On the afternoon of Friday, August 27, Sean and I had tickets to tour Long House, the first of four cliff dwellings that we would explore while we were at Mesa Verde. After spending the morning touring the National Park from the mesa top, we were excited to get down into one of the dwellings.
Our tickets were for 3pm, the final entry for the day. The Long House Tour is ranger assisted, rather than ranger led. This means that groups of 35 are allowed in at thirty-minute intervals and can talk to three rangers positioned throughout the cliff dwelling, rather than having a ranger hike in with a group. It’s like timed entry to a museum exhibition: you have your entry time but then can move through the space at your own pace.
By the time we finished eating our lunch and took care of a few things (including finally hitting send on Bold Bison’s proposal for the Giant Sequoia Lands Coalition), we were running about half an hour behind when I’d wanted to leave. This meant we didn’t have time to stop at any overlooks as we drove the forty-five minutes from the lodge out onto Weatherill Mesa.
We arrived at the Weatherill Mesa parking area and kiosk at about 2:20. We quickly oriented ourselves, grabbed water bottles, and started down the path for the three-quarter-mile walk to the Long House trailhead.
In August 2000 much of Weatherill Mesa burned in the Pony Fire. What had been Juniper and Piñon Pine woodland became an expanse of grasses and low shrubs beneath a haunting forest of standing dead trees. It was stunning that so much of the dead forest was still standing after twenty-one years.
We had to hoof it to get down to the trailhead in time for the tour.
When we got there, Ranger Jeff was holding court with the folks waiting for the 3pm tour. These included a number of chatty retirees, two of whom had founded a science-focused educational non-profit. They wanted to tell Ranger Jeff all about it. Ranger Jeff sort of reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio, took it in stride.
A little after 3pm, while a few stragglers arrived, Ranger Jeff led us over to the gated trailhead for orientation.
After briefly describing the trail and what we should expect, he opened the gate and let us head down the paved trail.
There were Piñon Pines and Juniper here because the National Park Service suppressed the Pony Fire to protect the cliff dwelling. This was true throughout the Park, where the highest priority is to preserve the architectural sites.
The trail included a few switchbacks and some steps, but was otherwise pretty gentle.
The views of Rock Canyon on the way down were pretty great.
Although there obviously would not have been a paved trail then, the route down to Long House—and to the other publicly accessible cliff dwellings—roughly followed the same route the Ancestral Pueblo people would have used.
Long House is the second largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde with upwards of 150 rooms. It is situated in an southwesterly facing alcove with a naturally dramatic sweep.
Long House boasts a large plaza centrally located along the alcove. The plaza features elements usually found in a kiva. It is possible that Long House was an important ceremonial or civic place.
Ranger Henry was the first of the three rangers we met in the dwelling. He oriented us to Long Hounse and explained the route we should take through it: up the ladders, through the rooms at the back of the alcove, and then back through the plaza.
Off we went, up NPS-created ladders designed to not distract from the ancient architecture.
Even though it was a hot August afternoon, the shade of the alcove kept the upper rooms of Long House cool.
One thing that got me here at Long House and throughout our time at Mesa Verde is that the wooden architectural elements are original. The arid climate has preserved the wood. In fact it’s the wooden elements that are key to precisely dating when the sites were constructed. The patterns of the tree rings correspond with cycles of rain and drought. Comparing the beams at Mesa Verde with other tree samples is how we know that construction at and occupation of Mesa Verde ceased suddenly in the 1280s.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of sacredness of being at Long House and the other cliff dwellings.
In the far back of the alcove, Long House boasts a natural seep of fresh water, certainly a contributor to the importance of the place.
Near the spring is a cluster of rock art on the walls of the alcove.
My picture isn’t great, but one of the images is a six-fingered hand, which one of the rangers pointed out to us.
It was also fairly obvious where a fire pit had been from the soot on the wall. The abruptness of the demarcation between the sooty and clean parts of the wall means that there would have been two rooms here. The bricks at the right would have been a wall reaching farther up.
Another thing that becomes quickly obvious standing in the dwelling is that this place, Long House, is more than a dwelling or even a village. This is architecture. This is a town.
I also couldn’t get over the rooms high up on ledges in the alcove.
It was great to be there at the end of the day because no one else entered the dwelling after our 3pm group, and as the others who had come down with us left, the dwelling became steadily emptier of other people.
The only downside in being part of the final group of the day was that when it was time to go, it was definitely time to go. The rangers began asking folks to begin wrapping up and heading back toward the trail.
As we walked across the plaza, Ranger Henry pointed out pottery sherds.
We took our time heading back up the trail, although we made sure that the rangers were still behind us chatting with other visitors and that we weren’t keeping them.
Back up at the trailhead, instead of going right back to the parking area and information kiosk, we decided to walk over to the Long House Overlook to see it from above and empty of visitors.
From above, the orientation of the dwelling around the central plaza area was even more obvious.
After the overlook, we headed more or less straight back across Weatherill Mesa to the parking area.
Back in the shadeless expanse of burnt forest, it was unpleasantly hot. Happily, there was a water station on the way.
Back at the kiosk, Sean was sad that the snack bar wasn’t open.
We drove back up Weatherill Mesa to the lodge complex. We had a few hours before our 8pm dinner reservation.
In the room, we showered and relaxed and had a couple cocktails while we enjoyed the view.
Then we heard neighing. Sure enough some horses wandered by. The horses in the Park are not feral. They’re not mustangs, they’re from surrounding ranches and wander into the Park, much to the Park Service’s chagrin.
After a muted, lovely sunset, we headed over to the dining room.
This evening we were seated at a small table for two on the window level.
In the alcove by our table there was a little display of where the Ancestral Pueblo people got their different colors of dye from their environment.
Dinner was splendid, from our martinis to our dessert. And our server, Brian, was great. We chatted with him for a while. A native of eastern Pennsylvania, he’d spent time Florida, Salt Lake City, and the Grand Staircase-Escalante area before recently buying a house in nearby Cortez. He liked working the seasons at the Park and then having the rest of the year off for exploring. It sounded really nice.
After dinner, we grabbed flashlights from our room and wandered out past the lights of the lodge area to look at the stars and specifically to see a convergence of Jupiter and Saturn happening that week.
Then it was off to bed.
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