As a rule, technology and nature don't mix. The more human tampering, the less enjoyable the natural setting. There are, however, occasional exceptions. One of the best is found in southwestern Colorado: Mesa Verde National Park.
The striking beauty of Mesa Verde lies in the remains of ancient building technologies, the spectacular cliff dwellings of a prehistoric people, the Anasazi, who vanished from the mesa two centuries before Columbus reached the New World.
Mesa Verde, about 35 miles west of Durango, Colo., on the southern Colorado-northern New Mexico border, makes an excellent focal point for excursions into the history and the beauty of this somewhat remote part of the country.
Mesa Verde is, indeed, a giant "green table," as its Spanish name implies. In parts as flat (or almost) as a table top, the 70-square-mile mesa -- actually a series of mesas -- rises more than 1,000 feet above the desert valley. The green comes from a cloak of evergreen foliage draped over this red rock monument.
Within the park are about a dozen clusters of ancient cliff dwellings carved out of pockets of soft rock. They are an amazing sight, possessing an organic beauty that is matched by few subsequent architectural endeavors. Throughout the park, archeologists have found thousands of Indian ruins.
Only a few are accessible to visitors. Fortunately the most beautiful one -- the justly famous Cliff Palace -- is among them. Seeing Cliff Palace for the first time is an experience for which the too-often misused "memorable" is most fitting.
The first glimpse comes after you have parked atop the mesa and followed a short trail to one of the several large gorges that slice through this high plateau. Cliff Palace sits deep within the canyon, clinging to its walls. Initially, it looks like a trick of nature, an etching the desert winds have hewn from the rock. But as the eyes adjust to the dark, cool outlines of this 100-yard-long mural, you see that it is not an etching at all, but a three-dimensional village of adobe and rock dwellings, both lovely and haunting.
The source of Cliff Palace's enduring beauty lies in its simplicity and in the quietly dynamic way it blends into the awesome natural setting. Its architecture is a series of clean lines and smooth squares and rectangles framing a matrix of adobe modules. Each module has one long, narrow vertical cut serving as both door and window. Extended pole ladders -- the same type that have been used by Indians in this part of the world since antiquity -- connect upper and lower modules. The effect is a unique visual design. The brown adobe walls, varying in shade and texture due to changes in light intensity and from differences in workmanship, make a near-perfect match with the sandstone cavern in which Cliff Palace sits. The overall effect is one of sophisticated simplicity -- ancient, futuristic and timeless architecture all in one.
Cliff Palace is, in fact, a 217-room complex -- and one of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the world. It is tucked below a rock overhang that forms a natural canopy for this ancient community, making it sort of a town within a cave. A 10-minute descent that includes negotiating ladders and squeezing through a twisting rock passageway brings you right into Cliff Palace. You can walk among these ruins; climb down into a kiva, one of many round underground ceremonial rooms with almost hidden entrances; and peek through a window at fading murals of men and animals that once decorated Cliff Palace chambers.
The village was once the home for 200 to 250 people who scratched out a farming and hunting existence from the desertlike mesa. Water was always in short supply and no single source could have supplied their needs. Nearby springs were pressed into service. The closest spring today is hundreds of yards across the canyon.
Kiva is a Pueblo Indian word meaning ceremonial room. According to the park service, when in use these kivas had roofs supported by six pillars spaced along the circular wall. People entered by means of the ladder. Roofs of kivas created courtyards where community activity took place. When the kiva was not being used for ceremonies, it served as a workroom.
This is harsh country, at an altitude of between 7,000 and 8,500 feet, where summers are hot and winters bitter. After living on the mesa top for hundreds of years, the Indians in about 1200 A.D. began building their communities in large caves in the canyon walls, probably for protection from more fearsome tribes. They remained in these cliff dwellings for only about a century and then moved south, driven away perhaps by a long drought or by the exhaustion of their limited farming soil or wood for fuel. The Anasazi did not literally disappear; their descendants today are among the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Arizona.
The history of Mesa Verde as a park began in December 1888 when Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason, two local cowboys searching for stray cattle, came across Cliff Palace. Through the snow they saw the outlines of a "magnificent city." Twenty-one years passed before Jessie Walter Fewkes excavated it for the Smithsonian. The dry climate had kept Cliff Palace and other ruins in remarkably good condition. Ultimately this area became Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde is about an hour's drive from Durango on Rte. 160. A rather dramatic road twists its way for 15 miles from the valley floor to the top of the tableland, yielding superb views in almost every direction. A first stop is the aptly named Far View Visitor Center. The view from the center seems infinite, looking deep into northern New Mexico.
