Imagine all the people

John Lennon

We spent today at Mesa Verde NP, just a few miles from CO home. Zoe and I woke up early, 5:30, to pick up Ellie and Molly who had spent the night in the tent. From the entrance of Mesa Verde it was a 45ish minute drive to the Sun Temple where we were scheduled to meet the ranger for our tour of Oak Tree House.

When we got there the other group that would join us was already there and we were soon joined by our tail ranger for the day and Ranger Jackie. I don’t know if anyone has explained what a tail ranger is on this blog so I’m going to because it’s my dream retirement gig. On the backcountry tours or the cliff dwellings there is often a volunteer who tags along the end of the tour to make sure that everyone keeps up with the tour and doesn’t try to pull any shenanigans. I feel that my training as a high school teacher has prepared me well for the discipline part of the job. The reason I really want it though is that they get to go on unlimited tours for free. Some of the people we’ve had have been as knowledgeable about the sites we visit as the rangers and have been eager to answer questions and tell stories as well. I hope I can learn everything there is to know about Ancestral Puebloan society by tagging along and sharing that knowledge with others.

Our tour of Oak Tree House was led by an awesome ranger who was eager to share what she knew about this particular site as well as to emphasize the larger community that made up Mesa Verde and the Four Corners region. One of my favorite facts about this area is that there were more people living in Montezuma County 800 years ago than there are today. The structure of society then is remarkably similar to now. Mesa Verde was the bustling metropolis. Each cliff dwelling was its own enighborhood that made up a part of the larger city. Outlying sites to the north in the Montezuma Valley (where we live) mimiced the suburbs and Chaco Canyon 100ish miles to the south was the next nearest big city. For a bit of perspective it is estimated that 40,000 or more people lived just in the area that lies within Mesa Verde National Park and this doesn’t include the vast majority of the county. Today the whole of Montezuma County is home to just 26,000 people including the cities of Cortez, Mancos, and Dolores.

One of the best parts of the Oak Tree House tour was getting to climb down hand and toe holds that had been carved by the original residents. We also got to hold some pottery sherds that were lying at the front of the site.

Our next stop required driving nearly all the way back to the entrance. I really wanted to hike to the top of Point Lookout, the distinctive mesa top that is synonymous with the park. It seemed like a hike we should have under our belts as aspiring residents of the area. I also wanted to see our home from a viewpoint 1,500 feet above it. Fortunatly a road took us most of the way there so it was one of the easiest summit hikes we’ve done, just 1 mile and 400 feet up. With the temperature expected to reach the mid-90’s we wanted to do it as early in the day as possible. The views of the entire area at the top really are worth the climb. We could clearly see a panaromic view of the mountains in the area: La Plata, La Sal, Abajo, Ute. We also traced roads to Mancos, Cortez, and of course the section of pinon and juniper forest still standing among the plowed areas where we’ll live someday.

On our way back down we had a chance meeting with the chairwoman of the Montezuma County Democrats who had spotted our presidential bumper stickers. I guess it’s never too early to get politically involved in a new state. It’s been kind of interesting here politcally. Supposedly, and as shown by the voting, the area leans conservative. However, every person we’ve talked to politally has been liberal. Maybe we just give off a liberal vibe that makes people feel comfortable talking to us or maybe the area isn’t quite as conservative as it seems.

We stopped off for lunch at the Far View Cafe and played a couple games to cool off. Then we headed to the museum for a look around where we discovered Ranger Jackie, our guide from earlier in the day was now on duty at the desk. Ellie picked up a Jr Ranger pack and set to work while the rest of us walked around studying the artifacts. As I mentioned above Puebloan society utilized the entire county. There are literally artifacts and ruins everywhere. While we haven’t found anything on our land yet, I’m sure there are things there so I’m trying to learn about what to be on the lookout for both because it would be really exciting to find, but also because we’d rather not build a house on top of anything.

After finishing up her Jr Ranger pack Ellie checked in with Ranger Jackie. We learned that she lived in Mancos and had actually been at the Burro Fiesta the day before as well. We learned a mit more about the Mancos area from her and told her about Ellie’s podcast and the blog. I’m sure we’ll run into each other again!

The next thing on my wishlist for the day was a tour of the Mesa Top Loop. This area features dwellings from each of the periods that the area was habitated beginning with pit houses in the 800’s and progressing straight through to Cliff Dwellings built just before the area was abandoned around 1300. We also spent a bit of time hiking to some farming terraces before meeting up with our final tour of the day at Cliff Palace.

Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in the park. Our ranger, Ranger Michael, had actually been our guide at Square Tower House last summer. He’s excellent at telling the story of the people who lived in these places, and chose to focus on telling the story of why people left Mesa Verde around 1300. This was really surprising to me since every other time this has come up in the many times we’ve been here the answer to why people left has been something along the lines of “there was a drought so crops didn’t do well, but the current Pueblo people say the real reason was just that it was time to move on.” Of course, both of these are very likely a part of the reason, but it’s always seemed to me there had to be more to the story.

As he talked, Ranger Michael cited stories and conversations with people from many modern Pueblo tribes. I would love to read more about these stories, so if anyone reading this knows about any written sources for this info please pass them along! According to Ranger Michael drought and just being time to move along were certainly part of the story, but there was also a much bigger social-political struggle going on simultaniously. The clans of the area had generally got along with each other quite well for hundreds of years. They were interdependent on each other for trade, they married among each other, the cooperated on larger works projects. When the drought came tensions were raised between the haves whose land was still producing and springs were still flowing and have nots whose land was less productive.

Cliff Palace was built in an attempt to come together to find solutions to these problems. Each clan set representatives who collaborate to build the massive structure over about 20 years. One of the modern Pueblos considers Cliff Palace to be the University of Mesa Verde, much like the universities of Ancient Greece. It was a place for ideas to be born and tested and for collaborative governance of the Mesas. Although they couldn’t solve the insolvable problem of drought they did apparently maintain peace and quality of life for several decades.

Meanwhile, in the Mancos River valley below and to the South of the cliffs the drought was having a similarly devestating impact. However, the governance structure and cooperative spirit of the clans there was not as successful as the people in the cliffs. While there is no evidence of infighting in the cliffs, the opposite is true in the river valley. There seems to be evidence of frequent raids and fighting below. While everyone seems to be hesitant to say that locating their homes in the cliffs was a defensive move, it certainly would be an advantage.

In any case, by 1300, just a few years after Cliff Palace was completed it was time to move on. Drought severly limited the growth of crops and other parts of the Four Corners had already been abandoned reducing the nearby community.

After our tour of Cliff Palace we made the long drive back to Cortez. Still not having had dinner the Denny’s sign caught our eye as we pulled into our hotel parking lot. It was 10 PM and a place of pancakes sounded like just the thing we needed to end our day.

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