In the high desert plains of the American Southwest, where the ‘Four Corners’ of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet, there are castles carved into the mountains. Mesa Verde National Park is one of America’s most treasured archaeological sites; inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans from around AD 550 to 1300, it’s the largest and best-preserved example of Native American cliff dwellings in the country.
I spent the day exploring the park and found entire villages — multiple storeys high — as well as houses, courtyards and balconies chiselled into sheer rock faces, hundreds of feet above the ground. Seeing it for the first time was like stepping into a fairytale. The highlight, Balcony House, is the most precarious and vertiginous cliff dwelling in the park. My trip begins with a hike into the canyon, followed by a wobbly ladder climb — with no safety line, by the way — and finishes with a claustrophobic squeeze through a narrow tunnel. In these litigious days of health and safety it’s a miracle that they allow people to do it.
And for my group of 20-odd elderly, oversized Americans, it’s a miracle we all made it out alive.
But it’s worth the sweat. From up here, 600ft above the ground, the true ingenuity of these remarkable people is clear to see. You can feel their presence, you can even see footprints in the stone where they climbed over the centuries.
And for all its beauty, it made me think, too. Here, human beings thrived in one of the most inhospitable places in the country. They did it not by conquering their environment, but by living connected to it, by perfectly adapting their lifestyle and architecture to the ecosystem that surrounded them. Mesa Verde represents the pinnacle of what we admire most about Native America, and what we’ve forgotten most in ourselves: harmony — a life lived in balance with the world around us.
So, what of our harmony today? What of the consequences of living out of balance with the world around us? A few miles down the road, on the Hopi reservation, there might be an answer.
The Prophecy Rock is a petroglyph carved by the ancestors of the Hopi people, one of 26 tribes associated with Mesa Verde. It depicts the Great Spirit holding a staff with two lines, or life paths, emanating from it. The lower timeline shows the Hopi way — living in harmony with the natural order and respecting the Earth. The jagged upper timeline represents a way of living that’s out of tune with the natural world. According to the prophecy, this path leads to the destruction of the planet; a series of nine ‘signs’ forewarn of this Armageddon. Guess what: so far, they’ve seen eight.
I’m not surprised. Right now, America is dropping environmental safeguards like bad habits. It’s pulled out of the Paris Agreement (the multilateral climate change agreement) and it has a president who thinks greenhouse gas is horticulturalist flatulence. It makes up 5% of the world’s population, but accounts for 24% of its energy use. America is that jagged path.
But there’s hope. The prophecy also predicts that if the Hopi can remain on the lower path — resisting any temptation to shed their traditions — then they’ll survive the ever-present threat of apocalypse. What’s more, they’ll go on to teach their descendants the way to salvation — the way to live in harmony with the natural world.
That’s why I love Mesa Verde. Like the Hopi’s Prophecy Rock, it’s a reminder that the more we divorce ourselves from Mother Nature, the messier the divorce will be (and guess who’s winning that battle?). It proves we don’t need to see ourselves as masters of the Earth to carve masterpieces from it. It reminds me of an old Cree (a North American First Nations people) saying: ‘When the last tree is cut down, the last fish is eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realise that you can’t eat money.’
Mesa Verde reminds us what the Hopi have always known: the prophecy is a choice. Salvation is up to us.
Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)