“The desert is a reliquary, its dryness and gradual pace preserving most of what people deposited on their way through.  When the Anasazi walked away from this region some seven hundred years ago, they left it like a made house, everything in its place.”
— Craig Childs, House of Rain:  Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest

“Perhaps among the ashes, sherds, and crumbling walls we may find a strange and unexpected sort of wisdom.”
— Richard W. Lang, from an informational sign at the Anasazi Heritage Museum

Mesa country of southwestern Colorado

For the next part of our road trip, my sister-in-law and I traveled to the southwest corner of Colorado to explore Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) culture.  After reading about guided tours in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park in the April 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler, I was very interested in experiencing this “off the beaten track” access to the remnants of Anasazi life.   (You can link to the article here:  http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/ute-mountain-tribal-park-traveler/.)  The Ute Mountain Tribal Park promised to be something special because National Geographic Traveler had designated the it as one of “80 World Destinations for Travel in the 21st Century,” and it is one of only nine U.S. destinations to be selected for the list.

We signed up for a half-day tour.  There were five of us, plus our driver and a Ute guide.  We stopped at several rock art and ruin sites in the Mancos Valley in hot, dry mesa country.  The ground at all of these sites was littered with pottery sherds representative of the black-on-white pottery characteristic of Anasazi culture.  We were free to pick them up and handle them, as long as we put them back as we found them.  This is so different from Mesa Verde National Park, where all remnants have been removed and cataloged, and the sites are cleaned up.

Pottery sherds in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park

The sherds would have come from black-on-white pottery like these artifacts, which I photographed at the Anasazi Heritage Museum in Dolores, CO.

Pottery sherd, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Textured pottery sherd -- the texture helped heat to spread evenly

We saw a couple of ruins of the cliff dwellings typical of Anasazi architecture, but the rock art was the highlight of the tour.  Some of the petroglyphs reflected the Anasazi interest in celestial alignments apparent during the solstice and equinox, or in predictions of other astronomical events.  The painted pictographs of the Ute, from 1600 – 1930, depicted more “modern” images — horses, cowboys, etc.

Granary ruin, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Sun panel used in conjunction with celestial alignments

Hands and sun pictograph panel, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Hoop/Sun spiral petroglyph

Petroglyphs, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Rock art, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Bear paws, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

Woman and hands

Cowboy and horse pictograph, Ute Mountain Tribal Park

T-shaped window, characteristic of Anasazi structures, in a Tribal Park building from the 1980s

Mesas of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park

“Sermons in stones, books in the running brooks, and good in everything . . .”
— Louisa May Alcott, Little Men

” . . . there is faithfulness in rocks.”
— Adam Nicholson, Sea Room

Dramatic stone forms of volcanic tuff in the Wheeler Geologic Area

I like “off-the-beaten-path” experiences when I travel, so when my sister-in-law and I were discussing itineraries for this road trip through Colorado, her suggestion to visit the Wheeler Geologic Area intrigued me.  I had never heard of this place.  It is so remote that the only access is via hiking trail or a bone-jarring drive along 14 miles of unimproved road.

The adage about the destination being only a part of the journey applied in this case.  The journey to Wheeler was certainly an adventure.  We rented a sturdy 4-wheel-drive jeep for creeping along at speeds of 5-miles-per-hour or less over a rocky, bumpy track with hairpin curves and dips and hills.  There were only a couple of worrisome, hair-raising spots, but the road was manageable.  We were relieved, though, to finally arrive and begin exploring the Wheeler formations.

The Wheeler Geologic Area reminded me of a little Bryce Canyon, with weird-shaped spires and forms carved out of volcanic rock.  It’s definitely a place to come to if you are seeking solitude.  We were the only people camping on the night we spent there.

Here are some photos:

Journeying down the unimproved road in our rented 4-wheel-drive jeep

Testing the water depth at a low spot in the road

The road to Wheeler Geologic Area

Our campsite at the Wheeler Geologic Area

First look at the weird rock formations

Wheeler Geologic Area

Natural amphitheater at Wheeler

Approaching early evening rain storm, Wheeler Geologic Area

Road near our campsite after the rain

Nearing sunset, Wheeler Geologic Area


by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Bly

Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,

leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs —

leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next a star.

Morning: First light hitting the spires