Southwest Ruins

H. Marc Lewis -- August, 2005

In August, 2005, I rode my motorcycle to Denver, Colorado, to help out with the Ironbutt Rally as a "staff" person. The event spans 11 days of competition, plus the days leading up to it, with one checkpoint in Denver about 1/3rd of the way through. Thus I had quite a few days to spend as I wanted, besides taking some of my own photos of the Rally. What I really wanted to do was to ride to the "canyon country" and take photos with my Canon Digital Rebel XT SLR, and particularly to visit Mesa Verde again.

After riding some of Colorado's fine mountain roads and passes, I arrived at Mesa Verde and bought a tour of Balcony House, in Soda canyon. It's one of the more interesting ruins, but requires a couple tricky climbs up long (30+ foot) wooden log ladders, and a couple crawls through very short and narrow tunnels -- not the best plan for someone afraid of heights like me, but I've done it before so I knew I'd be okay. This is the first view you get, after climbing the ladder and squeezing through a tunnel.

There are several kivas (round "underground" chambers used for ceremonial purposes) in Balcony House, not shown in the photo above. The elevation here is about 7,500' above sea level. There is a seep or spring inside the site which would have provided year-round water (many of the cliff dwellings had such water sources inside or nearby). The mesa top itself gets noticably more rainfall than the valley below, contributing to the springs and seeps.

This structure was built about 800 years ago, by people whom Navahos called the Anasazi, which roughly translated means "the ancient enemies". Since these people were not the ancestors of the Navaho, but of the Pueblo indians (like the Hopi), the preferred term is now "Ancestral Puebloans".

The Ancestral Puebloans abandoned the ruins by about 1300AD or so, and it is conjectured that it may have been due to a second very prolonged drought within a hundred year period. The first drought having lasted about 50 years. But nobody knows for sure.

Cliff Palace in the photo above is the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It's a much easier tour in the sense that there are no 30+ foot ladders to climb, but I'd visited it before so I just took some photos from the opposite rim of the canyon. The tour group gathered around the kiva in the photo above gives you a scale for just how big it is.

I've read that Mesa Verde is the only National Park in the USA where the primary focus is the preservation of the works of man, rather than the works of nature. Could be, I suppose.

This is Square Tower House ruins. It appeared to me that one could reach this site from the valley floor, below.

The Ancient Puebloans built these structures using sandstone, which they shaped into brick-like blocks and stuck together using a mortar made from mud and water. For some of the structures, it must have been very difficult simply getting the building materials to the site. It's thought that they may have used ropes to lower bundles from the cliff top above.

For some sites, the only way in was up or across an almost vertical rock wall with small foot-holds chipped into the stone. They required one to begin on the correct foot, and often had a narrow tunnel or gap to crawl through. This made it easier to defend against enemies by stationing a guard who could easily drop a big rock on an unwanted visitor, or stab them with a spear.

Sounds kinda harsh, but there is evidence that just before these sites were abandoned, many of them were modified to have access to certain rooms blocked off and severly limited. Rooms which were presumed to be for food storage.

If you could walk along the rims of these canyons, you'd see dozens and dozens of ruins, some quite small and isolated.

Interestingly, the people who built them started out in about 550AD by moving up the canyons from the valley below and switching from a nomadic hunter-gatherer life to farming (corn, squash and beans, plus dogs and turkeys). Initially, they lived in pit houses clustered into small villages, and there are still ruins of some of them on top of the mesas.

Later, as they learned how to make pottery, and use the bow and arrow, they became more prosperous. In about 750AD they started making pole-and-mud houses above ground, thus earning the name "pueblos" (from the Spanish word for village dwellers).

By 1000AD they were creating multi-story stone buildings. Most of the cliff dwellings were built in the short period between 1190AD to 1280AD.

Above you can see evidence of a big fire that swept though Mesa Verde a few years ago. It didn't affect the ruins below, of course, and the grasses and shrubs are already coming back. Fires must have been a familiar threat to the ancient peoples.

Spruce Tree House is the third largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, with about 114 rooms and 8 kivas, and probably had a population of about 100 people. The name is kind of a misnomer, as the tree which gave the ruins its name was a Douglas Fir, not a Spruce.

