Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mesa Verde road trip, Day 2: Cliff Palace

I am splitting Day 2 of our trip to Mesa Verde into two posts. I just have too many pictures I want to share, and to put them all into one post seems like a waste!

Our first morning in Durango, after having breakfast at the hotel, we headed up to Mesa Verde. I think it was probably about 45 minutes from our hotel to the park gates, and another 15 or 20 minutes to the visitor's center.

After some discussion, we decided to try to do two guided tours our first afternoon, to make the most of our time there (we were planning on coming back the next day). Cliff Palace was my first choice, and the guy who sold us our tickets suggested a tour of Balcony House, which was close by, as our second tour. After he sold us our tickets he asked if we were afraid of heights, since Balcony House is on the cliff face, but I already knew that from the guide we were given at the park gates. I told him, "A little, but I'll be fine," and he gave me that Uh oh look.

Once we started the tour of Cliff Palace, I remembered it from our visit when I was a kid, specifically the very narrow stone staircase that winds down the side of the canyon, heading away from Cliff Palace. Then you follow a path back toward the cliff dwelling, climb a 12-foot-long wooden ladder, and rest while your guide tells you a little bit about the place. This is also a great place for pictures.

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

Cliff Palace at Mesa  Verde

Cliff Palace at Mesa  Verde

When I was a kid they thought Cliff Palace had 200 or 300 rooms, and was like the New York City of Mesa Verde. Now, however, they think differently. After getting a grant to do a detailed study of the dwellings, they realized that Cliff Palace only had about 150 rooms, and only about 25 of those show evidence of being lived in (i.e., smoke stains from cooking fires). The others were apparently storage rooms.

The other interesting thing about Cliff Palace is that there are 23 kivas, which were like gathering places for religious ceremonies and other events, although people apparently could and did sleep in them. Most of the other cliff dwellings have only a few kivas. So now they think that Cliff Palace was probably a gathering place, like a city hall, where only about 100 people lived, but where people would come from other dwellings all over the canyon when something important was going on.

Here are a couple of pictures of one of the kivas:

A kiva inside Cliff Palace at Mesa  Verde

The tall pillars were for holding up the roof, which was quite thick, as you can see. The roof was thick enough to support people going about their daily business right on top of it, and the kiva was entered and exited via a ladder that stuck through a hole in the center of the roof, just above the fire pit — the same hole that was used to vent the smoke.

A kiva inside Cliff Palace at Mesa  Verde

In the far upper left of this picture is the guide, and if you look closely you will see she is straddling a small square hole. This was a ventilation shaft — it opens into the kiva behind that low brick wall. The wall was there to push the air current to either side, so that fresh air would circle around the bottom of the kiva, providing oxygen to both the fire and the people inside.

Our guide was an archaeologist, so we got some really interesting information. For instance, there is a sort of balcony inside the cave with lots of rooms on top, and the way the buildings are designed, those rooms were only accessible via a tall tower at the left end (not in the picture). about 8 years ago they finally went up inside there, and discovered tons of stored food, still there after 700 years! So those rooms were used to store their crops, and it was the job of whomever lived in the tower to distribute food as needed. As our guide put it, it was a responsibility, not a power, and if the person couldn't handle it the people would find someone else who could.

At the end of the tour was the part I had been a little nervous about: There was a 100-foot climb to get out of there, via a series of 5 ladders. I looked straight ahead and took it one rung at a time, and I made it all right. But next would be Balcony Palace, which you entered by climbing a 32-foot ladder — and exited via a 60-foot climb up the cliff face. Would I be able to do it?

You'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out!



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