We started early in the morning to reach Mesa Verde, site of the cliff dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo people, who made it their home for over 700 years, from 550 AD to 1300. While heavily pillaged in the 19th century, today they are some of the best preserved in the US. The mesa itself is magnificent and extends for miles.
We had an outstanding Park Service Ranger today, a Ute Indian who was able to wax poetic and challenge us to rethink what is known about the history of the tribes who inhabited the pueblos, without sounding the least bit bitter. (That must be a real trick in itself. He said that he was the kid in school who always asked the teacher how we could credit Columbus with discovering a country that was already inhabited.) When asked whether the tribes that lived in the pueblo were peaceful or warring, he asked us how we would answer that today for our own country. Good one.
Like everyone who has ever lived, the Indians had the human characteristics that make us all complex and not easy to categorize — but that is a very new thought in the anthropological treatment of the Indian peoples.
We spent most of our time in Cliff Palace, the park’s largest dwelling. We were lucky to be in the first tour of the day, which meant that we could start by looking down into the pueblo while it was free of visitors. And we were lucky to be there early in the season. The ranger said that mid-afternoon tours of the site in July are known as the “Shake and Bake” shifts by the rangers.
This tour was not for the faint of heart or legs. Visiting this site meant climbing down 100 feet of very narrow and steep stone steps – and then exiting through a path of stone steps and four 10 foot wooden ladders that you would never have agreed to attempt had you seen them first. But amazingly, we survived.
The scale of the pueblo is huge, though not deep, and it is believed that it supported about 100 residents at any one time. There are several excavated kivas, which were used for ceremonial purposes. The residents had spectacular views and some very carefully designed structures based on the astrological seasons and the equinoxes.
We had a few seasons today ourselves. We went from rain to hail during lunch, but we waited to leave till the sun came out again. But the descent down the mesa suddenly took a complete turn for the worse. We hit a wall of fog that was almost a complete white-out. But that lifted enough for us to be in another furious hail storm for ten miles that calmed down enough to become snow and then rain.
We were glad to be out of the heights and back on level ground as we traveled to the Four Corners. It is rather amazing to think you can stand at the junction of four states – and people had fun trying. And then, of course, there is the obligatory frybread shack. Naturally, we resisted the temptation, but we have it on good authority that it was quite tasty…