Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde National Park

The air was warm at Mesa Verde National Park. Much warmer than normal for this time of year. Despite that, all of the attractions that were normally closed during the winter remained closed. We didn’t realize that would be the case, but it’s understandable. We also didn’t realize that we were visiting on one of the free weekends. Score! I would have loved to see more of the park while we were there, but what we did get to see was amazing, and you can’t beat free.

The only cliff dwelling opened for our visit was the Spruce Tree House. We arrived just in time for a guided tour. If you ever have the opportunity for a guided tour here, or at any national park, take it. Wandering around the site on our own would have been fine, but I learned a lot more about the structures and the people who build them than I would have if we had gone alone. Our tour leader, park ranger Shawn Duffy, provided a highly entertaining description of life for the people who lived here.

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Ranger Duffy giving us some background before we head to the site.

 

From there, it was an easy walk down to the Spruce Tree House.

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Our tour leader spoke about the practical technology the builders of this society implemented, their potential reasons for moving into the canyons, as well as their probably reasons for leaving the dwellings. All fascinating stuff! He liked to point out that the ‘mystery’ about who these people were was mostly a marketing tool to generate interest as it’s fairly well understood that the modern Hopi are descendants of this culture.

As we toured the site, I tried to imagine what life would have been like for the inhabitants. Climbing the cliffs to reach the farm land above. Gathering wood for fires to keep warm. Retrieving water from the nearby springs. How much of the say was spent working?

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I had heard the word Kiva before, but I didn’t know what one was until this trip. The picture below is a Kiva that no longer has a roof. The small hole in the center is a sipapu, a hole that represents a portal from which their ancestors entered this world.

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The park does allow visitors to enter one of the kivas. I’m assuming that this one was rebuilt for the purpose of giving people an idea of what it’s like in one. The air was cool – many degrees cooler than the outside – and still inside the kiva. Thanks to its natural thermal regulation, it would be a great escape from both the chill of the winter air as well the summer heat.

Kiva in Mesa Verde National Park
The Kiva Descent

 

A view from a kiva
A view from a kiva

 

The pictures below are from the mesa top loop. We visited a few of the more primitive archaeological sites on the loop, and I took some pictures of the canyon and other cliff settlements.

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Square Tower House
Square Tower House

 

Far View Sites Complex
Far View Sites Complex

 

Far View Sites Complex
Far View Sites Complex

Ship Rock

Kim and I aren’t the best when it comes to planning a trip. We usually hit the road with a vague notion of what we want to see and do, and we figure out the details en route. This strategy pays off more often than not.

As we were heading out from Four Corners, I noticed a formation off in the distance. It reminded me of the Star Trek reboot scene in which the Enterprise, still under construction, towers over an Iowa corn field. Yes, my brain is weird.

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A mysterious lump on the flat horizon.

 

We decided to check it out.

As it turns out, my imagination wasn’t too far off. European settlers referred to the formation as Shiprock. They saw it as a gigantic clipper ship. The Navajo name for it is Tsé Bit’a’í, or winged rock – a reference to their legend of a great bird that brought them from the north.

All of us see a vessel of some sort. I find that pleasing.

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That’s a big rock. Or a little human. All depends on perspective.

 

Shiprock is actually the guts of a long ago cooled volcano. It’s framed on its western, southern, and eastern sides by large, natural dikes, also part of the dead volcano. The one you see in my pictures is the eastern dike.

An easy road in. The way out was a *ahem* little more challenging.

 

People have climbed Shiprock, but that activity is no longer allowed. I’ve read a few different reasons why. One site claims that a climbing death prompted the ban; another site thought of climbing the structure was considered repulsive to the Navajo, so they banned the activity.

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You can drive up to Shiprock, but Google map results can be a little deceiving. What appear to be viable roads when zoomed into Shiprock are paths more suited to ATVs. And these paths often dissolve into the sand.

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Our approach was easy enough. A turn off of the road near the eastern dike is a fairly straight, fairly easy path. Kim’s Impreza has all wheel drive, but not high clearance. We made it to the formation with relative ease. Twenty minutes. Tops.

The same can’t be said for our exit. We took one of those aforementioned disappearing paths because it looked like a road when zoomed in on the formation. Two hours, a lot of nervous dark of night gully hopping, many a mowed down scrub brush, one (accidentally, I swear) sprayed-with-dirt-from-a-wheel-that-lost-traction girlfriend, and the horrifying sight of a very robust gate that was luckily only wired closed, we finally made the 6.5 miles back to rte 13.

The thrill of navigating each impossible obstacle was met instantly with panic over what lay ahead. I KNEW we’d eventually reach an impasse. I thought we’d (I’d) be hiking out to find someone to haul the car out. We never did. The Impreza got us through it with nary a scratch, despite being on only two wheels more than once and mowing down brush windshield high.

This is how much daylight we had left when we decided to leave. Not much. I forgot my tripod for this trip. I had to hold the camera on this long exposure, so it came out blurry.

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My other attempts were much blurrier

 

It was an awesome experience – seeing this massive formation, making an Impreza do things it probably shouldn’t do, not getting stranded. I’m glad we didn’t have a plan to stick to.

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We took the long way home.

 

Four Corners Monument

Four Corners Monument

The weather out west has been amazingly warm (sorry, east coasters!), and gas prices are down, so Kim and I hit the road again for the long weekend. Other than seeing the Four Corners Monument in Utah / Arizona / New Mexico / Colorado (and Navajo land), we didn’t have exact plans. We thought about Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, but it’s far from accommodations and despite the warm, sunny days, it’s still pretty chilly at night. That ruled out camping. The weather made it great for road tripping, but it did raise some questions as to what to bring for hiking – cold weather gear or warm weather gear? Good thing we brought a little of both…

Technically, this would be Day 1.5 because we got a head start after work and drove down to Moab, UT. Lunch at the Moab Brewery, then off to the monument.

The Four Corners Monument isn’t the most exciting destination, but it’s one of those things you read about in school as a kid, so it was neat to actually see in real life. If you’re considering making a trip to it, a few things are worth noting. First, it closes. I’m not sure if closing times are seasonal, but if I remember correctly 5pm was the posted closing time. Second, it’s pretty remote. Keep your gas tank topped off and keep snacks on board for the kiddos or those prone to the hangry. (That’s good advice anywhere, but especially in the west.) Third, there’s an entrance fee, $5 per person if I remember correctly. Fourth, it’s on Navajo lands. Respect.

We took the requisite “standing in four states at the same time.” We perused the hand-crafted Navajo trinkets and made a couple of purchases, then we made our exit.

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After leaving Four Corners, we noticed an odd formation off in the distance. It seemed like an alien space ship sitting patiently, waiting to blast off to its homeworld. I guess we see what we want to see in such things. I’m a sci-fi geek, so I see a space ship. Others might see a bird, or a different kind of ship – one that floats rather than flies. Regardless of what you see or what you call it, we decided that it would be our next destination, and it’s the topic of my next post.

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