A unique park celebrates its centennial

The first light touches the mesa. The Puebloan Ancestor slips from his adobe house. Heavy poles support the mud walls. Glancing around, he studies the row of identical dwellings curving softly away from his. No sound drifts from them. He’s the first villager awake.

Stretching, he wanders from his door toward a plaza. At its center, shadows mark the entrance to the pit house where his forebears lived, and where the elders now pray. He can just make out the dwelling’s low wall, and the timbers supporting its roof. Something jabs his bare feet. Starting, he spots two smooth, sandstone rocks, just visible in the faint glow that precedes sunrise. He gathers the slabs With some work, they’d fit atop each other.MESA VERDE TURNS 100

He considers the idea as the day brightens. Turning toward his house, he spots a hole in the wall. He must repair that. Could he use these two stones to do it?

Hmmpf. Could he make an entire wall of rocks? Maybe he should try. Stone walls would hold up better than mud.

No one knows how the Ancestral Puebloan people of the Four Corners made the first decision to create the exquisite cliff dwellings and stone houses for which the area has become famous. But one very special place can show when, and the way they learned to do it. That spot is Mesa Verde National Park, located 9 miles east of Cortez, and just south of Highway 160. One hundred years old this year, Mesa Verde boasts archaeological sites dating from the time Ancestral Puebloans (also called Anasazi) wandered into the area as nomads, to their emergence as master builders, to the eventual abandonment of all they had created.

“There’s no other park quite like it,” says Dan Puskar, Mesa Verde Centennial coordinator. “Mesa Verde is the only national park in the United States devoted to the preservation of human culture rather than natural resources.”

Mesa Verde can tell its human story so well because an advanced culture could thrive there. Abundant game made good hunting. The mesa tops offered nurturing soil for melons, beans, and squash. Springs bubbled down the cliffs. Sandstone and shale, once the beach of an inland sea, made perfect building materials. People could settle down and prosper.

“This is a culture that had time to think about what it wanted,” says Puskar. “You don’t get the kind of cliff dwellings we see (at Mesa Verde) if all you’re trying to do is survive. You don’t get the art, pottery, petroglyphs, and pictographs.”

Arriving about 550 A.D., the first settlers dug pit houses. Each home had a square living area, with a fireplace and air deflector, a few feet below ground. A mud wall with a stone foundation extended the height of the room. Poles supported a roof. An antechamber might hold food.

Snug in their newly-permanent dwellings, Ancestral Puebloans began to farm, make baskets, pottery, and bows and arrows.

By 750 A.D., their descendants began building adobe homes above ground. In front of these buildings, they also put pit houses, possibly as early kivas.

Sometime around 1000 A.D., stone and masonry construction appeared. Builders slowly learned how to select good stones, cut them, and mix mortar. They developed better and better tools to complete these tasks. Soon, they created walls rising three or four stories, often enclosing 50 rooms.

“It doesn’t seem to have been just one family that would be the builders for everyone,” says Puskar. “Each family learned enough skills so its members could make their own homes.”

Today, visitors to Mesa Verde National Park can see what the different families designed at ruins such as Cliff Palace, Balcony House, Long House, and Spruce Tree House. This year, the park will also offer special backcountry ranger-guided Centennial tours to places either never open, or rarely open to the public. These include the Mug House, Spring House, and Oak Tree House ruins. The tours begin June 29, the official start of the Mesa Verde National Park Centennial, and end in early fall. By reservation, rangers will escort small groups on these hikes. People wishing to come along should sign up at the Mesa Verde Centennial link on the web site www.nps.gov/meve. The cost is $20 per person.

“I’ll tell you, we’re already beginning to sell out a couple of days,” Puskar warns. “So get there as soon as you can.” He adds that the hikes will be strenuous, along ungraded trails, with a ladder or two to climb.

For those wishing a more sedate Mesa Verde Centennial walk, rangers will offer three tours per day beginning May 29. At 7:30 a.m., they’ll lead nature hikes along the Knife Edge Trail. Visitors might see deer, mountain lions, bears, and feral horses.

At 1 p.m., history buffs can gather at the Mesa Verde Museum for a tour of the park’s first buildings. At 5, rangers will take people to mesa-top villages to see how Ancestral Puebloans lived between 900 and 1100 A.D. outside of cliff dwellings.

These walks are free, with no reservations required. People with little hiking experience can enjoy them. Puskar invites everyone to visit Mesa Verde, learn about the Ancestral Pueblosns who built dwellings and developed a rich culture there, and to realize that their descendants still live in New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, and Colorado.

“The Pueblos still have stories about living at Mesa Verde,” he says. “We can use the living culture to learn about the past. That’s probably the most important reason of all to come.”

From Arts & Entertainment, June 2006.