About 90% of Spruce Tree House is original, as it was well protected by the substantial overhang of the cliff above. A short ways up the canyon from here is the most vital spring found in Mesa Verde.

Sun Temple is a large above-ground pueblo built on the mesa top. I shot the above photo through one of its "windows". I imagine the light-colored mortar is from relatively recent repairs, whereas the rock-colored stuff is the original.

After departing Mesa Verde, I headed towards Kelly Place, an outdoor educational center and B&B, a neat place recommended to me by my friends Alan and Jonna Fleming. It's about 10 miles west of Cortez, in McElmo creek canyon. I took the shot above as I got close, it's of a private home about 1/8th mile up the canyon from Kelly Place.

There are about 25 documented prehistoric Indian sites on the grounds, which are available to their guests. Most of their guests are anthropology students doing classes in finding, investigating and cataloging artifacts using the local sites as workplaces.

I got there kinda late, but not too late to join in a wonderful vegitarian lasagne dinner. So I decided to put off investigating the ruins until the next morning, but I couldn't resist the warm evening light on the canyon walls. Yup, it really looked just like that!

The next morning, I started by simply looking up from the driveway to the cliff above, and seeing this ruin of a grainery just 25' above the canyon floor. You could probably climb right up to it, but of course that would be inappropriate so I didn't.

A short distance away were these pueblo buildings, the one mostly standing and the one in the foreground that is mostly just the foundation. The square thing with the ladder sticking out of it is a kiva which was restored by the property's original owner (Mr. Kelly himself) a couple generations ago.

There is a hatch on the kiva to keep out the weather and animals, but the innkeepers assured me it was quite okay to go in and have a look myself. So I did.

This is inside the kiva, in natural light. Whereas most kivas are unrestored, this one when first excavated still had some of the orignal "plaster" with the original artwork (though the colors were reversed, originally it was a white pattern on dark brown walls). So Mr. Kelly restored this as he thought it would have looked when used by the Ancient Puebloans.

Not visible in this shot, but right under the ladder, is the fire pit. The short white wall to the left is an air deflector, and the square black hole which disappears out of the left edge of the photograph is the air vent, which goes to a chimney behind the rock wall and up to the surface. Fresh air entered there, and was drawn towards the fire.

Also not visible beyond the lower right of the photograph is the Sipapu, or the small sacred/ceremonial hole through which the spirits may pass. The ancient peoples believed they came from the Third or Lower World, into this, the Fourth World via a Sipapu.

There were a lot of other interesting sights on the grounds, but one of the most interesting to me was this collared lizard. I don't think I've ever seen one before. It sure was colorful, and not the least shy about my camera being a foot away. I had real trouble deciding which shot to use, 'cause this one and this other one were pretty good too...

A few days later, I ended up in Moab, UT, where I rented a dirtbike and rode the Slickrock Trail. What a hoot that was! But later that same day, I rode down this 2-lane along the Colorado river downstream from Moab, and discovered some Indian petroglyphs visible from the road.

I could practically get this shot from the bike, without even getting off. Though the telephoto lens doesn't show that it would have been a bit of a climb to get to where the actual art was. Fortunately, even with the easy access, the site didn't appear to have been vandalized.

More petroglyphs. It's easy to see why the UFO folks think those human-like forms are aliens with space suits on. Either that, or really big earings and big round purses were all the rage a thousand years ago...

It's amazing to me that the images, scratched into the desert patina and weathered by thousands of thunderstorms and hundreds of thousands of sunny days, are still practically as vibrant and visible as they were the day they were created.

The crevasse also had petroglyphs in it, and was marked from below with a big sign that said, basically, "don't rock climb in this crevasse due to petroglyphs". Good idea.

The End

Well, kinda. I actually shot a lot more photos including some in the Canyon Country of the southwest, including Canyonlands, Arches, and Monument Valley. I'll have some of Moab's Slickrock Trail coming Real Soon Now™, and I'll link to them from here when I get them done...

Copyright © 2005, by H. Marc Lewis. All rights reserved.