From the front of the tour bus, a guide yelled, “There’s a bear! There’s a bear in the middle road!”
Everyone quickly looked up, and down the black ribbon cut between the trees atop Mesa Verde; an animal stood in the road. The bus was too far away at first for anyone to get a good look, but as the bus inched closer and the animal meandered toward the side of the road, it was apparent that it wasn’t a bear. It was a wild turkey, something perhaps equally as interesting, the guide said, as it was a part of the diet for the residents more than 1,000 years ago when the dwellings were built atop the mesa and in the crevices and gaps of the nearby cliffs.
The “700 Years Tour” at Mesa Verde National Park (nps.gov/meve/index.htm) traces the history of the pre-puebloan builders from A.D. 500 through A.D. 1200-1300. The four-hour excursion includes stops at key sites and an interesting mix of local lore and tips about what to watch for along the journey.
Something not to be missed: the ladder, ramp, climb and crawl tour through the Balcony House led by a park ranger.
Ranger Venacio Aragon has been leading tours through the site for seven seasons. Part of his talk focuses on the importance the Native American builders placed on their water sources and how that relates to today.
“Our national parks are representative of small portions of the total amount of the land in the country, but the things that happen in parks can be mirrored all over the world,” he said. “And the issues we face as a global human civilization, they’re shared all over the world. So water being a fundamental element of all life, it’s an issue for everyone, everybody, everywhere.
“As interpreters, we have to know our resources but it’s up to us individually as we bring our personalities, our own educational background and our own life experiences to it. It’s up to us how we render the archaeological records and the history. Our hope is not to change minds, but to put information out there, knowledge, and it’s up to the people what they take away from it. ”
A meal at the Metate Room Restaurant overlooks unending ridgelines into Arizona and New Mexico.
While Mesa Verde can be spectacular, guided glimpse of the wonders of what went before the Canyon of the Ancients Monument is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management and is a 176,000-acre do-it-yourself, wander-around-and-don’t-get lost experience outside Cortez near the Four Corners.
A stopover at the Canyons of the Ancients Guest Ranch, at the mouth of the monument, reveals the preservation of the old into the future.
A rare herd of Navajo-Churro sheep grazes at the site. The breed dates back to the original Spanish occupation of the area in the 1500s. They were nearly extinct before being revived in the 1970s. Their wool consists of a protective topcoat and soft undercoat. Some males occasionally develop four full horns, a trait shared with few other breeds in the world.
Following up with a wander through the monument, which contains the highest archaeological site density in the U.S., is a backcountry wonderland of the wilds of yesteryear. The area contains more than 6,355 recorded sites: villages, field houses, check dams, reservoirs, great kivas, cliff dwellings, shrines, sacred springs, agricultural fields, petroglyphs and sweat lodges.
Finally, the lazy pace of the area is epitomized by the sleepy burg of Mancos, where an occasional cattle drive wanders through town. Distinctive and authentic Native American and local art is a staple of the economy. And a stop at Fenceline Cider, with its patio overlooking the gurgling Mancos River, is a refreshing taste test of a variety of locally made gourmet ciders.