Mesa Verde: An Archaeological Pilgrimage

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Cliff Palace, Mesa Verde National Park ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado (near Four Corners) ranked Number 1 on my destination list after I first visited its intriguing, mysterious cliff dwellings at age five. I credit my fascination with archaeology to this park. A love for all things ancient has become one of my lifelong passions.

My childhood sense of adventure was kindled by climbing log ladders to reach Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings—built by the Anasazi people, as they were called when I was a kid. (Today they’re called Ancestral Pueblo people because they were the forebears of the Pueblo tribes that now live in Arizona and New Mexico.) Hearing stories about Anasazi ceremonial, underground, circular rooms, called kivas, sparked my imagination.

Decades later, Mesa Verde continues to enchant me. I’ve take archaeological pilgrimages there four times since my parents first brought me. Over the years, I’ve never tired of hiking southwest Colorado’s desert landscape or pondering the archaeological remnants of the Anasazi culture, which thrived in the area’s canyons and high plateaus from about 600 to 1300 A.D.

Today, the park protects over 4,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings—the most notable and best preserved in the United States. Cliff Palace is the most visited, and it’s exciting because you can see it from a distance before you hike down to explore it.

Park ranger Tim McNeil, Mesa Verde ©Laurel Kallenbach.JPG

Park ranger Tim McNeil explains the history of Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ranger Interpretation Adds Dimension

Some of Mesa Verde’s cliff dwellings are open only when you’re guided by a ranger. You’ll need to buy a reserved ticket up to two days in advance at the Mesa Verde Visitor Center or Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum in the national park, or at the Durango Welcome Center in the nearby city of Durango.

Though it takes some extra effort and cost ($5 per person), it’s well worth it. The rangers who led my husband and I through the beautiful dwellings were fountains of knowledge—and their knowledge of history and archaeology helped bring the ruins to life.

You don’t need to know that little windowed niches tucked under the cliffs were for storing corn and beans to appreciate the sandy geometry of the architecture or the permanence of stone. Still, it’s nice to know the function of towers, “middens” or garbage dumps, or about the spiritual significance of the sipapu, a small hole in the floor of the circular kiva. (The sipapu is the symbol of the Place of Emergence, where humans entered through the earth world from the spirit world according to the beliefs of the Puebloans.)

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ladders lead up the cliff to Balcony House in Mesa Verde. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Climbing to Balcony House

To visit the Balcony House ruin, you climb log ladders up a cliff, scramble through Balcony House’s narrow passageway just as the ancients who lived here a millennia ago did.

Four decades after I first visited as a little kid, Balcony House’s tunnel is a tight squeeze for me—yet Mesa Verde continues to charm me. Ranger Tim McNeil described the Ancestral Puebloan diet, which relied heavily on piñon nuts and “The Three Sisters”: corn, beans and squash, which are not only staples, but grow symbiotically.

Looking at thousand-year-old beams and rooms gives me a different perspective—of how short a time we have to live, and how many wonderful antiquities there are to explore.

For details on Mesa Verde, see Visit Mesa Verde.  For information on the region, visit Mesa Verde Country.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer

First posted in August 2011

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

Winter Snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain Park

Blue skies, fresh snow: what better Christmas present could you ask for?

On Christmas day, my husband, my dad, and I went snowshoeing in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a gorgeous sunny day, mild in temperature, with no wind—unusual in winter in the high mountains.

We parked at the Sprague Lake parking lot, which was fairly busy for a winter day—but then again, it was a holiday with perfect weather and lots of snow.

We three tramped past the lake and through the forest for a distance. So many of the pines were brown from pine beetles, but still it was beautiful: sun shining on snow crystals, the kodachrome-blue sky, the chatter of squirrels.

The snow squealed and crunched under our snowshoes. “Guess we won’t be sneaking up on any wildlife,” I joked.

Our outing was magical, and we stopped to admire a lovely view of Hallet’s Peak. Then we returned to the lake, where you could walk over ice to cross to the other side. A lot of families were out—many of them from out of town. (Wearing tennis shoes in snow drifts is always a giveaway.) Some kids were sledding on a hill.

One young man without a coat—he looked like he was from India—was fascinated by my snowshoes and poles. “Are those skis?” he asked. I shook my head: “No, these are snowshoes.” I’m not sure if he understood, but he smiled as he watched us crunch away on them.

