Mesa Verde, Where Living Is Always on the Edge!


Today is the last day of the Beaver family road trip. We’ve covered a lot of ground and seen some amazing sights around the Four Corners region, but now it’s time to go out with one more spectacular national park: Mesa Verde!

This park was a long time coming, and not just for us! It took six separate bills in Congress before Teddy Roosevelt signed Mesa Verde National Park into existence on June 29, 1906, twenty-one days after the passage of the Antiquities Act! That gave protections to the amazing cliffside palaces that we’d be fortunate to explore this afternoon. But first, breakfast!

We stopped at Park Point to take in the views of red oak-covered hills, and of course, for Woodchuck to whip up a scramble and the last of our Green River melon. Mom reported that the baby yeti was on track to make a full recovery and would be emerging from its protective cocoon soon. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so I took a walk up a short trail to the highest point in the park.

There, the Park Point Fire Lookout gazes out over Montezuma County, as it has since the Civilian Conservation Corps, sponsored by another Roosevelt, built it in 1939! Though it is still a functioning fire lookout, there was no one at the helm today, but there was a big fire billowing smoke in the west! There wasn’t much to do about it from here in the park, but as we ate our breakfast, the big black cloud faded to gray then into the air!

After breakfast, we headed down the road to our first cliff dwelling: Spruce Tree House! Though the trail to the ruin was closed because the rocks overhead were unstable and starting to fall, we took a short trek down to the overlook!

Spruce Tree House is the third largest ruin in the park, with 130 rooms and eight kivas! It was built between 1211 and 1278 AD and rediscovered on December 18, 1888 by Richard Wetherill and his brother-in-law, Charles Mason, who were out looking for lost cattle! They named this complex after the tall Douglas “spruce” tree that was growing from the floor of the ruin to the top of the mesa! That tree was later cut down before the park was protected.

We booked a tour of Balcony House, the season’s last cliff dwelling open for tours, and headed off to make a loop of some other ancient sites! There were a number of ancient pit house excavations of the earliest residents of this mesa. The Ancestral Puebloan people used to live and farm the top of this mesa where the soil was rich, and only moved down to the sides of the cliffs in the 13th century!

We saw some more inaccessible ruins from afar, like the Square Tower House and Fire Temple. The Square Tower is the tallest house in Mesa Verde, but it’s been closed due to stability issues. The Fire Temple gets its name from the ceremonial kivas and central fire pit here. Because of the large quantity of ash found here, it’s believed the residents kept an “eternal flame” burning in this pit!

We stopped for a quick stroll around the Sun Temple, whose origins are mysterious, though it may have been built at the end of Mesa Verde’s habitation. The theory is the Ancestral Puebloan people built it to please the gods who were causing the long drought that ended habitation of most of the Four Corners region! They created a large stone basin here with grooves radiating out from the center like the sun. IT may have been used for offerings and is what gave this temple its name!

Just around the corner, we glimpsed Mesa Verde’s largest and most famous cliff dwelling, the Cliff Palace! Though closed for the season, it was magnificent to behold: 150 rooms and 23 kivas! Unlike most of the buildings in the park, this was probably a mixed use complex for living, planning, and celebrating!

We did not have much time to spend at this overlook, because it was nearly time for our tour of nearby Balcony House! I was really looking forward to this tour because Balcony House is completely invisible from the main park roads! We were going to get down inside this ancient structure just like its original inhabitants!

Well, most of us anyway. When the ranger announced we would be climbing up and down a long ladder, Woodchuck made an excuse that he was going to stay behind and keep an eye on the baby yeti. I guess he didn’t want a repeat of Natural Bridges in front of so many other visitors! The ladder wasn’t so bad, though!

Entering Balcony House was magical! The rocky overhang has protected this place wonderfully well, letting us get close enough to the walls to see the rings in the juniper logs used to date these structures, and their masonry technique called chinking! That’s when smaller rocks are embedded in the mortar holding the larger bricks together!

There were two main open areas, connected by a small tunnel. Most folks had to duck because the Ancestral Puebloan people were much shorter than the average person today, about 5’1″ to 5’4″! For us, though, passing through the tunnel was a breeze!

When we got to the second half of the complex, overlooking the kiva, the ranger told us something really interesting! In early excavations, archaeologists discovered both the remnants of mugs and traces of cocoa powder! That led them to believe that these Ancestral Puebloan people not only imported xocolotl from Mexico, but also sipped this chocolate beverage from mugs on this sunrise-facing balcony. I think we would have gotten along!

Once in a while, a local tribal chief will pay a visit to these ruins, and the ranger said one of the most surprising bits of advice he’s received from a chief was to stop taking their ancestors so seriously. They worked the land, and they relaxed, played games, had parties, and even had jokes and drama! They were more like modern folks than they’re given credit for!

The tour ended, and we climbed back out, reconnecting with Woodchuck at the top. Our day, and our adventure, was coming to a close. We rode out toward the western horizon, stopping for one last dinner at Wagon Wheel Pizza in Monticello, and settling in for the night just north of Moab.

By morning, something amazing happened! The baby yeti’s protective cocoon cracked open, and it emerged again, clean and refreshed! It was still really young, so it didn’t have much to say beyond squeaks. I think I’ll take the youngster back to Los Angeles with me and find it a new home!

As for the rest of us, we’d had an amazing adventure together. In a few days, despite all our concerns, Mom would return to Incheon. Though she was here for a good six months, I couldn’t believe how quickly the time had gone. We all hugged each other with the hope that another family adventure awaited us on the horizon. It was in this moment that another sadness settled over each of us. We were together, but we were still one brother short.

Flatty and I have never met our father, who was turned into a hat before we were born. For us, having George back would complete the family we’d grown up with. For Mom and Woodchuck, I don’t know if our family would ever feel truly complete again. We hugged each other tighter and parted ways.

Bon voyage!

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