Spirited landscapes: Lively adventures in ancient America

A version of this article originally appeared on AARP website’s Live and Learn channel.

I stumbled slightly as Michele Eagle Boyer and I entered the medicine wheel garden she had constructed on her property eight miles south of Cortez, in southwestern Colorado. It was as though an unseen hand had given me a little shove. “The energy coming off the mesa is a bit too strong right in this spot. I’ve got to re-arrange some of the poles,” explained Michelle, indicating the tall totemic stakes that were evenly spaced around the perimeter of the circular plot. The installation was her interpretation of the ancient rock arrays found throughout Native America; most are spiritual places that marked the movements of various celestial bodies.

Michele, an attorney from Santa Clara Pueblo, and her husband, a dentist, run the Grizzly Roadhouse Bed & Breakfast, at the base of Mesa Verde, the vast tabletop that encompasses both Mesa Verde National Park and Ute Mountain Tribal Park, with their many famous Ancestral Puebloan dwellings and sacred places,

During a five-day visit to the area, I found that interactions with the sacred are both remarkable and commonplace here — as likely to occur at a B&B as at an ancient ruin — thanks to the people who inhabited this arid landscape nearly a millennium ago and left their imprint on it. They were “filled with a longing for perfection in their society [and] harmony with their environment,” Jemez Pueblo scholar Joe S. Sando has written. As a result, Sando said, they moved from time to time in search of a place that would satisfy this yearning. Today, many of their descendants live in the modern Pueblos of New Mexico.

In siting their villages, the ancestors loved a view. Some chose to overlook cozy, stream-fed canyons. Others preferred more severe beauty; they woke up each day to the sight of rock-strewn desert sweeping up to distant mountains.

One day, I explored the ancient places of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, owned and run by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, about 20 miles south of Cortez. To protect the fragile sites in the 125,000-acre park, tourism is limited, and every visitor is accompanied by a guide. Though the tribe stabilizes the old structures, it does not excavate or rebuild them or install sidewalks and other facilities you might find at a national park. Because of these policies, the area remains pristine.

As the tour group I joined approached the park in the tribe’s van, we circled around the massive volcanic thrust that guards the entrance (shown right) and proceeded into broad, flat-bottomed Mancos Canyon. A creek bubbled along to the right of the road. When we got out of the van to look at some petroglyphs, we saw red, black-and-white, and gray pottery sherds lying everywhere. Wild horses trotted by to peer at us, and eagles surfed the thermals overhead. It felt as if the ancients had barely packed up and left.

Our guide told us that the Ute Mountain Utes had wintered in this very canyon for many centuries; his familiarity with the place made the experience a bit like poking through Granny’s attic with a member of the family. Just as grandma might let you to look through her jewelry box or try on her old party clothes, he invited us to pick up pieces of pots and touch rock engravings.

A highlight of the tour was an early rock art display called the Creation Panel. Each year on the winter solstice, the guide explained, a lizard-shaped shadow, cast by a nearby stone outcropping, crosses the panel. As the lizard crawls past Spiderwoman, the flute player Kokopelli, and more, it reveals the world’s beginnings, interactions of gods and humans, an epic migration to the North Pole and back, prophesies for the future and — because the sacred and the temporal are intertwined in Native America — predictions for crop germination in the growing season to come.

The guide had an immediate answer for the lasting question of Southwest archaeology: Why did the Ancestral Puebloans leave the area at the end of the 13th century? It wasn’t famine, drought, or warfare, as scholars have postulated, he told us; rather, they were completing a spiritual pilgrimage. 

On another day, for a trip to Sand Canyon Pueblo, a 13th-century site 20-some miles northwest of Cortez, I joined three specialists from Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, shown right and below: Mark Varien, a prominent archaeologist, and Native American Advisory Group members Ernest Vallo, a tribal council member from Acoma Pueblo, and Eric Polingyouma, a Hopi cultural historian. As we hiked among the dwellings, kivas, food storehouses, and watchtowers in this beautiful and remote valley, the three men shared information, debated, concurred, and occasionally agreed to disagree on ancient building techniques, the purposes for certain structures, and more.

Most of all, they communicated their affection for the old places. For Vallo and Polingyouma, they’re ancestral homes; for Varien, they’re his life’s work. The three knew every beam, stone, and rock art panel. They noticed if an old wall had sagged slightly since a previous visit and recognized plants the original dwellers would have used.

Our peregrinations around the village felt like an offering: a recognition of the care that the ancients had lavished on their homesite, even if it was just a way station on their pilgrimage to a more perfect place.


On the Road
This trip-planning information was correct at the time of publication; check for updates before you go. 

Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Offerings range from one-day experiences, with laboratory time and a visit to a dig ($50 for adults; reduced fees for children), to longer ones, including five-day U.S. trips to Chaco Canyon and more (from about $1,800) and international journeys (from about $2,300, depending on the destination). The center’s information-packed website is an adventure in itself. 23390 Road K, Cortez, CO 81321; 800-422-8975; www.crowcanyon.org.

Ute Mountain Tribal Park
Tours start at 9 AM daily, May 1 through November 20. Half-day trip, $24 per person; full-day, $44; discounts for children. Traveling in the guide’s van costs $9 extra per person (recommended, as you hear more of the lecture); or follow in your own car. Camping and special tours are available. Visitor Center, on Highway 160/491, 20 miles south of Cortez; 800-847-5485; www.utemountainute.com/tribalpark.htm.

Sand Canyon Pueblo
For a map with detailed directions to this admission-free site, stop in at the Anasazi Heritage Center, 10 miles north of Cortez. The center is at 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colorado 81323; 970-882-5600; www.blm.gov/ahc/.

Grizzly Roadhouse Bed & Breakfast
A double-occupancy room costs $79–$89, and the two-bedroom cottage is $125–$158 for up to four people. 3450 Highway 160/491; Cortez, Colorado 81321; 800-330-7286; www.grizzlyroadhouse.com.


At Home
These books will remind you of your trip — or inspire you to go.
• Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations: Traditional and Contemporary Native American Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2002), by Kiowa chef and photographer Lois Ellen Frank. Glorious pictures of the Southwest accompany delectable recipes using heritage local ingredients.
• The Medicine Wheel Garden: Creating Sacred Space for Healing, Celebration, and Tranquility (Bantam, 2002), by ethnobotanist E. Barrie Kavasch. Beautify your life with designs that encompass an entire yard or a pot on a windowsill. Kavasch, who has Powhaton and other Native ancestry, offers planting information and accounts of her adventures visiting prehistoric medicine wheels.
• A Thief of Time (Harper & Row, 1988; Harper Paperbacks, 1990), by Tony Hillerman. The Southwest’s top mystery writer is in top form in this tale of an anthropologist who vanishes at an ancient ruin plundered by so-called “thieves of time” and the Navajo police officers who must solve the crime.

c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Stephanie Woodard.