Sunday, October 16, 2016

Stepping on Sacred Ground: Exploring Mesa Verde

I mean no disrespect to call these grounds truly sacred, in the Native American sense, so the Ancient Puebloans of Colorado should forgive me. The designation of “sacred” bears heavier meaning and importance for these folks. I call them sacred solely because the incredible feeling of piety and respect that they instilled in me.

Like any national park I have seen so far, the true beauty of Mesa Verde is hidden. There is no way to drive by it, on the highway, and to see the real true beauty that springs at every corner, and most importantly the many years of history that it stores like a well-kept secret. In many ways, though, Mesa Verde is like no other Park I have seen before, nor like many to come, I am sure.

You drive up a steep paved road to the Visitors' Center first. The Visitors' Center building is built out or the yellow sandstone rock that the mountains in the Four Corners are known for. The building reminded me of the American Native Museum in DC – The rounded walls and a feeling of ever flowing are the main characteristics of it. The soft yellow color of the stones wraps around you like a warm blanket.  

After the Visitors' Center (if you don't want to walk through the actual abodes in the pueblos, you don't need to queue up in line for a ticket. The driving tour alone is paid at the entrance into the park which is a bit higher than the Center), we started on the 20+ mile journey into the park, to look for its natural beauty and for the man (or woman) made pueblos that made this park famous.

We drove quite a bit, stopping on overlooks that opened up into the vast Mancos Valley below. The tall Colorado mountains, dressed in snow (a bit early for early October) guarded the horizon, making sure the valley won't overflow into the sky.

Colorado is the state with the most tall mountains in the US. It has 53 of the 100 tallest mountains in the land. And you can certainly see it and feel it. There are no places I have ever driven to in Colorado that won't force you to drive past a pass of some description. The views from everywhere were wide open and breathtaking. The big, openness of the land out here, with the never ending feeling is what's amazing about The American West. It speaks to the “last frontier” concept – it truly feels like there is either nothing or everything beyond it.

I think we drove maybe 20 miles before we saw our first Pueblo – the Cliff Palace. We stopped for the overlook, and we walked down a narrow and somewhat steep paved trail, and we reached a landing over the Navajo Canyon. My husband gasped: “Aahh! Bring me here! I'll pass on the Grand Canyon!” I have not seen the latter, so I cannot be the judge, but the view was once again spectacular. But … we were puzzled. The small pueblo across the canyon from us was not as impressive as the pictures had shown the Cliff Palace. Then we realized: it was behind us, and below us. Once I turned around and saw it, it literally knocked the breath out of my lungs! 

  The Cliff Palace pueblo was probably a place for worship, socializing, or coming together in some way. It is the largest pueblo in Mesa Verde.

You're towering over these 700 year old ruins and your mind just stops in its tracks, really. You can see vestiges of old rooms, their interconnection, their infrastructure, you can tell where the hearth was and where the windows were, clearly. Where they had multiple levels and where they dug under the ground, as if to dig up a basement. That's 700 years ago. With little tools, but much determination, drive and know-how.

I have been in America for 18 years now, and I have never met anyone that talked about these testimonies of time. The first thing Americans tells me, as an immigrant is that they expect me to know and respect the “American culture”. But they mean the Thanksgiving turkey and baseball, really. Not one of them has ever talked about this. It makes me wonder if they (as immigrants by descent) know their culture, too. This is where America starts.

You are blown away to learn the history behind these dwellings. I am sure you can (if you wish) google all the information you need to know about these places. But I just wanted to give an account of what I saw, and felt here. Apparently, the pueblos date as far back as 300 AD, and they were built and populated all the way into 1300 AD. This is the time between Constantine the Great and The Crusades, in Europe, just to give you perspective. It was humbling, to see such intricate architecture, such solid foundations and ingenuity from people that seemingly were not open to the “civilization” of the rest of the world at that time. They had not seen the baths of Rome or the Temples of Greece, or the Asian pagodas. But they had created out of stone, with their bare hands, their own villages that looked just as stunning in functionality and purpose.

