First up on this year’s national park “spring tour” was Mesa Verde NP in Colorado. We camped in a rather precarious FREE camping area very near the entrance to the park. We managed to get our house level side-to-side without too much trouble and, of course, the electric landing gear legs let us dial in the front-to-back level easy enough. The pictures don’t really do it justice. Our back bumper is less than 6″ off the dirt “road” and our landing gear legs are extended about as far as they can go just to get us disconnected from BBT — turns out that same elevation is perfectly level front-to-back for LCC. The area has a nice view of the nearby mesas and what we can see from our sofa isn’t too bad either.
We took time to cruise the back way through multiple ranchettes into Cortez, CO and the whole area just has an amazing, kick-back, semi-agricultural feel to it — every price point mixed in with all the others — no gentrification here. Unfortunately, the free WiFi at McDonald’s was down and the signal at Taco Bell wasn’t much better. We tired of that struggle and came home early.
Next day, though, we ventured into the park with our geezer pass = FREE and were delighted to learn we can go on the only guided tour available this time of year for five bucks each = done. There were no spots available same day so at 2pm the next afternoon, we had to be in position (20+ miles of slow driving inside the park) for our guided tour of Balcony House. With map in hand we thought it might be a good idea to drive up into the park and see where we needed to show up for our tour…and see some sights along the way.
I’ve been somewhat shocked to learn the Ancestral Pueblo people who once lived here actually cultivated their crops and hunted up on TOP of the mesas and somehow made their way back and forth with toe and foot holds which they carved into the sandstone cliffs — impossible to imagine. These cliff faces aren’t always vertical. Some of them lean out at an angle — not for the faint of heart! Apparently they did have pretty good ropes in those days but no evidence of pulleys to move stuff up and down — little more than their free-style climbing skill and muscle between them and certain death if they fell. Like the human equivalents of spiders . . . while also carrying children and firewood — perhaps some portion of a deer on their backs. I suppose they could just chuck the firewood off into the abyss and gather it back up later, but that might not be good for the meat . . . and certainly not good for the children. There is plenty of evidence the Ancestral Puebloans had domesticated not only dogs at this point but turkeys as well. Nearly all the illustrations show what we today would call “wild” turkeys. It’s clear the turkeys were used for food and tools and many other things but what purpose the dogs served isn’t as obvious — perhaps used for hunting? Though using dogs (and even our beloved cats) as a food source is well documented in many cultures . . . even today.We show up for our tour of Balcony House next afternoon — great fun. The tour takes a little over one hour and involves climbing a 32′(!) ladder just to enter the cliff dwelling site. You also crawl through a 12′ long tunnel which is only 18″ wide *and* climb 60′ up an exposed cliff face, using two 10 to 12′ ladders and a series of stone steps.This particular “house” is certainly far from the largest with only two kivas . . . another location in the area has eight! But it was fascinating to learn that the only original entrance (and exit) was through the tunnel = one narrow 18″ wide passage in and also the only way out. The tunnel began as just a gap between two huge vertical pieces of stone which form a narrow upside-down V and the builders piled wood supports (remaining to this day) and stone (using mere mud as mortar) to create a ceiling for the tunnel — and to fill the gap so nobody could fit through any remaining gap above the tunnel. In one section of the tunnel, you can actually stand up. There are so many examples of how their motivations were far more than just the practical considerations of what was needed to be functional and structural. In many areas, the plastering over the masonry to achieve a smooth surface was not just on the inside of an enclosure but on the outside as well. I suspect they learned from experience (up on top of the mesa) that this extra step allowed the shell to shed water better to preserve all that hard work of stone and mud underneath, but there was a powerful aesthetic consideration at all times as well. The shape of the natural alcoves gave their handiwork great protection from the rain = less of the constant battle against the elements which defined life for 400 years prior up on top of the mesa. (Estimates are that the cliff dwellings were actually only used for the last 200 years of their presence in the area and some brochures claim half of that — before it seems that everyone moved south and down to lower and warmer elevations where the farming of their staples: corn, beans, and squash must have been much easier. Mesa Verde surface altitude runs from 7,000′ altitude to closer to 8,400′ at the upper end. It’s a massive relatively flat area which just happens to slope and face south. Lacking that lucky coincidence, people wouldn’t have been able to survive in this area as long as they did.
