Friday, September 27, 2013

Mesa Verde National Park

Mesa Verde is one of the few National Parks that's not about nature but a preserved civilisation. In 1891 a scientist from Sweden, Gustaf Nordenskiold, wrote the first extensive record of the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde. Just 15 years later, on June 29 in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt established Mesa Verde National Park to "preserve the works of man". Mesa Verde is Spanish for 'green table'. Many many years ago the Pueblo people were living here and had built their homes in the alcoves of the canyon, between AD 600 and 1300. 

Years ago I read about the people living in Mesa Verde, a fascinating article on their way of life, the social structures and the incredible houses they had built in the Alcoves of steep cliffs at some serious height. Now, years later, we were heading for Mesa Verde to see it with my own eyes.

The road through the mountains of Colorado is great. Strange how every state seems to have it's own unique landscape. Not just the natural beauty, but also the feel of it. We're riding to the Lizardhead Pass of over 10.000 ft high. The mountains around us are covered in snow, it's blowing a gale and we were thus freezing cold. All day we're struggling the strong winds as we wound our way higher and higher into the mountains. Mike is at a disadvantage here. High ground clearance is handy when off-road, but not under windy conditions.

Despite the windy conditions and continuous climbing we recorded very good fuel consumption figures (25.5 km/ltr for the Triumphs and even 26.5 for the Yamaha). The pictures we're being served today remind me of Switzerland; snow capped mountains, wild rivers and a beautiful winding asphalt ribbon through it all. Apart from a group of Harley riders, who all want to look different but look very much the same, we don't see a lot of motorcyclists today. Too cold I guess.

Entering the National Park was unfortunately a big disappointment right from the start. Half of the exhibits were closed because of the season. Mind you the entry fees were the same, we just weren't allowed to see half of it. There was no snow or any other weather related reason why half was closed either. According to the ranger that I asked about it, it was simply for economic reasons, i.e. half the staff had been sent home. Yet people had to pay the same entry fee, and could only see half… Unfortunately the disappointment didn't end there. Although the campground was open and really quite nice, the 'exhibits' and especially the way you could see them left a lot to be desired. There was one exhibit we could actually visit ourselves. The others were only 'available' via guided tours or through binoculars. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against guided tours, I just don't like them pushed down my throat as compulsory.
It's also a fundamentally wrong practise considering what president Roosevelt, who opened the park, said in his address: 'The National Parks belongs to the people, for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.'

The Spruce Cliff dwellings self-guided tour proves the point that it's also totally unnecessary to have compulsory tours. One ranger at the cliff dwellings made sure nobody stepped out of line and answered all questions. Simple, effective and so much friendlier. National Parks claims the guided tour is not a money making exercise… yet a simple calculation during our visit in September made clear that the guided tours worked out at an hourly rate of about US$ 150,- per ranger, per tour. The guided tours had to be booked in advance of course too. Spruce was nice to see though and well worth the walk. Seeing the building style and realising someone had built it hundreds of years ago was special.
Unfortunately the disappointments just kept rolling in one by one after that. Closed exhibits, exhibits that were partly closed, exhibits that could only barely be seen through binoculars and exhibits covered by scaffolding and plastic sheets. The final straw for me was the Sun Chapel, well… what was left of it. 'Repairs' had been done to it using ordinary hardware shop grey cement, repairs that had been so badly done that hundreds of cracks had appeared in the cement. The cracks had been 'fixed' by smearing handfuls of ordinary household silicone kit over it… I'm not exaggerating here, it looked like a 3-year old had been modelling with silicone.

Silicone used to 'preserve' for posterity...
That was it for me. I returned back to the campground, disillusioned about what should have been one of the highlights of our trip. Mesa Verde National Park boasts to have some 600 cliff dwellings and 5000 archeological sites, yet less than 10 were actually visible and only half of them without binoculars. The rest were all closed in one form or another 'to preserve it for posterity'. As they have already closed it to this generation, I'm wondering what 'posterity' will be able to see, if anything at all'. Very disappointing. Upon asking one of the rangers why there was such poor repair work done, she replied it was due to limited funds… yet there were funds to build a brand spanking new super very expensive visitor centre at the entrance… funds that could perhaps have been better used for actual preservation work!

On the way back I needed to get rid of my frustration and opened the throttle… Mesa Verde has a beautiful road along the mountains and even a fully loaded Bonneville still handles pretty well :-) Footpegs scrape the ground, tyres rubbing right to the edge of the tread. A Harley Sportster rider tried to keep up but couldn't, to be fair he was probably more sensible than me... :-)

Later on the campground my spirits were lifted further when we were lucky enough to get a visit from a beautiful brown bear! He walked past the toilet building just as a lady came out of it… never seen anyone get back into the toilet that quickly while screaming so loud :-) That bear must surely be deaf now. According to the rangers the same bear had been there all summer and hasn't caused any problems (i.e. humans had left him alone). He sat down in a kind of teddybear pose, looked around him for a while and then fell asleep, less than 200 metres from the campground!

Looking back upon our visit while writing this post, I realise it's not a positive article. But, I feel it shouldn't be positive either as what they've done with Mesa Verde is terrible. Still, I'm glad we went to Mesa Verde. The ride up to it was nothing short of magic and the Spruce dwelling was beautiful to see. I'm really glad we finally went. Yet in the back of my mind I do wonder how far it will deteriorate further under this management, and if there will be anything left to see at all in a couple of years time.

The next morning we were greeted by an icy cold wind and frost. Not even an hour later it started raining… it had already been raining earlier last night but now it came down while we wanted to pack up the tents. I hate that! Luckily it didn't rain all that long… after about half an hour it turned to snow! A couple of Brazilian girls camping next to us were wearing every garment they had with them on top of each other and said they had never worn so many clothes, and were still cold!
We thought that the 4-state corner point might be a good spot for a photo; it wasn't. It turned out to be a marker on Navajo territory, which for 9 dollars each could be 'inspected'. Jeanette came up with a good alternative. She parked her motorbike in front of the entrance and photographed it from 4 corners :-)

Welcome to Utah?
At the end of the day, back in Utah again, we found another beautiful BLM campground. BLM, or Bureau of Land Management, offers USA-wide beautiful camping spots for a friendly fee. They're usually in or near beautiful areas and are mostly well maintained, and this was no exception. A beautiful sunset, quiet place to camp and great views. A good way to end the day and looking forward to our next ride: 'Valley of the Gods' and Monument Valley!