Saturday, August 28 was a splendid day in the National Parks. Sean kept saying about Mesa Verde National Park: “I really like this place. I’m having so much fun!” In the morning, we visited Mug House on the best Ranger-led interpretive tour we’d ever been on (which is saying something). In the afternoon, we hiked to Petroglyph Point and made some trail friends along the way.
I woke with the light, snapped a few photos out the window, then closed the shade and went back to bed.
At 8am, I rose for real and stumbled over to the main lodge building to get some lobby coffee. Of course there was a woman not wearing a mask despite all the signage, but I didn’t say anything.
I sat on the deck sipping coffee and catching up on my notes until Sean stirred. Then we slowly began to get ready. Our tour didn’t start until 11am, so we had time. But we did have to drive back out to Weatherill Mesa, so we couldn’t lollygag too much.
On my way back from filling up my dromedary with water from the lodge lobby, I got chatting with a family (mom, dad, two teenage boys) who were packing up and getting ready to leave our unit of the lodge. They were headed up to Black Canyon that day, and I remarked that we’d be following them tomorrow. They were from New Rochelle, New York, and this was their first vacation in twenty months. They described the intensity of their early pandemic lock-down, since New Rochelle, just outside New York City, was one of the communities hit early and intensely by COVID-19.
We also talked about traveling through conservative western Colorado (“Lauren Bobert country,” the dad observed). “I told the boys to just keep their mouths shut.” He also reminisced about a drive he and a college buddy took to Seattle twenty-some years earlier. “Here we were, two Jewish boys from Scarsdale, driving through Idaho. We decided we just wouldn’t stop until we reached the Washington state line.”
I shared some of our experiences traveling as a gay couple and how Sean had clearly been racially profiled twice in the Big Bend country of southern Texas.
Sean and I showered, finished getting ready, and were out the door early. We grabbed some breakfast sandwiches from Far View Terrace, and then we were back on the road to Weatherill Mesa.
This time, though, we had the time to stop at some of the overlooks.
When we got to the kiosk at Weatherill Mesa, we stamped our Passports to our National Parks for Mesa Verde, then waited for our tour to gather.
Unlike our tour of Long House the previous afternoon, the tour of Mug House was extremely limited: only ten tickets are sold for each tour to protect the cliff dwelling. Our guide was Ranger Drew Reagan, an experienced interpretive ranger at Mesa Verde who studied archaeology and anthropology at UC Berkeley. That he is gay made it even better (although we didn’t know that until Sean looked into him afterward).
In addition to the ten of us in the tour group, we had an NPS dispatcher along, and Ranger Drew was helped by Mike, a retired volunteer whose job it was to make sure no one got left behind.
Ranger Drew oriented and let us know that the most dangerous part of the tour would be at the very beginning and the very end, when we’d have to hike out along the Park Road as it wound its way to the parking area at Weatherill Mesa.
With Ranger Drew in the lead and Volunteer Mike at the rear, we headed out single file along to road to spot near Mile Marker 12.
Mug House is not indicated on the Park map. (Most of the hundreds of cliff dwellings are not indicated, actually.) There is no overlook to view it, and the only way to visit is on a ticketed tour.
All of a sudden, Ranger Drew turned off the road near some almost-imperceptible cairns and led us toward the rim of Rock Canyon. Neat.
Then we began descending on a clear trail.
Maybe a third of the way down from the rim the trail leveled out, turned south, and led us along a series of alcoves.
Although low and shallow, the alcoves had clear signs of human occupation: soot from fires on the ceilings and rock art on the walls.
There was clearly moisture available here too with the Gambel’s Oak reaching tree height and creating a cool woodland habitat along the path.
Ranger Drew pointed out architectural stakes from the mid-twentieth century. They are now themselves protected artifacts in the continuing history of Mesa Verde National Park.
We rounded one more bend and then came upon Mug House.
Before we entered the dwelling, Ranger Drew asked us to pause and take a moment of silent respect to prepare to enter this sacred space.
Named for three mugs tied together with yucca rope found hanging inside one of its rooms, Mug House was a village of 80 to 100 residents during the 1100 to 1200s CE.– National Park Service
Ranger Drew split us into two groups so we could take turns viewing the kivas, metates, and cisterns in the dwelling.
The most impressive thing about Ranger Drew’s tour of Mug House was that in addition to interpreting the cliff dwelling and its features, he also interpreted and interrogated the way that the National Park Service has interpreted Mesa Verde for over a century.
“If you had visited Mesa Verde decades ago, you would have heard a great story about the mysterious Anasazi and how they vanished. It was an entertaining story, but it was completely untrue. First of all, we don’t call the people who lived here the Anasazi, we call them the Ancestral Pueblo. And we know where they went. They moved to the various communities that the Pueblo people call home today: Acoma, Laguna, Taos, Zuni, and all the others.” I spoke up and pointed out that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is herself Pueblo, and Ranger Drew picked up the thread without missing a stitch: “Yes, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior is a member of Laguna Pueblo. It is likely that her ancestors at some point passed through the Mesa Verde region.”
