Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.
~Steve Jobs



Day 5: Mesa Verde

Spruce Tree House

I pulled into Cortez, Colorado, the night of Day 4, found a cheap motel and took myself to dinner at a place with a dumb name but an abundance of good online reviews, Tequila’s. It did not disappoint. My fajitas were fabulous — and the waiters were cute. I’m a sucker for dark-haired men in crimson shirts, especially ones that call me “senorita” while serving me … delicious food.

Mesa to plains

Having been (regrettably) single for much of my adult life, I’ve done a lot of solo traveling and road-tripping. I think I’ve just about mastered the art of planning and packing for road trips:

  • Get some good maps.
  • Stare at the maps a lot before you go.
  • Use a highlighter to mark your route.
  • Pack one big bag to keep in the trunk.
  • Use a smaller bag to ferry daily essentials and clothing to your motel room.
  • Travel during the off-season so you don’t have to bother with reservations (and crowds).
  • Either use a guidebook (I like AAA’s) or google the cities you’ll be staying in. That’s how I found Tequila’s — I googled “cortez restaurants” and got Yahoo Travel’s handy listings.
  • Remain aware and cautious, but also open to possibilities. It’s an adventure!

Spruce Tree House

I was so excited to see Mesa Verde, after years and years of wanting to, that I was up early the next morning. I followed the highway out of Cortez a few miles, then turned off the high desert plains into the snowy mesa tops. Mesas, I realized, are basically mountains with flat tops, for some geological reason I have yet to discover. The ancient Pueblo people, ancestors of modern-day tribes like the Hopi and Zuni, built their homes on top of the mesas and then, for a while, in the walls of the mesa canyons.

According to general knowledge, no one knows for sure why the people became cliff-dwellers, but it didn’t seem that mysterious to me the day I was there. A strong, cold wind was blowing, and taking shelter in the canyons made perfect sense. Most of the cliff dwellings were nestled into natural recesses in the canyon walls — residents would already have at least one wall and a roof before they even started building with stone and mortar.

Me at Spruce Tree House

The only cliff dwelling open during my winter visit was Spruce Tree House, although I was able to see others from mesa overlooks. I was grateful to be at Mesa Verde on a cold, wintry day, though, as I still ended up sharing the experience with a few hundred other tourists. I can’t imagine what places like Mesa Verde and the Grand Canyon are like during the height of tourist season.

Spruce Tree House blew me away. It was so beautiful, so intricate, so skillfully built. It and other cliff dwellings were basically apartment complexes, their round kivas presumably communal and ceremonial spaces. Embraced by the earth around them, the people who lived here left behind not only these architectural wonders, but also magnificent rock art and pottery. And while I only saw a few ruins, I learned that they are all over the Southwest. Looking at these aesthetically stunning relics, it becomes impossible to deny that the first Americans were intelligent, sophisticated beings who prized art, design, story-telling, community and spirit. Europeans did not bring civilization to the Indians. It was already here.

Cliff Palace

Traveling through the heart of Indian country, nothing but hours of road in front of me, I had plenty of time for meditations about things such as race. Gas stations, in particular, were a stark study in contrasts — the woman counting out change for a pack of cigarettes, the teen mothers, the angry young men. And oh, goddess, the forlorn mongrels wandering between vehicles at the gas pumps, hoping against hope for something to eat or just a pat on the head. I don’t think I stopped at a gas station without at least one pathetic dog. They broke my heart.

Kiva entrance

Although I don’t like admitting it, I was basically a well-fed and relatively well-off white tourist in a region where many struggle to survive every day, in great part because of injustices done by my ancestors, my race and my government. From Columbus’s invasive “discovery” to the Indian wars to continuing violations of treaty rights and sovereignty; from racism and discrimination to mismanagement of trust funds and the grinding disgrace of our top-heavy economic system, Native Americans have gotten screwed. I hate it. I don’t know what to do about it. I feel like I’m breaking some kind of law just by mentioning it.

I can only hope that with the election of Barack Obama as our next president, we as a country are poised at the dawn of a new era, one of greater respect, equality and justice.

Kiva ladder

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