I’d seen pictures of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde before but they never really appealed to me. Maybe it was the stark geometric architecture that I didn‘t appreciate. But seeing them in person was such an amazing experience.
The dwellings are built high in the canyon walls inside natural alcoves. Here under the shelter of the rock overhangs above, the temperature stayed cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. The people farmed on the mesa top above and gathered water in the natural springs that could be found in the backs of the alcoves. They reached their homes by rock climbing the sheer cliffs using foot and hand holds they had carved into the soft sandstone.
I also never realized that within this one area there are at least ten cities, averaging a population of about 100 each. From one cliff dwelling you can look across the canyon to the neighboring city. It seems a little odd with so much open space, but in a way it seems comforting that they had such a community.
But then one day around 1200 A.D. the cities were abandoned. The Puebloans were a migrant people that moved often for agricultural and other reasons, and probably left because of a draught. But the cities were left intact.
I buy tickets for the two ranger-led hikes. I’m surprised they still let tourists walk around on the ruins. I predict that these tours won’t be allowed anymore at some point in my lifetime, so I‘ve got to see them while I can. The first one I take is the Balcony House tour. You can’t see this cliff dwelling from the road, which makes it that much more special. From the mesa top we walk down flights of stairs and a couple of precarious ladders and walk right into the actual cliff dwelling, which is underneath where our cars are parked. To be standing on the cliff’s edge like that, exactly how these people had done 800 years ago was thrilling. To see the soot from their fires staining the overhanging rock, it was almost like they had just left. And then we even squeezed head-first through a small opening to get out of the dwelling and climb back up to the parking lot.
My second tour was of the more often photographed Cliff Palace. This tour was less dangerous to traverse and we did not walk into the dwelling as much as we stood on a ledge built by the park service. It was still nice to be able to get so close, but in comparison to the other tour it felt much more touristy.
So if you’re ever in Mesa Verde take the Balcony House tour before they cancel them because some kid sticks gum on the wall or the average person can’t fit through the small opening anymore.