The center itself can get very crowded (the parking lot fills up easily), but it is useful for obtaining park maps and information. It also houses a large cafeteria -- also with view -- and a gift shop that features Mesa Verde's own style of pottery. Factory-made in Cortez (10 miles to the west), Mesa Verde pottery is noted for its blended horizontal pastel hues.
And it is among the most durable of any pottery. Ask a salesperson if a pot will survive suitcase travel, and she will take a small sample off the shelf, slam it down as hard as she can on the counter and then calmly show the startled customer the undamaged result.
Adjacent to the visitor center area is the only lodging on the mesa -- Far View Lodge. This is an attractive motel-type lodge with a genuine view that takes in the top of the mesa and the valley lands far below. At night, only a few lights can be seen twinkling in the distance, and the cobalt sky brimming with stars is spectacular.
Mule deer -- does and bucks with large floppy ears like their equine cousins -- roam the cactus- and brush-studded grounds. Not surprisingly, Far View Lodge is usually booked months in advance. The park also has a campground accommodating recreational vehicles.
Cliff Palace lies about seven miles beyond the visitor center. A loop drive that begins near Cliff Palace leads to several other ancient ruins that can readily be viewed.
One of them, the House of Many Windows, is a series of rooms carved out of the wall of Spruce Canyon. The dwelling, which is not accessible to visitors, may have been the Watergate Apartments of its day, offering the prestige and luxury of large windows, made possible by the commanding position of the house, which reduced the need for security.
Balcony House is a dwelling you can enter, at least theoretically. The lines are often long, and only small groups are allowed in at one time. But there is a reason for the delay. To reach Balcony House, you must first take the short hike down from the mesa top into the canyon. The trail takes you down well below Balcony House. When you see it, the dwelling is high above you like a balcony, occupying a cave in the canyon wall.
To reach the dwelling, visitors must climb a challenging 36-foot ladder. It's not so bad if you keep your eyes forward and scramble up fast. Don't look backward. Since the base of the ladder is perched at cliff's edge, the view behind is awesome, since you are looking down not only on the first rung of the ladder but also at a rapidly dropping canyon not far behind the ladder.
To exit the ruin, you do it the way the Indians did, and this is no easier than getting in. First, you must crawl through a 12-foot-long, 14-inch-wide (most hips fit) passageway originally designed to keep out invaders. Then, with the canyon wall towering overhead, you climb up footholds in the rock (holding on to a modern-day railing) and back to safety on the canyon rim.
Balcony House apparently was vulnerable to attack and thus was highly fortified.
Just before you reach the Balcony House parking area there is a curious interruption of the park -- a corner of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. A small lean-to manned by Utes sells bread and curios, and young Utes dressed in tribal costumes will pose for photos for half a dollar.
Turning back toward the visitor center again, visitors pass by Spruce Tree House, a smaller version of Cliff Palace. It is an easier hike down to the ruins. At the top sits a very agreeable self-service restaurant sporting a new outdoor cafe. The park museum, located adjacent to Spruce Tree House, presents exhibits on the archeological history of the park.
Yet another route from the visitor center, a winding and very scenic road, leads to Wetherill Mesa. To protect Wetherill, a mesa within a mesa, from heavy vehicular traffic, shuttle buses are used to ferry visitors there, and they leave frequently from the center. The full round-trip tour takes about two hours.
An early cave dwelling, from about the 7th century, and the later Long House are among the mesa's principal features. Long House has a large central plaza used long ago for dances and village ceremonies. Step House at Wetherill clearly shows the contrast between earlier and later cliff dwelling architecture. The 13th century style was called Classical Pueblo and was slightly more ornate.
The story of Cliff Palace, and the rest of the mesa, and why it was so long ago abandoned, is an all too familiar one in the saga of human intrusion on fragile ecology. Cliff Palace simply overstretched the carrying capacity of the area. There was neither enough water nor enough resources to sustain its inhabitants. Hence what was a functioning community is now a series of ghost towns. It could be a lesson for the world today.