Travelog II: Mesa Verde


Sunrise from the balcony

The best thing about our room was the balcony, sun-sliced and cozy in the morning, out of the wind. Snow-mottled mountains peeked over the nearby mesa. To the south, mesa upon mesa rippled to a far blue horizon.

Far View compound, atop the mesa

A multi-room abode atop the mesa, one doorway leading to another. Roofs collapse: stone walls endure centuries. People lived in the valley and on the mesa for hundreds of years before they built cliff dwellings. On the mesa, they irrigated crops, built reservoirs, dug a round, subterranean kiva in each complex of rectangular rooms.

The cliff homes, farther from their fields, from water, were accessed by ladders: experts still speculate as to why they made that move. I stared at those cliff dwellings. They must have been afraid. Or they couldn’t take the wind anymore. The wind that tangled my hair, cut every walk short.

A small section of cliff dwellings

Clambering down rough stone stairs at Sun Point View as a class of students climbed up them, I stepped to the side. “Sixth-graders, stay to the right,” their teacher called. “They don’t have spatial awareness,” he apologized. “I know. I used to teach them.” We exchanged grins. Those were the only children I saw.

We were early, two weeks after the park opened for the season. Not many guests in the rooms straddling the hill behind the lodge. Older couples like us. Some of the men seemed frail. Phil said they were probably Vietnam vets, making me look at them with new eyes. Not all tours were open yet, and the place was not fully staffed. We wanted a retreat. We got one.

Metate Restaurant, before opening

The best thing about the Metate Restaurant at the lodge: this view. To be fair, we did have one or two excellent meals there. But the trout was dry, overcooked—the cardinal sin of fish preparation. Aramark operates lodging and dining at this national park, as it does at many others. Sub-par breakfast and lunch. Room missing shampoo and soap, leaky faucets. Aramark could do better.

One of the three 

Having read a sign forbidding feeding them, I wanted to see horses, summoned them. Toward the end of day two, three grazed placidly beneath our balcony, near an empty parking lot. I must have magic powers.

The sign describes the horses as “feral trespass livestock.” On our second day, the tiny Navajo woman who sold tickets for bus tours came to chat, said “you must like us.” Most come just for the tour, or maybe one night. Perhaps they’d heard about the trout.

The other two

The horses belong to the Southern Ute Reservation that adjoins the park, she told us. They rounded them up and returned them to the reservation, tried fences, but those didn’t work either. Two or three days later the horses were back.

“They were born here,” she said, “this is their home.” Mesa Verde was once home to many indigenous tribes. She has worked here twelve years, likes being on this land. People honor the fact that it’s now national park land. Those boundaries mean nothing to horses.

A far view

It was silent on the mesa. No cars, no trains, no helicopters. Even the occasional plane followed by a contrail high overhead left only the faintest sound after it disappeared. Birds. A whispering wind. Silence. The tranquility of this immense, virginal land: at least we have not spoiled this.

Once the sky went black and the waxing quarter moon lifted its yellow hammock above the far mesas—stars. Oh, the stars. Did you know, my fellow urbanites, that the night sky is completely perforated by them? Every bit of sky glimmers with them. It was cold and windy at 8,000 feet: I didn’t stay long, but what a thrill to know that multitude still shines. Mesa Verde is a Dark Sky Park, one of the few such places left on our light-polluted planet.

From the highest point in the park

The town barely visible below is Cortez. From where I snapped the shot, about twelve miles of narrow winding road down to the park entrance and another ten into Cortez, where we had an excellent breakfast at Beny’s Diner—100% better than Aramark’s—before beginning our meandering way back home.


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9 Responses to Travelog II: Mesa Verde

  1. Michael Stipek says:

    Thank you, Pat, for the story of your adventure in the South Western part of our state. I’m sorry about the lodging amenities and the food, but I’m glad you had great views!
    Cortez – there’s a cool motel just to the east of downtown. Can’t remember the name, but it’s a ’50 retro place, colorful interior walls, decent facilities, but the best part of it, there is a giant chess board near the front of the office, pieces about 3-4′ high.
    The Navajo (Dine’) called the people who built Mesa Verde “the old ones” or “the ancient ones.” There is no record of what happened to them, but in my travels throughout the SW and most of Mexico, my studies of the Aztec culture (I taught myself Aztec iconography when I was a teenager, it has helped me to be able to read some of their glyphs) and other nations of central and southern Mexico leads me to believe that, for whatever reason, the Anasazi left the SW US and traveled, over many years, to central Mexico. That, of course, is open to conjecture.
    Years ago, while visiting friends who lived in Cortez, we were taken on several hikes up above the area. Dave showed us a number of check dams the Anasazi built to collect rain water to water their crops. The dams were hidden in the brush, so escaped depredations by unwise people.
    When I visited the White House Ruins in Canon de Chelley, I was fortunate to be invited by a Navajo family to walk down to the ruins, across the river. I knew the river, though quite shallow, had treacherous pockets of quicksand. I told the father (father, mother, teenage son, small daughter, spry grandmother) that no one to my knowledge had ever crossed the river and photographed the ruins up close. He told his little dog to go across the river and then for me to step into the paw prints. I got across, was able to take some pictures of the ruins from down below, including the notches carved into the canyon wall to enable the natives to climb up to their lodges (with the help of sisal ropes), as well as a 6′ pictograph scratched near the steps.
    Later, at the top of the Canon (700′ walls!), I was bouldering and discovered a cave in the wall. Inside the cave, I found what looked like a chess board carved out of the floor (not for chess, no enough squares) as well as a spirit shaker made with a tin can that, due to the leaded edging, predated the 20th century. And it still rattled!
    I sat quietly for a while, felt a lovely peaceful aura in the air of the cave, then, saying a prayer of thankfulness, left for civilization.

  2. Michael Stipek says:

    What a beautiful poetic opening to this story! Pat, there is no doubt that your creative writing skills are sublime. Thank you!

  3. Katharine Knight says:

    So much better than an online review! I feel like I’ve had myself a vaycay!!

  4. Bob Jaeger says:

    Thank you, Pat. Brings back memories of the time I drove my sons, boys at the time maybe 10 years old or so, to Mesa Verde. We camped out and had a great time on guided tours. Such a beautiful place. And stars! What a treat.

  5. Gregg says:

    Yes, when I see the entire brilliant night sky (including, somehow, our own galaxy!) I am overwhelmed. It only happens every two or three years for me. I’m in Taos yearly, but sometimes the moon overwhelms the stars.

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