Mesa Verde National Park and Durango Colorado

Retracing the Past to Solve a Mystery

I’m held prisoner between worlds. Despite my repeated efforts, I’m still unable to open my eyes. Surrounded by 114 year old walls which have seen plenty and suspended in darkness I can’t move, something odd is happening. This morning I slept in. This fact might sound banal — especially since by “sleeping in” I mean I was up at 7:30 A.M.

Photos by Roger O’Keefe

On a sunny morning in downtown Durango Colorado, I pushed back the heavy velvet curtains in my historic hotel room , General Palmer Hotel. There, just across the street, almost close enough to touch was a shop selling sheepskin and leather clothing busily trying to open. I didn’t know where to look first. The old brick buildings with faded lettering telling stories of a Cowboy past? The Narrow Gauge railroad tracks and trains? The crepe cart vendor?

I left the curtain open and hoofed it into the bathroom. A glance in the old painted, faded wood frame holding the mirror over the sink revealed a sight anything but grand. Sure I now recognize that when the lady at the store says “Sir” she’s talking to me. Yes, the backs of my hands look like my fathers. I buy dime store glasses to read. I put orthotics in my shoes; and intentionally mis-calibrate the settings on my digital scale. I survived cancer and divorce. More absent –minded, forgetful, not that I can recall? Disciplined in my respect for the power of the nap, you betch ya. And I’ve finally come to understand what former president Bill Clinton meant when he stated that the close proximity of the Presidential bathroom to his office was key to his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Sure, I used to work out to be attractive to women, now I work out to stay alive. Boo hoo, so what now what! Breakfast at Kennebec’s, and then down to Mesa Verde National Park for the day that’s what.

Pushing old black worn buttons I’m reminded the tiny two- person elevator will not move unless the ancient black sliding gate is closed tight. This somewhat modern contraption replaced the bell, rope and tray in a closet, room service of days long gone. Back in the day this Hotel fed its guests a standard dinner for .25 cents. Hotel staff was responsible for raising their own chickens, cows, and goats’ etc. making for a long day just to prepare a meal for their guests.

I wait patiently warming up my 4- wheel drive Landcruiser in the hotel parking lot. I watch with amazement as two cowboys ride their horses into the drive thru at McDonalds. Later a cowboy bends down to grab his Egg McMuffin and his horse relieves itself to the dismay of the folks in the car patiently awaiting their turn. McDonald’s employees armed with a shovel, bucket, and hose in hand quickly clean things up. I can’t nor wish to hide my laughter, only in Durango.

Momentarily stopped downtown at College Ave. and the railroad tracks I wait on an historic train, the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge. They’ve been in continuous operation for 128 years. Durango was founded by the Denver & Rio Grande Railway in 1879. The railroad arrived in Durango on August 5, 1881.

Once able, I make a quick left and then a right as I head out-of-town West on Highway 160 for ten miles (10-15 minutes) enjoying snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Climbing up over the pass I’m treated to the La Plata Mountain range, small farms, ranches, deer, elk, horses, and alpaca. In the distance descending aspen and pine begin to give way to the desert terrain still at 5,000 feet.

This area just below the Colorado/New Mexico border is where Johnny Depp is filming the “Lone Ranger” which pretty much has to be a funny movie since Johnny Depp plays “Tonto” the Indian; yes really? Apparently he has been spotted staying off and on in an upscale residential development known as the “Ranch” in Durango where he has been reportedly seen outside smoking cigarettes. Fortunately there were no clown sightings (Johnny’s supposed unnatural fear) in the area during his stay. This is the only picture to date of Johnny Depp as Tonto.

                                                         Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and James Stewart were enamored with the town’s wild beauty and all performed in films shot here. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with Paul Newman and Robert Redford was filmed in Durango and is still one of my favorite movies to date. It is widely rumored that Marilyn Monroe was a fan of the area as well; more for relaxation in the hot springs and bar as opposed to work.

Spanish explorer Juan Rivera settled the area in 1765. The winter pacific storm track and a perfectly aligned gap between rugged mountains provide the area with the essential western water shed. If not for the water collected by the San Juan river to the south, Colorado river to the north, and Rio Grande river to the east this heavily forest-covered region would in fact be desert.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Not!

