Sept 10th, 2014
We had visited Mesa Verde 20+ years before, but remembered only having a short time to tour the ruins. We had wanted to go back to take a bit more of an in-depth look. We lined up a morning tour that would give us a good bit of history of the “Ancestral Puebloans” (the newer designation for what were called the Anasazi Indians) as well as a tour of the Cliff Palace Ruins
About 550 AD, the people of the ‘Sage Plains area’ (the four corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah) moved onto the Mesas. The ‘Mesa Verde’, this green table-top region was well suited to the growing of corn, beans and squash that the Ancestral Puebloans now depended on.They inhabited this region for over 700 years and the people flourished and their numbers increased.
At first, the Pueblo people lived and farmed on the Mesa tops, first living in pit houses and later building more elaborate stone houses above ground.
About 1200 AD, the Pueblo people began to build their villages in natural alcoves beneath the overhanging cliffs. Why they moved to these cliff dwellings is still a mystery. Perhaps it was defensive……
Building along the cliff faces increased at almost a frenzied pace, but lasted only about 100 years. Somewhere around 1300 AD, all the inhabitants of Mesa Verde left this region. The reason they abandoned the area is not clear, but it coincided with a long drought period. That, coupled with the depletion of trees and game, and perhaps internal strife led to migration and relocation of the Pueblos further south into New Mexico where the Pueblo, Zuni and Hopi people live today.
Though it is the cliff dwellings that Mesa Verde is best known for…..
We enjoyed learning about the history of the Puebloan people who first inhabited the mesa tops, and seeing some great excavations of pit houses. These round dug-out houses later evolved into more elaborate Kivas, which were used not only for religious and ceremonial purposes, but functioned rather like a gathering space or living room. They were all constructed similarly and were roofed, not open. The roof tops were used as social space as well as living and working space.
We were also treated to a little native flute music by our guide David Nighteagle.
When we got to Cliff Palace, we had a ranger guided tour…..
These cliff dwellings are elaborate, multi roomed complexes with several stories and a number of towers and kivas (the round open pits in the front would have been roofed and used like patios).
We were surprised to see round towers built right next to square construction. They said that as many as 160 people may have lived in Cliff Palace….and there are many of these complexes in almost every alcove in the canyon.
To lend an air of authenticity, I think, we had to exit the Cliff Palace by way of these narrow stone cut stairs…..
And a series of ladders. Fortunately, they did not go for the truly authentic experience, or we would have had to climb out using toe and hand holds!
After our tour ended, we had lunch at the Terrace House Café (Navajo Tacos – YUM!). Then we toured the museum and walked down to tour Spruce Tree House.
One could appreciate the sheltering feeling of living under this overhang……
But, the people farmed the top of the mesa…..climbing up and down the cliff face from home to fields.
I believe that this was the ruin that we had toured many years ago with the kids……Spruce Tree House had an example of a roofed Kiva, with the ladder access from the roof.
We were able to climb down the ladder into the Kiva (which I remembered doing with the kids) to get the feel of the coziness that would have sheltered the people in Winter.
We had a full day of touring by the time we got back to our camper that afternoon. In reflecting on our day, however, we both felt that something had been missing……we were a bit disappointed in our experience of Mesa Verde. Perhaps it is just the ‘National Park experience’…….the crowds, and bus loads of people (though less in this off season)…..Perhaps it was the structure of a tour, without enough time to just reflect (though we do like the background and history that you get with a tour guide, the structured visit is limiting). I was even a bit disappointed in our pictures, which just don’t seem to do justice to the size and complexity of the stone buildings. Whatever it was……it is good to realize that sometimes the experience does not match the expectations…..and that is OK.