There is a beauty all its own in Mesa Verde: you're not sure what's more amazing, the land, or the people's work?! I'd say the truth is in the middle.

Nature reigns supreme in The Park, like you'd expect: steep canyons, crooked, old juniper trees, layers and layers of many kinds of rocks, the usual archaeological rainbow on the South West, wild turkeys, deer, and coyotes walking in broad daylight, unperturbed by traffic and human presence, they all welcome you in their midst. But then, there is the amazing perfection and beauty left by the people. Like precious accessories on a beautiful dress, the pueblos dot the valley in a beautiful, artful kaleidoscope.

Apart from being amazing builders and planners, the ancients puebloans had a sense of geography (they almost always built their homes facing the South, to soak in the sunshine) and functionality. They used the natural caves for some of the walls of their homes. The “House with many windows” construction is a testament of that – the entire house is sandwiched between two rocks (top and bottom), with an exterior wall uniting them on the outside. There are windows carved inside this exterior wall. All the other pueblos are like this: some carved into the natural stone that was there, and some built by people. 

"House with many windows"  

It was amazing to me how they built these massive abodes with almost perfect bricks. They didn't make bricks, they just cut rock in square or rectangular shapes, smoothed them over with other rocks, and stacked them together using sand and water mixed together for their mortar. The walls are so smooth, whether they are a perfect circle or they built a square building, or room. 

My personal favorite pueblo: The Square Tower 

Another surprising thing was that not only did they built at very high elevations (their trails were vertical, we were told), directly into the wall of the canyons, but they also built multi-level buildings. 

"Vertical trails" - the bronze statue at the Visitors' Center suggests just that

Your head explodes with questions, as you're seeing all these homes, places of ritual, or grain silos: how did they climb this high? How did they walk up and down these steep rocks with their bare feet and sometimes a huge load in their hands, or on their bodies? How did they get water? How did they keep warm in this rocky terrain? How did they have their babies, with no doctor around? How did they survive for 900 years in these parts?! You learn that drought is what made them leave this behind and migrate to New Mexico and Arizona, in greener places, but the fact that they lived here, in this terrain for 900 years is still mind boggling.

Then, you stand still and listen. You almost can hear the sounds and voices of many hundreds of years past. Were there any love affairs? Any feuds? Any passions? Babies crying; women singing; men sharpening rocks. You smell fresh kill roasting in the fire and hear corn boil in water. You close your eyes and are transposed. An odd feeling of guilt and shame mixed in with humility and gratefulness simmers in the chest. So much humanity, so much life, never put into written words somewhere, buried with the centuries in old sandstone.

Then, we went to the museum, in Mesa Verde, and the next day to the Anasazi Heritage Center and learned more about their various stages in history: before basket weaving, and after, all the way into the pottery era. Every stone exposed, every basket, every rudimentary tool gave me the same feeling that I have had in my life when praying in church, or at a Saint's altar. It belittled me. This is how this world started, here in the West. The idea of the white people diminishing this and killing part of this culture made my hair stand on my back with rage, at times.

We left the area moved and deep in silence and in thought. So grateful, and so rich! I looked for books to read about this culture, because I want to know more, and feel more connected to these beautiful surroundings I almost live next door to.

No other National Park has left me with more questions in my head than answers, like Mesa Verde. It opened the door not only to a new universe, but into a new and old world, full of mysteries and stories. I definitely plan to go back, or at the very least to read more about these hidden gems, tucked away for centuries (it was in the late 1800's that they were finally discovered). History, life, architecture, love, politics, farming, cooking, hunting - all opening up into the canyons of Mesa Verde – opened a new curiosity in my heart and mind. I feel more “American” now than ever before, because this earth has spoken to me.

Quotation at the entrance of the Anasazi Heritage Center. Click on the picture for more photos from this amazing journey

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