Finding your niche

September 05, 2017

In "The Big Idea" post, I (Steve) wrote about how one of the goals of this journey is to figure out where we want to live in retirement. So far in the 13 months that we've been on the road, we have not found that location. We have found a lot of places where we don't want to live, and a few where we might want to live, but only for certain months of the year. And so the quest continues. 

People choose different places to live, sometimes for reasons that are indiscernible to others. Here's a group of people who did find their niche.

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado contains some of the most famous cliff dwellings on earth. Mesa Verde is a World Heritage site, and unlike the Everglades (see earlier post), this one is well maintained. Of the literally hundreds of sites at Mesa Verde, there are four that are the most visited: Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Long House. But you can't just walk into them; you need to be part of a ranger-led tour, which means getting tickets in advance. 

We had been to Mesa Verde many years agoprobably around 2003. At that time, our children were fairly young, so we did not visit all four main sites. [Jane's note: after seeing families with young children who did three tours in one day, my advice to parents is: Don't.] On our return visit this year, we decided to visit all the sites and see as much as we possibly could. We've got the time, after all. As it turns out, it takes a bit of planning to accomplish this. Spruce Tree House, the only one of the four that visitors can tour on their own, is closed indefinitely. More on this later. The other three require tickets. Each tour lasts about an hour, and the park requires at least one hour between tours. Since Long House is on a different mesa from the others, at the end of a long, hilly, windy road that can require 90 minutes to drive, fitting in all three tours on one day is a logistical challenge. But we were able to do it, with the help of an enthusiastic ticket agent who said, "All three in one day? Oh this ought to be fun!"

This is Spruce Tree House. Once one of the most visited cliff dwelling, it is now closed to tourists because the natural sandstone arch under which it is built is starting to come apart and cause rock falls. Battered tourists are bad for business, so Spruce Tree House is now off limits. The Park Service has completed a study of the rock instability at the site. (You can read more details here.) As one ranger told us, "We now know how to stabilize the site if there were no cliff dwelling built under it. The challenge is how to stabilize it with a 1500-year-old archaeological site in the way. Given the costs and budget available, it will be years before it can be reopened, if ever." Until then visitors have to content themselves with views from overlooks across the canyon. 

We managed to tour Balcony House (which includes a couple of long ladder climbs), Cliff Palace, and the remote and much-less-visited Long House. And we did all in one day, although it was a tiring and fairly hot day. My advice, if you're planning a Mesa Verde trip, is to tour Balcony House and Cliff Palace one day and Long House on another. Try to do them all in the cool of the day, before the sun starts baking things. And be sure to check the park's website for information on getting tickets; as of this writing, you must buy tour tickets before the day of your tour, you can do it only in person, not online or by phone, and they sell out early. We got to the ticket office around opening time, got our tickets, then spent the rest of the day seeing the parts of the park that don't require tickets.

As these cliff dwellings all look somewhat similar, I'll just include a few pictures of each here, so you can get an idea.

You have to be willing to climb a 30-foot ladder on the side of a cliff to get out of the Balcony House. (And they insist that you do get out.)

Cliff Palace (shown above and in the next two photos) is  huge.

Just so you know we were actually there...

Here's a pic of Long House.

The people who built these cliff dwellings did not always live on cliffs under rock arches. For some hundreds of years they had lived on the mesas above the cliffs. Then they moved into the cliffs. No one really knows why, although there is much speculation about it. (Since this is all prehistory [meaning before anyone wrote it down], we know only what we can discern from the archaeological record.) And then, after living on the cliffs for a while, they all left. Again, nobody really knows why, but similar things happened at other cliff sites across the southwest, all at roughly the same time.

The people who lived here, although they did not write down their own history, were not without some forms of writing. There are magnificent petroglyphs that can be found on a relatively short hike on a trail called, appropriately, Petroglyph Point.

If you wonder how scientists can know just how old the cliff dwellings and other mesa sites are, the answer is dendrochronology. It's actually pretty simple and pretty clever. The roofs are supported by beams made of tree trunks—the whole round trunk, not hewn boards. As this is the desert, many of these ceiling beams remained intact, well preserved. The age of trees can be determined using their growth ringsone ring per yearbut the size of each ring depends on the climatic conditions that year, so some rings are wide and others are narrow. From a pattern of rings, you can match up a given tree to other trees of the same age and identify the exact year in which a tree was cut down, thus dating the last year in which construction was done at the site. Pretty simple.

If you want to know how old I am, however, just ask me. No need to cut off an arm and count the rings.

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