Rocky Mountain Park in winter

Our National Treasures

Meeting people from other parts of the country and world reminded me of what a treasure our national parks are. They’ve all been set aside as natural or historic preserves with little or no development allowed. They’re some of our country’s greatest natural wonders. They let people experience the magnificence of the outdoors in ways they otherwise might never have.

Although most visitors come during summer, Rocky Mountain Park is open year round—even for snow camping.

My father, who lives in Estes Park, Colo., hikes and snowshoes in Rocky Mountain Park year round.

There’s something special about visiting a national park in the off-season—like it’s a secret nobody else knows about. Normally there are few visitors, so you might get the place all to yourself.

Of course, quite a few people—many of them wearing Santa hats—were out on Christmas day. But it was a secret I’m glad to share.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Rocky Mountain National Park has 355 miles of hiking trails ranging from flat lakeside strolls to steep mountain peak climbs.

Protect the national parks you visit by following the Leave No Trace principles.

Originally published on December 27, 2010

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

Colorado’s St. Walburga Abbey Offers Contemplative Retreats

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lifesize bronze statue of St. Walburga in a nun’s habit and long robes gazes serenely over the rocky hills and low pines near Virginia Dale, Colorado. Above the saint, a red hawk dips and dives in the air currents. In this serene Western landscape live 20-plus Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of St. Walburga,  a community devoted to God and the contemplative life.

The nuns observe choral worship seven times a day; maintain a small farm with llamas, bees, and grassfed beef cows; and make handmade cheeses. (And they do all this in full-length skirts and habits!)

The abbey's sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

The abbey’s sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

They also welcome not-particularly-religious people like me who are seeking a quiet place to retreat from the hubbub of life.

Located 35 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and 30 miles south of Laramie, Wyoming, St. Walburga Abbey is a tranquil spot for people to slip away from the cares of everyday life and retreat into solitude, contemplation, or prayer.

The beautiful, modern chapel and abbey building—created from eco-friendly, climate-efficient building materials—is a breath of fresh air. Here you can spend one to five days getting away from it all in a restorative environment.

And you don’t have to be Catholic. (In fact, I’m told the majority of retreatants are from other belief systems or simply want time to catch their breath in a beautiful setting.)

I’ve come several times to St. Walburga Abbey for writing retreats at the suggestion of writer friends. All of them have gotten their books published, so there must be divine inspiration at work!

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors to the Abbey. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Home with a Saint

The statue of a serene-faced saint greets me as I drive up, and she sets a welcoming tone. In St. Walburga’s hand is an emblematic bottle of oil. At her burial crypt in Germany, it’s said that drops of oil flow from the saint’s relics, and this oil is used to heal the sick. I’m inclined to believe in this miracle; I know I start to feel better as soon as I arrive in this gorgeous landscape.

Having a set schedule—the same every day—is relaxing for me too. The nuns’ day is centered around the Divine Office—the seven periods of prayer and psalm-singing spaced throughout the day and night. I try to attend one daily, though I’ve never made it to the 4:50 a.m. Matins. There’s a pamphlet with the words that the sisters chant—and visitors can join in. (Just follow the sisters in standing and sitting down at various times. Don’t worry, the liturgy is mostly sung in English.)

I always give the singing/chanting my best shot, even though the pitch is a bit high for me and I’m not always sure when the notes change. But when at the Abbey, it’s nice to join in the culture. And it’s a perfect way for me to break up writing sessions. The words of a psalm sung at morning Lauds (held at a more doable 7:15 a.m.) inspired a scene in my novel.

There are beautiful tapestries to admire in the Abbey, both in and outside the sanctuary. If you are Catholic, you can enjoy a scenic walk around the Stations of the Cross—or you can simply meander the property or sit in the gardens and enjoy the view. In summer when the windows are open you can enjoy the chanting from the garden—or even from your cozy room.

A pastoral setting.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The pastoral setting is perfect for contemplative walks in nature.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The history is as fascinating as the place is beautiful. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the nuns of the original St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Germany (Bavaria), realized they were in danger of persecution, so the Abbess bought farm land on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, and quietly sent a few nuns to America to establish a new home for them in the event the rest of the order was forced to flee Germany. In the 1990s, the Abbey left Boulder for rural northern Colorado because the area around their farmland was developed and became surrounded by a busy commuter roads and a noisy highway. There, like me, they found peace.

