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Mesa Verde Memories by Dr. Andrew Gulliford

Andrew GullifordAs Americans we all have special relationships to certain landscapes. For many of us, we relate to our national parks because they do not change, even though we do. The author Wallace Stegner called national parks "America's best idea," and he was right. We need the familiarity of place that national parks provide.
We grow from childhood to adulthood and then we take our own children back to those special places within national parks. The same is true about Mesa Verde National Park. We have a relationship with the park, and with the landscape around it, that transcends generations. We went there as children and now we take our own children there. In a world of constant change, we value what's permanent about our national parks and our access to significant cultural sites. Mesa Verde is one of those sites and its importance to all humankind is why the park is listed as a World Heritage Site.

In the 1960s I remember driving with my parents to Mesa Verde from our home on the eastern Colorado plains. Like many tourists, I conflate Mesa Verde with Wolf Creek Pass. Who can ever forget going over Wolf Creek for the first time and seeing snow in July? I'm sure I saw a wrecked car over the edge of the road, but then maybe that was my over-active childhood imagination.

Getting to Mesa Verde I remember the hot parking lot, the summer crowds of tourists, and then the cool quiet of the museum and the power of the 1930s dioramas to draw me into the setting and the scene of the park. After the dioramas and a quick look at the artifacts then it was down the path to Spruce Tree House to see the cliff dwellings for the first time. And for the first time to begin to wonder about who lived there, how, and why, and to understand as a child that yes, there were people who lived very different lives than we did in the 20th century. For a ten or twelve year-old boy that was a revelation.

Perhaps it was the first time in my life that I'd actually thought about someone other than my relatives, friends, and people that I knew. Just seeing the cliff dwellings made me think about other humans and their adaptations.

Visiting Mesa Verde National Park is a humbling experience. As it should be. We need to think out of the box. We need to think beyond our own time and troubles, to experience another world and to conceive of different challenges for families hundreds of years ago and to realize that some of our concerns are petty compared to living in cliffs, struggling for water and searching for food. Mesa Verde can do that for us.

The magnificent landscape, the mesa top at 8,000 feet, the pinon juniper pines and the views of the La Plata Mountains and Shiprock, New Mexico can draw us out of ourselves and into another world far older than anything we've ever known. The park did that for me as a child and it does that for me still.

I've had the pleasure of returning to the park with my own children, now young men, and I've taken them to Spruce Tree House and Cliff Palace just as my parents took me. The park thus serves as a family bond and a tie across generations. The landscape brings us together and teaches us valuable lessons just as it taught the Ancestral Puebloans 800 years ago. Though most visitors come to the park during the summer between Memorial Day and Labor Day, my favorite time to visit is late fall or early winter when the air is crisp and cool and the slanting afternoon autumnal light makes the cliff dwellings shimmer golden. The park is also special after a snowfall when a dusting of white covers the treetops and as the snow melts the ancient trails are easier to see.

Mesa Verde Memories are about a very special place in our heart, and on the map. After the Ancestral Puebloans moved to the Rio Grande River Valley and elsewhere to establish other villages and pueblos, the geographical area around Mesa Verde became known as the Four Corners region. And it is a place that tugs at our hearts because of its spareness and beauty.

Author Terry Tempest Williams writes in Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, "In the Colorado Plateau-roughly the Four Corners region of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona-I believe we are in the process of creating our own mythology, a mythology born out of this spare, raw, broken country, so frightfully true, complex, and elegant in its searing simplicity of form." She writes, "You cannot help but be undone by its sensibility and light, nothing extra. Before the stillness of sandstone cliffs, you stand still, equally bare."

It is that deep sense of place and landscape, the canyons and sagebrush, the mesa tops and the wind soughing through the pine trees that gives us so pause. How did Ancestral Puebloans live here? How did they survive here for so many generations? What were the trails down Navajo Canyon and Soda Canyon? How far did sound travel on a blustery summer day? And what was it like when runners came, sweaty and tired, up to the base of the cliff dwellings? What news did they bring?

Mesa Verde provides magical memories and a chance for us to learn about the past while also learning about ourselves. We are drawn to the park in so many ways and for so many reasons. Artists and photographers come to the park to paint it and document it, but they are interested both in the landscape they see and the landscape they feel. Mesa Verde evokes contemplation and awe. Under a brilliant night sky stars pierce the heavens and we see the same constellations the Ancients live by. Do we ask the same questions about our place in the universe?

What have we gained in the eight centuries since the Mesa Verdeans moved on and what have we lost? Three things common to Mesa Verde that the Ancestral Puebloans had that we moderns have lost are silence, solitude and darkness. What were their memories after centuries of living here and what are the memories that we have created?
Please join me in sharing your Mesa Verde Memories with other friends and donors to the Mesa Verde Foundation. Just send them on to Margie Deane Gray, Executive Director of the Mesa Verde Foundation, for inclusion in subsequent issues of our e-newsletter.
Thanks so much. And come re-visit the park.
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Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He teaches popular courses on wilderness, national parks and environmental history. Gulliford is the author of America's Country Schools, Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions, and Boomtown Blues: Colorado Oil Shale, which won the Colorado Book Award. He also edited Preserving Western History, which was voted one of the best books on the Southwest by the Tucson-Pima County Library.
For the centennial of Mesa Verde National Park in 2006 he was series editor for seven new books on Mesa Verde published by the Durango Herald Small Press. His most recent book Outdoors in the Southwest: An Adventure Anthology (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) won two New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards as well as the Colorado Book Award. He writes columns about the west for the Durango Herald, Utah Adventure Journal, and "Writers on the Range" of High Country News.
Gulliford has had led tours across the West by canoe, raft, horseback, van, cruise ship, private train, and private jet for the Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic Society, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rocky Mountain Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Great Old Broads for Wilderness, History Colorado and the San Juan Mountains Association.
Dr. Gulliford has received the National Individual Volunteer Award from the U.S. Forest Service for wilderness education, and a certificate of recognition from the Secretary of Agriculture for "outstanding contributions to America's natural and cultural resources." In the future he looks forward to leading tours of the Southwest for members and friends of the Mesa Verde Foundation.