Colorado’s Ancient Mesa Verde

May 5th, 2018

Part One: Hiking toward mysterious petroglyphs and wondering if I, myself, might become a mystery.

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See that little slot on the left? That was my path. See that chasm on the right?

There should’ve been a sign at the beginning.

Right at the trailhead — right when it was do or die time — the sign should’ve said something like “WARNING:Middle-aged Suburban Guys Should Probably Stay Back In The Gift Shop.”

If you ever find yourself out in the southwest part of Colorado and think it might be a grand idea to visit Mesa Verde, then you really should listen to that thought and drive up onto the plateau. On the other hand, if you think it sounds fun hiking around the ancient Pueblo Indian ruins, then maybe you should listen to reason.

Here’s a bit of advice, before I go any further down the trail. Take a guided bus tour; drive your car around to scenic outlooks; stand at the top of the trails and tell yourself how smart you are for not hiking the twisting, dropping, squeezing trails before you. If you can con a ranger into carrying you on his or her back, that might be a possibility too.

But if you’re like me — and Mother Earth help you if you are — and you decide you just HAVE to see the ancient petroglyphs scrawled on a cliff wall about a zillion miles away from the museum and visitor’s center, then maybe think about taking the Petroglyph Point Loop backwards.

The mysterious petroglyphs are etched into a cliff wall at Mesa Verde.

The second half of my hike — the second half-zillion miles — was a leisurely walk in the park, literally. Mesa Verde is not only a National Park, but it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The first half of my mountain march was by far the most challenging terrain I have ever hiked in my adult life, possibly ever. Unless you count those trips to Isle Royale National Park on an island in the middle of Lake Superior back when I was all of 17 or 18. But even then, when I was as fit as a fiddlehead fern, it wasn’t as narrow a hike through split boulders or with drop-offs into oblivion or as middle-aged inappropriate as this.

And boy, was it fun!

Yes, right now I am dictating this to Siri who seems to be getting the gist, but still misses every couple of gourds … words. My water bottle is almost empty as I stop and flip through the photos I took way back when I was sure I’d die out amongst the ledges that our cliff-dwelling ancestors navigated backwards and in heels (actually, the women who ran the show, would free-climb backwards down tiny footholds into the valley from high above, balancing water jugs on their heads and carrying babies strapped to their backs.)

Close up detail of the glyphs.

The photos show ancient graffiti or complex story-telling pictures on the walls. These petroglyphs were created sometime before the 1400s, when the Pueblo or Anasazi mysteriously vacated their elaborate sandstone and adobe homes. Drought could’ve caused them to flee. Running out of food could’ve been the culprit. Or word of a better life in Arizona or New Mexico could’ve lured them away, just like it does to snowbirds from Michigan.

Some of the glyphs were interpreted by the decedents of the departed ones, and they show the birth of their people from a maze under the Grand Canyon. Others have been interpreted to show the end of their directionless migration, all-powerful animal spirits and beings who straightened out the wanderers and gave them direction. 

In 1888, a couple cowboys looking for stray cattle re-discovered the first incredible cave dwellings, villages that look like buildings burrowed in the face of sheer cliff walls. Twenty years later, Mesa Verde became a national park. I think again about how hearty historical hikers would’ve derided me as I pant heavily, dragging my heavy pants along the longest three mile walk I’ve ever seen, attempted or stumbled upon.

It’s tough to put into words — especially with Siri’s silly stenography — how this trek is equal parts exhilarating and stupid. If you’ve found my digital notes and phone somewhere along the trail, please tell my 83-year-old cousin thanks for lending me his jacket. I’m sorry I sweat so much in it. And also, apologize for that remark I made as he snapped a picture of me from a few turns of the trail above me as I started out. I said to him, “You can caption this ‘The Last Known Picture of Rodney.’”

This is an extraordinary place and I have my cousin to thank for sharing it with me. He’s my last direct relative on my father’s side and we’ve grown quite close over the recent years. He tells me this place holds deep meaning for him. I hope I don’t add more by becoming lunch to a pack of coyotes. And by the way, what exactly does rattlesnake poop look like and was that some scat just a few steps ago? I can see why he likes it here; the beauty, the historic amazement of it all, the extreme living that Native Americans did here years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

It’s the kind of place that adds wonder and mystery to our lives. I can’t believe how lucky I am to experience it, particularly in this modern day of great national park restaurants, cozy lodging, wifi that works everywhere but right here as I dictate my last cogent thoughts.

Wait… wait a minute … is that, no that can’t be the parking lot. Is that the museum I started from? Do mirages happen at 8,500 feet?

Moments later, an older couple passes me as they take off going the opposite way on Petroglyph Point Loop. They’re easily 20 years older than me and look as though they’ve done this kind of thing before. They smile patronizingly as I warn them about twists and squeezes and rattlesnake poop. They’ll probably lap me before I hit the museum at the trail’s starting point.

And there’s my cousin smiling down on me as I climb back up to the beginning. My water’s gone and in my oxygen deprived haze I can think of just two thoughts: what’s for lunch and I can’t wait to tackle another trail this afternoon!

Hours later, laying back in our lodging, my cousin tells a tale the park ranger told him this afternoon as I was off on yet another adventure. The ranger recalled watching people across the canyon, walking the Petroglyph Point Loop and not 50 yards away also walked a mountain lion — several bounds away. And here I was worried about rattlesnake droppings.

Guess which one of us is way cooler, the biker guy who asked me to snap his shot in front of the Spruce Tree House ruins, or me?

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