After my close-call on Engineer Mt., I was ready to bury myself in Conservation work. Our crew’s first nine-day hitch was going to be in Mesa Verde National Park. Taking a break from the snowy winter-land still stubbornly holding on to the high country, we headed west from Durango to warmer climes.
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Intro: History and Legacy
Mesa Verde National Park is another often overlooked treasure of the park’s system (eat your heart out, Yosemite). The park came into existence in 1906 and protects some of the best examples of indigenous Pueblo architecture and culture. Native American culture is still widely felt across the four corners region because of a combination of Native American ancestral lands and the proliferation of reservations. Reservations were set up by the U.S. government because President Andrew Jackson was a piece of shit who didn’t view Native Americans as worthy examples of people. The ramifications of our damming policies against Native Americans, including the Indian removal act (aka Trail of Tears), continued use of derogatory team names and phrases (though some of that is changing), and cultural appropriation of Native Americans, illustrates how little modern American society views the original settlers of our continent. As of my writing this, president Joe Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first native American to be nominated for the position. Check this article out for how impactful that nomination is to many Native Americans.
The point is, during the colonial drive to conquer North America, Native Americans and nature were often and widely abused. A truly damaging legacy for a young country made more tragic because of Native American’s deep love and care for the land we were actively destroying. There really is no dollar value that can ever compensate for the genocidal restructuring of entire Native American tribes. The best hope now is to be inclusive instead of exclusive. We’ve got a long way to go.
One way us regular shmoes can educate ourselves is to visit some of these historic places and glimpse the fabric of this great nation: before the French, English, Dutch and Spanish explorers came over. Mesa Verde checks a lot of boxes. It has stunning protected land, tons of Native American heritage, massive cliff dwellings, and easily accessible material to round out our understanding of not only history but the cultural ramifications of what we did in the 1800s.
Redirecting my rant to the who/what/when: Mesa Verde was the home of the Ancestral Puebloans. They lived in the present-day states of southern Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah. Archaeologists generally break down the Pueblo era into three distinct phases, marked by changes in household dynamics, food storage, and settlement construction. These eras lasted from approximately 750-1300. Post-1300, many settled areas in Mesa Verde were abandoned, possibly due to complications resulting from weather changes and overpopulation, stressing what the natural environment could provide. An architectural hallmark of the Ancient Puebloans is the cliff dwelling, where towns and settlements were built within overhung cliffs, as shown below.
Our job during the nine-day hitch was to assist the national park rangers with a variety of projects. These included repairing fences, cutting new trail, and invasive species removal (non-native thistle). While the history of the Ancient Puebloans is fascinating: during our hitch, we also found out about unique contemporary issues that impacted our understanding of property rights, eminent domain, and heritage.
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We were given a campground site just inside the park, which sits atop a southward sloping mesa. The northern front of the park is the most dramatic and highest in elevation, but the canyons on the south side contained most of the Cliff Dwellings. The first day was all about establishing routines and getting comfortable with each other’s work ethic. The trailer was loaded with trail building tools, but our first task only required canvas bags and thick gloves: invasive removal.
Thistle is a naturally occurring plant in the US, but variants have come over from other parts of the world and are threaten the environment because they grow in profusion. Our job was to get rid of a ton of the invasive thistle. It was repetitive and tiring work, all alongside the main park thoroughfare, which probably made us look like a chain gang without the chains. Regardless, I found myself immersed in the simple task at hand, mind unencumbered by the myriad factors around the task. Would I want to do that every day? Absolutely not, but we covered a large amount of area for half a day of work, and that was satisfying.
Day 2 was a little more interesting. Apparently, some horse whisperer (who donated a lot to the park) wanted to take some of her clients on a trail ride through the more isolated parts of the Mesa Verde. We were called in to help uncover an older network of trails that had fallen into disrepair, which meant hiking deep into some of the park’s canyons. Adventure time!
We entered from the top, so the heads of the canyon weren’t initially impressive, just long gashes into an otherwise uniform mesa. However, as we descended, the hike became trickier.
We had chosen the most expedient way down into the canyons; the horse riders would approach from a much more agreeable angle. Though, our route had the sensation of stumbling into a lost world. Following our park ranger friend, we felt as if we were stepping back in time the further into the canyons we proceeded.
After taking a water break: our ranger pointed out a Cliff Dwelling high above us in the canyon walls. Unlike the larger ones, where tours are offered to visitors, this one had only been visited by skilled archaeologists and park rangers, giving it an authentic and imposing quality.
Collectively we spent two or three days working to clear trail at the bottom of our canyon. As a group, it was our first test of the skills we’d learned in training, and although we didn’t build as much as we thought, the progress was encouraging, and our ranger seemed happy with what we managed to clear for them.
