States visited: 49!

visited 49 states (98%)
Create your own visited map of The United States
Miles driven so far -
LOOP 1 (Aug 2009 - Aug 2010): 29,000
LOOP 2 (May - August 2012): 10,800

Highest altitude with camper: 11,158ft (I-70, CO)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mesa Verde National Park: Thursday, April 8th

This campground was chosen for its proximity to Mesa Verde National Park, just a few miles along the road. Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table (my Dad, over 50 years out of school, mentioned this translation without any prompting whatsoever!), offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 1300. Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Mesa Verde National Park (created in 1906), designated a World Heritage Site in 1978, is one of the premier archeological sites in the world and is of paramount importance in educating people about preserving and protecting these international treasures.

Mesa Verde people grew crops and hunted game on the mesa tops. The soil was fertile and, except in drought, about as well watered as now. The vegetation is also about the same today as it was then, but with less pinyon (pine) and juniper. The people cut pinyon and juniper for building materials and firewood and to clear land for farming. They reached their fields by hand-and-toe-hold trails pecked into the canyon walls. We saw an artist's view of what this would have looked like and it seemed quite precarious, particularly as they were also carrying baskets at the same time.

We learned that the first Ancestral Puebloans settled in Mesa Verde 1,400 years ago. They were known as Basketmakers for their skill at the craft. Formerly nomadic, they were beginning to lead a more settled way of life. Farming replaced hunting and gathering as their main livelihood. They lived in pithouses clustered into small villages usually built on mesa tops but sometimes in cliff recesses. They learned to make pottery and acquired the bow and arrow, a more efficient weapon for hunting than the atlatl, a spear thrower.

From the entrance, we had to wind and zig-zag our way up the hill to the Visitor Center – another 23 miles into the Park, taking us to our highest height so far, over 8,000 feet. Clearly the views into the valley below were spectacular, though a tad unnerving! We picked up Junior Ranger booklets and completed a number of sections, thanks to the informative displays throughout the Visitor Center. It is incredibly fascinating to learn how the dwellings were built and how the people evolved. The fact that so much of what they built all those years ago remains in tact is testament to their abilities.

We walked down to Spruce Tree House and were able to see, close-up, the detail of the dwellings. This has been partially restored to allow visitors to see, and go down into, an actual kiva. Needless to say, this was a hit for the kids, climbing down into a musky, small, round room with mud on the floor – hard to imagine this being a pleasant location but kivas were an important part of the dwellings. The ceilings above would have been the floor of the courtyard – they were very good about creating multi-purpose spaces!

Kiva is a Hopi word for ceremonial room – at Mesa Verde, they are underground chambers that may be comparable to later churches. Based on modern Pueblo practice, Ancestral Puebloans may have used kivas for healing rites or to pray for rain, luck in hunting, or a good crop. Kivas were gathering places and sometimes also places to weave. Pilasters supported a beam-and-mud roof. Entry was by ladder through a hole in the center of the roof. The small hold in the floor is a sipapu, or symbolic entrance to the underworld.

We took the loop road around the Park, stopping (of course!) at multiple overlooks and cliff dwellings. The Junior Ranger program required the kids to read some of the signs to answer certain questions in their books, which was a perfect encouragement for them to get out of the car and, inadvertently, learn along the way!

As we overlooked Cliff Palace (with its spectacular square and circle towers), we tried to imagine being the cowboys who, while corralling their horses, came across these dwellings. What an amazing discovery. At first, the only way to reach the dwellings was by guided horse and cart. The journey would take 3 days in all (they were some determined tourists!) before a road was built, making it a less-arduous proposition!

We crossed paths with the Fine Family along the Cliff Palace loop. Our younger kids had been playing with Emily and Josh at the campground, so we all hiked the Soda Canyon Overlook Trail together, which afforded us wonderful views of the valley. We constantly chat with people we meet and learn of all sorts of different things to do in the places we’re going. Today we heard about a good restaurant in Moab and also where to look for fossilized dinosaur footprints. We make new friends, often thanks to the kids, Janet and Rich are one such example.

I didn’t think we’d be at the Park all day but we were! I should know by now that Dave likes to eek out his days off, filling them to the max. It was an interesting day but the interest-levels of the children were beginning to wane somewhat as the day wore on. We do love the history of these people though, just goes to show that American history doesn’t begin with the Europeans emigrating here in the 1600’s, the land was here and it was inhabited, so much to learn.

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