Before our schools put the–thankfully, temporary–kibosh on the yellow, iconic geographic magazine, two afterimages branded our juvenile minds: the feathered, painted, topless tribes in Africa—brought to teachers’ attention by the huddles of snickering boys—and the cliff-dwelling ancestral Native Americans of Arizona.
So, it was no accident that Mesa Verde (Spanish for “green table”) was one of the first destinations mapped in Roadtrippers as we commenced planning for the first leg of travels in the Western United States. We were not disappointed as this national park delivered a heady dose of southwestern culture.
Since we couldn’t find adequate information about camping in the park (later, we drove through Morefield Campground and it looked awesome), and we needed showers and laundry facilities, we paid $35.00 a night for a water and electric site at Mesa Verde RV Resort and, once again, were thankful for our earplugs as it is located adjacent to the highway. Other than the noise for just a few hours at night, this was a great starting point for the close proximity to Mesa Verde as well as the small towns of Cortez and Mancos. After we arrived and set up Trailblazer, we headed to Cortez to the popular Pippo’s Café for our first taste of Navajo Tacos, recommended by our friend Deanna (who is now working in Moscow and would probably do anything for a taco right now), one of the best meals we’ve had on our trip so far. Imagine an unsweetened elephant ear topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce and cheese, and healthy dollops of sour cream and salsa. For the rest of our time in the southwest, Wendy was vigilant for these tacos but only found them one more time.
For our first full day, we set out the next day on a ranger-led hike to Balcony House, which is located on the Chapin Mesa. When we arranged this hike at the visitor’s center, the description of “Adventurous Cliff Dwelling Tour” caught our attention and we signed up for this hike only to later learn that this is the only tour offered at this time of year. We found it interesting to find out about Richard Wetherill and Charles Mason (Wetherill’s brother-in-law) who first discovered the ruins in 1888. Although most of the artifacts found by Wetherill and Mason found their way to museums, because of public looting in later years, in 1906, President Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park, the very first national park of its kind. On the guided hike, our ranger guide Jess also communicated not only the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people (formerly known as the Anasazi, which is not politically correct in current times) who lived in this area for 700 years, from A.D. 600 to A.D. 1300, but also gave anecdotes about the missteps of the well-meaning archaeologists who used—ultimately damaging—techniques to fortify the archaeological sites of over 4,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. Despite the archaeologists, today Mesa Verde retains some of the best-preserved sites of stone, mortar, and plaster in the United States.
We learned about the ancient farming practices, looked into kivas—which are subterranean, circular ancient apartments—viewed the pottery, murals, and found, once again, the importance of first hand experiences to bring history to life. We’d highly recommend this tour although it is most definitely not for the claustrophobic or acrophobic as we climbed 60-foot ladders and inched through a tiny exit tunnel before climbing another shaky ladder to the cliff’s exit.
For the remainder of the day, we visited museums, went on a few hikes to other cliff dwellings and soaked in the culture of these amazing people. In contrast, in the early evening, we experienced current, popular culture and Indi had a sewing lesson for a few hours while Wendy and Jason added another brewery to the list. Later that night, we experienced more American culture through the new Goosebumps movie in Cortez.
The next day we packed up and hit the road, back to Utah traveling through four different states (Utah, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico) as we headed to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge Campground and RV Park, just around the corner from the historic lodge frequented by John Wayne in his heyday. Since we were staying just one night, we set up Trailblazer and headed to the park’s visitor center and decided against a formal tour, instead driving ourselves the scenic, 17 miles of the public areas of the park. The famous sandstone monolith monuments are truly spectacular, including The Mittens, John Ford’s Point, Three Sisters, North Window, Totem Pole, Yei Bi Cheis and Artist’s Point; so well-worth the drive here.
That evening, we headed to Goulding’s Trading Post Museum, learning about the relationship between the Goulding family and the Navajo people. We watched a movie about the history of this area and funny enough, there was more information about the Western movies shot in this area of the southwest and the many movie stars who vacationed in this area than the history of the Navajo people. Before heading back for a campsite dinner with our new wild dog friends, we said goodnight to John Wayne’s cabin.
The next morning, on our way out, we fortified our bodies with Navajo Huevos Rancheros. Wendy was thrilled to have her second dose of delicious fry bread and this was a great way to part ways for now.
Next stop: the Grand Canyon!