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Rocky Mountains – North America’s Backbone – Mesa Verde, Colorado

September 24th, 2010 Posted in The Mother of all Trips

The states we collected on our tour through the Rocky Mountains are:

Colorado, number 30 and called “Colorful Colorado”

Wyoming, number 31, the so called “Equality State”

Montana, our number 32 and the “Big Sky Country” (chances are, you will see some pictures of clouds!)

Idaho, Augustin’s number 33 (I slept through it, so Augustin doesn’t allow it to be in my count), the “Gem State”

The Rocky Mountains are called “The Backbone”. Well, from a physiological point of view this is weird. If my backbone were where this backbone is, I’d be really in trouble. But historically seen it all starts to make sense. Before Europeans started to explore and later on exploit the region (that is before the late 18th century) Native American tribes inhabited the area. Nez Percé, Lakota, Crows, Ute and Shoshones lived in and with the mountains and the Great Plains.

First French Trappers and Spaniards came into the Rocky Mountains. Later on Meriwether Lewis and William Clark gained immortality after the Louisiana Purchase had taken place in 1803. Not only Louisiana, or parts of it, was purchased in what was the biggest real estate business of all times, but also areas up to the North reaching as far as today’s Canada. I added a map for you to make clear what you could buy for 50 million Dollars at that time (today worth approx. 250 million Dollars, which would still be a bargain…).


Somebody had to find out, what was there to find up in those mountains. And these somebodies were Lewis and Clark. They put together an expedition crew and set out to explore what exactly the US got for their money.

Well, for most of the Native Americans this meant the end to their peaceful lifestyle. We all know that Lewis and Clark were successful. And soon settlers followed their paths on their search for a better life. Generally this put an end to a lot of traditional life in the Rocky Mountains. Millions of acres of trees, thousands of Native Americans, almost all buffalos etc. had to make way during the colonization of the newly bought regions. Greed is an incredibly effective motor!

Within less than 100 years miners and white farmers took over the power in the Rocky Mountain states. Native Americans were displaced (not peacefully as we all know) into smaller and smaller reservations. The country and its resources were exploited. Only when tourism gained higher importance after WW II the unrestrained exploitation came to a halt. And now we are able to travel through those parts of the US and get the gist of how humbling nature is, how capable mankind is to destroy what is feeding it and maybe we will come to the conclusion that nature, in the end, will survive us anyway.

One who definitely preferred nature to the company of people and understood the importance of the treasure given to the US by nature was Henry David Thoreau, who decided to live in the woods for two years, which he described in his book „Walden“ (1854). Ok, he was also abolitionist, tax resister and development critic. But there is no doubt that he started something with his retraction from civilization that lingers on today. Words like environment and ecology gained meaning by his descriptions. 19th century landscapists followed in his footsteps, and with their paintings they contributed to a wider spread understanding about nature and its need for protection. John Muir, a Scottish-born American naturalist, author, and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States was the founder of the Sierra Club (1892), which still exists today and is one of the most active groups working for nature’s protection ( in the US.

Nowadays the National Parks, National Forests and historical monuments like Yosemite, Zion, the Grand Canyon and so many more are preferred tourism goals for Americans and travelers from all over the world. I still don’t get why a lot of them obviously still feel the need to leave their traces in form of empty beer cans, carvings on trees or cigarette butts behind, but all in all nature is a well protected and beloved treasure (at least in National Parks… ) in the US. The landscapes are breathtaking and humbling and deserve to be left as they are.

Now you had enough to read. Look at the pictures! One of the National Parks in the Rocky Mountains coming from the South is Mesa Verde. It starts out pretty dry and harmless, but wow, if you reach the peaks after an adventurous climb up those winding roads…!

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Green hills, cows and farms. Well, déjà vu, I would say. But what a kid of the Alps like I am never saw before are those little towns that look like right out of a John Wayne movie. Oh, by the way, we are in Colorado, or “Colorful Colorado”, as it is also called. It is the 30th state we visited by now.

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And up we climb, passing more cows and more farms,

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Rocks and cliffs

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And we reach a place where all reasonable road construction would normally end…

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But, they did it anyway.

Mesa Verde National Park is a bit eldritch and definitely mysterious. An ancient people called the Anasazi lived here and left their unearthly amazing buildings behind. But first have a look at some of the ancient findings (not all of them are originals…)

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The Navajo Canyon allows visitors to get a glimpse on the lives of ancient tribes in their pueblos. The ground of the canyon was fertile enough to grow corn (called mais as in German!) and other fruit. There was enough water and deer to hunt to enable a whole new culture to develop. And only well fed people are able to accomplish something like this! The Anasazi, or more correctly ancient Puebloans, lived here from approx. 550 to 1300 A.D. They lived on the top of the canyon and in the alcoves on the ground. They managed to build cliff dwellings as high as four stories and up to 150 rooms big.

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Why the ancient Puebloans disappeared is not completely clear. Scientists guess, they were overtaken by the same fait as other highly developed people. Their population grew up to approx. 5000 individuals. And so the soil, once so fertile, depleted, years of drought and lack of food might have made them leave those amazing homes.

In 1888 two cowboys searching for straying cattle in a snowstorm stopped on the edge of the canyon. Through the snowflakes they saw what they later called „Cliff Palace“. Climbing down on a makeshift ladder they forgot about the lost cattle and were astonished by the sophistication of the buildings on the ground of the canyon. Willa Cather wrote about this scene:“It was more like sculpture than anything else…preserved…like a fly in amber.“ And that is what one feels nowadays when stopping at one of the roadside outlooks and looking down at those witnesses of a long gone culture. It rather feels like a huge piece of art than like an actual dwelling once inhabited by people.

The Mesa Verde earned its name as you can see. From above it looks like a huge green table cloth spread negligently over a huge table. Peacefully empty, the occasional hikers, some cars climbing up and down the roads and an incredibly blue and wide sky above.

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Our next stop was Durango. It is said to be the most charming gold digger city of the region. Well, this still has to be decided. What it has is an amazing restaurant serving Asian-American fusion cuisine called „East by Southwest“. And a big car is named after Durango… Other than that the city was a bit too silent and boring. But that can’t be absolutely false, if you only want to spend the night.

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More about gold diggers and miners in the second part about the Rockies!

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