Finally, after only visiting the parks in shoulder or off-season, we’ve reached a National Park in high season. We’re surrounded by families with children and international visitors from everywhere. Not so bad after all. Plenty of room for everyone in this 52,000 acre park.
Signed up for the three formal cliff-dwelling tours (the only way to see Mesa Verde’s major ruins is on tour with a guide): Balcony House – the most adventurous to reach; Cliff Palace – the biggest ruin; and Long House – the most in-depth ranger guidance.
Balcony House required scaling a 35-foot wooden ladder to reach the dwellings, three “squeezes” through progressively smaller and smaller claustrophobia-inducing passageways, and two more ladders to get off the cliff. The ruins were decidedly worth the trouble.
Long House was a wonderful combination of multi-storied cliff dwellings and pit houses all together in the same sandstone alcove, showing remarkable evolution of building techniques by the same group of people.
The Cliff Palace tour was a twilight event, with only 8 of us along. The sun was at its most golden, and shadows were long. The well-informed ranger took time to tell us how important trade networks and intellectual/technology transfer were, the passing of knowledge and technique to the Ancestral Puebloans from the Toltecs and Mayans on the Yucatan Peninsula. We also got to witness ravens flying back to their nests to feed their young just above the ruins, which was very cool indeed.
Mesa Verde offers half a dozen self-guided tours as well, and we combined those with hikes on the mesa top. But there are at least 5,000 sites in the park, including 400 cliff dwellings, and it’s gratifying to know how many lie protected and untouched, for future generations of scientists and visitors to discover. The peaceful repose of the Ancestral Puebloan spirits, for now, is somewhat assured.
Decoding the secrets of these dwellings, their architects and the long-since migrated residents of these beautiful canyons is a task that will never be complete, but it’s best attempted over months, if not years. One compressed week of observation here, front-ended by our visits to Crow Canyon, Sand Creek Canyon, Aztec National Monument and the Ute Tribal Park, has started the learning process, but we will be sorting out the physics and metaphysics for a long time. Reading “The Cliff Dwellings Speak” and other reference guides that blend the archaeology and anthropology with native perspectives helps. Time helps. Building an understanding and appreciation is not, as a friend used to say, “like making instant coffee.” We will come back to these deserts. They have much to teach.
During our time in SW Colorado, the most amazing display of swifts and swallows has been on display in the canyons. On every hike that includes a precipice view from the mesa top into the valleys, dozens of acrobatic little birds can be seen and heard: black with black wings, black wings with white bodies and brilliant tourmaline-colored iridescent backs. Swifts and swallows are, as noted earlier, among the world’s fastest fliers, but they are more than that. The artistry with which they soar, their razor’s edge turns and the thrilling parabolic arcs they cut while pulling up into the sky or plummeting 100 feet down to scoop up dinner in mid-air is thrilling – they are such amazing creatures, at less than a single ounce. They buzzed us today at close range, with such chipper songs and no apparent fear. Could have stayed there for hours watching the show.
At least a dozen massive forest fires have devastated the mesa tops and slopes of this park, as recorded since the 1920’s. All ostensibly started from natural causes, they have been whipped up by strong winds to strip large sections of acreage. The most tragic part is that they destroy 800-year-old stands of juniper and pinion pines, in some cases even sterilizing the earth so that nothing but grass will grow back for decades.
Recently mutilated acreage sits next to swaths of new forest recovering from the 1920 firestorm. Your eyes become trained to estimate a landscape of devastation: “This probably burned in the 1990’s. At least it has sagebrush and rabbitbrush now.”
It takes pines and juniper at least 100 years to start to regenerate. Imagine how many species this displaces and for how long. The ravaged landscape looks littered with bleached bones. Seemingly empty except for the bones and birds. But there are dormant seeds in the soils.
And so tomorrow we start the rapid recompression back into civilization on the road home. Goatrekking Adventure #3 has been glorious. It’s added to the refinement of our camping, hiking, exploring and activity selection techniques. Looks like we’ll indeed be able to achieve two major goals through these trips: to see nature with continuously sharper focus and insight, and to never stop learning, stretching, growing (and suppressing arthritis!). Amazing how many people we meet along the way who are also on an encyclopedic tour of national parks – losing oneself in the wilderness means finding oneself, and an endless supply of wonderment.
A few final glimpses of SW CO:
If you go at this time of year, here are some of the flowers/plants/trees you can find along the Colorado Mountain Trails:
Quaking Aspen (a massive grove of thousands of trees = 1 organism)
Cactus Blossoms (prickly pear, barrel and claret cup)
Chapin Mesa Milk Vetch
Engelmann and Colorado Spruce
Indian Rice Grass
Utah Juniper and Rocky Mountain Red Juniper
Monarda (Bee balm)
Mountain Wild Rose
New Mexico Spiny Star
Rocky Mountain Maple
Sagebrush (both black and big varieties)
Thistle (both Shale and Canadian varieties)
Wild Sweet Pea