Mesa Verde to Arches

Sally’s often told me about the trip her family took to Mesa Verde when she was a kid. I’ve never been, so I jumped at the chance to visit on our northward course through southwestern Colorado. I’ve spent most of my life in the Midwest, so I’m used to cornfields and soybeans—these desert landscapes make me feel like I’ve been dropped in somebody’s oil painting of Mars! It’s beautiful stuff, and the sky is so blue and full, it feels like it runs on forever. Sally says she thinks it’s the orange and red rock of this area that makes the sky look so blue, and I’m guessing she might be right. Aside from being in a striking part of the country, Mesa Verde’s pretty dramatic to drive up to. You can see the mesa from a long way off, looking like a broad cliff. We found an RV park that’s close to the park and set up camp for the night, and while I grilled hamburgers for dinner, Sally read to me about Mesa Verde from the guidebook we picked up. What makes the park so special is a series of cliff dwellings that are over 1,000 years old. This is where the Anasazi, the ancient people of this area, lived for more than 700 years. “Just think,” I said to Sally, “America hasn’t even been a country for 250 years yet. And these people managed for 700 years in the middle of the desert! Incredible.

We visited the park bright and early the next morning, to beat the tourist rush. It turns out that morning is the perfect time to visit, when the temperatures are pleasant and the light is good. At the visitor’s center, they suggested we start off by driving the Mesa Top loop road, since that gave us a view of the 600 cliff dwellings. These are almost like apartment buildings, made with bricks and set several stories high. They have window and door cutouts – there might have been wooden shutters and doors that have rotted away – and it’s all set under the overhang of the mesa, protecting the village from rain. You could just imagine a big group of people living here, all taking part in a tidy, thriving, ordered society. I have to say, I was pretty blown away. We spend three days there, visiting every house and taking every ranger tour we could. We also took some hikes and saw amazing petroglyphs. It made me wonder how much other art the Anasazi left behind that either wore away or got covered up by rubble and falling rocks!

After we left Mesa Verde, Steve’s head was so full of the Anasazi that I suggested we stop at the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, Colorado. That was great – it gave Steve a chance to learn about their hunting and farming techniques, while I lost myself in the displays of their gorgeous pots and bowls. And these tiny bone game markers, just an inch wide but carved with such detail!

Our route took us past the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, a brand new parcel of preserved land that’s protected by the Bureau of Land Management. I’d never heard of the bureau before, but here in the Southwest, the BLM holds acres and acres of desert and canyon territory. Canyons of the Ancients was full of ruins and petroglyphs. We saw big brick towers for holding grain, walled-off overhangs way up on the canyon walls that looked like houses, and painted pictures high up on the cliff faces. Heading northwest, we stopped at an RV park in Moab, Utah, a pretty little river town that’s set in a broad red-rock canyon. We ad a great dinner at Eddie McStiff’s Brewpub and I bought some beads for our daughter at the town bead shop. Moab is right next-door to Arches National Park, a place friends have told us we absolutely must visit. When we reached the park the next day, we both saw why. After taking a steep, winding drive up into the park, we parked and got out onto a short trail, and before long we saw our first of many arches. These are big slabs of rock with weathered-away parts underneath, so they look like bridges of stone. And the rock here is so gorgeous – it looks like giant hunks of chocolate. The shades vary from a pale sand-color to the deepest red you can imagine. I couldn’t stop taking pictures!
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