The Anasazi Treasures of Canyons of the Ancients

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Kokopelli, a fertility character who appears in much ancient Ancestral Puebloan art, adorns this bowl. ©Laurel Kallenbach

[April 26, 2017 update: The Trump administration is placing Canyons of the Ancients National Monument under review for possible removal from the National Landscape Conservation System, which would endanger irreplaceable, ancient archaeological sites. The Bureau of Land Management still allows for grazing and oil and gas development on parts of the monument, just as it did before President Clinton designated the federal protection of this land in  June of 2000.]

Ten miles from Cortez, Colorado, is the Anasazi Heritage Center, the visitor’s center and museum for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. This first-rate museum should be the first stop for every visitor who wants to understand the archaeological treasures of the Anasazi. (The Anasazi are now called Ancestral Puebloans because these ancient people were the ancestors of current Pueblo tribes.)

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ancestral Puebloan pottery ©Laurel Kallenbach

First, some background on Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. Declared a National Monument in 2000, this unique, federally protected area—176,056 acres—contains the highest known density of archaeological sites in the United States. More than 6,000 ancient sites including cliff dwellings, kivas, and rock art have been identified. 

I’m a museum buff, and this one lets you see the best of the artifacts—which you won’t see in the field. I learned about kivas (ceremonial, subterranean, circular rooms) and how corn was ground by hand with stones. I even eye-balled some pottery sherds under a microscope. And I marveled at beautifully preserved examples of 900-year-old pottery and tools.

I also loved the philosophy of education and cross-cultural understanding here. There’s a children’s discovery center where you can touch a dog-hair weaving and grind corn between rocks as the Ancestral Puebloans did.

“In archaeology, a rock’s not just a rock,” says Victoria Atkins, the Heritage Center’s interpretive specialist. “It tells a story about what people in the past ate, how they lived, how they spent their time. We try to add a human touch to understanding the past.”

A 10-minute film, “Visit with Respect,” does just that. It outlines rules for preserving ancient sites: Don’t climb on or eat near the ruins, never disturb or remove bits of pottery or rock that you find, and stay on paths. It also illustrates how the ruined villages are sacred to today’s Pueblo tribes—Hopi, Acoma, Laguna—who believe the ruins are home to their ancestors’ spirits. These people ask the spirits’ permission before entering sacred spaces—and offer thanks when they leave.

My husband and I got our first chance to greet the spirits of the ancestors at Escalante Pueblo, located just up the hill from the Anasazi Heritage Center. From this height, we surveyed McPhee Reservoir and Mesa Verde.

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pitchers, cups and ladels on display at the Anasazi Heritage Center museum. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also admired the rocky profile of Sleeping Ute Mountain, a range of peaks resembling a fallen warrior with his arms crossed over his chest. He wears a different blanket each season: white in winter, green in spring and summer, and gold in fall. The legend says the warrior will someday rise again.

One note for visitors to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument: there’s no fee to visit, but no water is available, and there are no campgrounds (primitive roadside camping is allowed).

For more information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country visitor information bureau.

—Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally published October 2008

Read more about my travels in America’s national parks and monuments:

Washington’s Cherry Blossoms Symbolize International Friendship

America’s greatest springtime festival is without a doubt the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. There’s a parade, a kite festival, a humdinger of an opening ceremony (featuring musicians from around the globe), numerous arts performances, special exhibitions at the Smithsonian museums that line the National Mall, and even merchandise like posters, lapel pins, T-shirts, and more. Tourism surges as people visit from all over the world to greet the pink blossoms that herald the arrival of spring.

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Washington Monument framed by cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Behind all the hoopla are the cherry trees themselves, and they represent the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan. Each year, the National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates the 1912 gift of 3,020 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington D.C. In March of that year, First Lady Helen Taft and the wife of the Japanese ambassador, Viscountess Chinda, together planted the first two trees from Japan on the north bank of the Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park. (Mrs. Taft had lived in Japan and was familiar with the beauty of the flowering cherry trees, so she helped facilitate the gift from Japan.)

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin in Washington, DC ©Laurel Kallenbach

The trees were just the first of the many gifts that have been exchanged between the two countries. In 1915, the United States reciprocated by shipping flowering dogwood trees to the people of Japan.

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S.–Japanese friendship was strained, but after WWII, the nations again reached out in peace. A 17th-century granite pagoda statue arrived from the mayor of Yokohama, Japan, in 1957 to commemorate the original Treaty of Peace and Amity between Japan and America, which was signed in Yokohama in 1854. The Pagoda statue was also erected along the Tidal Basin (near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial), and it’s appropriately surrounded by the cherry trees.

Say It with Flowers

The Tidal Basin is one of the best places to see the cherry blossoms, especially in the context of patriotic monuments. By strolling along the banks of the Tidal Basin, tens of thousands of people every year are rewarded with gorgeous views of national memorials, including the Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument, the FDR Memorial and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Jefferson Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I walked about three-quarters of the entire loop trail to admire the blossoms and to listen to some of the small ensembles from the Boulder Philharmonic who were playing near several of the monuments. (The orchestra, which Ken plays in, was one of four invited to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the SHIFT Festival for American Orchestras.)

