I last visited Mesa Verde National Park in 2004. That was one year after a forest fire had scorched most of the landscape, leaving behind only the rocks and blackened skeletons of the flora. Climbing the switchbacks of CO-10 onto the tilted plain called mesa verde (green table) that year was an eerie experience. Only an observant eye could see the sprigs of green amongst the black.
My 2013 return, a mere ten years after the devastating fire, allowed me to travel through park lands that more closely resembled the semi-arid, semi-green, expanse of national heritage that Teddy Roosevelt deemed worthy of protection of National Park status back in 1906. As I descended the plain to tour the cliff dwellings of the largest archeological preserve in America I wondered how closely my view resembled that of the Anasazi, also known as Ancestral Puebloan, who had created the dwellings about 800 years ago.
Those ancient Pueblo people ingeniously forged life in the high desert environment by making great use of the land's limited life support system. The small quantity of water reaching the landscape then was more plentiful than it has been for centuries, but it was only enough to sustain life if it was collected and used in its near entirety. The Anasazi were able to grow substantial crops in the small windows of time in which the rains fell. They also collected drinking water from sites where the rain water seeped through cracks in the sandstone. It was those watering cracks along the sides of canyon walls where some of the many thousands of people created a unique society. A cliff dwelling society.
Hard rocks were used to meticulously cut sandstone bricks which were then mortared into place among amazingly straight or symmetrically curved walls. A variety of structures, including multistory houses, pit houses, and circular subterranean religious rooms called kivas were constructed along ledges within the cliffs.
Dendrochronology, analyzing matching tree rings from different trees to determine a timeline within an ecosystem, reveals that the Ancient Pueblo suddenly left the area in the early 1200s. This was likely due to a decades long drought.
When trappers and prospectors came upon the mesa in the 1870s the cliff dwellings were still largely intact. The mesa was then part of Ute land as per a treaty, but certain individuals, including the Wetherills from nearby Mancos, CO were able to make agreements with the Ute to explore this sacred land. They located and named some of the cliff dwellings. And they took artifacts.
It was the removal of artifacts by many of the visitors that caused a stir and gave foundation to the movement to make Mesa Verde a National Park. The boundaries of MVNP contain hundreds of cliff dwellings and thousands of archeologically significant sites. Frigid winters come and go. Intense dry heat smothers the mesa most summers. Fires decimate this high altitude desert land over and over. Still, those stone structures within the cliffs remain.