Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
I set a plan to wake up early at my Mesa Verde campground and take one or two of the ranger-led tours of the cliff dwellings. This cultural resource in the beautiful setting was the big draw of Mesa Verde.
I still remember learning about the disappearing Anasazi people in grade school Social Studies and the wide range of theories on why they picked up and left. As a kid, I remember being confident it had something to do with aliens or ghosts of their past. Some popular and scientifically possible theories include drought and internal political strife. Later, on my hike, I learned that the park now sticks with calling the people who lived here the Pueblo Indians to distance them from the stigmatism of the Anasazi disappearance. It still sounds to me like no one knows what happened and there is a lot of room for other-worldly theories.
Having studied Outdoor Recreation (yes, that is a real Bachelor of Science major) I was very interested in the interpretation by the Rangers, so I did not plan on doing any hiking other than the cliff dwellings. The park is a beautiful natural wonder, but my main purpose for being there was to learn and see these ancient artifacts and dwellings.
The first hike to “Balcony House” was quite impressive. Even though it was the smaller of the two I visited, there were fewer people as it was the first tour of the day, and was labeled adventurous - there was a 32-foot ladder we had to climb and a small passageway we had to crawl through to see the dwelling.
The interpreter was excellent, providing a perfect combination of knowledge and personality to take us back in time. Once we reached the top of the ladder we got to see the religious subterranean room called a Kiva, rooms got an up close and personal view. There were some places with evidence of wear and tear, but for an 800-year old home, it was very well preserved. To imagine what conditions caused people to scale this cliffside and build a home here makes me feel a bit wimpy when I complain about having to sleep through cold rain storms in my nice warm, dry car.
The second cliff dwelling was called, “Cliff Palace” and was the largest and most impressive in scale. But, with 50 or so new friends now along for the journey, it wasn’t quite as personal.
We were right on the tail of one group and soon followed by yet another of the same size. I learned when handing my ticket to the Ranger on this tour that single individuals do not often come to the park. The first Ranger had looked at me sideways when taking my ticket and said, “Niiiiice,” but I had no clue why. I obviously assumed this bearded hotty was hitting on me. The second Ranger looked at me, pointed to the “Group: 1” on my ticket and said, “Oh, you are by yourself!”. He then went on to explain to me, and everyone within earshot, that the last time he had said that a woman almost slapped him. Kind of made me wonder why he thought to say it again, but I clearly had no issues seeing a beautiful piece of history and outdoor wonder on my own – or any of the other things I have done alone over my lifetime. Do I do it alone because I prefer my company to that of others? No, I do it alone because I happen to be by myself and want to see it. I am cautiously friendly when traveling alone in some situations, but in places like this, I meet lots of cool people. I was almost adopted by yet another family while chatting before the tour until I admitted that I didn’t watch Nascar racing.
The Ranger at the Cliff Palace was a little less scientific and little more passionate about his subject matter. While I preferred the former, this guy gave me a pretty good takeaway. He read a poem from a book of the Pueblos (I wish I had written down the name) and part of its message was about putting your energy out into the world and letting it be. It doesn’t have to be big and loud, just positive.
This message reminded me of a moment in the STAX Museum in Memphis where one of the movie interviewees talked about letting the talent ooze out of you and letting the world either accept it or reject it. For someone who has always been very concerned with making others happy and taken the first 28 years of her life overcoming self-confidence issues, these were both messages that were very meaningful. And hearing such different worlds proclaiming it resonated particularly to me at this time in my life.
After my hike, my plans were still unknown. I had every intention of planning my next couple of weeks, but this was the first time I didn’t have anyone waiting for me to visit somewhere nearby. To most people, who don’t know the details of my actual day to day routine, it seemed odd that I couldn’t have put together a full schedule by now. After all, my former job relied heavily upon my ability to plan travel schedules. Driving, hiking, writing down notes so I could later compile these posts, finding the best place to stay whether that be a campground, hotel, or Airbnb; all of these things take time.
I considered going north to the next spot in Colorado (Telluride or Gunnison). But after my brief chat with the couple from Arkansas along the roadside in New Mexico, the seed was planted, and I decided to keep going west to a bucket-list of impressive National Parks. I got out my trusty, and extremely outdated, National Geographic Guide to National Parks my mother had given to me when me when I first moved away from home, and reviewed my options. I also found an awesome map of the Colorado Plateau that included the parks. That seemed like a good place to start.
So at the end of my tours in Mesa Verde, I hit the road heading further West. In a parking lot of a grocery store in the next town over I compiled my plan to temporarily abandon the trip north through Colorado and spend the next 4 or 5 days exploring some of the most distinct and other-worldly lands in our country.