There were crowds of people out on sunny, but windy, day, including numerous visitors from Japan. It was delightful seeing people, whose country gave us these trees, snapping selfies in front of the monuments.

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

Taking selfies with the cherry blossoms ©Laurel Kallenbach

As Ken and I walked, we paused at the monuments to read the inspiring words of the great men of our nation who are commemorated along the Tidal Basin. At the beautiful FDR Memorial, which comprises bronze artwork and waterfalls, two quotes by our 32nd president stood out for me.

The first was “We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization” (January 9, 1940). The second Roosevelt quote that struck me was, “Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men” (January 24, 1935).

(You can read some of the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in my post about that monument).

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

Violinist Jennifer Carsillo and Michael Gutterman (the Boulder Phil conductor) perform beside the Jefferson Monument. ©Ken Aikin

And of course, at the Thomas Jefferson Monument, our third president’s words from the Declaration of Independence rang loud and true, although at the time he wrote them, the “created equal” part applied only to white men: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

All my life I’ve been hearing about the wonders of the Cherry Blossom Festival, but the beauty of the trees, their flowers, the water, the wide sky, and the patriotic monuments really must be seen to be believed. Not only is the festival a tribute to history and nature, it celebrates the very concept of international harmony. What could be more inspiring and uplifting?

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banks of blossoms in front of the Washington Monument ©Laurel Kallenbach

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, DC

I haven’t been to Washington, D.C., since the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial was built. Regal and inspirational, the likeness of this great civil rights leader gazes out over the waters of Tidal Basin. Sculpted by Chinese master artist Lei Yixin, the memorial is particularly gorgeous when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

Cherry blossoms decorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cherry blossoms decorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister and social activist who became a notable figure during the U.S. civil rights movement from the mid-1950s until he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A message of nonviolence

Dr. King is the first African-American honored with a memorial on the National Mall. He played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens, and he influenced the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 because he preached and practiced a nonviolent philosophy striving for freedom, justice, and equality

The granite face of Dr. King is resolute, and his arms are crossed as if to say, “I am here to defend the civil rights of African-Americans and all other disenfranchised folks. I will not yield until all men and women and children have equal rights, regardless of race, gender/gender identity, ethnicity, religious belief, or political affiliation.”

There are quotes by Dr. King carved upon a wall at the back of the monument. ©Laurel Kallenbach

There are quotes by Dr. King carved upon a wall at the back of the monument. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least that’s what I heard him say as I stood looking up at the towering statue. My visit to the memorial was particularly meaningful because I remember the day Dr. King was assassinated—it was my brother’s birthday—and my family watched the funeral procession on TV a few days later. Also, I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and in the early 1970s there was a lot of racial tension leading up to school busing to desegregate the public schools. I was shocked when I heard that the Klan was staging rallies; naively I had assumed the days of the KKK were long gone.

Words that changed America

On a sunny morning during the Cherry Blossom Festival, the monument was buzzing with people from all over the world, speaking numerous languages. I watched as a young Muslim woman had her photo taken in front of Dr. King’s statue. Drummers from the Boulder Philharmonic—who were in D.C. as honorees of the SHIFT Festival of American Orchestras—played near the monument, and their African-style drumming resounded across the Tidal Basin.

"Out of the mountain of despair." ©Laurel Kallenbach

“Out of the mountain of despair.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

On the massive stone behind Dr. King is inscribed “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” a line from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

And behind that is a granite mountain split in half, which some people say represents Stone Mountain in Georgia, the site of a Civil War memorial carved into the side of the mountain. It depicts Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Stone Mountain is also the place where the Ku Klux Klan was re-founded in 1915. In addition, I personally think the bisected mountain represents the monolithic block of racism that the Civil Rights Movement cleft in two.

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King's speeches about freedom. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Visitors pored over the quotes from Dr. King’s speeches about freedom. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A wall behind the monument is inscribed with words from Dr. King’s speeches over the years, including a famous line that I find so inspiring: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

I also loved King’s hope-filled statement, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” (You can learn more about the quotes at the memorial on the National Park Service website.)

The struggle for civil rights for all people will continue, and thankfully the wisdom and vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. will encourage and empower people forever. Having a monument to commemorate one of our most courageous and tireless heroes is a powerful reminder of the conflicts of the past—along with the work that must continue into the future.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Injustice anywhere ©Laurel Kallenbach

In this 1963 quote, King addressed the need to eliminate injustice. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is part of the National Mall and Memorial Parks, and it is open free of charge. The memorial is located at the intersection of Independence Avenue and West Basin Drive SW in Washington, D.C. Parking is limited near the memorial. The nearest metro stop is Smithsonian.