Food fans say Kennebec’s café and bakery is arguably the best breakfast in Durango. A sophisticated menu, elegant European decor, great food and attentive service provide for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. My eggs Benedict were delightful. I highly recommend a visit to their out-of-this-world bakery. As I finished, echoes beckoned from the La Plata Canyon directly outside my window. I recalled the geese and hummingbirds flying low all the way up the center of the river. Large ranches, sprawl, hugging the river protecting the precious trout from outsiders. Plenty of good public water to fish anyway. But not today. I’ll pack my fly rod, a lunch and make a day of it tomorrow.

The beauty, history, and charm of Durango are echoed in the La Plata Mountain Canyons. Pulling out back onto Highway 160 West I take in 23 miles (25 to 30 minutes) of incredible scenery. The landscape reveals lakes and rivers, fertile farm land, small ranches and country homes. Old barns dot the country side, this is John Deere country. I’m reminded America was a better place when small businesses, farms and ranches were the exception not the rule.

Durango is a birth place of romance, style, everything is magic and anything can happen. Durango was a favorite destination of Louis L’Amour. He loved writing his romance books in a room at the Strater Hotel sequestered for months at a time. He enjoyed the clinking of glasses as background from the Diamond Bell Saloon directly below him where magically love can happen anytime.

Turning left off Highway 160 I’m guided by National Park signs on smooth pavement to the entrance of one of the greatest mysteries of our time. Why did the Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde suddenly disappear never to return? Hopefully my National Park guide will have the answers I seek.

                                                          Photos by Roger O’Keefe

Mesa Verde National Park is a U.S. National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma County, Colorado, United States. The park was created in 1906 to protect some of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in the world. It occupies 81.4 square miles (211 km2) near the Four Corners and features numerous ruins of homes and villages built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, sometimes called the Anasazi. There you can find over 4,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people.

The Anasazi inhabited Mesa Verde between 550 and 1300 AD. These people were mainly subsistence farmers, growing crops on nearby mesas. Their primary crop was corn, which was also the major part of their diet. Men were also hunters, which further increased their food supply. The women of the Anasazi were famous for their elegant basket weaving. Anasazi pottery is just as famous as their baskets; their artifacts, even today, are highly prized. Since the Anasazi kept no written records, their artifacts are the only link to understanding their interesting culture.

By 750 AD, the people were building mesa-top villages made of adobe. By the late 12th century, they began to build the cliff dwellings for which Mesa Verde is famous.

Photos By Roger O’Keefe

Mesa Verde is best known for cliff dwellings, which are structures built within caves and under outcropping in cliffs — including Cliff Palace, which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America. The Spanish term Mesa Verde translates into English as “green table”.

Photos by Roger O’Keefe

The Mystery of Mesa Verde

The Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde never returned

This is all we know for certain.

As for their sudden departure, it remains a mystery to this day

Some speculate it was Mother Nature,

700 years; depleted resources, 27 years drought driven

Others suggest it was the work of cosmic forces, aliens.

Yet a bigger mystery lies before us all.

How could a peaceful; earth loving people

The Native American Indians;

Become in the eyes of so many “Vermin”?

How could people born into this world,

Content with living off the land, harmoniously

Respectful of Mother Nature in every way,

Become a Public Nuisance.

They proudly walked a trail of broken promises

This added shame to their demise;

Yet they could not see the betrayal coming.

This not yet even a part of their consciousness,

Imagine they could not; such immoral uncivilized behavior

They believe in the power of the spoken word, integrity.

Ironically after so much pain and suffering

The so called savages still teach us the sacred way.

The Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde a mere 100 souls

Never profited from our love of oil and gambling.

The Pueblo Indians of Mesa Verde never returned.


Contact Information

Durango Area Tourism Office

General Palmer Hotel

Durango Silverton Railroad

Kennebec’s café and bakery

Mesa Verde National Park


About Roger O'Keefe

My background is in education and finance. I'm a published author and photographer, former radio talk show host, and creative retirement planning expert. My work is a love of labor, I do not sell any products of any kind. I've appeared as a guest on more than 50 national and local television and radio shows. With a Masters in education, I'm a licensed educator and author of the “Future Bright Program” and the California State Department of Education “Teacher Appreciation Program.” I'm a member of the American Association of Retired Persons and the National Care Planning Council NCPC. I'm currently writing my second book and reside in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. My mission is to reshape retirement planning one person at a time. Please visit my website and take advantage of the many complimentary online seminars, resources, and retirement planning tools.
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