The ranger’s voice echoes across the pueblo and through the cavern. A natural amphitheater, carved in the meeting place of sandstone and fluid water–water that proved to be the stronger force by far. The cliffs are pocked with these caverns. Some the size of a small tent; others, grand amphitheaters. Most occupied by stone and stucco houses, plumbed in perfect corners and lines.
At some point these cliffs rang with voices calling across sandstone and space. Flecks of fire light twinkling, reminding the villagers that while they were secure in their stone fortress, they were not alone. Then they were gone. And the almost millennia between them and me doesn’t help me to understand why.
There are only eleven of us on this tour. We all paid extra for the privilege of being a small group and being in the dwelling at twilight. It’s called the photography tour; however, only two of the tourists have anything that resembles a camera belonging to someone who even dabbles in photography. I am not one of them. I carry a small black moleskin and blue pen tucked into my Camelback. I figured that water and writing instruments were all I needed to sustain me through the 90-minute tour. Later, when the mosquitoes spawned by the summer thunderstorms arrived, I wished I’d brought bug spray instead of water.
You can’t visit the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National park without an accompanying ranger. Part practicality, the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde houses are some of the most accessible–which is a loose term considering that they hang 30-50 feet below the top of the cliff with only eroded toe holds as evidence how their builders crawled to (and defended) their space–and hundreds of people not exactly able to scale cliffs flock to the park every year. Part preservative, all of those people eventually leave their toll on a space–a piece of stone taken here, a wall pushed on one too many times there, 800-year-old wood rubbed and stepped on–eventually something has to give; the ranger makes sure that we don’t harm what’s left of these buildings.
Which in some way is antithesis to how people have lived in the Southwest for thousands of years. Every archeological dig reveals that the “current” ancient structure was built upon an even older human home. Layers upon layers of living has accumulated in this surprisingly verdant land (not verdant by New England standards by any means, but so much life thrives in the Southwest as well as evidence of extensive agricultural development). Layer up layers that stopped with the encroachment of Western civilization. Or rather, the tourist mentality.
The Cliff Palace was discovered by the Western tourist in the late 1800’s. Richard Wetherill and his sister’s husband, Charlie Mason, were out looking for cattle when they spotted the ruins, through a snow storm no less, across the canyon. To them, it looked like a magical fairy palace, buildings gleaming white in the storm, despite the pile up of rubble that obscured some of the structures. Though Richard and Charlie weren’t exactly tourists, their initial exploration led to a lucrative touring business, bringing the curious to the dwelling through an amazing series of ropes and pulleys and bring them out loaded with souvenirs. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that the dwelling became protected from this type of looting and it was three years after that, in 1909, that Jesse Walter Fewkes excavated the rubble and began to reveal/restore it to what I am looking at over 100 years later.
I don’t know what I feel about preservation like this. On one hand, I am so grateful I get to sit here against ancient walls as the sun sinks, way to early, behind the opposite canyon wall. The dwellings on that side have been in shadow for hours. On the other hand, unless there is some sort of government breakdown, history has stopped here. No one else will build a fire or raise a family here. There won’t be the sounds of babies being born (I won’t say made because I am sure some privilege few have probably crossed this off their bucket list). There won’t be sounds of human living anymore, just the murmur of tourists.
Other than the ranger’s voice, there aren’t any human voices. Only the swifts titter in the twilight, flinging themselves from the gold cliffs into the blue sky. are whispering as if sound can ruin a photograph. There are two few people here–not even a village worth–and too much stone and time. And even though with the restoration and excavations, it doesn’t actually feel ancient, the stone remembers and ghosts chill up our backs, unforgiving for withdrawing our life fire from this place.
We destroy. Humans do that. The same as every other hive animal on this planet: we build and live careless of the other species around us.
But we bring warmth. We bring joy and sorrow and blood saturated by stories. We bring those stories.