Visiting the ancient heritage sites of the Southwest is something that many people dream of doing. Because of one reason or another, relatively few can make the journey happen, so the sacred places of the Southwest sometimes just end up being a little something to have pleasant thoughts about. No matter whether a person is standing there in person at an ancient ancestral pueblo or whether the native heritage site is a thousand miles away, it is the dreaming that counts the most. In dreams, the visions of the past come to light, long lost stories are told and lessons of wisdom are learned.
The art of dreaming leads to interpretation and the same can be said about thoughts that occur after visiting an ancient sacred place. A visit to an ancient pueblo inspires visions of cultures that one will never interact with, except for in dreams. The spirits of the past act as teachers and guides in dreams, which when interpreted can provide insight into the lifestyle of a society that once occupied a special place on earth. Insight into why such an environment was chosen may come to light as well.
The Four Corners Region is a unique environment that has been occupied by native people for thousands of years. In this region, the desert meets the lush green mountains and high mesas. Rivers run through barren sandstone landscapes and there are several different wildlife ecosystems that coexist. The weather can be snowy and ice cold during the winter and summers can be hot enough to cause severe drought. There are many microclimates in the Four Corners region that are hidden from view, where the spring season snow melt provides life giving water that seeps from the rock walls in the deep canyons.
Often the life sustaining lush micro environments are where many of the ancient pueblos can be found. Even though the microclimate that sustained life may have dried up and disappeared long ago from drought, it was once there and the evidence can be seen in the landscape. Archaeological evidence of organized agricultural practice has proven that most of the ancient pueblo societies were self sustaining during periods of fruitful environmental conditions, but when adverse weather cycles caused the window of opportunity to close, the ancient cultures moved on to new horizons and new ways of life. The ancient pueblos are all that remain and the old structures now house only dreams from the past.
When touring the ancient pueblos in the Four Corners Region a great place to start is Mesa Verde National Park. President Theodore Roosevelt established this National Park in 1906 to protect the ancient pueblos that are located in this vast wilderness area. Back in those days, ordinary people failed to see the significance of the ancient archaeological sites, because they were blinded by greed. Looting the ancient sites was common practice by both the locals and visitors from afar, so an untold number of ancient pueblos were ravaged and destroyed in the quest for mythical treasures that did not exist. Most of the absconded artifacts were eagerly purchased by wealthy collectors. Because of the reckless rampage, the ancient sites had to be protected for all posterity by designating them as National Monuments and National Parks. As a result, Mesa Verde became one of America’s first protected world heritage sites.
Mesa Verde definitely is a preservation at its best in the Four Corners Region. The ancient design of this vast pueblo complex and the natural high mesa barriers actually amounts to being a formidable stronghold in itself. When passing by and looking up at the tall mesas rising from the valley, one would never imagine that enough people to fill a small city actually once lived way up there long ago. Multiple pueblo complexes that housed hundreds to thousands of people do exist on the cliff walls that are hidden from view from the valley floor. Whoever originally rediscovered Mesa Verde must have been naturally drawn to this place, because the high mesa landscape is so formidable, that most folks would rather not risk life or limb to see what might lie in store.
Now that Mesa Verde is managed as a National Park, there is very little risk involved with visiting this place. The paved roads and the well maintained hiking trails have made it so a visitor does not have to be “Indiana Jones” just to check this place out! The only limiting factor for accessing Mesa Verde in modern times is the weather, which can vary greatly in this region. During the peak of summer, the extreme heat can be well over 100ºF, which when combined with the arid high elevation conditions can cause extreme dehydration. Winters can be icy cold and Mesa Verde can be blanketed with snow. Autumn and spring are the best times of year to visit this National Park, because the temperatures are comfortably cool. The cool weather seasons benefit Mesa Verde visitors, because there will be a lot of hiking and climbing involved to get a closer look at the ancient pueblos.
Mesa Verde covers a vast amount of land and there are many ancient pueblos to see. The best place to start is the visitors center, which also is a research center museum that houses the local artifacts. The first thing to do is to pick up the park brochure map, which will be invaluable for enhancing the experience. All that one has to do is look for the dots on the map that mark the pueblo locations and trailheads to set the plan in motion. Guided tours are also offered at the visitors center and for some of the highly protected pueblos, a Ranger guided tour is the only option. The guided tours are quite informative, so visitors of all ages can learn a little something along the way.
Back when I first visited Mesa Verde it was mid summer and there was a record setting heat wave. I was working at the Grand Canyon, so I had to make the best of my limited travel time on days off from the job. The high elevations of the Four Corners Region of Colorado was nearly always a safe bet for finding some relief from the summertime heat, but not on this occasion. Upon arrival, the National Park Service had just issued extreme heat warnings and touring restrictions were set in place. All of the guided tours that involved hiking or climbing were canceled and access to the lengthy hiking trails was discouraged. As a result, all that I could do during my visit to Mesa Verde on that hot summer day was to loom over the guard rails at the scenic overlooks, which actually was a pleasant experience in itself!
The first scenic overlook that I headed to was at the majestic Cliff Palace Pueblo. This overlook is located on the edge of a cliff high atop the mesa, so the views looking down at the Cliff Palace were amazing! Seeing the overview perspective of this huge ancient pueblo complex causes a train of perplexing thoughts to run through the mind. One can literally spend hours trying to identify the purpose of each building shape and imagine how the foot traffic flowed along the paths on the cliff walls. The view of the green lush valley between the mesa bluffs seemingly stretches out to the horizon. The Cliff Palace Great House Pueblo complex is so far removed from the modern world, that it almost would be easy to believe that people from outer space landed here and built a remote outpost. Best of all, the intriguing views of the Cliff Palace certainly will cause some daydreaming to occur!
While I was viewing the Cliff Palace Pueblo Complex from high above, the unfortunate visitors that elected to do the last guided tour before the extreme heat restrictions went into effect were laboriously climbing the steep path back up to the top of the mesa. Those red faced people were drenched with sweat and gasping for air after enduring a tough little vertical hike in 100ºF plus conditions. It was then that I was happy with resigning to just checking out a few scenic overlooks and then calling it a day!
Obviously, taking the Ranger guided tours of the great house cliff pueblos is the best way to go, unless a summertime extreme heat warning is in effect! All it takes is one look at the Cliff Palace to be mesmerized by the mysterious past. It is easy to fall into a dreamlike state when viewing the ancient sacred great house cliff pueblo and the surrounding peaceful high mesa environment. Mesa Verde National Park truly is both an adventure for the body and spirit, which will provide pleasant memories to ponder over for a lifetime!
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