Jan and Fred's Newest Adventure...May 2009 travel blog

I forgot to note what we learned on our train trip about the filming of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that was filmed in the Durango area. We saw the bridge where Butch jumped along the Durango to Silverton train ride, but is only 12 feet from the water, and the guy who really jumped was not even a stunt man, but a high school teacher from Durango. We also saw the cabin where Katharine Ross’s character lived and do you remember the tunnel where the guys jumped on the train? It isn’t even a real tunnel – the film crew created the tunnel using paper maché to finish off a narrow area along the railroad line. I think I need to re-watch the movie again!

We are now based south of Cortez, CO in the town of Towaoc. This is going to be a terrific base to explore the many parks and monuments in the area. We are at the Ute Mountain Casino at their Sleeping Ute RV Park, named after the large mountain nearby that looks like a sleeping Ute Indian warrior. It is a very inexpensive RV Park – after signing up for a “player’s card” from the casino, the weekly fee is only $123. We are staying at least a week, but may even stay longer, since there are so many places to see around here. We have full hook ups, there are washers and dryers, an indoor swimming pool, sauna, plus a shade tree, picnic table, and trash barrel at each site, AND the free wifi actually works!

We spent nearly eleven hours at Mesa Verde National Park, and will return Monday for another visit. The park is about a 20 minute drive from our RV park, and after we entered the park, it was another 25 minute drive to get to the visitor center. The roadway in is very serpentine and included lots of switchbacks! Today we concentrated on visiting three major cliff dwelling complexes: Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and Cliff Palace. Bruce Schundler, a classmate of Fred’s from his high school years, is a seasonal ranger at the park! Fred and Bruce “found” each other on Facebook; Bruce’s photo showed both he and his wife in ranger uniforms, and through a few emails, Fred learned they are retired and love the parks, so work seasonally for fun. They also have a motor home and travel a lot when they are “off season.” Bruce told us his schedule for today so we had him as our guide at two of the locations. Monday he and his wife Sara will take us to the side of the park that doesn’t open until Memorial Day, but Bruce has a back country pass and permission to take us on a private tour.

We first toured Spruce Tree House, the 3rd largest of the cliff dwelling complexes in the park, with 130 rooms and 8 kivas. This is a self guided location you get to via a half mile winding path down into the canyon area (and yes, you have to walk back up again). A ranger is stationed there to answer questions, so Bruce was the ranger who told us all about the complex. These ancestral Puebloan people (formerly called the Anasazi) lived in the cliff homes built under sheltering alcoves of high sandstone cliffs from the 1190s to about the 1270s. They had inhabited the region for far longer, however; they first lived in pit houses and became agricultural people about 500 AD after corn was introduced to them from locations farther south. After that, they began building mesa top pueblo style homes about 750 AD, and finally moved to the cliff dwellings. There are several thousand sites in Mesa Verde, but only about 600 are cliff homes in alcoves, and many are very small complexes with only a few rooms, used by one family. The three areas accessible to visitors are all quite large complexes. Archaeologists have been able to use timbers etc. to figure out the dates when the people lived in each type of complex through a process called dendrochronology, which is the dating of past events, such as climatic changes, through study of tree ring growth. Why did they build such large complexes in the cliff alcoves and then leave after only three to four generations? Archaeologists used to believe it was because of a long drought, but the newest theory is that they left for a combination of reasons: they had killed off all the big game and so lived mainly on a diet of corn and domestic turkeys (that also ate corn). There was not only a drought in this time period, but also a huge climatic change and a mini-ice age began around then. This meant the corn could not grow, so there was not enough to eat and that caused the ancestral Puebloans to move south into what is now New Mexico, where they joined other tribal groups.

Next we went to a guided tour of the Balcony House, which is the most strenuous of the cliff dwellings for visitors to tour, since it requires climbing a 32 foot ladder to enter the site, and then to get out, each visitor has to crawl through a small 18 inch tunnel that is 12 feet long, followed by a 60 foot climb along an open rock face and climbing two additional ladders. The ranger there was quite young and not as knowledgeable as Bruce. This complex was very intriguing – you cannot even see it from the top of the mesa at all, but only if you are on the other side of Soda Canyon. The people who lived there in the 13th century really had to work hard to get in and out of their homes! While there, we met a young woman in her mid 20s who was wearing a MS College T shirt. I asked her if she attended that college (Katherine and Chad live in Clinton where the college is located). No, but her brother did. Now listen to these other connections: she grew up in Greenwood, MS (where we attended church for many years), graduated from Pillow Academy (where I taught for 4 years), knows lots of Fred’s relatives who live in or near Greenwood, went to Delta State for a year (she was a yr. behind Katherine), then moved to Carrollton, TX (where we live) to attend cosmetology school, and now lives in Boulder (where Will lives) while her husband attends law school. We could not believe how many connections there were – talk about a small world experience, and our conversation all started because of the T shirt she was wearing!

Our third tour, again with Bruce, was at the largest of the cliff complexes, and the one most often photographed: Cliff Palace. This complex of 150 rooms and 23 kivas also required a lot of walking and climbing up and down on five different ladders, but it was not as difficult as getting to Balcony House. Archaeologists are still studying more recent excavations to determine the use of the kivas. Once thought to be purely ceremonial, the more recent theory is that they were for domestic purposes – since they were built underground, they retained heat better than the sandstone above ground rooms, and therefore would have been warmer during the harsh winters. The pueblo rooms were probably used for domestic purposes in the milder seasons, but were mostly used for storage of the turkeys and corn. How do they know all this? They have found turkey bones and dung in the rooms, tools and tool making equipment, pottery etc. in the kivas. Lots to learn here!

After all the tours, it was time to drive around the Mesa Top Loop and see examples of the pit houses and some of the mesa top dwellings. We also walked around the Sun Temple, which was a huge kiva structure that was never completed but the ancestral Puebloans. From the loop road pullouts, we could see many other cliff dwellings, both large and small, that are not accessible to visitors. The view of the Cliff Palace across the canyon was magnificent, especially since in the afternoon sunlight there were few shadows. Square Tower House was one of the most interesting cliff dwellings we saw on the loop; it includes a tall 4 story pueblo structure, very similar to one that is part of the Cliff Palace.

Our final stop was on the winding roadway back to the highway. The highest location in Mesa Verde is at Park Point Overlook, at 8572 feet. After just a short hike up the hill, we had 360º views all around the mesa – incredibly beautiful! We will tour some other places in the area tomorrow and then go back to Mesa Verde Monday, since Bruce and Sara have Monday off and will take us on our private tour then. Aren’t we very lucky?

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