In 1976, on an epic “Family Road-Trip,” I visited Mesa Verde National Park with my father, mother and 2 brothers. I was only 12 years old at the time, but I distinctly remember climbing an old wooden ladder to access some of the cliff dwellings! The sandstone block and mortar rooms perched precariously on the cliffs, seemed to defy gravity as they almost magically remained in place… the visit really made an impression on me as a young boy! I have always wanted to go back and “Road-Trip 2014” seemed like the right time to do it! It’s only a few hours drive from Moab, Utah to Cortez in the southwest corner of Colorado, the closest town to Mesa Verde National Park. The Park sits hundreds of feet above the town on an almost flat mesa or more correctly called a “cuesta,” because of the slight angle of the terrain. The area was home to what we today call the Pueblo people, between 600 and 1300 AD. The Park includes over 5000 archeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings, the largest such dwelling in North America, Cliff Palace, is pictured above and below! The inhabitants of Mesa Verde didn’t just disappear, they simply moved on…. debate continues as to why. Was it drought, continued attacks from other groups, or were they seeking a more spiritual location… we don’t know, but experts believe it was probably a combination of all these events. Even though the original inhabitants are long gone, they left behind incredible evidence as to what daily life was like over 700 years ago for the Pueblo people of Mesa Verde.
I visited two of the many cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Cliff Palace and Spruce Treehouse. After I visited Spruce Treehouse, I noticed a sign for two hiking trails, Spruce Canyon and Petroglyph Point. I asked the Ranger stationed at the Spruce Treehouse how long the hike would take and she said it usually takes her about 1 hour to cover the 2.5 mile distance of either trail. I thought, perfect, a one hour hike would do me some good. I can burn off some calories from the Thai curry I ate last night and I might see some really beautiful scenery in the process! As I started to step-off from Spruce Treehouse, the Ranger reminded me to sign the trail entry-roster at the beginning of the trail and then notify the Ranger at the Museum that I had returned after I complete the hike. She said that last year a hiker had gone missing and they still have not found his body. At first I thought she was just trying to scare me into signing the roster. I made a note that I would “Google” missing-hiker-Mesa-Verde, when I got back within cell phone coverage. I took the Spruce Canyon Trail down into a beautiful pine and grass filled canyon. All the time thinking, how did the hiker last year go missing… where did he miss a turn in the trail… how did he get lost? As I followed the trail I noticed a fresh set of bear-tracks in the mud on the trail and they were heading in the same direction I was… the tracks lasted for at least a kilometer. Did the missing hiker meet up with an angry bear? Or did he fall off the cliff-trail going into, or coming out of the canyon? I didn’t know and I still wasn’t even sure if the story was true. After about 50 minuets of hiking I made it back to the Museum and reported to the desk Ranger that I had completed the hike. He said thanks and I headed to my car. I sat in the shade of a large pine tree and re-hydrated myself before departing the Park…all the time thinking about the “missing hiker…”
As I got about halfway down from the Mesa, cell phone coverage returned and I pulled-off at a view point to “Google,” missing-hiker-Mesa-Verde… and sure enough, the Ranger was telling the truth! Last year in May of 2013, a 51 year old man from Texas had gone on a solo hike in Spruce Canyon Trail… just as I had done only a few hours earlier. The only difference was, I returned and he didn’t. The Park Service conducted an exhaustive search involving 70+ personnel, dogs and airplanes to no avail… the man still has never been found. His wife reported that he was not carrying anything with him… no water… nothing. She also said he was an avid hiker. What could have possibly happened? Had he fallen? Did he miss a bend in the trail and continue down into the canyon and had succumb to the 100+ degree heat? No one knows… but there are numerous theories! As I look back on the hike, the only thing I can think is that maybe he tried to go from the Spruce Canyon Trail cross-country to the Petroglyphs Point Trail and was injured in the rough terrain? To me, the trail was well marked and I couldn’t see how he could have missed a turn had he stayed on Spruce Canyon Trail? As I pondered the situation longer, I again realize that one should NEVER-EVER hike without a day pack. I always carry one with what I think are essential items to short term survival. Even the most experienced hikers can have an accident or make a mistake and find themselves in trouble, even during an easy day hike. All of this leads me to a point…. In my next post, I will explain what I think are essential day-hike items that everyone should carry! I hope that maybe by reading my next post, someone will be better prepared in case of an emergency!
Spruce Canyon, Mesa Verde 2014.