Exploring Ancient Architecture

November 2, 2000
Filed under Destinations

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(Editor’s Note: The Bircher and Pony fires that occurred in August near Mesa Verde National
Park were contained and all facilities are now open and operating.) Most RVers, whether
full-timers or seasonal vacationers, eventually make their way to the Four Corners region
of the country. The area’s natural wonders and fascinating history lure travelers by the
millions, the trek having become almost an American rite of passage. The Grand Canyon, the
Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, Canyon de Chelly and Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and
Mesa Verde national parks: Each has its unique features and appeal, but only Mesa Verde, in
the southwest corner of Colorado, borders the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. Visitors who skip
this combination of scenic beauty and ancient architecture on their way to more famous
destinations may still enjoy themselves, but doing so is a little like admiring the Mona
Lisa’s frame. Admittedly, Mesa Verde National Park is spectacular. Despite the fact that
the mysteries of the “lost” civilization–once called Anasazi but known today as Ancient
Puebloan People–have practically been solved by archaeologists and historians, the ancient
cliff dwellings still take visitors’ breath away. The builders of these multi-room
communities that adorn the salmon-colored canyon walls may have clear-cut the forests from
the plateaus and over hunted, hastening their relocation, but today the details of their
lives and the products of their labor continue to captivate visitors of every stripe. And
therein lies the problem: It is difficult to understand the hardships that the Ancient
Puebloan People faced, difficult to appreciate the ceremonial kivas and the abundant pit
houses and difficult to feel the textures and to contemplate the meanings while a park
ranger rushes you through Cliff Palace. In order to preserve the sites (no longer called
ruins), the tours are almost entirely “don’t touch,” which is understandable, but you
quickly feel as though you’re in a museum and not a national park; the hope of experiencing
what it was like to live in a stone dwelling perched on the side of a cliff does not come
true. However, about 650,000 people continue to visit the park annually. Ute Mountain
Tribal Park, on the other hand, only books up to 30 people per day. One reason for this is
that everyone who stops by must be escorted through the park by a Ute guide. This is not a
bad thing, however, but a bonus, because the park is undeveloped–no restaurants, no gift
shops, no trams. In other words, it’s almost exactly as it has been for hundreds of years,
which is the primary appeal of the place. The Ute Tribal Park has the same cultural history
as Mesa Verde, and the scenery’s at least as good, yet it affords visitors the opportunity
to experience “hands-on” what it must have been like to live in the rock structures that
still cling to the sandstone walls. The Ute people are not descendants of the ancient
civilization that inhabited this land during the period from about AD 400 to 1300, but they
know about and appreciate the Ancient Puebloan People’s culture as though they were. A
guide meets travelers at 8:30 a.m. at the Ute Mountain Visitors Center, located 20 miles
south of Cortez at the junction of Highways 160 and 666. He or she will give a brief
history of the Ute people and of the reservation, then quickly describe the tours
available. The half-day tour offers an endless sampling of pottery shards, wonderfully
expansive vistas, Ute pictographs, Ancestral Pueblo petroglyphs, surface sites and some
cliff dwellings, all within a short walk from the road. But don’t take this tour unless you
are disabled or feel that you would be unable to climb up and down ladders. This tour is
informative, beautiful and fun, yet to take it instead of the full-day version is to focus
once again on only the frame and not the painting. David Wells led the tour the day I
visited. He was quick with a joke, and by the end of the day he had made me feel like
family, despite the cultural differences. It costs a little more to ride in the van with
the guide than to follow behind in your own vehicle, and the information, and the laughter
David provided were well worth the extra money. I even came away able to speak a few
phrases in Ute. David brings his knowledge to the tour, but you have to bring your own
lunch, water, comfortable-and-safe shoes, sunscreen and hat. And make sure to bring a
camera and plenty of film. After crossing the highway, the van headed up a gently sloping
gravel road, which was very well maintained (a comfort, should you elect to take your own
vehicle). The road approached the silent sentinel of Chimney Rock, a freestanding behemoth
that David and his brother used to have to run up before breakfast when they were boys. The
Utes still climb the outcropping for ceremonial purposes. Just beyond Chimney Rock you can
see all four states that make up the Four Corners region–Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and
