Sunday, 11 September 2011

Trip Part eight – Mesa Verde and the Great Divide

Mesa Verde
Our next visit a few miles along highway 160 was to have a look at a place called Mesa Verde.
For most of my formative years, the Cowboy and Indian Westerns presented a very simplistic view of the peoples of America. Most of these stories featured the clean shaven, white hatted, two gun packing hero who just wanted to live peaceably in the prairies raising cattle, singing songs about four footed friends and life on the range and who always got the girl. Pitted against him and his girl, were the evil badly shaven, black hatted gangsters, often with a long moustache, property developers with a neat moustache, claim jumpers and of course on top of all these enemies, were the hordes of hostile Indians, wearing feathered headdresses and firing deadly, but strangely inaccurate arrows at him. These savages were only driven off by the cavalry arriving in the nick of time and allowing the victims to count the dead and carry on with their peaceful lives.
The typical hero, white hat, two guns and a terrific right hook 

The Indians lived in wigwams, hunted buffalo and were unreasonably aggressive, constantly attacking the peaceful law abiding settlers at the slightest whim, with the occasional good Indian, thrown in who was fanatically loyal to the hero for various, often unspecified reasons.

It was rarely suggested in those days was that these Native American peoples also only wanted to live in peace too, without being driven off their traditional hunting grounds by the encroaching white settlers. The Indians featured in these Westerns were plains Indians and none of these stories ever suggested that there were any other kinds of Native Americans.
For many years, raised on this diet, I had no idea that there were also many other Native Americans living in a totally different manner to the plains Indians, living in settlements, built permanent dwellings and grew their own food. Also no one ever mentioned that American cultures go back thousands of years into prehistory and many different peoples have lived in different parts of the ‘New World’, long before it was discovered by Europeans.
There are many archaeological sites and ruins scattered across the USA ranging in age from 10,000 BC to just a few hundred years ago. A mummified corpse found in a cave in Nevada has been dated as 7,420 B.C, placed there by an established society of the time. All across the Colorado plateau around the Four Corners there are remains of Anasazi settlements that pre date the current Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo Indians living there now. Their exact relationship to the Anasazi is unclear since some translations of the name mean Ancient Foes, some translate as The Ancient Ancestors or The people who came before.

Mesa Verde is the site of an ancient Pueblo settlement where these particular people had lived until about 1200AD. They were cliff dwellers and built substantial brick dwellings in crevices and under overhangs in cliff faces. They were also an agricultural people who grew maize, squash and made a characteristic pottery which is still produced. They must have been extremely agile because access to some of their dwellings was only by scaling ladders and using toe holds carved into the rock.
It is from these people that we obtained Maize because they cultivated it for many centuries and developed the seed into a number of varieties which are still around today.

Much of the USA suffered an extensive drought around 1200AD and so it is believed this was the cause of them abandoning their homes at this site.

Point Lookout comes into view as you climb up to the mesa proper
Click to enlarge any  picture

It is a long drive, about 15 miles, up to the top of the Mesa, which is a little under 7,000 feet high. It is not so long ago that the road was put in so anyone living there had a very long trek to get to and from the summit and the surrounding countryside.
Approaching the top

One of the canyons running into the top of the mesa

These do not look deep, but that is a forest at the bottom

Once there, you can walk along the canyon to view the cliff dwellings. Some of these are little more than a walled in cleft in the rock, but some like the House of many Windows, is a complex many roomed dwelling.

At first you just see a cliff face but look carefully
there are buildings all along the front of the cliff
Looking a bit closer and you can see the structures

Again look carefully and you will see the buildings

A closer view again reveals the buildings hidden in the cave
 Going through the visitors centre you can view the most complex series of structures on the site and climb down into the Cliff Palace which is found hidden in the narrow canyon.

Abandoned around 1200AD, these ruins are in amazing condition

Inside the square three story building the wall decorations are still  in remarkable condition

These circular Pit Houses were roofed over and had a central fire place with a smoke hole in the roof. 

The top of the mesa has very little rain and can become extremely dry, which often leads to fires. There is not a lot that can be done to control these, so they will burn until either it does rain or they run out of fuel. Signs of past fires abound in the area, some recent some quite old.

Signs of a fairly recent fire
Plant life returns
After looking around for about an hour, we returned through the inevitable Gift shop where I was able to buy myself a replacement hat for the one I left in the Grand Canyon.
You could take a guided tour
This was the last of the most special sights we were able to visit on this trip, and now we were heading home. We had booked a hotel in Colorado Springs and had to cross over the Rocky Mountains once again before arriving there.

The road down from Mesa Verde
 We descended from the mesa into a flat valley which was farmland and re-joined highway 160.

You can see how high you are as you start to head down
Down in the Animas River Valley

 Travelling east along the 160, we passed through a town called Durango and then on to Pagosa Springs where we started to approach the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. As we approached them, the houses started to take on a distinctly Alpine look, similar to buildings in Austria and Switzerland.

An Alpine house

The foot hills of the Rocky Mountains
We started to climb and soon we started to see snow around us.
Snow in June at ten thousand feet
 Our route took us through Wolf Creek Pass which is about 10,500 feet but we did not have any trouble with crisp packets this time.
The hills were highly forested and by the time we reached the Continental Divide, there was snow on the ground underneath the trees we were passing.
Snow under the trees
We stopped at the Great Divide sign, for an obligatory photo shoot of the family posed straddling the Continental Divide.
The metal strip under the sign shows the exact line of the Divide
From here on it was downhill until we reached South Fork, which is on the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Considering this river is part of the border between Mexico and the USA, it starts out a long way north of the border. Having run parallel with highway 160 for about fifty miles we crossed the Rio Grande at Alamosa, the river heading south as we continued east.
Crossing the Rio Grande
The area is still fairly mountainous and we went up and down a few times passing some spectacular scenery.

Arriving at Walsenburg, we joined the Interstate I-25, headed north towards Pueblo and finally Colorado Springs.
Heading North
 At Colorado Springs we stayed in the Academy Hotel, close to the US Air Force Academy and air base.
The next morning we set out on highway 24 to join the I-70 for our return to Kansas.


  1. I continue to be amazed, snafu, at how much you got to see on your trip. It was a terrific historical and geological adventure! I would love to see the cave dwellings on the Mesa Verde - fascinating, and you got some great shots!

  2. I want to go there!!!! I am green, Snafu. What a fantastic place. x

  3. Those houses in the rocks look like models until you see the photo with the people in. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Finally got here to your blog. The cliff dwellings are fascinating. We've been to the ones in Arizona, but the ones you went to are much more complex. You've done a great job with these narratives -- better than a guide book.