Coach Trip – USA National Parks, Mesa Verde National Park and Cortez

There was a later start today because there wasn’t so much travelling to be done because we were spending the day at the nearby Mesa Verde National Park not far from the east of the city.  So there was time to enjoy breakfast and look around the Main Street in daylight.

Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features numerous ruins of homes and villages built by the ancient Pueblo people. It is best known for several spectacular cliff dwellings which are structures built within caves and under outcroppings in cliffs, including the Cliff Palace, which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.  This unique treasure remained undiscovered for six hundred years until on a snowy December day in 1888, while two ranchers were searching Mesa Verde’s canyons for stray cattle, they unexpectedly came upon Cliff Palace for the first time since it had been abandoned. They returned the following year and found an additional one hundred and eighty two immaculate cliff dwellings and a collection of priceless ancient relics.

The Spanish term Mesa Verde translates into English as green table but as we took the short journey along a featureless highway and an arid landscape this seemed a bit unlikely but then we entered the park and there was a sudden transformation and as we climbed to the top of the plateau there were noticeably more trees and vegetation.  This place had once been even more fertile and about one thousand four hundred years ago, long before Europeans came to North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home.

For more than seven hundred years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building the elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late thirteenth century, in the span of just a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away and no one really knows why.  The reason for their sudden departure about 1275 remains completely unexplained but theories range from crop failures due to a succession of droughts to hostilities with foreign tribes from the North that drove them away.

Immediately after the discovery a lot of damage was done to the buildings and looting of the relics by souvenir hunters and archaeological collectors with some dubious methods of operation and although many of the removed items are safe in museums, in order to remove the valuable items walls were broken down, floors were opened and kivas, which were subterranean chambers used for religious purposes, were thoughtlessly vandalised.   At the Cliff Palace great openings were broken through the front of the ruin and beams were used for firewood and all of the roofs were destroyed.

As concern grew over the archaeological well being of the ruins, and those in other nearby sites, the area was declared a National Park on June 29th, 1906.  Unfortunately most of the damage had already been done by this time and accurate archaeological information from the site has subsequently been limited due to these previous unauthorised archaeological expeditions.

It’s a bit late of course but understandably the park officials are a bit wary about things going missing now so it is only possible to visit the sites accompanied by an official ranger guide.  At the visitor centre we were joined by the man that was going to show us around the park and the buildings and we set off into the site.  He was an amusing tour guide and he kept us entertained with little stories all day as he moved us from site to site and at each one passed us over to a site specific expert to explain about the buildings.

Although Pueblo people lived here for seven hundred years it was during the last two hundred, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that they constructed and lived in these impressive dwellings and let’s not forget that this was the same time as most people in Europe were still living in mud huts!  First of all we saw the Cliff Palace which is the largest and best-known of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and has two hundred and twenty identified rooms and twenty three kivas.  Next we went to Square Tower House which has a four storey tower which is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde and gives the site its name and finally we visited the very well preserved Spruce Tree House where the ruins include a kiva with a restored roof which we were able to enter.

In addition to the cliff dwellings there are a great many mesa-top ruins that we were able to visit and explore for ourselves and there was plenty of time at the end of the official tour to take a good look around these and spend time in the park museum as well.  This was a truly magnificent place, and also enlightening because it is easy to forget that European migrants were not the first people in North America by any stretch of the imagination and what went before here clearly belonged to what was at that time a sophisticated and superior civilization.  Brought up on TV westerns that invariably portrayed the Indians as savage redskins I was pleased to go through this revisionist experience.

When we left the site we drove back to Cortez across the Indian reservation and noticed that as we approached the entrance that the verges of the road were heavily littered with beer cans and empty liquor bottles and we discovered that this is because, as on most reservations, alcohol is illegal.  The white settlers and pioneers didn’t do a great deal of good for the Native Americans and one of the worst things that they did was to introduce them to alcohol because when colonists suddenly made large quantities of distilled spirits available, they had little time to develop legal, moral and social procedures to regulate its use.

Traders naturally found that providing free alcohol during trading sessions gave them quite a considerable advantage in their negotiations with the local people and this period therefore may have been responsible for the prevalence of alcohol abuse among Native Americans today.  Early demand, no regulation and strong encouragement helped form a tradition of heavy alcohol use passed down from generation to generation, which has led to the current high level of alcohol related problems amongst native Americans.

Some anthropologists believe that Native Americans have a genetic susceptibility to alcohol, although this has never been proven, but the reason why they drink more at any one time could be because with alcohol being illegal on the reservations, Native Americans drink a large amount in a short space of time before they return to their homes.  Judging by the state of the road verges they must drink all the way back before they jettison the evidence just as they arrive at the entrance to the reservation to avoid detection.

I mention all this because later that night we had a first hand demonstration of the effect on a Native American of too much drink.  After evening meal we sat in a busy bar and were joined at our table by a couple from the reservation visiting town for a Sunday big night out.  He was already drunk and his objective was clearly to become completely and thoroughly paralytic.  He was amiable enough and we enjoyed a few minutes of conversation, although this was mainly with his wife who remained lucid throughout, and we talked about our holiday and they were most interested to know about England and specifically London.

As he became more inebriated his volume control broke and although she worked hard not to get him too excited he started to become a bit of a nuisance.  When the waitress came by he insisted on buying us all a drink and then the subject turned to firearms, ‘What sort of a gun have you got?’ he asked and we explained to him that we don’t generally carry six shooters in England (unless you live in Nottingham) and he seemed genuinely surprised, ‘I’ve got a gun!’ he proudly announced and drew back his immaculate buckskin jacket to reveal a colt 45 sitting snugly in a holster under his arm.  OMG!  The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened and I was all rendered completely speechless.  It was all a bit surreal and scary, we were sitting with a pissed up Indian warrior with a loaded pistol.  I don’t know if he was supposed to be on the loose in town with a sidearm, I suspect not, because very shortly after this his wife bundled him away and out of the door and I for one was glad that he had gone!

We had a couple of beers to steady our nerves and then walked cautiously back to the motel keeping an observant eye out for our dangerous new friend.  There was no need really I’m sure because he would have been sleeping off one hell of a hangover and probably wouldn’t surface much before sundown the next day.

The postcard images were all originally purchased in 1995 on the Coach Trip. The Promotional leaflet images are also all 1995 originals.

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