Aside from trail work and exotic invasive removal, the rest of our hitch in Mesa focused on fence-lines. The current boundaries of Mesa Verde border the Ute Mountain Reservation. After the Ancient Puebloans abandoned their cliff dwellings, the major tribe left in the four corners region was the Utes (Fun fact: Utah is named after them). In a reluctant move to preserve their sacred Sleeping Ute Mountain, the tribes traded lands with the Federal Government that ended up becoming part of Mesa Verde. Like most land swaps with the federal government, the Utes were not given a fair trade. Issues with property rights occasionally flare-up between the reservation and the park. One of the bigger ones is the encroachment of wild horses onto park lands. These wild horses may have originated after breaking corrals and escaping Ute control, though that assessment is disputed. In either case, wary of ecological damage, Mesa maintains a long fence-line along its border with Ute territory, and we helped fix fence lines and close wire gaps big enough for animals to slip through.
Limited by the amount of gear we could carry into the backcountry, we used whatever we could find to decrease fence gaps, including sticks and bones.
Despite the beautiful and arid climate around our worksite, the appearance of the fence: so out of place and stark, made me sad.
One of the unexpected highlights, however, was a bonafide wild horse sighting. Despite the Ranger grumbling about how they were altering the ecological balance in the park, it was hard not to be encapsulated.
After seven days of hard work, from sunup to sundown, our ranger friend got us on a tour of the largest Cliff Dwelling in the park, aptly titled Cliff Palace. The dwelling was only reachable by a series of ladders bolted to cement blocks and scaling near-vertical cliff bands, making for quite the immersive experience.
Before we headed out, our crew climbed a bluff near our campsite to get a high elevation perspective of the area.
During the tour of Cliff Palace it felt strange to be around so many well dressed tourists, while we stank of a weeks worth of outdoor work. Luckily, no one took it upon themselves to smell us too closely, and the tour ended up being a great cap to a tough hitch.
After we finished the tour, we embraced our inner tourist and took the van to the highest point in the park. From it, you could really see the precipitous edge of the Mesa Verde….mesa and gaze eastwards towards the ramparts of the La Plata Range, a subset of the San Juans.
Even though we spent 9ninedays in the park, it wasn’t nearly enough time to fully understand the ecology, Ancient Puebloan history, and modern property struggles between the Feds and the Ute Mountain Tribe. Mesa Verde has a lot going for it as a national park, while also offering an interesting examination into the uneven history of the American West.
Our time in Mesa Verde taught us a lot about the work required and our own group dynamics. A lot of it was tough. Anytime you get 8 adults together trying to accomplish a project, you’re bound to run into some interdisciplinary issues, but after days of ironing out the kinks, we felt better about the rest of the season, and what we could accomplish as a group. I headed into the off hitch feeling good and amped about the adventures I’d be able to get under my belt before our next nine days of work.
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The initial bit of training for SWCC had taken place on a horse ranch. The owner had promised free rides to anyone who wanted them. Seizing the opportunity, Indiana and I made our way to the ranch to claim our reward. While the ranch had offered rides to everyone from SWCC, we were apparently the first in years to take them up on it, which we found surprising, I mean, who doesn’t want to ride horses on a big ranch in the Southern Rockies? Madness I tell yah.
Owing to the ranch’s location, I was allowed an uninterrupted look up to Engineer Mountain, where I had almost died. Amazing what the difference a couple of weeks of warm temperatures can make. The snowy-slopes responsible for my slide were almost entirely melted out, and the mountain seemed so much more pedestrian than what I’d experienced.
After shaking my head and mumbling under my breath for a few minutes, I managed to refocus on the task at hand and spent the next two hours walking, trotting, and even galloping along the mountain trails around the ranch. Before this adventure, it had been years since I’d ridden. It only took two minutes for me to remember why I loved it. Horses are great.
The following day, Indiana and I combined forces with some other SWCC members to rock-climb some crags near Durango. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but one of our coworkers, Hawk, had extensive gear and experience. I surprised myself by how well I did, of course, forgetting to take any pictures along the journey. After a down day: spent in my favorite coffee shop in town (Durango Joes on College Drive) researching possible mountains to climb, I settled on Handies Peak. It would be my second 14er and leagues easier than Engineer or Sneffels.
I still managed to find impressively large snowfields on the mountain and watched a cornice break off near me, leading to a small avalanche. But, I felt much more capable in my assessment of the environmental factors. The ascent wasn’t particularly memorable, but the views on top were.
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Happy with my off hitch shenanigans, I spent the rest of my time off hanging around Durango and getting to know my crew-mates a little better. Anticipation was building between us because our next five hitches were going to be on the slopes of El Diente, the most western 14er in the state. High elevation work was coming for our crew, and after another successful summit, I felt ready for just about anything.