In our group, it was surprising to see how many had done the tour before and were back to do it again. Apparently “been there; done that” is never enough when you’re dealing with ancient cliff dwellings. And I have to say that walking/crawling through these ancient structures and still smelling 900 year old soot in the air from fires long ago is not something one quickly forgets. It’s also a reminder of why the ancients only lived to be 35 or 36 years old on average. Their bones provide evidence of incomplete development — usually indicative of low oxygen levels. One can only imagine those long smoky winter months when nearly constant fire was needed just to survive. I wonder how many of the ancients perished from nothing more than CO poisoning. It would seem the bright red color of such victims might set them apart but we can only speculate what that might have meant to survivors at the time. Most of all, I’m just amazed at the expense of human labor it required to build these walls. The gathering and shaping of materials, the mixing of the mud, and all of it while moving up and down the vertical face of a cliff just blows me away.
I know there are comparable human ‘buildings’ on the tops of mountains with nearly impossible access but surely these extreme builders were motivated by far more than just needing a safe place to sleep. It would seem they must have been driven by a force or belief (no matter how illogical it might seem to some of us today) that was larger than themselves — larger than life itself. Why else would anyone work so hard for so little gain? Though the shade of the alcoves and their thermal mass surely moderated temps somewhat — making them much more comfortable during the summer months, all notions of any significant passive solar heating must be quickly abandoned. The canyons in this area tend to run north and south, so these massive alcoves tend to face either east or west. Balcony House, for example, faces east and the sunlight only reaches into the alcove briefly in the mornings and hardly at all during the winter months because the canyon is narrow and deep and the sun must rise quite high in the sky to light up the canyon — another reason why virtually all their farming was up on top of the mesa. Because of this orientation, Balcony House was nearly always in the shade = great during the summer months — not so great during the winter months.
Unfortunately, the Spruce Tree House which is the best preserved cliff dwelling (complete with kivas with rebuilt roofs and ladder access) and was a self-guided site remains closed until work can be done to reduce the rockfall threat. Our brochure explains “Although alcoves naturally and continually form through erosion, the alcove surrounding Spruce Tree House has become particularly unstable. A geologic assessment completed in late 2015, revealed a significant danger of rockfalls along pathways into and within the site. This year, a geotechnical firm will conduct a detailed evaluation using laser imaging that will provide recommendations for treatment.” This is all very exciting for me as I remember seeing pictures of the cliff dwellings at a very young age and being attracted to them even then. They seemed like the ultimate tree house or ‘fort’ were only the most daring could ever bother you. 🙂 The tunnel we crawled through at Balcony House was actually a feature built into the site by the “ancients” because it helped to keep their community location more easily defensible from any threat but it was interesting to learn that speculation is they weren’t worried about being “attacked” by any one group in particular — it was more about safeguarding their stores of food and firewood that they absolutely depended on to survive the brutal winter months. A flaming torch in that tunnel might be all that was needed to make a would-be intruder back up and think about something else. I can’t help but think these communities surely had guards — much like military compounds of present day — who controlled any coming and going into the compound while the larger numbers of the group slept. For a group of any size, it would be well worth the loss of their labor during the day (while the guards slept) to keep your family protected and able to sleep at night and not worry. And of course any community would also need someone to watch over the corn/bean/squash fields at night to keep the deer and other marauders at bay. I’m guessing if there was any significant loss of crops in the night, there better also be a dead carcass of something laying there to compensate for it . . . or one might be suddenly relieved of their duty and/or tossed off the cliff! 🙂You also may be interested to know there is a large “crampground” inside the park = 250+ spaces for around $30/nite — all the spots with hookups were full at $50/nite — must provide a pretty good revenue stream for the park but we parked nearby for FREE; little more than a mile from the park entrance. Soon we will have been doing this for 19 months and we’ve only spent $150 in all that time for camping fees — may that figure never increase 🙂