The museum rock in front of the granaries had a large shard of a Mesa Verde mug
“There are two Mesa Verdes.” Fred Blackburn said in a non-condescending tone. “The National Park you have already seen. Would you like to see Mesa Verde, the general area that Anasazi lived for over a thousand years up until the end of the thirteenth century?” Fred looked distinctly familiar. It finally dawned upon me that if Fred had a great shock of white hair, he could stand in for Albert Einstein.
I was convinced by the time he uttered the first two words. I was siting in his office in Cortez because I had thoroughly enjoyed his deeply researched and insightful book Cowboy and Cave Dwellers. Fred was a ranger with the BLM in the 1970s. All the time I spent understanding calculus, game theory and fast Fourier transforms, Fred was in the canyons. He is an authority on the history, geography and biology of the Four Corners. If he were to point at a Styrofoam cup and say “Pueblo 0. White on White”, I would start making notes.
At 8:30am the next day, we sat in his truck parked at the Ute Mountain Tribal Park visitor center in Cortez. The visitor center should have opened at 8.
“Ute Standard Time” Fred grins under his thick moustache. The time he spends with the Ute, both working and socializing, has allowed him to gain a deep insight into the day to day functioning of the tribe. In turn, the Ute trust him. Especially after he started mentoring juvenile members of the tribe who end up on the wrong side of the law.
After securing the permit from the tribe. Fred pointed his truck into the Mancos canyon. The rain of two night ago had refreshed the scenery. The air was crisp, laced with the sweet fragrance of sagebrush. Canyon walls towered on either side, climbing over 7000 feet, flaunting their rugged slopes, inviting yet daunting. At a a fork, Fred jammed on the brake. He noticed a several tire tracks headed along the right fork. He took the left.
When the road could go no further, we parked besides a deserted horse corral. Gathering our backpacks, we walked to the rim of the canyon. Across the chasm, natural alcoves carved high up into the cliff were visible. Built into them were adobe villages - multistory residential buildings, storage rooms and kivas, standing tall and handsome.
I noticed three 4x4s parked on the other rim and 4-5 people descending a narrow trail noisily. I was happy to have this side of the mountain to myself. We walked across the rim and dropped down a ladder. Even as I turned back at Fred, he shook his head, “At the most 30-40 years old.” He had read my mind.
A tiny trail dropped us on a ledge. Granaries seated deep against the wall came into view. Fred pointed out subtleties that escape my amateur eyes. The three structures had been built in different classic Anasazi eras, ranging from 500 to 1250CE.
Fred Blackburn at the She House. Behind him structures built by BMIII, PI and PIII
Under the ledge were more granaries and a half a circle of a wall of what could only be a kiva. A little piece of an Anasazi Mesa Verde mug stole my heart. Lying audaciously on the museum rock, I could see part of the mug - the part where the handle meets the mug at the top along with a small portion of the rim, where the Anasazi fingers would grip the mug and the lip would touch it.
But what were the mugs used for?
Anasazi stored enormous quantities of corn in the granaries and seed jars. Accidental fermentation was an inevitability. The ensuing beer, it’s hallucinating qualities mistaken for magic, would need a special vessel. A tidbit from Vaughn Hadenfeldt had closed the loop. The Mesa Verde mug were only made in the PIII period - between 1150AD and 1260AD - by the very people who were petrified enough to build their houses in impossible spots high up on the cliffs before suddenly abandoning them en masse. Why did they not make the mugs again? Had they left it behind as a mistake never to be repeated, a mistake called alcohol?
Was the mug the Anasazi beer pilsner?
I asked Fred Blackburn casually. Fred grinned his thick moustache grin. He realized I was desperately wanting to harbor a theory. So he lets me be with a delicate, “We do not have proof to reach that conclusion.” Sounded like a tentative may be, much better than a firm no.
We crossed a thick overgrowth of poison ivy by the way of a log toppled by fire. Almost immediately, Fred found the spoor of an ancient trail. “Spanish.” Fred declared, “See how a horse can trot down it?” Eventually even I could see it. We side-mountained along the trail to another ruin perched high up on the cliff. A two story “brownstone” with a haunting T shape door and D shape construction. Around a bend, granaries were build so high up from the canyon floor that I needed Fred’s binoculars to trace the tiniest of ledge, a mere 4 inch wide at most, that would need to be negotiated to get to them.
