Monday, May 21, 2018

Ancient Cliff Dwellings and Modern Disappointments: A National Park Odyssey Day 40

Mesa Verde to Montrose, CO

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Mesa Verde National Park's Cliff Palace
Our fortieth day began with a free breakfast at Mesa Verde National Park! The night before I had noticed that the trash in our hotel room hadn’t been emptied after the last guests checked out.  Disgusted, I called the front desk to complain, and we were given four complimentary breakfast passes at the Far View Terrace Café to make up for the mistake.  (They also sent someone to empty the trash, of course.) 
Free Breakfast!!
After breakfast, we drove to the Balcony House area of the park for our first ranger-led tour of the day.  Balcony House is an ancient cliff dwelling built by the Puebloan people who lived in the area from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD.  The people lived and farmed on the top of the mesa for 600 years before moving into the cliff dwellings in the late 1100s, and then they migrated south less than 200 years later.  Ranger Diana warned us in advance about the tunnels and the 32 foot entrance ladder, making us even more excited to visit this cliff dwelling.
We loved the fonts on the park signage.
Josh and Knox climb the 32 foot ladder that leads to Balcony House
Josh prepares to squeeze through one of the tunnels to get to Balcony House.
Kinley emerges from one of the tunnels through an ancient doorway.
Ranger Diana teaches us about the ancient Puebloans at Balcony House.

Knox and I listen as Ranger Diana tells us about the kiva below us.

Balcony House has about 40 rooms including kivas which are ceremonial rooms.  The room for which the site was named has a window with a little wooden balcony that has endured for more than 800 years.
Josh climbs out of the Balcony House cliff dwelling.

After our tour, we had to hurry to our next tour.  The drive to Cliff Palace was only about 5 minutes, but a wrong turn on a one-way loop made us fear we’d miss our time slot. We made it in time to hear Ranger David Nighteagle make his introductory remarks before leading us through the locked gate and down the cliff for our hour-long tour.

Cliff Palace is a larger dwelling than Balcony House and probably housed about 100 people when it was in use.  Ranger Nighteagle pointed out ancient artwork and handholds carved into the stone walls that allowed the Puebloans to climb up to their farmlands on top of the mesa.  He talked to us about the lives of the people who inhabited the area and about possible reasons for their migration south.  But the best part of his tour came at the very end when he took out his handmade Lakota flute and played a song to thank the spirits of the ancient Puebloans for allowing us to visit their home.  It was haunting and beautiful and poignant and perfect.  As we made the climb back to the top of the mesa, Ranger Nighteagle told us about his Lakota grandfather who refused to be referred to as a Native American.  “All my life I’ve been called an Indian and now you want to change that?” his grandfather had asked.  “No way.  I’m an Indian.”
Knox, Kinley, and I with Cliff Palace behind us

Knox and Kinley at Cliff Palace

Ancient painted walls at Cliff Palace

Ranger David Nighteagle prepares to play his Lakota flute for us.

Knox climbs out of Cliff Palace.

Back on top of the mesa, we continued on the loop drive to the Pit House, an ancient remainder of the dwellings the Puebloans used before they built the cliff dwellings.  Continuing around the loop we came to an overlook where we could see Square Tower House, and then we decided it was time for lunch.  The Spruce Tree Terrace Café near the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum had a smoker set up outside and was serving up some delicious barbecue.  We chowed down on ribs and pulled pork before wandering across the street and into the museum.

Inside a covered shelter was the foundation of an ancient pit house where the Puebloans lived before the cliff dwellings were built.

The Square Tower House as seen from above on the mesa

Time for some lunch!

Inside, we were all fascinated by the 1960s-era dioramas depicting Puebloan life.  The hand-lettered interpretive signs were like something out of a museum time capsule with hand-drawn borders decorating the sides of many.  We were most impressed with the ancient sandals and 1500 year old corn.  The kids found plenty of information in the museum to help them finish up their Junior Ranger booklets, and at a table in the courtyard, a ranger waited to swear them in.
Kinley admires a diorama depicting ancient life.

Artifacts from the cliff dwellings including sandals

Hand-lettered signs and ancient corn cobs

The kids earn their Junior Ranger badges.


Badges in hand, we piled back in the car started our 3 hour drive to Montrose, Colorado, just outside of Black Canyon of the GunnisonNational Park.  This park has no park lodge, so we were staying in the Black Canyon Motel in Montrose.  In the motel lobby was an advertisement for the town’s county fair which was apparently happening that very night within walking distance of the motel.  Since I’m a sucker for small-town Americana, I convinced the rest of the family that we really needed some carnival rides, rigged midway games of chance, and fair food in our lives.  They grudgingly agreed, and we followed our noses to the fairgrounds nearby singing “Our State Fair is a Great State Fair” the whole way.

Much to my dismay, there were no carnival rides or midway games, and the only fair food was being served at two lonely booths sandwiched between the Port-a-Potties and the Montrose County Emergency Management information table.  In fact, the fair was really just a small-town horse show with deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries. So, of course, we ate some deep-fried Oreos and spiral-cut fries.

Disappointed and no longer singing about great state fairs, we walked dejectedly back to our motel to turn in for the night, holding out hope that the park we’d be visiting the next day wouldn’t bring the same amount of disappointment.

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