a visit to Mesa Verde

A couple of recent work-related events required I travel to Durango, in Colorado’s far southwestern corner. I would need to spend the weekend but my schedule wasn’t such that I wouldn’t have at least one day free to do whatever I wanted. Out of the myriad choices – mountain biking, hiking, gallery and/or craft brewery hopping, etc. – I decided to head to Mesa Verde National Park.

This decision, which should have been quite easy for me, wasn’t. I’m an architect after all and the architectural legacy of the Ancestral Puebloans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Right here in Colorado! But for some reason, I was telling myself I didn’t have enough time, or it was too far, that I was down here for work…reason after reason. All nonsense. That night, over a slice and a nice IPA at Durango’s Homeslice Pizza, I thought “I’m going first thing tomorrow morning.”

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The gate to the visitor center opens at eight in the morning. I arrived at 8:04, purchased a ranger-guided tour for $4 and minutes later was on my way. Vast is not an easterner’s word, certainly not common to one like myself, who grew up just outside New York City. No, vast is a western word and the landscape of Mesa Verde captures the feeling perfectly.

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The tour of the Balcony House cliff dwelling, which made $4 seem quite a bargain, was great. I’m always impressed by the knowledge, patience and friendliness of the Park Service’s interpretive rangers. Following the tour, I took my time visiting almost all of the archeological sites on Chapin Mesa.

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My understanding is the park is much less crowded in the fall and for me that was a good thing. I would not have been able to enjoy myself if confronted by the go-go, tick-the-boxes impatience that I imagine must exist during the pre-Labor Day, high-traffic season. Yet, even with the park less crowded, driving around in a car all day is hardly my thing, so when I arrived at the Chapin Mesa Museum, the prospect of hiking out to see the petroglyphs was exciting. Imagine seeing for oneself an artistic work by a person that has remained, in situ, for a millenia. I couldn’t, so I set out on the two-hour round-trip to do just that.

Being out in space, walking, acknowledging other hikers – experiencing Mesa Verde at human-scale. And needing to put effort into the experience? Wow. Architecture aside, the hike was the highlight of my day. On my way back, atop the mesa, I passed through a naturally-ignited burn zone from a few years ago. The field in that moment was otherworldly in its beauty. I stopped, and made a photo.

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