Monday, June 24, 2013

Mesa Verde National Park and a great bike ride!

Yesterday was another beautiful day in Durango!  We got up early and headed out to Mesa Verde National Park, so we could get ahead of the heat of the day and most of the crowds.  It's about an hour's drive from Durango and the drive is very pretty.  On the way, we listened to a couple of Fred Craddock's sermons from 1999, and, even though his voice was a little different then than now, his insight and way with words will never cease to amaze.  And, in classic Craddock style, the endings of his sermons just take you by surprise and leave you just about speechless.  Then you realize, once again, that he can say more with fewer words than so many other preachers.  Trisha and I have a wood block print by the artist in residence at our college, Robert Hodgell, that's entitled "The Sermon," and shows a preacher, standing in a pulpit, with his hand on the Bible, his mouth open wide, and all around him you see "words, words, words, words!"  So often this seems to be the case with some preaching, but I can imagine this same print done with Dr. Craddock as the subject, and it likely would have just a single "word" on it, yet this one word is so powerful that it prompts the listener to think and think, and come up with the listener's own words.  What a privilege it has been to know this giant of a man, and to have had the chance to hear him bring the ancient texts to life with his remarkable insights--and all this set against the backdrop of the most gorgeous scenery--soaring mountains, stately evergreens reaching up to the sky of brilliant blue.

When you arrive at Mesa Verde National Park, there is a beautiful visitor center, with two really intriguing statues out front, which are remarkably evocative of the struggle and strength of the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in this area.  One is of a man, climbing up a steep cliff face, with a load on his back, finely chiseled muscles straining, back bowed, and you realized that this happened virtually every day of their existence.  They farmed their crops on the canyon floor, and then climbed the cliffs to their dwellings every night.  Then there is a beautiful statue of a woman, holding a pot with a big ear of corn in it; the sculptor captured the beauty of this woman's face and hands, and the whole concept of the how this society sustained itself.  Quite striking.  But, since the cliff dwellings are 20 miles from the visitor center, and the road climbs pretty steeply with lots of hairpin turns, we had to beat feet to the site of our tour.

We got to the ruins known as Cliff Palace, probably the largest one of the cliff dwellings in the park, in time to gather with the group for our ranger led tour.  This dwelling got its name from a couple of cowboys who discovered it in 1881 while searching for lost cattle.  They first caught a glimpse of this impressive structure across the canyon floor, and ultimately got close enough to it to explore it.  It is essentially one large, interconnected collection of 150 rooms, with different sizes and shapes, likely reflecting construction by different family units, maybe slightly different times, but all connected through a series of common walls.  It has a number of kivas, round rooms that now look like open pits, but originally they had roofs over them, forming a sort of plaza area, with only the hole in the roof which allowed for smoke from the fire pit in the center of each kiva to escape, as well as providing the only access by means of a ladder.  Through many techniques of research and analysis, archeologists have come to some conclusions about the people who inhabited these dwellings, but much of what you read about them is really just speculation.  They figure this society prevailed in the area from around 400-the late 1200's AD.  Evidently, the people initially lived up on the mesa, and then began building the cliff dwellings in alcoves in the rock faces of the cliffs below the mesa, and above the valley floor, perhaps for better shelter from the elements, perhaps for protection from hostile tribes, no one really knows for sure.  We had a fantastic ranger leading our tour--a woman who lives in Seattle, but who comes here every summer to work as a National Park Ranger, and she related a beautiful creation story she learned from a Hopi man, the Hopi being one of the tribes who traces their ancestral lineage to these Puebloan people.  She was very good at explaining the major hypotheses of the many scientists who have studied these ruins and artifacts, as well as explaining some of the ways they have been able to determine the age of the buildings as well as other things about the society that existed at the time.  All of this is really fascinating--for example there are places where wooden timbers protrude from the face of a tower, or other room, and the scientists have bored small holes into these timbers, allowing them to extract samples to study the rings in the wood to help date the structures.

Most who have studied this place generally agree that Cliff Palace was a place where about 125 people lived at its zenith, but that it was also something of a central gathering place for many more people who lived in cliff dwellings tucked into the walls of the canyon all around.  The idea is that this place had such a large plaza area, likely used for social gatherings, ceremonial dances, etc., and that the kivas below the plaza were probably used not only for religious ceremonies, but also for other activities as well.  Each kiva had a fire pit in the center, with a large stone behind the firepit to deflect the heat of the fire and thus heat the room more efficiently, and with benches made around the walls of the kiva.  Above, the multiple rooms were thought to be residences, along with some towers likely placed for easier lookout into the canyon to see any approaching warriors, with granaries tucked high above the main structures, near the top of the overhanging rock.  It's really remarkable to see how they fashioned stones into building blocks and bricks, some amazingly uniform in size and shape, and then used a mud based mortar to hold them together.  The granaries had some places in the walls where smaller stacked stones were used, but not mortared together, to allow for better ventilation.

It was all just very interesting, and when you contemplate how these people lived, you realize how hard life was at the time, yet how innovative and industrious these people were to be able to survive and build such impressive structures.  As best the archeologists can determine, these cliff dwellings were abandoned in the late 1200's, though no one is sure why, or exactly where the people went.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to go into the buildings as you once were.  In the 1980'd they realized how the traffic was causing damage to the fragile parts of the buildings, so they no longer allow you to freely roam through the inside of the structures.  They have done some restoration work in parts of the ruins, but most of it is the original material, just like it was first built.