Abbey Habits

On my visits to the Abbey—I usually go for two or three nights at a time—I feel myself exhale and slow down until I’m in step with this tranquil setting. I’m glad there’s no Internet; and I don’t even check my cell phone to see if there’s coverage. Instead, I chant, I write, I visit with other retreatants or a nun—if she’s got the time. (The sisters have much work to do every day, including cooking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, tending the livestock…and praying of course.)

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my most recent visit, the entire retreat center was full with a group of 18 doing a three-day silent retreat. So meals were completely nonverbal, which I enjoyed. On my first visit, the guests consisted of me and just one other woman who was a little too chatty. No worries, I simply pinned a badge on my sweater that stated I was keeping silence. That kept me in my own space instead of making small talk that distracted me from my writing or that crowded out my characters’ fictional voices in my head.

I’ll pass along a tip one of my friends shared with me the first time I went to the Abbey of St. Walburga: take snacks. The cafeteria-style meals are lovingly prepared, but basic and modest. There’s a refrigerator for retreatants, so you can easily store a few treats for between-meal munching. That said, the sisters make a huge effort to accommodate special dietary needs, and there are often homemade cookies for dessert!

Another thing: attire at the Abbey is casual, even though the sisters are wearing their Sunday best every day—except when they change into work clothes and aprons for chores. Because it’s outdoorsy, you need sturdy walking shoes. And you can wear jeans and a T-shirt into the church (but not shorts or sleeveless shirts).

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last but not least, there are bells. Every day, a sister walks to the bell tower wearing noise-reducing headphones for ear protection, and she begins to ring the bells. First, they peal just one at a time. Then the sister gets both going at once. The jubilant bells beckon to all who seek harmony as if saying: “Come to the life-affirming, serenity-inspired sanctuary that is the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

Who the retreats are for: People desiring peace and quiet and open air. The day begins and ends early. (You’re welcome to keep your own hours, of course, but you should respect the privacy and quiet of others both day and night.) There is no WiFi, and cell phone coverage is spotty, which is perfect if you’re serious about unplugging. Three meals a day are provided; the food tends to be simple. Rooms are comfy and modest with a twin-sized bed and private bathrooms. (There is also a handicapped-accessible room, and one with two beds to accommodate a married couple.) A minimum donation/offering of $65 per night is requested. Here’s more information on retreats (either organized through the Abbey or just personal retreats).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Watch the “Rancher Nuns” video about the St. Walburga nuns.

The sign on Highway 287. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign just off Highway 287 between Laramie and Ft. Collins. ©Laurel Kallenbach


Lions, Tigers, Bears Rest Easy at Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary

Tigers are probably my favorite animal, and the ones at Colorado's Wild Animal Sanctuary were splendid! Two tigers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tigers are my favorite animal, and the ones at Colorado’s Wild Animal Sanctuary were splendid! ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is not a zoo. Yet it’s a special place where people can watch and listen to exotic animals—especially big cats, wolves, and bears.

Located on the plains of northern Colorado near Keenesburg, the Sanctuary does not exist to entertain people. First and foremost, it’s a safe, caring home to wild animals who were raised and kept in captivity; most have been rescued from inhumane cages and enclosures or from abusive circuses and zoos or breeding farms around the world. Here, they roam on acres of Colorado grasslands.

This is probably the closest thing to “home”—a true resting place of peace—that these animals have ever had. For me, the Sanctuary was an opportunity to see them living in dignity—not performing tricks or jumping through hoops or pacing in a cage or suffering other horrors at the hands of human captors.

A pair of rescued grizzlies play at the Sanctuary. Photo courtesy WAS

A pair of rescued grizzlies play. Photo courtesy of the Wild Animal Sanctuary

My recent trip, as part of a volunteer group that helped plant trees in the Sanctuary, afforded me the chance to be close to some of the most majestic animals in the world. Human visitors are allowed to watch lions, wolves, foxes, bears, jaguars, tigers, and more from a system of elevated walkways and observation decks. The main reason humans have this opportunity is because large-animal predators don’t consider the sky to be part of their territory, so even though they can smell and see and hear us bipeds as we gawk at them from above, the animals don’t feel threatened.

The second reason humans have the privilege of viewing the animals is that the people who run the Wild Animal Sanctuary want to educate people about the exploitation of animals. As you wander along the walkways, signs describing the conditions from which the animals were rescued are a sad testament to human cruelty. A few animals have visible scars and disabilities from having been kept as exhibits, entertainment, or pets. I was appalled to learn that there are more captive tigers in the state of Texas than live in the wild worldwide.

