9.21.2006,5:23 PM
Day Five: The Cliff Dwellers

Not until the sun rose in the sky to melt the ice and snow was I able to do anything other than wish I were elsewhere. Or at least warmer. I had to go pee, but I couldn’t force myself to get out of my warm sleeping bags until I absolutely could not resist the urge to empty my full bladder. After stumbling out of my tent to go to the bathroom, shaking my head in disbelief of the snow around me, I crawled back into the tent and bags and dosed until I felt some warmth from the sun cresting over the nearby cliffs.

I was situating wet items in the sun to dry when a friend rode up on his bike with breakfast for me. Not caring what it was or where it came from, I gobbled it down like a bear waking from a long hibernation. Then the craving for coffee set in. That was motivation enough to get going.

We rode to the campground general store where I had two cups of coffee in quick succession; I could feel the brain gears beginning to finally turn. I could function now.

Since it was already mid-day, we would not have time to visit the various sites that we wanted to see. We decided on a priority site and see what time we had remaining after that. Stopping at the visitors’ center, we purchased tickets for a guided tour of Cliff Palace. While waiting for our scheduled meeting time, we lingered leisurely at a café and deli near the top of the mesa. The sun was finally up in the sky, melting the remaining ice and snow, and warmed our bodies. It felt wonderful to sit outside under the sun in amongst the flowers and trees, sipping on more coffee.

The 14-mile ride up to the top of the mesa was more than winding; it was corkscrews and hairpin turns, up and up and up. The campground is at about 7,000 feet; the top of the plateau is at least over 8,000 feet. Most of the cliff dwellings are at 7,000 feet and above. The views below are amazing and far-reaching, but I waited to look when I was on my feet and off the bike.

A park ranger who was also a cultural anthropologist guided our tour of the Cliff Palace. Her accounts and description of the Anasazi, the early occupants of these dwellings as well as the others in the four-state region, was authoritively informative. It enhanced my appreciation and imagination of the people and their life then. What amazed me the most is the sheer physical requirement to access these cliff communities. For most, the front of the cliff openings are drops to ground hundreds of feet below. Tops of the plateau also were far above the ceilings of these caves. Try as I might, I could not imagine how they climbed above and down into these mouths of the cliffs on a daily basis. But they had to do so, and devised ways to carry their food, building supplies, and other raw materials. I also wondered if some of these cliff dwelling people perhaps never left these caves during their life span. To imagine this cliff mouth as my entire world for most of my life was inconceivable.

Many cliff dwellings are open to public visitation or viewing, but many more in that general area remain closed and unexcavated. Even more sites are on top of the plateau; the Anasazi only moved into the cliff caves later and then only for less then one hundred years.

Six hundred cliff dwellings are in the Mesa Verde National Park; others can be found within a large circle encompassing Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Some of these sites contain only one-room houses; others contain villages of houses, built on top of each other. Cliff Palace is one of the larges – more than 200 rooms. Most have kivas, round underground chambers used for ceremony and gatherings. Kiva roofs were wooden beams covered over with packed mud.

By about 1300 AD, all of the cliff dwellings were deserted. The people living in these alcoves moved out; for what reason we can only conjecture. Enemies? Starvation? Social or political problems? Exhaustion of local resources? We may never know. But their legacy remains, there in the cliff alcoves and in the people who followed in their footsteps: the Navajo and Hopi Indians.

I want to go back there again, to see more of these cliff dwellings and the diversity between these people who left their mystery behind. I want to sit there on the cave rock, amongst the kivas, tall rooms with tiny windows, the round block and adobe towers and listen. I want to sit for hours and gaze out from the mouth of these caves to see if I can feel what I may have been like to live, work and die there. I want to be alone, without others around me so I can listen to the ghosts of these people in their homes, and learn. Listen to them sing, give birth, cry, tell stories, laugh, and die. I want to feel them around me, as it may have been so many hundreds of years ago. For no one can build and live in such an environment and not leave something of themselves behind. I want to know them.

I will return.

We rode down, spiraling around, zigzagging and down. Riding up was thrilling, but the ride down had my heart in my throat. I don’t think I got out of third gear much the entire way down. When we neared the road to the campsite, I realized I had been clenching my teeth and I was sweating profusely. I sighed, thankful that I was still alive and not riding of the side of a cliff; I have no wings.

I inquired into the weather forecast for the night; a repeat of the night before was predicted: freezing rain and snow. I shook my head and said: “Time to break camp and head into Cortez. I don’t do snow.”

While we packed everything up, I was relieved to discover my gloves and sheepskin pad had dried in the sun. A couple from across my camping area came by to watch me pack. They were enthralled by the entire process, I guess. We chatted as we packed and I strapped everything into its place. Waving good-bye, we rode down the mesa and onto Hwy 160 and the nine miles into Cortez.

Checking into a motel, I suggested we find a place to eat some real food. Luck smiled upon us that evening; a wonderful Italian restaurant was a few doors down from the motel. We sat at the bar and ate excellent Italian minestrone soup and spaghetti, a dish I haven’t indulged in for years. I celebrated the occasion and relief of a snowless and warm motel room with a short glass of my favorite liqueur, amaretto on three ice cubes.

And all was well.

Many weird dreams haunted me that night. In addition to a few people from home, there were Anasazis lingering on the perimeter of my dreams, as if I could only see them in my peripheral vision. Maybe they were the ghosts of the Ancient Ones telling me to return. For I knew that I must return again.
posted by Macrobe
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