My days off have been all over the place lately. Usually they are Sunday/Monday, but due to some seasonal staff rotation they’ve recently been changed to Monday/Tuesday. The past few weeks have been especially strange in addition to this change, as I gave up a day off for a 3-day weekend two weeks ago, and covered for a co-worker this last weekend, causing my days off to be Monday/Thursday.
So as I sat at breakfast Wednesday morning, I pondered out loud to my tablemate what I should do with my odd day off.
“Want to go to Colorado?” he said.
“Sure, let’s go to Mesa Verde.”
“Okay. Pass the Kix?”
And it was decided.
Mesa Verde National Park sits in the western part of Colorado, just before the San Juan range introduces the first peaks of the Rocky Mountains. I had first heard of it two weekends ago, when I spent a few days at this particular breakfast buddy’s parents’ house close by. You can see Mesa Verde from their terrace – a great, stepped tabletop in the distance – and I spent much of the trip listening to stories of the place, as my host’s mother spent several seasons working there as a ranger.
It’s about a 3-hour drive from Canyonlands, so in the interest of time my travel buddy and I left after work the night before and stayed once again at his parent’s house nearby. We awoke the next morning to crashing thunder and pouring rain. Cursing ourselves for not checking earlier, we brought up the weather forecast online and were greeted by a grim outlook – scattered thunderstorms, all day long. With a sigh and a shrug we decided to go out for breakfast and plan our alternative agenda over baked goods and orange juice. Just as we made our way back from our leisurely morning food stop, the sky began to clear, and we decided it might be worth it to drive up the Mesa after all.
I was shocked by how crowded the park was. At Canyonlands you see other cars on the road, definitely, but rarely more than a few at a time. At Mesa Verde there was not a moment where we were not surrounded on all sides by fellow visitors. This made me simultaneously excited and depressed – excited that so many others are choosing to see these amazing places too, but depressed that the solitude and feeling of wilderness was lost to the crowds.
Much of Mesa Verde has been burned in a dozen or so huge fires that have ripped through the park in the past fifty years – the most recent of these was in 2002. It is the product of these fires that makes for some very unique scenery. Mesa Verde being a mesa of course, sits much higher than the farmlands that surround it, providing views of up to 120 miles in the distance that are absolutely spectacular. But in the foreground of those views are the somewhat surreal-looking silhouettes of thousands of dead trees, framed at the bottom by the bright green vegetation making it’s way back through the still burnt ground. The resulting landscape is a combination of earthly and out-of-this-world spectacles that is totally mind-blowing and completely beautiful.
But the reason most people come to Mesa Verde is not for the scenery, but for the ruins. The park is home to over 600 archeological sites left behind by the Ancestral Puebloans (the same people who have left quite a few, not quite as spectacular markers in our park). Here on the cliffs of the mesa they built their homes, and here they stay, thousands of years after abandonment, almost completely intact for visitors to explore.
You can’t explore them, however, unless accompanied by a ranger on a guided tour. Since I’ve been working in the park I’ve lost a lot of patience for these types of tours. I would rather explore on my own or with a smaller group of people I deem competent enough to answer my questions and keep up with my pace. Walking through an ancient ruin with 60 tourists gabbing loudly over the ranger, allowing their children to run unsupervised around ancient ruins, stopping over and over again to take obnoxious pictures, is no longer my cup of tea. What can I say? I run with an amazing crowd that know their stuff and have spoiled me.
Anyway, we didn’t have a choice but to travel the park this way, and we decided to book a 2pm tour of a ruin known as the Balcony House.
Just as I suspected, our fellow visitors were loud and obnoxious, and our ranger-guide was disappointingly scattered and uninteresting. But the sights we saw were worth it. In order to get to Balcony House you must climb a relatively tall ladder, and squeeze through a passage in the rock barely wider than my shoulders. Inside was a beautifully preserved cliff dwelling, I don’t know how else do describe it other than that. It was almost as if the APs had left it only a few years ago, rather than a few hundred.
A few weekends back, while visiting with my friend’s mother who worked at Mesa Verde for several years, she told me a story about how she and a few other rangers had gone to Balcony House after-hours. Upon entering one of the structures they had heard a loud, screeching noise. Stepping back, they tried to enter again, only to be greeted (or shooed) by the same screech. They entered the house despite the shriek on their third attempt, but were finally convinced to leave upon the arrival of ghostly, ancient music coming from somewhere in the ruin. Walking through Balcony House, I wanted so badly to hear that song. Unfortunately the tourist chatter drowned it out.
We didn’t have time to explore any other ruins, so after a stop at the highest point on the mesa for some pictures, we made our way back down to town for dinner and then eventually home. I would love to go back and explore Mesa Verde more. Regardless of the somewhat obnoxious number of people, there’s definitely something unique there, something spiritual. If you can feel it amongst all the chaos of the crowds, I can only imagine what the place must be like without them. And then that’s the great fun in national parks, going someplace amazing and imagining what it would be like without the touch of modern man. It puts things into perspective. It’s incredibly humbling. And I’m so thankful I get the chance to find that sort of solitude every day.