Utah. A left turn takes you through the wide Mancos Canyon, with bluffs that fall to the
canyon floor on the left, the Mancos River on the right, just out of sight but within
earshot. It is almost impossible to imagine that an estimated 10,000 people once lived in
this canyon, especially since it is entirely empty now, not a house, barn, gas station or
power line. So wide-open is the terrain, in fact, that even the outhouses are hidden among
the cottonwood trees. Even though the park is mostly made up of vast nothingness–land that
reaches unbroken to the horizon–the emptiness does not feel like desolation. And although
the 1,500 full-blooded current-day Utes don’t live in the park but in the nearby community
of Towaoc, it is obvious that the giant expanse of terrain that makes up the tribal park
was not abandoned so much as preserved. The hundreds of thousands of pieces of pottery
scattered throughout the park–all of which are OK to examine but not to take–and the
modern-day pictographs and ancient petroglyphs only hint at the history of the place. David
leads visitors to the unexcavated kivas, which are underground ceremonial rooms, points out
the petroglyphs high on the bluffs and provides answers to questions that haven’t yet been
verbalized. Even though it was interesting to that point, where the half-day trip ends near
the basic campground that sits on the banks of the river, in retrospect, the real fun began
as the van left the valley floor and ascended the winding road up the side of the canyon.
The green plateau spread out uninterrupted until it mingled with the blue of the sky. The
road doubled back on itself in a giant arc, and the vista was so clean and unspoiled that
it was difficult to believe that tours have been cutting through this land since 1972. Wild
horses, mule deer, elk, antelope and black bear still roam the 152,000-acre park, and it’s
impossible from the road to see any signs of the oil wells or coal mines that exist on the
land. After parking in the picnic area at the end of the road and eating lunch, David led
us down a short dirt path to the rim of Lion Canyon. The view was wonderful, but we hadn’t
seen anything yet. We climbed down a 5-foot wooden ladder, then down another to a
10-footer. They are not rickety but be careful and make sure that your camera is in a
backpack or a pocket and that your hands are free to support you on the descent. Next we
walked along the canyon wall over an easy trail through a piñon and juniper forest, until
we reached the stunning cliff dwelling called Tree House, a community believed to consist
of 46 rooms. We walked around and inside of the structures, peered through windows down
into the canyon and felt the winter cold of long ago. We studied the original walls, unlike
the fortified and rebuilt ones throughout much of Mesa Verde, and examined the scars in the
sandstone that were made by the ancients sharpening their tools. Looking at the canyon’s
steep walls, I tried to imagine the rigors of having to haul the thousands of rocks from
the riverbed uphill to create the Tree House and felt winded from the effort. We headed
back along the same trail, passed the ladders and arrived at Lion House, a collection of
structures that got its name because a mountain lion was living in it when the park opened.
Original wood still supports the stones in this site, as it does in the next stop along the
trail, Morrison Site. Here the logs display the markings of having been chopped with stone
tools. A little farther, past more scrub pine and around a bend, we came to the Eagle’s
Nest. As the name implies, this site is perched high up in a cliff and must have required
the services of many winged creatures in its construction. It is amazing yet can fully be
appreciated only by climbing up a 30-foot ladder. Do not attempt the climb if you have a
fear of heights. The ladder is stable, but there’s no halfway resting point; it’s all or
nothing–which, once you’re on top taking in the view of the Eagle’s Nest and the canyon,
makes perfect sense. The tour is an 80-mile round trip. I watched the scenery on the way
back and knew I wanted more. By the time David had pulled the van into the visitors center,
I had realized that anyone who really wanted to appreciate all that Ute Mountain Tribal
Park has to offer should camp there, should stay for at least one rotation of the Earth,
should listen to the quiet and realize that there are not many places left where silence
has such depth. Some day I will return, next time to sleep beside the Mancos River, to
listen for the ghosts that are said to inhabit the canyon, to explore the elaborate cliff
dwellings once again. I probably will not visit Mesa Verde again, because I did not achieve
the calm contemplation there that I did while in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. But you may
choose to, because, after all, the Mona Lisa needs a frame. Colorado Tourism; (800)
COLORADO; wwwcolorado.com. Ute Mountain Tribal Park, P.O. Box 109, Towaoc, Colorado 81334;
(800) 847-5485.

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