I don’t know that a National Park has ever impacted me the way that Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado recently did. A week later, I’m still trying to understand why my mind goes back to those ancient dwellings carved in the cliffs. The place gave me a message that I’m still trying to decode. The most powerful message was about wrestling words to paper.
We visited Mesa Verde on our Grandkid Trip, a trip we take each of our grandchildren on when they turn 10-years-old. We tell the kids we’ll take them anywhere in the U.S. they want to go.
This year, it was Isaiah McNary’s turn. He originally chose New York City, but then Covid-19 hit and that was out of the question. Next, he chose the Grand Canyon, so we made a road/camping trip out of it. Mesa Verde was a great stop along the way to pitch a tent and enjoy the National Park.
The Mesa Verde Cliff dwellings were built about around 700 AD and were a vibrant community of an estimated 5,000 people for centuries. Then they disappeared around 1,200 AD – about the time the Magna Carta was written a world away – leaving all of their furnishings behind. Some speculate it was a long drought; tree rings give evidence of that. Others suggest conflict with other tribes. But no one knows with certainty.
In the late 1800’s, the cliffs were discovered by a cowboy looking for his lost cattle. Soon, visitors came from all over the world and helped themselves to all of the pottery, tools and other possessions left behind. Some even resorted to dynamite to blast apart the structure looking for curios.
Finally, Virginia McClurg and Lucy Peabody, with 250,000 of their closest friends in the Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Colorado Cliff Dwellers Association convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to make it a National Park, then pass a law prohibiting the theft of historic artifacts.
The Cliff Palace was the most accessible as far as photography. However, Covid prohibited any tours, but gazing out on the valley for someone with an active imagination like mine, I don’t need a guided tour.
Although I’m trying to decode the other messages I received, the most important one is clear: the importance of writing.
The defining line between prehistory and history is words written down. Oral cultures are vulnerable because they rely solely on memories passed down through verbal stories. But written words! Oh, to have had one person who lived in those cliffs to have journaled their story!
As I gazed over a valley where the culture of Mesa Verde disappeared, it occurred to me that half a world away in Europe, one of the most significant documents on human rights was written down; the Magna Carta. As my son, Caleb, says, “No one ever changed a culture by talking about it.”
Perhaps another reason the importance of writing hit me so hard is that just a few days before we went on our trip, we laid to rest my wife’s 94-year-old grandmother, a true saint. In her lifetime, she saw the world change more dramatically than any time in history and was the first woman to graduate from college from our little hometown then became a teacher in a one-room school.
A library disappeared when she died. There is no woman in our small community who had such tremendous impact on the lives and values of our small town.
Oh, how I’d love to read her words! I can still draw inspiration from her memory, but not her written words; they don’t exist.
I hope you write your story down. Someone is waiting to be inspired by you.