Photograph by Dawn Kish
Mid-November: sky gray to the horizon but the air still warm. The last brown scrub oak leaves curling closed toward winter. Silence, except for a solitary croaking raven. And high on the ledge before us, defended by 60 feet of relentlessly overhanging cliff, a small, two-story village made of stones and mud and wooden beams, where no one has lived for more than seven centuries.
Had the Ute had their way in 1911, we would not be allowed to be here today. Had the National Park Service had its way, we would have applied for a permit at the headquarters in Mesa Verde, boarded a bus with 50-odd strangers, assembled beneath the ruin to hear a canned spiel, climbed a metal ladder bolted to the cliff, and made a hasty tour of one or two over-restored rooms—the rest of the village being deemed too sensitive for bumbling tourists to visit.
But on that day in November the four of us and Ute guide Tommy May had all of Lion Canyon to ourselves. For that matter, we had, it seemed, the whole of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, all 125,000 acres of it, to ourselves.
The ruin before us had been named Eagle Nest House in 1913 by the pioneering archaeologist Earl Morris, who partially excavated it. The village had been built by the Anasazi (ancestral Puebloans), those geniuses of the vertical, in two spurts of construction, between A.D. 1130 and 1150 and again between 1205 and 1220. Shortly thereafter, the place was abandoned for good, as part of the mass exodus of all the cliff dwellers from the Colorado Plateau, still the greatest of all Anasazi mysteries.
Morris had a knack for the vertical himself. In his official report, he describes the effort it took to climb up to the ruin. None of the trees that grow in Lion Canyon comes anywhere close to 60 feet in height, so Morris had to lean one dead timber against the cliff, climb that one, drag up another log, lash its end to the previous one, and so on. As he drily wrote in 1919, “The top of the fourth pair of poles reached to the ledge. Even after they had been securely fastened at the top, it was not until the next day that my workmen could be prevailed upon to attempt the ascent.”
In Eagle Nest House, Morris found and retrieved bone tools, grinding stones, yucca sandals, pieces of string woven from yucca fiber, and a human burial. He seemed to believe that he was the first human to enter the ruin since the last Anasazi had departed in the 13th century, but he was wrong. More than two decades before him, Richard and John Wetherill—ranchers based in the town of Mancos, Colorado, who learned archaeology by trial and error in Mesa Verde—had pulled off the log-ladder trick to explore the lofty site. The Wetherills left no record of their adventure, but a few miles to the north beneath an equally inaccessible ruin, which they also cracked with log ladders, Al, a third Wetherill brother (five brothers all told), scrawled a charcoal boast on the cliff:
We got in there.
Ye need not try.
ALL FOUR OF US in November were veteran rock climbers, but there was no way in hell our group—wilderness guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt; photographer Dawn Kish; Kish’s boyfriend, Gavin Wilson; and I—would have trusted lashed-together poles to gain access to Eagle Nest. Yet that is surely how the Anasazi got to the ledge in the first place, before building what Morris called as “picturesque and majestic” a cliff dwelling as any in the whole Mesa Verde region. Instead, we climbed a sturdy, 40-foot wooden ladder that the Ute had propped against the cliff at the extreme eastern end of the ledge.
From the top of the ladder, we scuttled along the ledge and entered the ancient village. Some of the nearly 800-year-old rooms were better left unexplored, bounded by walls too fragile to risk damaging. But on the floors of the closer rooms we found scores of potsherds, decorated in an array of patterns ranging from corrugated to Mancos black-on-white. And there were corncobs everywhere, lying where the ancients had tossed them aside after plucking loose their kernels to grind into the flour that made up the staple Anasazi food. In Mesa Verde National Park, you can no longer find potsherds or corncobs on the ground; the rangers long ago swept up every last artifact for curation in plastic bags and metal drawers where few ever see them.
Inside the ruin’s kiva—a round, subterranean chamber that centers the village—we were entranced to see the plaster of the walls painted with zigzag patterns. A little later, we sat at the far end of the access ledge, looking at the canyon spread out below us. In a moment of foolish enthusiasm, I blurted out, “What a beautiful place to live!”
“It’s got a great view,” Hadenfeldt agreed. “But it would have been a desperate place to live.”