Susan Preiss was among the group of volunteers  who planted trees. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Susan Preiss was among our group of volunteers who planted trees at the Sanctuary. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Our Day at the Sanctuary

My husband and I pitched in for a volunteer day at the Sanctuary with Boulder Media Woman, an organization I’m a member of. We met in our grubby work clothes and hats in north Boulder and carpooled to the Sanctuary about an hour northeast of us. Just driving into the Sanctuary, we spotted tigers and bears and ostriches.

We soon set to work digging up small tree saplings from a nursery area and then we replanted them along a road in the Sanctuary. After a few hours of hot, muddy work, it was time to see the animals.

We entered the main gates and began our stroll along a mile-long elevated walkway. To my amazement, we stood just 50 feet above free-range big cats and wolves. And although the animals certainly saw and heard us, they appeared to be unconcerned about our presence.

The elevated walkway at Wild Animal Sanctuary is a mile long. Photo courtesy TWAS

The elevated walkway at Wild Animal Sanctuary is a mile long. Photo courtesy WAS

Among the many things we learned during the day is that all animals are territorial. When strangers approach their territory, they react instinctively by either attacking in defense of their territory or by fleeing from intruders. Zoos and other facilities have fences or moats that prevent the animals from attacking visitors (aka territory intruders). Many zoos also close the doors to animals’ dens (where they would flee to safety from intruders) because the public gets upset when they can’t view the animals.

According to the Wild Animal Sanctuary, this situation of being caught between intrusive strangers on one side and restricted access from a safe den causes great stress on the animals, who begin to pace back and forth or display other unnatural and fearful behaviors. Luckily, the Sanctuary discovered that large carnivores (and many other animals) do not consider air or sky to be territory, so if people (“strangers”) are on elevated walkways, the animals do not consider them to be a threat.

Hope for the Animals

A lion rests in the shade at midday. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lion rests in the shade at midday. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It could be easy to become depressed by the horror stories about animals in captivity, yet my trip to the Wild Animal Sanctuary was joyful. People laughed watching a grizzly cub playing with toys. We gasped in amazement as a pair of tigers ambled right beneath the walkway, then flopped down in its shade and took a nap. I will never forget gazing at the intricate patterns on one tiger’s stripes just 50 feet below me.

In another tiger house, where the big cats go for playtime in small pools during the heat of the days, two tigers roared at each other. We’ve all heard those roars in the movies, but standing so close to them while their roars caused earthquake-like tremors was both exhilarating and terrifying.

This tiger leapt and splashed in his pool, and he seemed so proud that I took dozens of photos of him. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This tiger leapt and splashed in his pool, and he seemed so proud that I took dozens of photos of him. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Wild Animal Sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the United States that’s dedicated to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores.

At the 720-acre refuge, the animals are rehabilitated and then released into large-acreage natural habitats.

The Sanctuary shelters more than 400 lions, tigers, bears, leopards, mountain lions, wolves, and other large carnivores. The organization also educates visitors about the tragic plight faced by an estimated 30,000 captive animals in America today.

Supporting the Wild Animal Sanctuary

As you can imagine, it takes a lot of money and tireless devotion to keep the Sanctuary running. To encourage donations, the organization changed its policy in the summer of 2015. Instead of a low entrance fee that didn’t even begin to defray the cost of animal care and feeding, the Wild Animal Sanctuary now has a donation structure. An Active Supporter (someone who has donated at least $200 in the past 12 months) may visit the facility free of charge and can bring family and friends.

A wolf once kept in captivity as a pet is happy in her new home. Photo courtesy Wild Animal Sanctuary

A wolf once kept in captivity as a pet is happy in her new home. Photo courtesy Wild Animal Sanctuary

Visitors who aren’t Active Supporters are considered “Prospective Supporters,” and they enter the Sanctuary by making an evaluation donation of $50 per person. Of that amount, $30 covers the cost of the visit (for maintaining walkways, parking areas, staff/guides, restrooms, etc.) and $20 goes straight to the animals’ care.

The idea is that all visitors, after seeing how the Wild Animal Sanctuary makes a difference in animals’ lives, will go on to make substantial donations to the nonprofit. Even if you can’t volunteer for the Wild Animal Sanctuary like my group did, you can “adopt” an animal or bring donations (such as bags of dog food) when you visit. Check the refuge’s Wish List for other much-needed items.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Momo, the rescued camel. Photo courtesy The Wild Animal Sanctuary

Momo, the rescued camel. Photo courtesy Wild Animal Sanctuary