“There is something even more valuable to civilization than wisdom, and that is character” – Henry Louis Mencken
Mesa Verde was more than I was prepared for. This National Park sits atop a huge mesa (go figure) covered in vegetation (green – verde, go figure again). Once you enter the park you immediately snake your way around the mesa after about 18 miles, and close in on the top. The mesa itself is huge, and I was not expecting the park to be anywhere near this size. I admit that I hadn’t researched this park as I had the others on my trip. This park was sort of the afterthought. I see now that I have underestimated this place.
The weather here is pretty much perfect. About 75 degrees and a slight breeze. I stop at the campground registration station and see that they have very nice facilities for shopping, showering, and laundry. Probably the nicest all-around I’ve seen on this trip. Your reservation here reserves you a spot, not a site. So it’s first come, first serve. It’s about 5pm so I figure I’m screwed. I head on down to the tent area and to my delight, there’s several “neighbor-less” spots still left. That will fill by the end of the night. Apparently my site is sitting on top of a huge buried rock because each stake I pound in hit said rock and bends in half. Nice. Note to self, purchase new tent stakes.
Except for some screaming kids and a baby that won’t stop crying, the campground is pretty quiet. (Hey, we just had a baby, you know what would probably be awesome, if we took him/her CAMPING! What a GREAT idea.) Lots of backpackers and hikers here. I fill out some postcards and cook diner when a couple decides to pick the spot next to me. They are German. (I’m not kidding.) I hope that someday I can go visit Germany. I expect to see nothing but Americans. I have every intention of making it an early night, being up and packed by the time the Visitors Center opens the next day. Because of the archaeological sensitivity of some of these cliff dwellings, only Ranger-led tours are allowed to visit them. I intend to be on the first one.
The first Ranger tour of the Cliff Palace (the largest of all the cliff dwellings) starts at 9:00am and it’s sold out – already. I grab the 9:30am ticket and drive on down to the meet up point which is an overlook from where the top image is taken. There is a Ranger there already but it doesn’t dawn on me that he’s guiding the 9am tour. He’s wandering around and looks at my Penn State hat and asks if that’s where I went to school. I answer yes and he tells me he’s from Pittsburgh and went to IUP. Small world. We chat about PA for a while and he says it’s time to start his tour. He seems like a pretty cool guy, probably a few years younger than me. He was obviously trained well as he knew a lot about the park history. I think to myself, bummer I’m not on that tour, he probably has some interesting things to say. I could learn a lot.
I wander around a little more to kill time and groups of new people start to file in for the 9:30 tour. They are all German. In fact, some of the SAME PEOPLE I saw over two weeks ago at Arches National Park! There are 60 people on my tour, 3 of them were Americans. It’s blowing my mind.
I’m snapping a few more photos when I turn around and see a female Park Ranger walking down the steps. She was walking down the steps in slow motion, her hair was blowing in the wind, and I think I heard angels singing at one point. Maybe it was Jimi Hendrix’s Foxy Lady. What? Nobody else saw that? (I have a thing for women in uniform.) Regardless, my first thought was – tour guide UPGRADE! She cracks a smile and starts to make her way around the crowd. All the Germans are chatting with each other (how convenient for me) and so I say “good morning”. Seemingly delighted to find someone who speaks English, she stops to chat. Turns out she went to school at Berkley. As a NPS Ranger, she is required to move 4 times a year and has only been at Mesa Verde for two weeks after being at Arches. I’m impressed by how much she knows about Mesa Verde for only being here 2 weeks. She says they are required to ramp up to speed really fast when they rotate. Of course she could have been talking about mathematical theory for all I care, she had a killer smile.
She leads us down to the palace where she explains that we are not to touch or sit on the ruin’s walls and begins the history lesson. In between my undivided attention stints, I manage to snap a few photos.
I was generally surprised at how close they let a large group of people get to these ruins. I was also amazed at the ability that these people had to climb in and out of these structures. You can see the footholds and hand holds on the cliff side that they used to use more than 800 years ago. With the exception of the Park Ranger and the guy dead center in the plaid shirt, every person in the photo below is German. Again, not that it matters, just pointing it out. By the end of my trip I could pick them out just from mannerisms and clothing. They always deck themselves in American flag garb. Maybe in an effort to blend in?
It is largely thought that the Cliff Palace was the “downtown” of the tribes, or a meeting place for ceremonial activities. There are single family dwellings across the ravine. She explained that if you were to stand at the top of the mesa at night, you might see thousands of small campfires in this ravine 800 years ago. Very cool.
To exit the Cliff Palace, there’s a series of connected ladders that retrace the original access that the tribe used. It was very cool to walk the same path that they did years ago.
There are 5 (visit-able) cliff dwelling locations at Mesa Verde, some more elaborate than others and hundreds in all. Some take a little hiking to get to, which means even more switchbacks. At least these were paved. Many dwellings, such as the Cliff Palace required multiple sets of ladders to get to.
There’s a museum and a few restaurants as well. I also noticed several groups of wild horses roaming the mesa top, many of which were standing in the middle of the road. All in all, this was a great park and a pleasant surprise on which to end my trek.
Tomorrow I make my way back home, a day early (due to my extra day at Zion not doing the Narrows). This is a good thing, because I tend to take some back roads and explore small town America a bit. I thought about work for the first time in nearly 17 days today. Now I just have to figure out how to institute a mid-life career change. I have a long drive to think that one over.