Trip to a snowy Mesa Verde

Phoenix to Mesa Verde National Park and back.  

Snowy San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff

 March 16, Tuesday

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA.  I don’t recall when or why we picked a trip to Mesa Verde.  But here we are in Flagstaff, about halfway there.   I can’t imagine any national park being more isolated than Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, somewhere between Cortez and Durango.  But Nebra had a week off from her job in Phoenix, furloughed for the third time in just over a year.  We had to do something, go somewhere.  Didn’t we?  I know very little about Mesa Verde except its American Indian ruins, cliff dwellings.  I do know it’s going to be cool, maybe cold.  It’s cold in Flag.  We’re staying at the Radisson on a hill above town, and there is 6 feet of snow piled up by the entrance.  On our way up here, it was a balmy 72 degrees at Black Canyon City, so the car thermometer said.  Two hours later and several thousand feet higher it was 40 coming into Flag about 7:30 p.m.  Our destination tomorrow is Cortez.  It is about 240 miles to the northeast through the desolate Navajo reservation.  We plan to stay the night at Cortez, then drive over to Mesa Verde on Thursday morning.  

Highway 160 heading east from Kayenta

March 17, Wednesday 

CORTEZ, COLORADO.  Crossed the vast Navajo reservation under cool, sunny skies and arrived here about 7 p.m.  The desolate beauty of northwest Arizona offered far too many photo ops, and I got tired of telling Nebra,  “Pull over here for just a minute.”  At Kayenta, across from snow-draped Black Mesa, we found a really nice place for lunch.  The Blue Coffee Pot is a small restaurant with a big menu.  Everything from a $12.50 steak to a $4 burger, four Navajo dinners and weekly specials.  Today’s special was meatloaf, $5.80.  The restaurant took its name from an old Navajo custom, the menu says.   As trading posts arrived, one of the first purchases by Navajo families was a blue coffee pot whose contents were shared with anyone.  The pot became “a symbol of change and friendship.”   I miscalculated the distance from Flagstaff to Cortez.  

Our lunch spot in Kayenta

 It’s 270 miles, still an easy drive of four hours and a half,  on good two-lane road.  The trip ended as it began, in sunshine.  At supper, I asked the proprietor of J Fargo’s about the long snow-covered mesa on the south side of town.  “Does it have a name?” I asked.  “That’s Mesa Verde,” she said.  A bit embarrassing since that is the goal of our trip tomorrow, and we didn’t even know where it was.  We were practically standing on top of it.  

Nightfall over Cortez, Colorado

March 18, Thursday  

A snowy Mesa Verde looking south from Cortez

GALLUP, NEW MEXICO.  Lucked out on weather for the trip from Cortez up to Mesa Verde in late morning.  Sunny with scattered cirrus, temperatures in the 50s.  Surprised to see snow of 3-4 feet on the mesa’s highest places, though the asphalt road was clear. Fantastic views of other high and snowy places.  The La Platas to the east, Ute Mountain to the west.  Breezy at Geologic Overlook and had to put up the hood of my parka as we walked through cleared paths with knee-high snow on each side.  A wonderland of white everywhere.  Not too many see Mesa Verde in its winter coat.  A lot was closed.  The Visitors Center was shut.  The Far View Lodge nearby won’t open until April 22.  We traveled slowly southward on the winding road to the Chapin Mesa Archaeological Museum.  The museum was open as was guided tours to the  Spruce Tree House, “the best preserved” of the cliff dwellings.   

Ranger Paul at Spruce Tree House

Nebra and I took the one o’clock tour with “Ranger Paul” and 102 others to Spruce Tree on the other side of a small canyon next to the museum.  On the way down, the ranger pointed out the valuable yucca, a plant he calls “the Wal-Mart of Mesa Verde” for its many uses to the people who once lived here.  Those people used to be called the Anasazi.  Now the park calls them “Ancestral Puebloans” at the behest of the Pueblo tribes who didn’t appreciate a Navajo word describing their ancestors.  

Knee-deep snow at Geologic Overlook

 A downpour of snow melt greeted us outside the dwellings, falling from the mesa’s top 40 feet above.  The dwellings were OK.  Just OK.  I’ve seen a photo of Spruce Tree shot in 1891 before it was cleaned up and repaired.  I wish they’d left it that way, just as it was found.  Crumbling walls included.  To me, Spruce Tree is a lot like a doctored photo now.  Anyway, I liked the story Ranger Paul told about the naming of the place.  At one time a large fir-tree grew in front of the dwellings, soaring to the top of the mesa above.  A cowboy, the first known white man to view the ancient site, hopped onto the top of the tree, which he knew as a spruce, and picked his way down and made the discovery.  Our tour lasted a little more than an hour.   

Snowy wonderland on road to Visitors Center

We drove on south four and a half miles via the Top Loop to the Sun Temple so we could look across to the closed-off Cliff Palace.  Then we headed back to Cortez for supper, then finally to this place for the night.  I’m still thinking about Mesa Verde, though.  No one has the answer why the “Ancestral Puebloans” left Mesa Verde around 1300 AD.  Ranger Paul said their departure was likely caused by a severe drought coupled with what he called “a depletion of resources.”    

Viewing Ute Mountain from Mesa Verde

The ancients probably over-hunted and killed off all the game, and felled all the trees.  Perhaps, the ranger said, a lesson for modern man.  I’ll sleep on it.  Tomorrow we head back to Phoenix. 

March 19, Friday 

PHOENIX, ARIZONA.  Arrived back home about 10: 45 tonight from Gallup.  Marked the end of a 905-mile, four-day, three-night trip to Mesa Verde N.P. and back.  Nebra did most of the driving, while I put my brain to work thinking lofty thoughts like this one.  Why would Jesse James ever cheat on his knockout wife, the actress Sandra Bullock?  And is she so dense as to have no clue something was wrong with her marriage?  The answers, like a lot of other things, escaped me.  But the real beauty, that of nature, did not.  I found beauty not only atop snow-thick Mesa Verde but the stark high desert of the Navajolands where nothing grows higher than your kneecaps.  As most of our trips play out, we piddle along, taking detours to this spot and that one.  In midafternoon we turned off I-40 twice, to visit the isolated Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site near Ganado and the Painted Desert National Park 22 more Arizona miles down the Interstate.  Good to be home again.  The five cats, two inside and the three ferals we feed, did just fine.  And the weather is warm.  We departed Gallup in a driving light snow and 34 degrees at noon and arrived in clear-sky Phoenix with its comparitively balmy 63.  I’ve had enough snow for a while.


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