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Road to ruins 

Mesa Verde is a surreal experience, Anasazi-style

click to enlarge Just think: In the future, folks will be touring the ruins of - Las Vegas in much the same way.
  • Just think: In the future, folks will be touring the ruins of Las Vegas in much the same way.

It remains one of anthropology's most debated questions: Why did the Anasazi migrate from their cliff dwellings?

Drought and crop failure? Flora and fauna depletion? Social and political unrest? Why did these ancestral Puebloans construct fantastic structures, live in most of them for less than a century, then suddenly disappear around 1300 A.D.?

Nearly 600 years would come to pass before the Anasazi homes were rediscovered. In 1874, W.H. Jackson, a photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, entered a ruin he'd heard rumors about from miners and prospectors. Jackson named his find "Cliff House," and 32 years later, it, along with a handful of other treasures, became part of Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde remains the sole cultural national park devoted to the protection of man-made structures. Its boundaries enclose the best-preserved pre-Columbian cliff dwellings in the United States.

The ancestral Puebloans worked without metal of any kind, opting for stone, bone and wood tools. They hardly were insufficient; the clans constructed buildings such as the Cliff Palace, which contains almost 200 rooms.

On the day my brother and I ascend to the mesa tops, thunderheads hover over the horizon and scorched earth greets us around each switchback in the road. Lightning triggered the massive fire that burned here for five days in August 1996 and claimed 5,000 acres -- literally to the doorstep of Far View Visitor Center and the main attractions. As though a surprise blessing, the blaze actually revealed previously unknown archaeological treasures and created quite a dramatic entrance into the 8,500-foot highlands.

Just as we begin our descent to view the Spruce Tree House, the thunderheads roll in like buffalo and unleash a rainstorm on par with a hurricane's first warning. Wind thrashes and swirls the large drops, which humiliate hastily grabbed umbrellas and rain gear, and soak everyone to the core.

As clusters of people run past us toward the shelter of their cars, we run downward, hoping to take refuge from the intermittent lightning under the cliff edges. Where paths cut the slopes, small streams form and sweep together to make tiny waterfalls over the rock overhangs. After witnessing the spectacle of this rainstorm, I have no doubts as to how the initial inhabitants of this land must have showered and bathed.

A dry park ranger laughs at us when we bolt around the bend and under Spruce Tree's cover. We enjoy a private, undisturbed tour of the site -- all but two other tourists have fled. We stretch out next to the earth homes to observe the storm, much as the Anasazi must have 1,500 years ago. What an amazing place, even when the skies are dumping rain in biblical proportions.

After what could have passed as a timeless waking dream, the rain relents and we emerge, like the children of old, from the subterranean kivas to further explore Mesa Verde's gifts. We appropriately make it to Sun Temple just as the clouds open to toss light over the ridges. From high above, we glimpse Cliff Palace as if it's a miniature Christmas village display in a mall storefront window. It's surreal -- much like the storm, much like the journey.

-- Matthew Schniper

capsule

Daytrip: Mesa Verde National Park

Escape Route: Take I-25 South to Highway 160 West; roughly 30 miles past Durango, take a left into the park.

Extra Credit: Stop in Pagosa Springs for a downtown soak, or add an extra hour's drive to take a tourist photo at Four Corners National Monument.

  • Mesa Verde is a surreal experience, Anasazi-style

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