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Living on the Edge at Mesa Verde

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The ancient ruins of Mesa Verde are a staggering architectural wonder. Erinn Morgan discovers life inside the cliffside metropolis required ingenuity and a little magic
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Mesa Verde National Park, famous for its otherworldly cliff dwellings, was the home of the Ancestral Puebloan Native Americans for more than 700 years. Covering 81 square miles, the park preserves 4,300 archaeological sites. Photos courtesy of Aramark / Far View Lodge.

My feet balance at the very edge of the ceiling. I lean over and peer down into the kiva. The 900-year-old Hopi Indian ceremonial room — a spiritual gathering space pivotal to the lives of the Ancestral Puebloans — is extraordinarily well-preserved.

In the kiva — an oval room 15 feet deep in the ground — bricks form the curved walls, a fire pit is flanked by stone benches, and the floor features a sipapu (hole), which in Hopi tradition represents the place where Ancestral Puebloans emerged from the previous world into this one.

In Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, famous for its otherworldly cliff dwellings, I immerse myself in a bucket-list weekend to experience this archaeological wonder, and the kiva visit is merely the beginning of
the experience.

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The Ancestral Puebloans, an ancient Native American culture that populated the present-day Four Corners area of the Southwest, inhabited Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) from A.D. 550 to A.D. 1300 — more than 700 years. But, they lived on the area’s mesa tops for the first 600 of those years, constructing and living in the cliff dwellings in the last 100 years before they disappeared from the area. Why they left remains a mystery.

Why they built the elevated cliff dwellings, constructed beneath (and protected by) overhanging cliffs high above valley floors — some as high as 2,000 feet — is also debated. Some archaeologists believe that, by living in the canyons rather than on the mesas, the Ancestral Puebloans aimed to make more land available for cultivation in a a time when drought was a concern. Other experts believe that the cliff dwellings were built as protection against an unidentified enemy. To ward off intruders, the Ancestral Puebloans ascended ladders up into their dwellings, then pulled them up and out of reach.

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Halfway up a handmade wooden replica of these ladders — 20 feet above the ground on the side of a cliff — I freeze. The rough-hewn rungs ascend the better part of 32 feet from the ground to the floor of a massive cliff dwelling, the Balcony House. I’ve never had a fear of heights, but this perspective changes my outlook. With some kind cajoling from our elderly Ute Indian guide, I make my way up, step by step, then scramble off the ladder into the multiroom dwelling.

Standing up, I gape around in awe. Low walls separate kitchen spaces from sleeping areas and gathering spots. Clay-crafted benches line fire pits; rock-hard sleeping spots are crammed next to one another. The vision of how the Puebloans lived, shoulder to shoulder at the edge of a cliff, is more than palpable. I feel transported to another time, with the reality of the Ancestral Puebloan lifestyle more than raw.

Ranging in size from one room to entire villages of more than 150 rooms, the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde are some of the most distinctive and best-preserved in North America today. The 81 square miles of Mesa Verde National Park protect an incredible array of 600 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, including standouts such as the Long House (just excavated in 1959), the Spruce Tree House (the best-preserved dwelling in the park), and the incredible Cliff Palace, which boasts more than 150 rooms occupying a deep alcove beneath the canyon’s rim.

President Theodore Roosevelt officially established Mesa Verde National Park on June 29, 1906, to “preserve the works of man.” It was the very first national park of its kind — one that recognized the value of America’s natural beauty and the contributions of its original inhabitants.

Modern-day "cliff dwellers" enjoy more luxurious accommodations than Ancestral Puebloans at Far View Lodge, the only lodging inside Mesa Verde National Park. All rooms have private balconies, and some boast views into all Four Corners states.
Modern-day “cliff dwellers” enjoy more luxurious accommodations than Ancestral Puebloans at Far View Lodge, the only lodging inside Mesa Verde National Park. All rooms have private balconies, some that boast views into all Four Corners states.

Our group moves onto the neighboring section of the Balcony House cliff dwelling, an act that requires us to slowly shimmy through a tight, 12-foot-long tunnel. Claustrophobia ensues. My mind turns to the trip back down the 32-foot ladder, fully realizing that living on a cliff is clearly harder — and full of more daily dangers and challenges — than it may appear.

Finally, back on solid ground, I thought of my own faint American Indian bloodlines, feeling that I surely didn’t have the grit — and the magic — that it would take to be an Ancestral Puebloan. Particularly, one living on the edge of a cliff.

Deep in thought, I didn’t notice when our Ute guide unexpectedly stepped out of the chattering crowd of tourgoers and walked directly toward me. With a sparkle in his own, he looked me in the eye and gently asked, “What tribe are you?”

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