It had been a while since Jeri and I had been on a School for Advanced Research field trip and we were looking forward to this one and reconnecting with old SAR friends. Since we were coming from a different direction this time, we skipped leaving out of Santa Fe and met them along the way in our own vehicle.
We hooked up with them on the morning of April 19 at the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio, CO, where we were given a tour of the facility. The structure’s architecture was about as good as I’ve ever seen, clearly done by someone very creative. The exhibits were also excellent with a high level of information transfer. I have a strong loathing of most newer national park visitor centers as I think they dumb down the experience in the interests of giving short attention span people what they want: Pretty pictures and video screens. The Ute facility was done the way visitor centers should be, a stunning structure with real information inside.
Leaving that facility, and after a lunch stop at Hesperus, we stopped at the newly constructed Mesa Verde National Park visitor center for a behind the scenes tour. While it was operational for the public, it hadn’t formally opened and some landscaping was still in the works. Having just come from the Ute facility, I couldn’t help but contrast the two structures.
The new Mesa Verde visitor center was certainly nice, but it looked like it had been designed by a committee of committees. There was a bureaucratic blandness to it all. Inside, it seemed most of the spanking new public space was devoted to either the gift shop or the area to queue up to buy Mesa Verde tour tickets (Truly an “American” national park…oh wait…it didn’t have a snack bar). There were precious few of the artifacts recovered from Mesa Verde on display. Well…..There was a window in a wall that allowed the public to see some of the real collections area…where everything was carefully stored away in boxes and out of view. Not very satisfying.
It was, to me, pretty underwhelming. I had only been to Mesa Verde once before. Many years ago Jeri and I went early in the day and took a tour, chafing under the corralling of the park service and dodging the hordes of mouth breathing tourists. Then later that same day we went to Chaco Canyon for the first time and after that, well…. we never had any interest in returning to Mesa Verde. Been to Chaco more times than I could possibly count though.
After overnighting at the Blue Lake Ranch (VERY nice place, BTW!) the group headed out to meet our guides who would take us into the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. It could best be described as “Mesa Verde Adjacent”, as it wraps somewhat around Mesa Verde. However it’s owned and run by the Utes, and their sensibilities are just a wee bit different from those of the park service.
First, you can’t even go in without a guide, but it’s not an expensive thing to arrange. There are no nice concrete trails or steps (sorry ADA people) and it’s all dirt roads. The trails are often narrow and perhaps even dangerous in the minds of some. And the ladders, made from pine trees, used to gain access to some of the cliff dwellings will absolutely freak some people out. It is a very rustic experience. Finally, there is refreshing lack of what the national parks folks like to call “interpretation”. You know, those kiosks and signs telling you what you’re supposed to think about what you’re seeing. At the Ute Mountain Tribal Park, what it, is. Think for yourselves. But if you have questions, ask the guides and you’ll get an interesting story. It may even be right, but it will be good.
But it is all so totally worth it! It’s like what Mesa Verde must have been 60 years ago. As long as you don’t do anything stupid, the guides permit you to walk through the ruins to your heart’s content. There are also numerous pottery sherds and other artifacts that visitors are encouraged to pick up and examine. Try that in a national park and you’ll see the rangers reaching for handcuffs. Oh, and our group were the only ones at these particular ruins that day and we never saw another person. In summary, it was sort of a Bizarro World of a national park where you are welcomed to get down and dirty with the ruins. It was friggin’ fantastic and we’ll definitely be going back.