He was right, pointing up the fundamental paradox of these dwellings. The villages built in the 13th century were dictated by defensive, not aesthetic, motives. Famine, drought, the overhunting of big game, deforestation, and perhaps spiritual crises had turned the Anasazi world into a nightmare landscape of survival. Eagle Nest House may have been a last-ditch refuge against other Anasazi who themselves were starving and who might come at any time to raid and kill. But in extremis, an all-encompassing fear had given birth to the most beautiful prehistoric structures in what is now the United States.
So well-preserved was Eagle Nest in its arching natural alcove that I could not help contemplating the Anasazi cliché first coined by Richard Wetherill when he discovered Mesa Verde’s Cliff Palace in December 1888: It looked as though the Old Ones had left only a week ago, leaving their things behind, fully intending to return.
LOOK AT A MAP of Colorado. There, just southeast of the town of Cortez, lies the zigzag-bordered tract (pink on my map) of Mesa Verde National Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Southwest. Immediately adjoining it on the south (purple on my map) is the much larger domain of Ute Mountain Tribal Park—itself a subdivision of the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, which stretches west to the Utah border and south into New Mexico.
The land was not always so neatly divided. When Anglo-Americans started settling Colorado in the mid-19th century, virtually the whole of the future Centennial State was Ute homeland. An 1868 treaty established a Ute reservation covering most of the western half of Colorado. Successive treaties whittled the reservation smaller and smaller, as such towns as Durango, Cortez, Silverton, Rico, and Dolores sprang up.
Starting in the late 1880s, local ranchers, led by the five Wetherill brothers, explored the Anasazi ruins, hauling out immense loads of artifacts, skeletons, and mummies, only a small portion of which found their way to museums. In 1906, the same year that the new Antiquities Act outlawed such looting, President Teddy Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to preserve wondrous ancient villages like Cliff Palace, Spruce Tree House, and Balcony House.
The new park cut another chunk out of the Ute Reservation, but its architects made a slight blunder. The southern border they drew cut an arbitrary line through the Anasazi heartland, a culturally unified region comprising the densest and richest aggregation of 13th-century cliff dwellings in the country. The border left Eagle Nest House and scores of other ruins on Ute land outside of the national park.
Only five years later, in 1911, government officials tried to rip loose the lands the park had overlooked. An acrimonious meeting between the bureaucrats and Ute elders took place at Navajo Springs on the reservation. Surviving minutes make for poignant reading. Commissioner Frederick H. Abbott began:
“The Ute Indians have never used that land where the ruins are... When the government finds old ruins on land that it wants to take for public purposes, it has the right to take it.”
But Tribal Council member Nathan Wing fired back: “Those old ruins belong to us... Several years ago we heard that some white people took everything out of there, dishes, bones, and everything they found. The last time I was there I never took anything away from those houses. We always leave them alone.”
Remarkably, the government failed to talk the Ute into trading away or selling the Mancos River canyons. But for the next 60 years, the people lived in fear that “Washingdon” (as natives of the Southwest lumped together the President and all other federal officials) would steal their land. Meanwhile, a handful of archaeologists, including Earl Morris, dug in the ruins on Ute land, apparently without bothering to ask tribal leaders for permission.
In the 1960s, a brilliant Ute elder named Chief Jack House proposed the establishment of Ute Mountain Tribal Park. In retrospect, it was the perfect solution, for it kept the Mancos canyons in native hands while allowing tourists to see the park’s backcountry wonders. To visit the ruins of Lion Canyon today, as we did, you must make a reservation, pay a fee, and be accompanied by a Ute guide. This relatively easy transaction, however, either scares off park-bagging tourists or never crosses their radar.
Today, Mesa Verde National Park attracts 565,000 visitors a year. In busier years (during the late 1990s), the traffic jam on the paved road past Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House grew so intense that a substantial portion of visitors never left their cars, creeping along the six-mile, one-way loop past full-up parking lots, only to exit the park disappointed.
