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Thursday, March 7, 2024

March 7, 2024: National Park Studying: Mesa Verde

[On March 3rd, 1849, Congress created a new federal government agency, the Department of the Interior. One of the department’s most significant focal points has become the National Park System, so this week I’ll celebrate Interior’s 175th birthday by AmericanStudying a handful of our great Parks, leading up to a post on National Historical Parks!]

On two distinct but complementary effects to a foundational AmericanStudier moment.

When I was in 7th grade, my family and I took a trip out West to visit a number of Southwestern National Parks. We saw Zion, Bryce, Four Corners, and the Grand Motherfucking Canyon (pardon my French, but I’m pretty sure that’s the full official name), and even checked out a bit of Las Vegas when we flew in and out of the city. But there’s no doubt at all that it was Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park that most affected this 12 year old AmericanStudier. There were lots of spaces and moments in Mesa Verde that hit me, but by far the most moving was a post-sunset encounter with a coyote as we explored an aboveground (ie, not a cliff dwelling) Pueblo ruin in the park. Probably didn’t hurt that I had been reading a bunch of Tony Hillerman mysteries on the trip, as the moment felt right out of such evocative Southwestern thrillers (although luckily we didn’t stumble upon a dead body or awaken an ancient curse or the like). But I would say that the moment affected me, and indeed was foundational for my lifelong AmericanStudying, in a couple key ways that go well beyond Leaphorn & Chee mysteries and that also reflect essential elements to a site like Mesa Verde.

For one thing, the moment made crystal clear something that a know-it-all 12 year old (or 46 year old…) can sometimes have difficulties remembering: just how much I didn’t and don’t know. As I wrote in that same blog post on Hillerman, Mesa Verde has long been defined by a couple central mysteries of its own: the question of why the Anasazi people abandoned their cliff dwellings, and what happened to them after they left. It appears that some significant recent progress has been made in answering those questions, which of course is part of the historical and cultural process as well. But in truth, the mystery of Mesa Verde is just a more extreme version of a fundamental but all too easily forgotten fact about all historical knowledge—there’s a lot more that we don’t know than we’ll ever know, and most of the things we do know we only kinda know (to get all Rumsfeldian on ya). And that’s never more true than when it comes to the simple but crucial question of what it meant, or really what it felt like, to live in these historical periods and places. I love the interpretations of the past at places like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg, but that’s all they are, interpretations; we’ll never really know what life was like for those folks in those worlds, and I felt that divide, acutely and potently, as I stood atop that darkened Mesa Verde ruin.

But at the same time, I felt something else, something I’d call not contradictory so much as complementary: I wanted to bridge that divide. I wanted to learn as much as I could about periods and places and peoples, really all of ‘em but most especially all those that felt most distinct from me and mine. I wanted to read about them and talk about them and, perhaps most of all, write about them, help create stories that could, not exactly bring them back to life of course, but make them a part of our own moment and world as fully as those unavoidable gaps would allow. I don’t think that was the first time I felt that desire so acutely (I’m sure I did on my Camp Virginia trips, for example), but it was one of the strongest such moments, and it has stuck with me to be sure. I’ve visited and been inspired by a lot of cultural and historic sites in the decades since, including a number of federal National Historic Parks, and will write about some of my favorites in that latter category in the weekend post. But Mesa Verde remains striking and perhaps singular in that regard, a place and moment with which I was confronted with especial force with both the challenges and the call of all that I’ve tried to spend my career doing. So, y’know, it’s well worth a visit if you’re out that way!

Last Park tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other National Parks you’d highlight?

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