Nevertheless, the sun was out and presiding over what promised to be a very nice day. I rounded up a few supplies in Durango and was quickly off down US 160 west towards Mesa Verde NP. Technically this park is right next to the freeway, but that’s only the visitor center and it takes about 45 minutes of nice mountainous driving to get deep into the heart of the park where all the good stuff is. This good stuff is spread among the tops, and hung down the canyons of, a large uplift of rock that soars hundreds of feet about the floor of the Montezuma valley. From the valley floor (i.e., the freeway, visitor center, etc.) the northeast escarpment of this mesa is truly breathtaking. It rises sharply and proudly like the bow of some great ship that plies its trade between the heavens and the earth.
Mesa Verde park itself is a little unique among National Parks in that its focus is not natural history, but human history. I continue to struggle with the right words to describe it, but the immensity of the ancient civilization (the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi) was acute. In particular I was amazed at the architectural and engineering prowess on display in the cliff dwellings. They seemed almost medieval in their construction and it was astounding to see such craftsmanship in America. Below are a few snaps of my favorite structures. Marvel in particular at the detailed and impressive masonry on display here.
Here’s a panorama of a valley that had a lot of villages all next to each other. See how many you can find!
Seeing these villages really opened up my mind to the fact that the four-corners region has very deep and interesting cultural as well as geologic heritage. A fact that blew my mind is that there were more (a lot more!) people living in this area back at the height of the Anasazi civilization (around AD 1200 or so) than there are now. There is a lot to explore out here and the ranger in the museum gave me some good beta on some cool spots along Comb Ridge in Utah.
One of the Mesa Verde activities was a kind of self-guided auto tour that took you through the progression of the building styles present on the mesa. During one of these stops I saw a couple down near the actual ruins where they clearly should have not been. Their car was obvious and full of camping/backpacking gear. Despite the dirtbag connection I ratted them out to a ranger. Maybe it was their Connecticut plates (“I’ll teach those East Coasters to respect the wild west”, etc. etc.), perhaps it was jealousy, but I like to think it was out of respect for our nation’s sacred places. Individualism is very important, but a shared cultural and natural heritage transcends individual excellence. Maybe? I hope I did the right thing.
Sadly Mesa Verde operates at a very limit capacity during the winter and there was no camping available. The solution was to spend the evening/night Cortez, CO., just a few minutes down the road. On the recommendation of the dude I met at Animas Brewing in Durango I tried the stuffed Jalapenos at Pepperhead and can confirm they are both totally unique and totally excellent. What you get are open-faced halves of jalapenos (not breaded) filled with a stuffing made from cream cheese and sausage. Perfecto. On the same bit of advice (made stronger by similar advice from the bartender at Pepperhead) I also tried out a sushi place just down the road. I figured if the fish was bad at least I could say I ate sushi just about as far from an ocean as is possible. Fortunately the atmosphere was lively, and it is a testament to the power of modern society that the fish was perfectly adequate. I finished up the night at Main Street Brewing, which had the difficult to reconcile combination of pretty dismal atmosphere but above-average beer. The bartendress talked of moving to Sedona and I recommend she check out a nearby town called Jerome (foreshadowing!). Sleeping that night was back in a Walmart parking lot. Tomorrow I enter the desert.