The Ute Mountain Tribal Park doesn’t keep an annual visitor tally, but I doubt that it reaches 3,000. As a result, you can spend a whole day examining magnificent ruins without distraction. And, as Nathan Wing swore nearly a century ago, the Ute have left the stuff in place. Except for the booty the archaeologists have carted away, the artifacts—potsherds, corncobs, strands of yucca string, chips of colored chert flaked to make arrowheads—are still there on the ground, to be picked up, fondled in one’s fingers, then placed back where the Anasazi discarded them more than 700 years ago.
TOMMY MAY HAD BEEN MY GUIDE in the tribal park on another memorable visit 16 years earlier. I remembered him well (and told him so), but it was evident he didn’t remember me. At 61, May had a grizzled face, long salt-and-pepper hair tied back in a ponytail, and a bowlegged limp as he favored his left foot. He wore his official khaki ranger shirt but also blue jeans slung low on his waist. May is a fellow of few words and has the disconcerting habit of sometimes failing to answer your question or answering it with a snippet of lore that has nothing to do with what you asked.
May drove the park vehicle, while Hadenfeldt ferried the four of us in his heavy-duty pickup truck. (Visitors can pay extra for private tours like ours, and you have the option to be driven around in a park-supplied vehicle, if you don’t have a four-wheel drive of your own.) There are no paved roads in the park, and the dirt tracks that cross the mesa tops toward the canyons dwindle into rutted clay, impassable in rain or snow. It’s 40 miles from the visitor center to the Lion Canyon trailhead, but there was much to see along the way—including, in the first half hour, a bear cub ambling through the sagebrush. May told us the cub had been hanging out on the Mancos River flats for months, apparently bereft of its mother.
As the short, late autumnal day wheeled by, we visited five major cliff dwellings. Lion House, the largest ruin in the park, dazzled us with the remnants of a rare three-story tower, as well as six kivas, no two alike. “A family of mountain lions used to live here,” May explained, “that’s why they call it Lion House.”
Porcupine House, tucked at the head of an unnamed fork of Johnson Canyon, abounded in two-story buildings with enigmatic, T-shaped doorways (broader at your shoulders than at your knees). And in Tree House, I was delighted to find the finely engraved signatures of John and Al Wetherill, carved sideways into Anasazi grinding slicks, scallop-shaped depressions in the bedrock where (we presume) the ancients sharpened their ax blades.
For decades, the Mesa Verde rangers decried the Wetherills as greedy, destructive pothunters, but they are heroes to many of us. Almost entirely self-taught, they became better archaeologists than some of the leading professionals of the day. And unlike many of their cowboy colleagues in Durango and Cortez, who sold off the goodies they had dug up to any curio hunter who happened by, the Wetherills tried to keep their collections intact. Today, those collections anchor the Southwest holdings of the American Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Al Wetherill’s signature, scrawled on January 1, 1888, was one of the earliest I had ever seen from the Wetherills, dating from 11 months prior to Richard’s monumental discovery of Cliff Palace. In recent years, well-meaning but clueless ruin lovers have rubbed out some of the signatures of the Wetherills and other pioneers. Those erasures, in fact, amount to desecration, causing tragic losses in the historical record—not to mention that the act of obliterating them violates the very law (the Antiquities Act of 1906) that was passed to save Mesa Verde.
Kish, Hadenfeldt, and I had visited countless Anasazi ruins all over the Southwest, but for Wilson such places were relatively novel. It’s always useful to have a rookie along on such trips, as I realized again when, at the end of the long day, I asked Wilson what struck him most forcefully about the ruins. A visual artist and photographer, he thought for a moment, then said, “It’s that the ruins don’t look planned. It’s a kind of organic architecture. Each one so beautifully and perfectly fits into the idiosyncratic space of its natural alcove. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
AN ODDITY ABOUT THE FAMOUS ruins in Mesa Verde National Park is that visitors get to see very little rock art. In fact, only the short Petroglyph Trail takes the tourist past any of the hallucinatory panels that the Old Ones were wont to carve into the cliff faces.
Both coming and going along the gravel road up the Mancos Valley, however, May signaled stop after stop so we could get out of our vehicles and scramble up the hillside to one stunning frieze after another. Here, as early as 3,000 years ago, the Anasazi had gouged into the sandstone petroglyph panels of humanoids, bighorn sheep, spear-thrower symbols, and abstract grids.
