Vacation study: Colorado's Anasazi ruins

... Local couple takes on the Rockies -- at 80

photos and text by Don and Lorry Norris

SilverStringers Don and Lorry Norris marked their 80th birthdays by spending two
weeks in May in the Rocky Mountains, studying Anasazi Indian ruins. With their
rented four-wheel drive car, the pair drove some 2,000 miles through Colorado, Utah
and New Mexico, going from site to site. The weather was perfect, there were few
tourists on the road, and accommodations were abundant and relatively inexpensive.
It was an ideal time to spend a vacation, and an enriching time. Below is a sample
of the photos they took.

Mesa Verde is some hundred square miles of desert,
canyons, mesas and forests, and is host to a dozen of Anasazi ruins -- although we
tourists are allowed to visit only a few. At 'the city', National Park Rangers
produce walking tours of the major sites -- most of which are over rugged cliffs, up
and down rustic log ladders or steep stairs. But most sites are visible from a
nearby vantage point -- saving oldsters from rugged mountain climbs. Very

These cliff dwellings were settled in the four corners area around AD 900, but each
community felt the influence of different tribes during the next 300 years. Each of
these small shelters were expanded as families and tribes grew. Their history,
however was relatively brief, for the entire Anasazi population simply disappeared
by AD 1300 --  a phenomenom that scientists have yet to explain.

Scenes are well documented, trails are obvious and well-marked, and the land is
never very flat. But everywhere you look -- it's beautiful. Especially in May, when
every growing thing turns green, there are a minimum of visitors, and hotels have
yet to jack up summer prices.

A telephoto shot of 'emerald city' from the opposing ridge of the narrow canyon.
There are at least a half dozen major sites that are viewable from convenient
overlooks -- perhaps after a short walk.

Hovenweep is a special place where ancient Indians built their villages not in the
cliff overhangs (done for protection), but on top of precipitous ledges. The
construction seemed totally different than all the other sites -- since Hovenweep
was sitting atop the ledge, open to easy attack from behind. The answer (the experts
suggest) was available water. But the area, right on the Utah border, accessible
over some 20 miles of dirt road, is beautiful. There is a two-mile trail that
follows the ledge, then drops down into the canyon to see yet another site -- before
climbing back up. We did perhaps the first mile, then returned.

At the right is a strange desert weed that will tear unwary hikers to pieces.

An overlook on the Hovenweep trail.

Left and right, scenes from the Aztec ruins in Aztec, New Mexico. This site is huge,
well restored by National Parks, and took us most of one day to snoop through the
rambling ruins.

The Lowery and Hovenweep ruins are remote, some 25 or 30 miles west of Cortez, near
the Utah border. Here at Lowery we were the only people within view of our
binoculars -- not a soul in sight, no other visitors, no ranger on duty. Established
about the year 900AD, the single rambling structure grew generation by generation,
to fit the tribe's needs. The National Parks Service, in this case, built a
large, low roof over the site for protection against the elements.

Remote Hovenweep is a rambling village, with untypical structures built on the
top of the ledges of a long canyon, perhaps 600 feet deep. Unusual is the
fact that the villages were built atop the canyon walls -- unlike Mesa Verde where
lodges were constructed under overhanging ledges, providing protection from the
weather and from marauding tribes.

That is Lorry Norris at Aztec; note the small kiva behind her, one of several at
this community. At the right is the four-foot opening between endless dark, cool
rooms, apparently used for storage of food.

Again at Aztec, here is yet another kiva, which are covered and accessible via an
underground tunnel. Their purpose isn't clear -- mostly for male meetings and
religious services.

A sample of interior construction at Aztec, employing logs and brush in living
quarters. At the right is a typical small passage through the maze of rooms. The
deeper one goes, the less natural light there is.

Again at the rambling site at Aztec: Note the difference in bricks used in the thick
walls -- representing (probably) different tribes, different times over the 350
years of occupation.

Typical construction at Aztec -- logs melded into new walls for both structural
support and family convenience. At the right are sawn lumber, obviously added by NPS
restoration teams to reinforce original log support.

Aztec: Highly unusual grand kiva, built traditionally in the round, underground --
but unusual in its huge size. Note the roof supports (probably) originally vertical
logs, now plastered and painted. The rectangular ports in the floor were underground
entrances (likely), which have been replaced by NPS restorers with traditional
stairs for easier access. Also amazing are the roof joists -- exceptionally long
spans for those times. There were several other smaller traditional kivas in the

Portals at Aztec: A visitor folds himself tightly to get through the small portals.
At the right, Lorry uses a modern people-size passage to get into the huge kiva.

Again, at Aztec, different sizes and styles of brick used in these ruins testify to
both passing ages and to methods of different groups that occupied the community
over its 350-year life.

Pole holes in a wall of markedly different styles of brick-laying, ranging from
carefully sliced flat stones to random chunks of sandstone that received little
trimming during construction. Image the different times, different styles, in
building this single wall, for it has work of many hands.

One can only guess as to the times and construction of this wall. Was it the hodge-
podge of that inner wall, faced with carefully trimmed sandstones? How many
generations took part in its construction, how many different peoples lived here,
and, at last, where did they all go? By the year 1300, there was no one left at any
of these sites; the experts still ponder who they were. The only answer is that they
were forbearers of today's tribes -- but that is a broad, unacceptable answer.

September 2, 2011

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