called a kiva.
These ancient tribes must have prospered, because the clusters grew into small pueblos, compact villages often surrounded by walls of tightly fitted stones. Without using metal of any kind, they carved native stone into blocks and erected highly sophisticated structures. Other artifacts preserved by the generally dry environment provide evidence of increasingly sophisticated crafts, pottery, weaving, jewelry and tool making.
After living some 600 years on the mesa tops, these ancients began building complex stone structures into horizontal clefts in the cliffs, where water oozing between the sandstone strata produced tiny protected pools. Over roughly 200 years, they constructed the myriad cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is now famous.
Many dwellings were simple one- and two-room structures. Others were elaborately engineered multi-room, multistory buildings shoehorned into every available space. One site, Cliff Palace, has more than 200 rooms.
Then, in the early 1300s, following decades of drought and a spate of fires, the people simply abandoned the mesas, moving to more amenable lowland environments to the south and north.
A word here about terminology is appropriate. Known for the past century as Anasazi, a Navajo term meaning "ancient foe," the mesa people have recently been identified as the antecedents of 24 pueblo-building tribes of the Southwest, including the Hopi, Ute and Zuni. For that reason, they are now more properly identified as Ancestral Puebloans.
All told, Mesa Verde has more than 4,000 known archaeological sites. Some 600 of them are cliff dwellings. Sheltered from the elements and looters, they survived the centuries until they were discovered. Though wooden elements had rotted away, many stone structures were relatively intact, albeit in a somewhat tumble-down condition.
After decades of well-meaning but misguided attempts at restoration and creative re-creations, the official park policy has been to clear away rubble, stabilize the structures using original building techniques whenever possible, and to allow visitors to get close and personal with these ancient edifices. In fact, several foreign visitors I encountered were amazed by the public's relatively unfettered access to the sites, especially in this age of legal liabilities.
The primary public sites in the park are situated along two mesas, Wetherill and Chapin. Both rate at least a visit of a few hours.
Several of the ruins can be viewed only from a distance, but others are open for public walk-throughs. Audio guides and informative, inexpensive pamphlets are available for self-led tours at major sites.
On Chapin Mesa, the Spruce Tree House is an extensive ruin of 114 rooms and eight kivas set into a pocket at the head of Spruce Canyon. A small museum nearby features a variety of dioramas and artifacts that help visitors visualize the lives of these Ancestral Puebloans.
With no rangers around, Spruce Tree House is a self-guided visit, with heaps of hot visitors swarming around the ruins. To stretch our legs, we hiked along Petroglyph Trail, a three-mile round-trip loop that threads down from the ruins along the wall of the mesa above the ever-deepening abyss of Spruce Canyon. Winding among boulders and under rocky overhangs, the trail is not easy but provides ample rewards for adventurous visitors.
In addition to the stupendous views, we stumbled along another ancient habitation tucked under a long overhang. The four rectangular compartments were surrounded by low, cut stone walls.
No one we talked to later could identify this site, which was kind of odd. We had picked up the park's trail guide pamphlet, which listed 34 different points of interest and explained many of the plants we passed, but it had not a word about this particular alcove. When we returned to the museum, I asked the guard the name of the site, and he said I could call it whatever I wanted to. Let's name it Bear House.
After an hour's walk, we reached the collection of stone cliff etchings for which the trail was named. No one has been able to positively translate the meanings of the crude figures, symbolic horned toads and tribal totems. Modern Hopi visitors have interpreted the collection of inscriptions as the work of a series of clans providing a record of how they arrived in the area.
In the loop
After a look through the museum, we cruised along the two-mile Soda Canyon loop, making stops at several early pit house sites on top of the mesa. We also took in long views of Square Tower House, which at four stories is the tallest ruin in the park, followed by Sun Temple and Oak Tree House.
Two of the ruins, the Cliff Palace and Balcony House, can be visited only on small-group hour-long tours conducted by park rangers. Both tours require advance tickets, which cost $3 per adult and are available at park visitor centers.
Exploring these two ruins also requires a fair amount of physical exertion to scramble up and down steep steps, some of which are only notches in the stone. Wooden ladders lead up to narrow ledges that have no guardrails. Exiting the Balcony House means crawling through a stone tunnel that barely accommodated my size 40 posterior. In fact, the passage reminded me of a near-birth experience.
The running commentaries of the enthusiastic, well-informed rangers added considerably to the appreciation of the sites, and the complex, interdependent civilization that built them.
After so much acculturation, we felt the need to get away and experience the landscape firsthand. But because protecting the hundreds of sites and artifacts scattered over the mesa is a primary operating directive, the park has relatively few hiking trails, and most require special backcountry permits.
So for our final Mesa Verde adventure, we headed down Spruce Canyon trail, a 2.5-mile wilderness loop that winds steeply to a confluence with Navajo Canyon. Then we hiked back up the latter canyon to the parking lot at the top.
It was a pleasant stroll along generally shaded stream beds. In the heat and altitude, we took our time and came across several excellent areas to sit and listen to the same silence the ancients must have enjoyed.
In the two hours we took to do the trail, which could have been done in 45 minutes of steady walking, we encountered only two other people, a German "interested in seeing snakes" and a jogger who hurried by without noticing us perched on rocks like Cheshire cats.
Perhaps in our peaceful reverie, we had achieved invisibility.
Not really, but after three days in Mesa Verde, we found those kinds of quasi-mystical moments almost commonplace.