+ + +
Fred brings his car to a halt somewhere in the Mancos Canyon. “You will like this ruin.” He says. I want to know where we are going but Fred is already up and out.
I stand at the bottom of the canyon, my palm a visor against the sun, my graze sweeping the cliff.
“You cannot see the ruin from there.” Fred is waiting for me at the head of the second switchback. For his portly frame, Fred is a quick climber, his enthusiasm clearly winning over his body. Within 10 minutes, we have climbed 400 vertical feet.
The horizon is black as a bad mood. A thunderstorm is inevitable. I am hoping it stays put for the time it takes for us to get back to the car. I do not want to be stuck here. I catch up with Fred at the top. A barbed wire protects the ruin from mountain sheep wandering on to the historical site. Fred lingers at the entrance, lets me take lead. I walk in, duck into the alcove.
There are two circular kivas in the front, mere few degree arcs of the chinked adobe wall surviving. I can see three or four rooms behind the kiva, semi demolished. Stepping carefully around the broken stones lying on the floor of the alcove, I circle around the kiva and step into the room at the back. From the size of it, it had to be a living room though I cannot locate the hearth. The doorways have collapsed, so I cannot ascertain the shape of the door. The rooms in the back are in slightly better shape. The plastered walls are intact but they are missing the roof. A BLM plaque asks me not to enter. I poke my head in. I notice the blackening in the corner going all the way up to where the roof would have been. I circle back again to the extraordinary wall in the back, delicately propped by a two Juniper logs, clearly this backroom had a second story.
I love the tremendous 100+ house villages of Mesa Verde, but it is something else to be able to walk around a ruin without the NPS rangers watching you with a hawk-eye.
Top left corner, the propped second story. Bottom center, inscribed initials of Clayton Wetherill and Fred Blackburn framed by the Anasazi door.
Fred walks me around. He points to a square block of rock with C.W. carved into it. It is Clayton Wetherill’s signature. One of the five Wetherill brothers, the family associated closely with the discovery and exploration of the Mesa Verde ruins. Ancient inscriptions is Fred’s specialty. He has worked extensively in the Anasazi ruins locating, deciphering and documenting ancient graffiti, tracking visitors and archeologists across geography and time. He walks me around the alcove and shows me John’s signature – Wetherill number two. Then Al’s and finally Winslow’s. We hook back into the Kiva. He pulls me to a corner that had survived better than the rest of the kiva and points to a faint pencil inscription. I bend down, squint hard shielding the rock from the daylight glow. R. Wetherill. The very man who opened a brand new chapter in southwest archeology by discovering Cliff Palace in 1888. the man who spent many years discovering major ruins on Mesa Verde, Chaco and the Grand gulch notably Pueblo Bonito and Betatakin. The cowboy who successfully made the transition from a shovel to a trowel, Richard had been here!
Excited as I am, the stone had more letters written in a lazy cursive. It takes me a few minutes to read it. Halfway through I know where I am.
3 1/2 pm
1-3 gal jug
will return for
it about Oct 2
I am in Sandal house. The famous note left on Sept 28th, 1888 at 3:30pm by Richard Wetherill, a few months before he would discover Cliff Palace, states that he has found a one to three gallon intact Anasazi jar and that he will come back to fetch it on Oct 2nd.
Every neuron in my brain is now on fire. Sandal house was called First Ruin because it was the first ruin to be found in this area. The ruin has a plethora of signatures of men and women who visited the ruin in the 1880s and later. Per Fred, It is the only ruin to have inscriptions by all five Wetherill brothers. In fact, this is where Richard started wooing Marietta, who he eventually would marry – and who, allegedly, would play a part in his murder in 1910.
A loud thunder clap echoes through the valley. Sheets of rain cascade down, waves after waves drifting towards me. I walk to the rim, the alcove keeping me dry.
If there is one ruin I would want to get stuck in the rain, I am already there.