Can you imagine living in the side of cliff more than a thousand feet above a canyon floor? How about building said cliff dwelling with nothing but a hand-carved, quartzite chisel? Neither can we. The Ancestral Puebloans, however, saw great potential in these cliffs and built a city that many people called home for nearly 80 years. What is left of these 800-year-old structures has been preserved, protected and is open to the public at Mesa Verde National Park (MVNP). Visitors can take self-guided or ranger-led tours and if you visit MVNP, I recommend the latter, and planning a visit during the summer months when more dwellings are open.
During our time, we opted for the ranger-led tour of Balcony House and a glimpse into this nation's indigenous heritage. Balcony House is accessed via a 100' decent - don't worry, it was on a modern, well-constructed staircase, the tunnels and ladders come later. The tour took us through the dance parlor (that's one strong possibility, another was a nursery), by two kivas, grain storage facilities, and in and among other private and communal living spaces. The dance parlor, and stop number one, was a large open area guarded by a retaining wall. Dance was (and still is) an integral aspect of Puebloan religion and its thought that the wall insured that nobody danced off the cliff. The otherwise open parlor was surrounded by multi-level viewing platforms and balconies constructed with stone and juniper logs, the latter of which have been perfectly preserved since their installation circa 1200 CE.
We continued past two subterranean kivas which boasted fire pits, a ventilation system, and evidence indicating that they were also used for community meetings and sleeping quarters - a deviation from traditional use for religious purposes. Our tour guide also described evidence left behind suggesting that the Ancestral Puebloans who called this place home had a sophisticated understanding of the cosmic calendar and recorded solstices, equinoxes, and the rare lunar standstill, which occurs every 18.5 years. Remnants of yesteryear also tell us that they traded pottery with communities as far away as Southern California, and that they had chocolate, suggesting trade/exploration in Latin America.
Balcony House, and many of the other cliff dwellings at MVNP were only used for about 80 years. Despite careful planning and construction, the agrarian lifestyle of these early settlers was unsustainable and the people were forced to move following depletion of the surrounding natural resources. Long ago corn and beans were cultivated atop the mesas, and were accessed by crawling through a narrow tunnel (constructed as such for defense purposes), and a steep climb up the mountain's face. As guests in this ancient community, we too had to crawl and climb our way out, a feat not for the faint of heart.
Today, the cliff dwellings at MVNP face a new threat: Hydraulic fracturing (fracking). In fact, at the conclusion of our tour, the ranger described the very real threat of man-made earthquakes in the near-by shale field and said that one earthquake could easily wipe out 800-years of history. We agree and hope that modern man has learned from the past, chooses to preserve ancient wisdom, and builds a sustainable, renewable future.
Overall, Mesa Verde is well worth a visit! If (when) you go, I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Ryan and Cristina's travel blog, detailing our adventures in US National Parks and overseas in New Zealand and SE Asia.
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