Mysteries of Mesa Verde National Park

Ancient ruins in southern Colorado tell the story of an ancestral people

The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado Flickr/Alan English
The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Flickr/Alan English

We find the ruins of Mesa Verde National Park frozen in time, much the same as they existed when their Native American denizens abandoned them 1300 years ago. It’s summer in Colorado. The heat is motionless in the air.

Inescapable dryness and the brutal temperatures of the southwestern United States force us to understand the people who lived in the area, without air conditioning, living off the fat of a very lean land. My wife and I are staying at the Far View Lodge inside the park’s boundaries, and thankful for the shade. The view from the hotel room expands until the curvature of the earth clips off the silhouettes of mesas at the horizon.

We leave with a national park  tour offered by the lodge. Our tour guide, Grant, picks us up and we travel by van with one other attendee further into the parks boundaries and towards the great ruins. He’s affable, and almost flabbergasted with excitement at the tour ahead of us, the cultural significance, and the honor of leading it. Both my wife and I like Grant straightaway.

Our guide grant explains the ruins construction. Photo by Jack Bohannan.
Our guide grant explains the ruins construction. Photo by Jack Bohannan.

Mesa Verde National Park

We first visit Spruce Tree House, one of the primary dwellings and the one closest to the visitor center, only to find it closed. It’s currently not available for a tour because the overhanging cliff is suspected to slough off. The danger of a massive rock fall has forced closure of this area pending reinforcement of the above cliffs.

As we take in the vista, Grant explains the “discovery” of the ruins by Richard Wetherill and cowhand Charlie Mason in the 1880’s. They reportedly shimmied down the tree nearest the cliff to access the dwellings, risking life and limb. I would have gone around.

The Wetherill family did great work in promoting the site for protection as a national park, but they didn’t discover anything. In fact, Ute Indian guides informed them of the dwellings’ existence, making the term “discovery” all the more ludicrous.

Grant encourages us to imagine the wonder of that initial viewing. Laying eyes on the site must have been, in his words, a “spiritual experience.” Suddenly being included in the secret of the place must have indeed have been a marvel to those first white settlers. That feeling remains for visitors today. I have a vague sense that I’m trespassing too, as though this place is profoundly not mine.

Ancestral people, or the “Ancient Ones,” occupied the area seasonally as far back as 7,500 BC, but it wasn’t until about 600 AD that they built the first pueblo dwelling on the Mesa, or plateau. This was a major shift. Rather than just hunting and gathering, the natives began to incorporate horticulture into their subsistence.

I can’t imagine anyone farming here. We pass two meager springs, notable only for their surrounding greenery; that greenery soon tapers off back into desert as the water is exhausted or it moves back into underground chasms. Not exactly a great source of irrigation.

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