No photograph prepares you for the calm, stony grace of this national park

Half in shadow, half in sun, the ruined city rests in the shelter of a sandstone cliff. Black-and-white-winged swifts dart past broken towers. A wind whistles through cracking walls. We pause to listen to the ranger.

“You can think of Cliff Palace,” she tells us, “as a 13th-century convention center.”

For one moment, the vision of eerie grandeur is replaced by an image of a 13th-century conventioneer: “Hi! I’m Bob, an Ancestral Puebloan!” Cliff Palace and all of Mesa Verde National Park are so disturbingly beautiful, you must occasionally grab onto the familiar, the modern, the mundane.

This year marks the centennial of Mesa Verde National Park, tucked in the southwest corner of Colorado. It’s a place you may think you’ve visited, even when you haven’t. The park’s 800-year-old cliff dwellings are so ubiquitous in textbooks and museum dioramas, you imagine you won’t be awestruck when you see them in person. You’re wrong. No photograph or diorama prepares you for the calm, stony grace of Mesa Verde ― the way the towers and terraces and round ceremonial kivas spring from the cliffsides glowing with life.

The National Park Service is marking Mesa Verde’s centennial with lots of hoopla ― lecture series and ceremonies and the like. But the best way to mark it is to visit the three sites, open only for this centennial year, that haven’t been open to visitors for decades. “It’s stuff even the rangers have never seen before,” says Tessy Shirakawa, the park’s chief of visitor services.

I hike out with centennial coordinator Dan Puskar to view Oak Tree House, which he says is a good place to get an overview of the civilization that existed in Mesa Verde. Some cliff dwellings, like Cliff Palace, may have served ceremonial purposes ― i.e., they were “convention centers.” Others, like Oak Tree, were where people actually lived. Still more now-vanished dwellings dotted the surrounding mesa tops. By the 1200s, some 30,000 people lived in Mesa Verde and the adjoining Montezuma Valley.

Then they all went away. This is part of the Mesa Verde legend ― its inhabitants built magnificent dwellings and vanished as completely as if they’d been abducted by aliens. The story was told for decades, but now, Puskar tells me, most archaeologists believe it isn’t true. Now it’s thought that the people of Mesa Verde moved on, migrated southward, and became the pueblo peoples who live in the Southwest today, mostly in New Mexico. Based on many years of consultation with the pueblo tribes, their name has changed from Anasazi, a Navajo word, to Ancestral Puebloans. As for the reasons Mesa Verde was abandoned, drought is one suspect, civil unrest another. Perhaps, Puskar says, we’ll never know: “It may be that we can only ask better questions.”

Questions are what make Mesa Verde different from other national parks. Go to Yellowstone or Yosemite and you ponder the hand of nature. Here you ponder, less comfortably, the hand of man. Looking at the beautiful cliff dwellings, you think, Why would anyone want to leave? What causes a culture to grow, to wither, to change, to move on?

After Puskar and I hike back up from Oak Tree House, it’s too late to return to Cliff Palace. But I can look at it from a viewpoint across the canyon: glowing, beautiful, empty. You can’t look at a cliff dwelling without mentally filling it with people, and wondering how those people were like us and how they were different, why they came and why they left. Unanswered, unanswerable questions flitting like swifts in the last of the daylight.

Info: Mesa Verde National Park ($10 per vehicle, $3 per person for ranger-led tours; 35 miles west of Durango, CO, off U.S. 160; 970/529-4465).

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