For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to see the ancient cliffside Pueblo dwellings.
I was fascinated by them from the moment I learned about their existence. What genius they represented: such lasting buildings, secluded and disguised into the very material they were made from, easily defensible, shaded and dry. What monuments to human tenacity they were, having been built by hand to suit the unique situation of the people who lived in them.
The dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado make up one of the largest and best preserved sites of this kind. We didn’t realize how close we were to this gem a year ago, when we visited friends in Colorado and learned to ride horses. When my husband saw how disappointed I was to be so close and not have time to visit, he made sure to build Mesa Verde into our next big road trip.
I’m so loved.
Unfortunately, thanks to our unintentional detour from the Grand Canyon, we only had one full day in the area. Since the park closes at only 4:00 PM, and most of it is an hour in from the park entrance, that left time for only one major activity. The hikes directly into the ancient dwellings had not yet opened for the season, alas, so we chose to do the Mesa Top Loop.
To get there, we first had to drive for miles and miles into the sky, ears popping before we reached the summit. There were acres upon acres of burned trees, testament to the extreme dryness that often bakes this region. The views from the Mesa top were stunning.
The Loop was a unique adventure through history. We cruised from site to site, listening to an audio tour recorded by a direct descendant of the peoples who had built these wonders. At each site, we would park and explore the archeological remnants of a huge and magnificent civilization.
I’m not exaggerating when I say huge. The modern mind tends to envision ancient villages as small, intimate settings, but the population on the mesa top back then was significantly larger than what the nearest modern city can boast today.
We chose the Mesa Top Loop to get the best and most plentiful views of the famous cliffside dwellings, but the tour begins with the predecessor of such homes: the “pit house.” Even this simple type of home—a shallow pit topped with a squarish structure of mud and plant material over poles—shows remarkable ingenuity. Digging into the earth provided insulation against both heat and cold; many of these homes also included antechambers or storage chambers, and even clay deflectors to control the direction of the smoke from their fires.
I took lots of pictures of these and saved some literature, because the pit houses gave me some ideas for the mountain dwellings of a tribe in CROSSED LINES, my current novel-in-progress.
For a long time, the peoples who built Mesa Verde were known collectively as the Anasazi. However, as native peoples gained a voice in American society, it came out that this was a term meaning something like “the others” in Navajo—and is viewed by the people it was given to as rather derogatory. The descendants of those who once lived here prefer the term Ancestral Puebloan.
They hunted, gathered, farmed, and produced art and poetry and culture. Unfortunately, before Mesa Verde was a National Park, much of this was destroyed or stolen by cowboys and adventurers and tourists. Only what is left can be protected.
The Square Tower House, above, was the first true cliff dwelling on the loop. It’s one of the smallest and not a classic example of its kind, but it was one of my favorites. Maybe it’s just because we were able to get such a close view, or maybe because it was so unique. I don’t know. I just liked it.
People actually used to climb to and from this thing using hand and toe holds “pecked” into the mountainside.
Between pit houses and the great cliffside dwellings was a period of architectural evolution. The people moved from mud and plant to stone construction—there is evidence of fires getting out of control and baking clay, and that probably had something to do with it. Buildings grew more complex and continued to be built for different purposes: living spaces, gathering places, and ritual grounds.
Like Sun Temple:
While the exact, actual purpose of the structure known as Sun Temple is difficult to say for sure, it stands as an astonishing example of the Ancestral Puebloan’s knowledge of math and engineering. There is evidence that the builders used something called the golden ration, also evidenced by the Giza pyramids!
We couldn’t go in, but we peeked through the windows and climbed on rocks to look inside as best we could—the structure has no roof, nor ever did.
There were too many dwellings for me to name here. Some were enormous, some simple; some were clustered, some far apart. We saw Oak Tree House, Spruce Tree House, and a curious little thing called the Mummy House that I could only see by borrowing my kid’s binoculars.
The so-called crown jewel of the park, however, is Cliff Palace. It’s… staggering. It could be a whole town all by itself. Just look at it.
I have so much respect for the richness and endurance of Native American cultures and societies. Viewing these dwellings, even from a distance, was a humbling experience. Even my children, who cannot yet grasp the immensity of what they were seeing or the tragedy of all that has been destroyed, were in awe of what the Ancestral Puebloans had created.
Although we believe very different things than these ancient peoples and live very differently, one of my big goals as a parent and teacher is to imbue my children with the sense that diversity—both in appearance and in thinking—is a treasure. I want them to stand up for the defenseless.
If no one has the right to believe differently than we do, then our own choice to believe is meaningless.
Places like Mesa Verde aren’t just great inspiration for my writing. They are places where my family and I can grow in empathy and awareness and humanity.