Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 19, 2018

Beyond the “Attractions;” More Than Just the Cliff Dwellers’ Ruins

En route to see his parents in South Carolina, a man drives 600 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona to Amarillo, Texas. On the phone that night, he tells a friend about the scenery he saw. Here’s what he describes.

AZ desert Brad Nixon 3814 (640x479)

“That’s all you saw for 8 hours?” the friend asks. “Yep,” he says. “There’s nothing out there, other than a couple of towns and one city. No big attractions at all.”

We’ll forgive our traveler. Perhaps he knows otherwise and ignores the facts, because he has all that distance to cover: He passed a gigantic meteor crater, spectacular canyons, dramatic cliffs, mesas and buttes, innumerable variations in flora and fauna and thousands of prehistoric sites, villages, pueblos and even small cities with ruins, petroglyphs, burials and monuments of ancient native people.

But no “big attractions.”

We travelers owe it to ourselves to be as curious as possible. The more we investigate, the better chance we have of understanding a place. Paris is more than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. China is more than the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

Travel writers can be complicit in promoting the “big attraction” idea of tourism. I’ve done it. Here’s an iconic site, familiar to many travelers in the American west.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9799 (640x480)

That’s Cliff Palace ruin in Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. The cliff dwellings in the canyons of Mesa Verde are the focus of attention for more than half a million visitors each year.

Not so highly visited, but familiar to Under Western Skies readers, is this ruin, also an ancestral Puebloan dwelling, 80 miles southeast of Mesa Verde:

Pueblo Bonito pano 1 Brad Nixon (640x221)

That’s Pueblo Bonito, largest of the “Great Houses” in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Forebears of the community that built Cliff Palace constructed Pueblo Bonito, about 150 years earlier.

I’ve written numerous articles from several visits to those memorable places. There’s much more to write about than the major structures, though, because Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and other sites preserve far more than just visually stunning ruins. They had a long history of occupation by successive cultures that evolved from hunting and gathering, to pithouse dwellings and above-ground pueblo-style architecture, but they’re not nearly so dramatic:

Mesa Verde ruin Marcy Vincent (417x640)

Mesa Verde’s mesa tops and canyons include hundreds of prehistoric sites. Not all are marked or accessible, some are off-limits to tourists, but there are enough marked on your visitor guide to give you a fuller appreciation of the fascinating evolution of human occupation there.

Chaco Canyon contains more than 2,400 known archaeological sites, not just the Great Houses. Some date back through successive waves of occupation and migration, probably spanning 8,000 years.

When you visit, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find time to explore the “major attractions …”

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

… probably giving short shrift to the less spectacular sites.

I’ve sometimes done the same in this blog, highlighting the attractions, motivated by my enthusiasm for the parks and the importance of preserving them.

The massive amount of information archaeologists and associated researchers have compiled about the 8,000 years of human occupation in the area is worth exploring, both in geographical breadth and chronological depth. It demonstrates the enormous capacity humans have to adapt to a changing climate, respond to shifts in population and weather patterns and adopt new technology and crops.

We know a lot about how people lived in the area from one era to another. As visitors, taking advantage of the opportunity to broaden our view to include more than the major ruins lets us better appreciate the power of human ingenuity. Knowing more about the phases of cultural evolution helps us construct better narratives about how those before us lived, and perhaps gain some insight about coexisting with the natural world, ourselves.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2974 (640x468)

One thing we know is that those cultures relocated again and again when conditions worsened though drought or overhunting. It happened when the ancestral Puebloans abandoned Chaco in the 12th Century, then left Mesa Verde at the beginning of the 14th. They didn’t mysteriously disappear. They did what humans had been doing in the area over thousands of years: They moved to places where there was more water, more reliable rainfall, and adopted new modes of living — especially farming  — that allowed them to survive. They did survive. They’re still there.

I know that, because I’ve visited them. I’ve walked in their settlements at First Mesa in the Hopi reservation, the awe-inspiring Sky City of Acoma Pueblo. They’re two of the longest-occupied places in the United States: nearly 800 years. Perhaps most memorable of all, I saw some reflection of the dances and rituals that the ancient ones practiced in the plazas of Chaco Canyon a thousand years ago. On the annual feast day of the Kewa Pueblo, along the Rio Grande south of Santa Fe, lines of male and female dancers, impressively arrayed, performed a powerful series of ritual dances I’ll never forget. They preserve some deep memory of the ancient world.

Despite the gulf of time between now and then, some portion of the ancestral Puebloans is still here. I have no pictures of the Hopi First Mesa, Sky City or the Kewa Corn Dance, because those are sacred spaces, and I have only memory and words.

Whatever memory and words we can capture from the past must serve us. The sun still shines, the rain and snow still fall. The piñon and juniper now grow where people farmed maize and beans, hunted rabbits and deer. We owe it to ourselves to understand as much as we can, examining more about how those ancient ones were connected to the landscape, winter snow and summer thunderstorms. We’re subject to the same natural world, just as they were, although we don’t always take time to consider our place in it. We have a lot to learn. Sometimes we have to turn away from that compelling picture and look at other details. They may be less photogenic, but may count for more. It may be something that can’t be photographed at all. Our survival may depend on it, as did theirs.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. I love the way this was written..beyond the “attractions” and focus instead on what the eyes would normally miss. I love wide open roads and spaces as much as I love magnificent rock formations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. There’s a lot of significance in that open space!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Exactly – there’s a story in every place we visit no matter how simple or spectacular 😊


  2. What a thoughtful look at the landscape. I’m glad you’ve put such a positive spin on things, Brad. There is a lot to learn, but so long as people are willing to look and listen… 🙂 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When I began writing about my journey through Kansas two years ago, the response from many readers was similar: “Kansas? There’s nothing in Kansas.”

    I have some sympathy for that response, because I’ve been that person: traveling blind through a world of wonders. As you suggest, the good news is that we can learn to see the realities of the present, and sense the realities of the past.

    Liked by 1 person

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