Imagining Life in the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Visiting Durango has been high on our list since we started our adventure, so we were excited to finally make it there after we left Snow Canyon. We knew it would be absolutely beautiful and that there would be so much to explore, but we also had the opportunity to visit my cousin, which was a real treat.

We were actually on the fence about whether or not to visit Mesa Verde National Park, given our most recent experiences in Zion and the Grand Canyon, but my cousin reiterated how amazing it is (I had visited over 20 years ago) and was optimistic that we would have a better experience.

Thankfully, he was not wrong. Our visit to Mesa Verde is easily top 2 on our list of best visits to National Parks this year (our evening visit to the Badlands will truly be tough to beat!), and even though several hikes and roads were closed for the season, we had the most enjoyable visit. A visit that reiterated how good we have it today.

My memories of my previous visit to the park really centered on the cliff dwellings and somehow missed the beautiful scenery and views throughout the park.

Shortly after arriving, we stopped at the Park Point Lookout. This overlook offered incredible views of the surrounding valley. It was the perfect place for us all to stretch our legs, soak in the amazing mountain views, and for Bird to have the first of a few meltdowns of the day.

Even though we had spent a few days on the road since leaving Snow Canyon, this was our first adventure as a family, and we were all still adjusting to being back on the road. We were not surprised that she was having a hard time, as Will and I could totally relate, it was just less acceptable for us to cry about it. Thankfully, the park was virtually empty, so we only had 1 person stop to see if they could help console her. Being 2 is hard sometimes.

However, once we realized that she only wanted to go back to the fire tower because she was convinced it was open and she could go inside, we went back, made another loop around to check all the doors, and then reluctantly returned to the truck. Thankfully, the National Park Service deadbolts those locks or I am fairly certain she would have found a way in.

From there, we made our way to the main parking area at the Spruce Tree House trailhead. Like most visitors we encountered, we had hoped to hike this trail to the only cliff dwellings that were still open for the season according to the map, but the trail was closed. While this was a bummer and prompted more tears from Bird, we took a few minutes to appreciate the views of the cliff dwellings then returned to the truck for lunch.

After lunch, we drove along Mesa Top Ruins Road and stopped at many of the points of interest along the way.

While we were unable to get up close and personal with any of the cliff dwellings, it was truly incredible to imagine what life could have possibly been like for those who inhabited the area. We were in awe of the location of these dwellings along the cliffs and just how many people lived there, but what really took a while to wrap our heads around was that the dwellings in the area were inhabited for 700 years. Like over 3 times as long as the United States has been a country.

And it was not as though they built a few structures and then sat back and enjoyed it for a few centuries. No. They continually had to build and rebuild, often needing to completely rebuild some iterations of their dwellings after a single rainstorm.

They grew crops, they had structured civilization, they had written language (as seen in the surviving petroglyphs around the park), they built dwellings that housed hundreds of people. It is truly incredible.

As we walked around 1 of the preserved houses, I could not help but continually think, “They slept in there without a mattress or pillow” (at least our modern view of these things). While that may seem silly and superficial, the heart of my thought was essentially that these people never had the opportunity to be comfortable. To relax. And, oh my goodness, that is not a time I would fare well in.

In today’s perspective, our life, living in a camper, may be seen as a hardship or at least a life outside of the norm. We do not have much space, we cannot acquire lots of “things,” we are all in each other’s business pretty much all of the time. Do we crave a little more space? Sure. Do we wish Bird could have more toys and “stuff”? You bet. Do I have detailed plans for my she-shed that is going to be as far away from our main living space as possible when we do settle down? Absolutely.

But while a little more square footage would be nice, we are so blessed to have a dwelling that withstands rain and snow, that has doors and windows between us and Mother Nature, that has doors inside to provide at least the façade of privacy. And I am also grateful that we only have 1 generation of us living in these 300 square feet of ours (I mean, we love our families, but can you imagine?!) These are things we take for granted, things we expect.

So yes, I thought about the lack of pillows, the entirely rock surface of the dwellings, the fact that several generations lived under 1 roof. I thought about the chores that we do every day and how they cannot even begin to compare to the chores these folks had (going to the grocery store versus growing and processing the groceries, vacuuming dirt from the floor versus carving the floor out of dirt, going up a few steps versus literally climbing ladders up cliff walls to get home).

I find we often leave National Parks with a new perspective on how we are powerless to the forces of nature. We see huge mountains looming around us, we see God’s hand in creating unparalleled beauty, we see the way nature builds and destroys and rebuilds itself. We leave with a new perspective on how we should live in and interact with nature. And while on the surface, Mesa Verde seems to be a different kind of National Park. It seems to give a glimpse into human history. But really what it does is reiterate those same concepts about how to live with Mother Nature.

If we stop to really look at what the American Indians accomplished here, they adapted to nature, they used nature to their advantage, and they respected nature. So maybe a visit to Mesa Verde does not offer the awe-inspiring views of other National Parks, but it sure made me stop and think about how we are living and how we can pass onto Bird the important lessons of respecting and living together in nature.

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