Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mesa Verde life

It's true, there is no internet or cell phone coverage in Mesa Verde, but a leaking tire on my car has made a trip into Cortez necessary. It wouldn't do to be stuck out on Wetherill Mesa with a flat. The compensation, though, is a stop at the Spruce Tree Cafe, a cool little internet cafe on Main St. And, as it's been snowing and hailing for the last couple of days (It was 85 degrees when I came) I'm going to see how the weather goes today before I head to Wetherill Mesa. So here's a chance to catch up....

I left Parker, CO and my cousins house on May 19 an hour later than planned, but I knew I would. But by 8 am I was headed south on 285 on my way to Mesa Verde. The views were incredible on the drive though the Rockies foothills, then across flat farmland and irrigation circles like those I had seen from the plane. Another winding climb through the San Juan Mountains and I then headed west. Finally the massive rock formation of Park Point came into view and I knew I was close to the entrance of Mesa Verde.

The park was quiet when I arrived at 7:30, as I would find it is every evening after the tour buses and RVs leave. Turkey vultures roosted in the trees and circled the canyon behind headquarters, and in watching them, I caught my first startling view of a cliff dwelling, Spruce House, in the setting sun of the canyon wall opposite. Every one of the red sandstone park buildings was closed and I wandered, looking for anyone in a stiff brimmed hat to ask where I could find historic hogan #37.
Finally I remembered one of the rangers in charge of the program, Coella, had said she lived in stone house #4 if I needed anything. Across the street from headquarters were about a dozen square stone houses, so I walked among them till I found #4, knocked and got directions to a service road I had passed. I drove the short rutted dirt road reading the numbers on the small round dwellings. Number 37 is nearest the road, but set below and hidden in the trees.

I entered a dark, low ceilinged porch with a stone slab floor and a primitive fireplace at the far end. The door of old dark planks was padlocked, but on further examination, it wasn’t clicked shut so I slipped it out and entered a clean, sky lit white interior.

Monday I met with the rangers to file the required paperwork for my backcountry privileges and found that not only did I have a key to my hogan, but the other keys on my chain unlocked the gates to any road or cliff dwelling in the park! All I had to do was file a backcountry permit and notify dispatch where I was going. Of course I couldn’t enter the spaces in the cliff dwellings that were roped off, since they are too fragile for foot traffic, but I can have a cliff dwelling all to myself after the tourists go home. In fact, this week I can have an entire Mesa (Wetherill) to myself since the road is closed until the 25th. But I have the key to the gate! This is a rare privilege that I hadn't expected but am very grateful to the park for.

After paperwork was taken care of, I did the touristy things, took a Balcony House tour, wandered around headquarters looking for a good place to have my charcoal drawing class I am giving as part of the program, toured Spruce House, drove the Mesa loop and got out at every overlook. It was 85 degrees and I could feel the water evaporate from my body as soon as I drank it.

I returned to the hogan and decided it was time to begin work, so I brought my watercolors a few hundred feet from the hogan to where the Spruce Canyon Trail exits the canyon. There the sandstone curves to close off the canyon and I sit on the flat rocks at the canyon’s end. It’s then that I notice how quiet it is. I never realized how much noise birds wings make -- I hear the fluttering before I see them and almost feel if I should duck, they sound so loud. And I don’t thing there are more flies than usual, it’s just that I hear them coming ten feet away. No traffic, no electrical hum, no airplanes. Just the wind and the occasional critter.

On Tuesday I returned to the Spruce Canyon trail and found a ledge just over the trail that was cool and sheltered and worked for a few hours on a charcoal drawing.

Then it was off to headquarters again to file backcountry permits, submit a press release for my class, and be introduced to the staff. Although all the other parks I have been in have been very accommodating, this has got to be the friendliest park I’ve been to. Everyone seems genially happy to meet the “artist-in-residence”.

After dinner I decided to try the Interactive acrylics in a really cool abandoned picnic area in between my hogan and the “official” picnic area. The picnic tables are sagging, but still have their faded plastic red checked tablecloths. An old chuck wagon is parked on the canyon rim. It’s almost spooky here, the ghosts of picnics past seem to hover in the fading light, and the signature Mesa Verde question comes to mind...why was this place, once so full of life, suddenly abandoned?

Wednesday was my first trip “backcountry”. This was the first time my rental car decided to show a CHECK TIRE PRESS warning on the dash, and I debated the chances of getting stuck 14 miles over winding mountain roads on Wetherill Mesa. But I decided to risk it since my tires looked fine and I did have a park radio if I really got stuck. I drove to the Wetherill Mesa gate, two NPS vehicles were parked just up the road inside. Four padlocks locked the gate. I had only two keys. I got out and probably looked confused so one of the big white pickups backed up the road to the gate and another friendly park ranger got out and showed me how to unlock the gate. I still find it rather amazing that they seem happy to have an artist cluttering up the joint when they have work to do. So off I went, over the winding road that went steeply up and down, then overlooked Cortez, where I could get an amazing good cell phone signal, my first in the park.

Eventually I reached the end of the road, deserted parking lots and the tourist shelter. There one usually has to board a tram to the cliff dwellings, but since the trams weren’t running, I headed down the one lane road in my car. A wild fire had killed most of the trees on the end of the mesa, and the shapes they left were bizarre. Like driving through a house of horrors in limbo. At Long House I found a place to pull over, next to another shelter. Apparently the feral horses liked its shelter as much as the tourists did, as it was littered with piles of manure.

The walk down to Long House begins with a set of stairs, and then a paved path. The sandstone wall the path hangs from is carved in swirling shapes. Long House was quiet and beautiful. Two wheelbarrows and some buckets were the only sign that anyone had visited. From the dwelling I looked out to a beautiful view down the canyon. There was still water in the spring on the back wall, in many dwellings the springs had dried up due to drought. I sat at one end and drew for a few hours, reveling in the rare experience of spending time in a cliff dwelling, no one, as I thought, within miles. Then I heard 25 people laugh. I jumped up and looked over the edge and saw a ranger-led group just turning the corner on the path to the dwelling. I quickly dipped back in and continued to draw as they made their way closer, until the ranger’s head appeared at the top of the ladder that led to where I sat. It was the same ranger who had given the tour I had taken on Monday, and he told me that the group were seasonal rangers in training, which explained why they were there. I stayed for part of the tour, then headed back up to drive the rest of the loop and check out Kodak house and the overlooks. There is a one mile hike through the burnt trees on the Nordenskiold Site trail and I realized it was the perfect place to be able to sit and draw the trees. I sat on a fallen log and drew till a fierce cold wind picked up and it began to rain. I headed home, determined to return.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathy, I'll be in residence at Mesa Verde for the last two weeks of September. Thanks for the terrific blog. Do you have a blog about Glacier NP? I'm curious about the cabin on Lake McDonald.


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