May 20, 2008
Ah, Wilderness!" Eugene O’Neill
A lot has gone down in Four Corners country during the fourteen years since, as part of a rather expansive southwestern jaunt, I had pulled up temporary stakes in Hovenweep and headed through McElmo Canyon to Mesa Verde National Park for the first time.
For one thing, the term "Anasazi" has been replaced in general usage by "Ancestral Puebloan" or, in the Hopi language, "Hisatsenom." Actually this is old news but now, finally, time was being taken during tours of the cliff dwellings to fully explain it to those still on the outside looking in.
It’s not hard to see why members of current-day Pueblos would rather that their ancestors were referred to not by the Navajo term "Anasazi," which loosely translates into "enemies of our ancestors," but with a designation from their own culture. Although many of my running mates seem to have a problem with all things politically correct, it’s hard to see their argument with this one.
Another event of note that took place upon this landscape since my last visit to Mesa Verde will mark its 10th anniversary one week from tomorrow. That would be the murder of Cortez police officer Dale Claxton and the subsequent search for the trio responsible in what would become the largest manhunt in Western history.
The fugitives went on the lam and split up in southeastern Utah after abandoning a stolen truck not far from Hovenweep. Over the years, one by one, after presumably having separately killed themselves, they were discovered in various states of decay. The desert has a way of reclamation that is actually quite efficient.
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As near as I can tell, no one is really sure who named Mesa Verde. Back in 1765 Don Juan Maria de Rivera passed just north while crossing the southern spur of those gorgeous La Plata Mountains under the directive of the then governor of New Mexico. If the ramparts to his south made an impression, he kept them to himself.
A geological report from 1859 is the first mention of the Spanish term for "Green Table" to find its way into an official report, although the manner in which "Mesa Verde" was bandied about suggested that, by that time, it was in common usage.
Once you have been there, of course, your eyes are immediately drawn to the sheer walls of that quite-dominating plateau and the immensity of its footprint. As any former visitor will tell you, however, Mesa Verde is much more than the sum of its well-preserved cliff dwellings.
There are the hiking trails, of course, which, at least prior of Memorial Day and following Labor Day, are relatively uncluttered. That’s especially the case for those that dip down into various canyons for a look at "petroglyph" panels or overviews distinct from those afforded from the mesa top.
And the campground can be a flat-out hoot, although it was more so the last trip. Back in ’94, flocks of wild turkey and herds of mule deer roamed the campsites without ever making a nuisance of themselves and, more to the point, there was a bevy of German girls having their way with the American West camped right next door.
This time around, the neighboring campsite featured four different occupants in four nights. A couple from Kalamazoo set the bar as high as it gets, and that’s not just because they unloaded their extra tequila, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and such before heading out to Ouray.
No, they were of the type that, although you spent only eighteen hours or so in their company, you knew you would miss them and their humorous banter and their cocktail-hour camaraderie once Mesa Verde was in their rearview mirror.
The threesome who followed, however, were different slice of ignorant bliss entirely. Deducing their relationship through their "conversations" with each other was, like, you know, totally sophomoric.
The conclusion finally arrived at had the guy and the girl who weren’t really speaking to each other as the couple in residence. The other girl, a tall, slender blonde (go figure!) seemed to be a recent acquaintance with a camp of her own up the way. For some reason, she and the guy got along better than she and the girl.
Another threesome (ménage a trois, anyone) moved in next. They spoke a language quite foreign to my ear, although, it must be said, the two girls spoke it best. You know the old joke, "What do you call a person that speaks two or more languages? (A multi-linguist.) And what do you call a person who speaks one? (An American!)"
Well, the language turned out to be Russian but, I must admit, it didn’t sound anything like the submarine-speak used in "The Hunt for Red October." Maybe if they had broken into the "Russian Navy Hymn," I would have picked up on it.
The final couple communicated solely by furtive glance. I remain convinced that they were either a normal, quietly-polite, non-disruptive, happily-married twosome (a conclusion I refuse to accept) or escapees on the lam from an as-yet-undefined fundamentalist bunch possibly an underground Bush/McCain youth cult looking to further cut back federal funding for National Parks.
The greatest changes to the Mesa Verde landscape since my last visit, however, were, firstly, those due to the half-dozen or so biennial conflagrations beginning with the 1996 blaze at Park Point and, secondly, the unexplainable absence of young German females roaming the campgrounds and mesa tops in communal clusters.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.