But equally beguiling were the panels of Ute rock art, most of them pictographs limned in red ocher, an iron oxide earth found elsewhere in the canyon and mixed with water to make a vivid paint. We saw a chief with a bona fide warbonnet, a woman with three eyes (one in her forehead), a sun weeping tears.
The pièce de résistance was the Jack House panel, a continuous cliff canvas painted entirely by one man sometime between the 1930s and the 1960s. After the 1911 impasse between the government and the Ute leaders, factions formed within the tribe, reaching a bitter standoff in the late 1950s. The conservatives, led by Nathan Wing, son of the man of the same name who had fended off Commissioner Abbott, wanted to keep white folks out of the Mancos canyons forever.
Even the moderates feared that as Southwest tourism gathered steam, the government would find some way to take over Lion and Johnson and the other ruins-riddled canyons and turn them into a national park like Mesa Verde.
It was Jack House—son of Acowitz, the Ute chief who in the 1880s had tipped off the Wetherills about the hidden cliff villages—who conceived of a compromise: a Ute-administered tribal park, which would limit the numbers of visitors (12 per day in backcountry ruins is the present rule), while preserving the ruins by keeping them relatively hard to get to and supervising each tour with a native guide.
Slowly, as if in an art gallery, we walked from right to left along the cliff. Jack House was handy with a brush. We saw a bison in profile, muzzle to the ground, hump reared high. Several women, face on, one bearing a cradleboard. A guy with a head sprouting feathers, an image that someone—May thought it was Ute teenagers—had savagely gouged with an ax. But the vandals had spared the masterpiece in the center—a man on horseback, with reins, saddle, stirrup, chaps, and even the owner’s brand on the horse’s flank, all lovingly delineated. In case we wondered who the mounted figure was, Jack House had carved his own name, in English, right through the saddle and the horse’s neck.
“There was a big fight between the Wings and Jack House,” May said. “He died in 1971. The ones who didn’t like what he had been doing burned down his house. It was right over there.” May pointed south.
Later, I spoke with my friend Fred Blackburn, who had conducted an exhaustive survey in the 1990s, along with then tribal park director Veronica Cuthair, of historic inscriptions inside the park. “Jack House knew the government would take over the canyons and turn them into another Mesa Verde,” Blackburn said. “The tribal park saved the place. But House was worried about the traditions vanishing. He made those paintings to preserve the Ute culture. Each one has layer upon layer of meaning.”
With the light fading in the west, we stopped at one last Anasazi petroglyph panel, which adorned a rock band 150 feet above the road. As the four of us hiked quickly up the slope, May dawdled behind. All day, I had noticed him pausing, poking behind rocks, peering into crannies, as if in search of some lost possession.
Now he said softly, “Look at this.”
He held in his hands a big, oblate, greenish-gray stone. Just another rock, I thought, until I saw that the thing had been hafted, notches chiseled on both edges, where a stout limb, perhaps of juniper, would have been lashed to serve as a handle.
“Hey, Vaughn!” I called out, “come here a minute.”
It was the find of the day, designed like a stone axhead but four or five times too big. Hadenfeldt turned the stone over and over in his hands. “It’s a maul,” he muttered. “A honking big one. It’s like a sledgehammer. Those guys might’ve used it to bash away the sagebrush, so they could plant their corn or beans.”
Hadenfeldt handed me the tool so that he could photograph it. Kish took a flurry of shots as well. “I’ve seen a few of these,” Hadenfeldt said, “but this is by far the biggest. Man, can you imagine swinging this thing?”
Each of us handled the stone, marveling at its heft and shape. A museum would not have stashed such an artifact in a back room drawer: The tool was so rare that it would have gone on permanent display. But when we were through admiring the maul, May put it back where he found it, half-hidden among other nondescript stones beneath a scraggly sagebrush.
It’s still there.
Massachusetts-based writer David Roberts is the author of six books about adventure and history in the Southwest, including In Search of the Old Ones. Photographer Dawn Kish, an Arizona native, has shot numerous outdoor adventure assignments for Climbing, Outside, National Geographic
Adventure, Backpacker, and other magazines.
Nat Geo Traveler All Access
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!