From California to the U.K. in 30 days - Day 15 (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado)

Published: July 31st 2017
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Neither Antonio nor I sleep very well last night. I am still trying to find a job and things are taking much longer than we had anticipated. If I don’t have something lined up soon he will probably have to stay in the U.S. for a few weeks, or fly back after we arrive, in order to process his settlement visa application. The realities of being separated for a few weeks weigh heavy. We are up shortly after 5am and get the kids ready for breakfast in the hotel. Another complimentary continental breakfast is included, and by now I can recite the menu by rote. AJ is under the weather and doesn’t want to eat which is quite unlike him.

We are on the road by 6.45 am and the morning is cool and overcast. We head East out of Cortez and the park entrance is only about 10 miles away. Despite being only about 8 miles as the crow flies, the drive to the Far View Lodge is 45 minutes up a very windy pass. Mesa Verde sits like an island in the relative flat of the Montezuma Valley, and rises up to 8,300 feet, some 2000 feet above the town of Cortez. The entrance booths are unmanned at this hour, and we enter the park and begin the steady climb to the top. The views are beautiful, with the road curving around and providing vistas in all directions. The park has suffered from a number of fires over the past 15 years, and over 70% of the area has been burned. While some regeneration has started, they estimate it will take 50 – 300 years for the slow growing Juniper and Pinyon Pine to make a full comeback. As a result, it looks quite barren with only scrub brush, sage green grasses and some deadwood where the trees used to be. The road continues to climb until reaching a peak of 8,300 feet. The Far View Lodge appears on the horizon, and as we get closer it’s clear to see where the name came from. It’s perched on the hilltop in such a way that all the rooms have spectacular views down to the valley below. There is also a restaurant and grill. We spy our bus in the parking lot and go and check in at the tour desk. We are about 30 minutes early so enjoy a little walk around before getting ourselves situated on the bus. AJ, still not feeling good, curls up and goes to sleep.

Our tour guide is named Marty. A gentleman of a certain age who is obviously quite passionate about his subject matter. We cover a few ground rules and then head off on the tour. Our first stop is a Pit House which dates from around 900 A.D. These were the first homes that were built once the natives began farming. Marty explains all of the different features and shows how they made things from the local plants and trees. After that, we visit an area with 3 different Kivas. Kivas are round pits that were built to very exacting standards. They are perfect circles and align exactly with the North star. The walls are absolutely plumb and they contain fire pits and ventilation shafts. It is estimated that they were used for many different ceremonies, and would have kept people very snug in the Winter as well. This site was occupied and then abandoned 3 different times starting from about 800 A.D. Each time, the old Kivas were filled in, and newer, more advanced designs were constructed. The same was true of the dwellings which started as pit houses with wooden walls and roofs, and eventually became three storied stone structures, the walls of which still remain in places. We stop at a number of different view points overlooking various canyons. Evidence of early settlements are all over the place. In fact, there are barely any nooks and crannies in the canyon walls that don’t have structures in them. It is estimated at one point that this area had over 20,000 inhabitants. At our last vista point, we overlook Cliff Palace, which is the largest, and best preserved of all the dwellings in the area. It has an estimated 150 rooms and is remarkably well preserved considering it is over 1000 years old. The bus stops in the parking lot, and we head down to the observation platform to await our guided tour by a Ranger. The kids are enamored with her, and Gracie proudly shows off her Junior Ranger badge that she earned at Fossil Buttes. The group comprises around 50 people and promptly at 10.30am the tour begins. The path down is a series of metal steps, and uneven carved stone steps which descend about 100 feet to the level of the village. As we enter the alcove, our ranger stops us for a 15-minute history lesson, while the 10am tour group finishes up at the far end. Partway through and we hear the sound of a flute. Everyone, including our ranger stops, and we listen, mesmerized. It turns out the Ranger who is doing the other tour is Native American and makes his own flutes. It’s a rare treat to hear the same music that would have been played here over a millennium ago. I can tell that people are deeply moved. We move on and are shown the different walls, buildings and Kivas. The quality of the building is quite remarkable, and I am particularly impressed by the way they incorporated the massive boulders into the structures so seamlessly. It’s a magical place and I wish I could hear more of the Ranger’s stories, but the kids are losing interest and we are trying to prevent them from falling into a Kiva, or worse. The way out is a steep climb involving three ladders. Marty points out the original route which has hand and foot holds carved into the rock face. I can’t imagine having made that commute on a daily basis, especially not carrying food and water as would have been necessary back then.

Back on the bus and Marty explains what happened to all these people; a combination of drought, over population, lack of resources and in-fighting. There are many tribes through Southern Colorado and New Mexico who claim descendance from the ancient Puebloans, and DNA testing has proven many of those stories to be correct.

It’s estimated that some 600+ dwellings remain at Mesa Verde National Park, and I could have gladly spent more time there. Unfortunately, it isn’t ideal for small children or pets, and so with AJ under the weather, we head back down the hill after our tour for a spot of lunch in Cortez.

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