But we were glad to have visited, and glad to have had such a wonderful guide.  As we were gathering at the overlook, waiting for the tour to start, this one little 3 year old saw us walking up and excitedly told his mom that he saw Santa.  Like a lot of kids his age, he was excited from a distance, but as we got closer, he wasn't so sure--took him a while to warm up, but he eventually did.  Even though his mother carried him in her arms for much of the hike down to the ruins, there were four ladders you had to climb up to get back to the top, and little Caleb climbed these all by himself.  So cute!  Another couple of brothers, probably 8 or 9, were really funny.  They were eager to have their pictures taken with Mr. and Mrs. Claus before we got started, and then, as we were climbing back up, they were following close behind me, peppering me with questions about how we got here, what we were driving, etc.  One of the funniest was when one boy said "Santa, you have an elf outpost in China don't you?" Initially I couldn't figure where this question came from, but then he said, "I figured you must have, since so many of the toys are made in China."  What a hoot!!

After we did this tour, we drove around the Mesa Top Loop, where we could see several other cliff dwellings in the sides of the cliffs throughout.  The speculation is that many of these folks would be called to come to the Cliff Palace for various gatherings, or ceremonies, and it's just amazing to think about people scaling these cliffs to get to their homes and then down again to get to where they would farm and hunt.

After we got back to the RV park we chilled here for a while and then drove into town to the upper end of the lovely bike trail that runs along the Animas River.  We had a wonderful ride, going from one end of this seven mile paved trail to the other and back.  We started about 6:45, so it was nice and cool, and since it was Sunday evening, it was very uncrowded.  Just a glorious ride along the river, watching a few last rafters and kayakers negotiating the rapids, seeing the sun play out against the mountains--just a fabulous place to ride, not having to worry about vehicular traffic.  We passed the public library, which is right on the river bank, with multiple levels of glass walled rooms, along with lots of patios, and a beautiful, community maintained landscaped garden below.  We were just imagining what a lovely place this is to sit and read or write, and what a beautiful setting it was.  Come to find out, this was the work of the mother of a good friend and former Lambda Legal colleague, Judi O'Kelly, when her mother was the library director--another cool small world experience!  Anyway, I was so proud of Trisha and happy for her, as this was her longest ride so far.  There was one pretty fast downhill section as we rode the first way, but as we were flying down this hill, she began to say that she was going to have to walk her bike when we turned around and headed back up this hill.  Well, I was so happy that she talked herself into giving it a try and she made it to the top without having to walk at all!! So happy that she could do it and she was excited that she made it.  A great way to finish our day.

Some pics:

Mesa Verde visitor center
 As you walk up to the front entrance, you see this neat way they designed it, with the rock butte rising above it in the background
 I realize that these pictures of the sculpture showing the man scaling the cliffs don't give you the detail I had hoped, but if you look at them closely, I think you can see a little of what I was talking about in the post.

 The woman with her corn
 The butte behind the visitor center
Some views as we drove the 20 miles from the visitor center to the cliff dwellings

 A couple of shots showing the remains of some of the trees burned in a huge fire a few years ago.  This area is experiencing such a drought now, there are fires burning in several places in Colorado, along with New Mexico.  The fire danger is about as high as it gets, and it's so sad to think of the devastation that results from fires.

Some shots of Cliff Palace taken from the overlook, before we started our tour down to the ruins

Looking across the valley to the cliffs on the other side, where several smaller dwellings are nearly hidden in little alcoves.
 One of the smaller structures across the way

 Ranger Frankie, who was really an outstanding guide, as she's explaining what we're about to see as we begin
Hiking down to the ruins

Now we're down closer to the ruins--you can see how they built around, and into, the various levels of the formation of the rocks

 The uppermost window was one of the granaries

 Closeup of some of the original bricks and chinking
Shots of the timbers that were used to support the next story of the buildings

 Closeup of the end of a couple of the timbers, showing where they have taken out plugs to analyze the rings, to determine the date the structures were built
Couple of shots showing how they designed the granary for ventilation

This is an ongoing scientific project of some Univ. of Penn folks, taking these biscuit looking pieces of mortar and exposing them to the weather to determine more of the characteristics and thus insight into the people who built these structures
 A square tower at one end of the Palace--at the other end the tower was round--not sure why they were different
 Looking down into a couple of kivas, you can see the fire pit and the heat deflector stone, plus the entrance to a passageway leading to other rooms

 People getting a look inside one of the towers, where there was some artwork high up on the walls

Hard to see the detail of the art on the walls of the tower; was a bit rushed to get the picture, as a lot of folks were in line behind me and another tour was coming down
 Sweet little Caleb, who asked his Mom if he could take a picture of Santa!
 Climbing back up the narrow stone steps
 That's Caleb in his Mom's arms ahead of Trisha
 Here's Caleb, climbing one of the ladders, all by himself!
Looking across from an overlook at some other dwellings

 The one they call Room With Many Windows

 We loved these quotes from one of the storyboards at the overlook

Gorgeous mountain views on our way down off the mesa

Scenes from our wonderful bike ride along the fabulous Animas River Trail

 Above: a kayaker working out heading back into some rapids; below: the visitor center in the downtown park, along the trail

 Durango Public Library--what a lovely setting!

 The Trail runs along the railroad tracks for a good part of the way, and as we were crossing the tracks to the side where we were parked, caught this deer, who had just crossed from the other side!

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