We’ve got some catching up to do. We kicked off our time in Colorado with our fifteenth national park: Mesa Verde. It was different from most of the places we’d been recently as the focus was less on the natural world and more on the archeological, human world. Nature asserted itself though; as we spoke to the ranger at the visitor center news came over the radio of a rock slide on the road. We waited to hear if the way was passable, then climbed the winding mountain road to the top, keeping a wary eye on the slopes above us.
Our first stop was the museum, where the decades old dioramas depicting the people who made their homes here were historical artifacts in their own right. “The government loves showing naked Indians,” the ranger said, explaining that in these high elevations these people would have been clad in furs.
It’s interesting and strange to look at history’s view of history. The Ancestral Pueblo people used to be referred to as the Anasazi, which is a Navajo word roughly translating to “ancient enemy.” We, and the tribes who trace their lineage back to these people, don’t like that appellation and it has fallen out of use. It makes me wonder what we’re wrong about today; what common phrases may be offensive in a generation, sure, but also what facts will be rewritten. I think it helps to lean into the uncertainty a little. There’s plenty of uncertainty at Mesa Verde, like why did these people in 1200 AD start building places like this.
Ancestral Pueblo people lived on Mesa Verde for over 700 years, but it was only in the final century that they built these elaborate towns in sheltered alcoves in the canyon walls. And then they left, adding to the mystery. One look and you can tell that these people were talented, and motivated. They carved hand and toe hold trails on the rock face to get to their fields on the mesa’s top.
There were settlements on the top of the Mesa dating back to the 500s, and the park has done an excellent job excavating and preserving the succession and evolution of this culture. From rudimentary pit houses, to shaping stone blocks, to multistory towers connected to deep kivas, the story of a culture’s development is spread out before you, culminating in the cliff dwellings. Even there, the circular kivas remained an important element of the architecture, a sophisticated echo of the first pit houses.
Why did people begin to live below the rim of the canyon? To seek shade and water in a changing climate? To better defend their families and food stores from invaders? Because it was an awesome place to live? We don’t know. We also don’t know why, after flourishing here, these people abandoned their fields and impressive homes around 1300.
We met with a more timely set of questions at Mesa Verde that hit closer to home. Spring had not quite reached Colorado and Kate is not built to handle the cold. I’d stubbornly keep freezing and be miserable because we’d made a plan, but she made it clear she wasn’t happy and didn’t want anything to do with this state. I made a promise to put her before me and us before everything, and that was only in December, so we got in the car and drove south until the sun was setting. We reached New Mexico, a place we have a lot of fond feelings for, and spent the night at Walmart. I didn’t sleep well; I honestly don’t know if it was the big change in altitude or the feeling that this trip was now ending prematurely. That cliche phrase “the honeymoon is over” played in my head all through Oklahoma, but as we pulled into a campsite beside a lake after a long day of driving, I realized I was ready for whatever came next.