He also explained that although we don’t entirely understand why the Ancestral Pueblo people began to move into cliff dwellings in the century before they abandoned the Four Corners region, it likely wasn’t a defensive posture like earlier Park Rangers would have claimed.
He pointed out that many of the artistic renderings, including those in the Park map, of Ancestral Pueblo people almost naked were likely also false. Not only did the Ancestral Pueblo people regularly wear clothes, they even had down coats made of finely woven yucca fiber stuffed with Wild Turkey feathers.
And so forth.
It was brilliant because it both informed us about where we were standing and interpreted the way we (the dominant culture) think about the people who lived on Mesa Verde. Ranger Drew’s entire approach was positioned around cultural humility: “In considering how the Ancestral Pueblo people reacted to a time of devastating drought, we can learn something about how we today can face the threat of climate change.”
The more Ranger Drew asked our group questions, and we him, the further into some of the ramifications of site stewardship we traveled. He related how young Finnish geologist and botanist, Gustaf Nordenskiöld had removed literal trainloads of artifacts from Mesa Verde and shipped them to Finland in 1891. Horrifyingly, these included twenty human remains. There had been outrage at the time, but there were no laws yet to prevent Nordenskiöld from removing the bodies and objects. Preventing such looting from recurring would lead, in part, to the Antiquities Act of 1906.
For decades, the United States and the Pueblo Nations had urged Finland to return the bodies and artifacts, and Finland refused. Finally in September 2020, Finland returned the remains of the twenty persons along with twenty-eight funerary objects, which were reinterred in a burial ceremony. The site of the burial is secret. Finland continues to refuse to return the other Mesa Verde objects Nordenskiöld took.
The conversation continued on the topic of repatriation of objects. “If the British Museum had to return everything it stole, it would have nothing left,” remarked one visitor. Although laws now protect archaeological objects from removal from the United States, they do not necessarily protect them from removal within the country. “Institutions like the Smithsonian are often silent on the issue because of the implications it has for their own collection,” noted Ranger Drew. I thought of the Anchorage Museum and its incredible hall of Native Alaskan objects repatriated to Alaska by the Smithsonian.
In closing the conversation, Ranger Drew mentioned a maturity in the National Park Service’s approach to interpretation that lets Rangers “say all this stuff now.”
Good job, NPS, and just spectacular job, Ranger Drew.
I love how the Ancestral Pueblo people just built around the huge slab of a boulder in the alcove (above).
Before we exited Mug House, Ranger Drew asked that we pause a second time to be respectful and thank those who had lived in this place.
I was lingering taking photos, of course, and Volunteer Mike and I began chatting. He pointed out some things, like the visible footholds and handholds, as we slowly left the cliff dwelling.
Mike described tours he’d been on that included modern Pueblo people. “I was on a tour and a grandfather was there with his two grandsons. When the visit was over, we left them alone in the site to have their privacy with their ancestors.”
Ranger Drew, Sean, and the rest of the group were well ahead of Mike and me as we made our way back up the trail slowly.
Mike pointed out pottery sherds…
…and a sharpening stone.
As we hiked back out, Mike and I gabbed. He was retired and split his time between Birmingham, Alabama and Durango, Colorado. He loved volunteering at the Park.
Back up on the road, the group was well ahead of us. But Mike paused and pointed out another cliff dwelling visible on the other side of the road from Mug House.
When Mike and I finally wandered back to the kiosk, Ranger Drew was already back behind the desk. I thanked Mike and said goodbye.
Then Sean and I walked down the short trail to Step House, the only cliff dwelling visitors are currently able to visit without being on a tour.
A paved trail led down into Long Canyon, making the site pretty easily accessible.
Step House was clearly geared toward interpretation, including a reconstruction of a pit house created by the Park Service. Since the museum and visitor center were closed because of both COVID-19 and an HVAC issue, it was the closest thing to a museum experience we’d have at Mesa Verde during our visit.
Step House did boast a panel of deeply incised petroglyphs, probably the most interesting part of the cliff dwelling.
After a brief look around, we began our ascent up the other side of the loop trail.
Back at the parking area for Weatherill Mesa, we had some lunch.
As we drove back off Weatherill Mesa, we stopped at all the turnouts and overlooks we’d not yet visited. We wouldn’t be coming back this way before leaving the Park the next day.
Easily the most interesting thing we saw on the way off of Weatherill Mesa was Rock Canyon Tower, across Rock Canyon from the Park on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Towers like these were common in the Ancestral Puebloan world. Once a series of towers extended from the great city at Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico all the way to Chimney Rock in what is now Colorado.
For us that afternoon it was off to Chapin Mesa and the petroglyphs.