Mesa Verde, Colorado

Sarah Broach Issue: Section:

“Living for the last 18 years in Manhattan NY one gets swallowed up by the land and the buildings and I have to remind myself to look up sometimes and remember the cement forest I live in is on planet earth”

Mesa Verde National Park lies in the South West corner of Colorado and offers a dramatic look into the ancient civilization of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made the harsh climates of the South West their home. The main purpose of going to Mesa Verde, besides the hiking trails that lead to the magnificent vistas that allow you to see for thousands of miles around, is to explore the ancient cliff dwellings that were built in 1240 AD by the Ancestral Pueblo people. Most people still reference these native people as the Anastazi, but it turns out that "name" is no longer considered PC. Apparently the word Anastazi simply means “Ancient Foreigner” in Navajo, which is the answer the native people gave to early archeologists when asked who these cliff dwellings were home to.   After setting up camp under the glaring dry desert sun we drove deeper into the park to where the more significant cliff dwellings lay. We climbed and climbed being treated to the unbelievably glorious views all around us the higher we drove. Suddenly the landscape changed from yucca and juniper bushes with abundant skipping deer, playful chipmunks and dozens of birds to a harsh unreal land of spiky dead trees whose trunks and branches were all shiny and cracked dry from the tireless sun. To begin with I assumed some disease had taken out a certain species of native tree since there was a lot of healthy green ground cover with dead trunks sticking out. But soon, as it stretched for mile after mile and you felt Peter Jackson really had missed out on a perfect location for some apocalyptic post battle scene from Lord of the Rings, it became more obvious we were in fact witnessing the slow re-growth from a wide spread wild fire. Harsh yet quite dramatic and beautiful in its own way.
Exploring the cliff dwellings was incredible. Those early Native Americans certainly picked their spot. Surely they sought the land that would provide the food, water and shelter they needed to survive and grow as a civilization but they were surrounded by magnificent natural beauty. Living for the last 18 years in Manhattan NY one gets swallowed up by the land and the buildings and I have to remind myself to look up sometimes and remember the cement forest I live in is on planet earth. At Mesa Verde the sky felt bigger than the land. Suddenly I felt like we really are only one small planet in a vast galaxy, suddenly the sky by day and night was massive and almost intimidating.

Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, was discovered by two cowboys riding across the land in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s the sites began being excavated by archeologists and eventually protected. For decades archeologists pondered on what happened to the “Anastazi” people, why did they disappear? But now it is commonly believed they did not disappear at all, they simply abandoned these cliff dwellings in search of richer lands, probably due to several years of drought. And eventually over decades and centuries they morphed into present day pueblo people, thus they are now called the Ancestral Puebloans.

The park rangers giving the tours state plainly how dehydration can take hold in 15 minutes between the heat and the elevation and between the intensely dry heat and the elevation no amount of water felt it reached what my body needed to feel remotely satiated. My nose was always cracked feeling inside, my throat felt like a dry riverbed, and as for my skin well I was sure I was going to leave this vacation looking like Georgia O Keefe before she died.

The organized tours are the only way to explore the biggest of these incredible villages. The rangers on both the tours we took were excellent. Not only well informed about the subject at hand but deeply passionate about it, which made the tours much richer (and sometimes quite funny, check out the video!). When I saw the Cliff Palace dwelling for the first time it took my breath away. Climbing down or up into the cliff dwellings is scary, they are high up on the sides of a deep ravine and I don’t like heights. But nothing could keep me from experiencing these dwellings that were so well built in natural alcoves up high in the sandstone cliffs. The sense of history and survival was palpable. These ancient civilizations were naturally sheltered from the heavy rain and well camouflaged from outsiders who might have been traveling along the top of the ravines. The alcoves were cool and have natural “seep streams” that allowed the collecting of fresh water as it escaped downwards through the natural sandstone cliffs. The fact these people were building round towers, square towers, rooms for living, rooms for storing food, domesticating turkeys as pets, removing their waste made you realize how sophisticated they were, though life was pretty severe with 35 years being a ripe old age and many not making it past the age of 7.

Mesa Verde National Park really is a must see in this magnificent country full of spectacular history and natural beauty. There are 600 cliff dwellings throughout the park. Two days was a tease merely scratching the surface and I long to go back and explore the hiking trails and have longer to take in those infinite views.

While waiting for one of the tours to begin I caught a glimpse of a small dwelling well hidden in the dramatic cliff face across the ravine, and with the high desert wind whistling in my ears and the scorching sun pounding my back, for one quick second I got a magnificent rush of how it might have been to those cowboys riding along in this wondrous setting and having the realization they may have discovered something very important to the spectacular history of the native people of this land.

photographs and video by Loam Disher (nyc)

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