Roughly a half-million tourists mob the famous Mesa Verde ruins each year. In contrast, just a tiny fraction of that come to its lesser-known relative, Hovenweep National Monument. This site grants a quieter, more meditative setting to learn about and appreciate the enduring work of the same resourceful Puebloan ancestors who called this place home.
Yet our experience also showed that one shouldn’t let one’s guard down, even in a place as serene as this.
The Ancient Ones
Like many other civilizations around the world, these industrious people learned agricultural skills from trade activities, prompting them to exchange their nomadic hunter-gatherer ways for a stationary, agrarian existence. In this unforgiving, arid land they often chose the heads of canyons as village sites to take advantage of the year-round seeps and seasonal streams they could dam.
Then they became accomplished builders.
Experts believe most of the structure remains here were constructed around the 13th century. Having seen other ruins of that era in Europe and Great Britain, I think the type of workmanship preserved here is more relatable in some ways; there’s a more intimate sense of what these pragmatic minds were thinking as they erected walls in front of natural caves, or when they adapted an erosion-hollowed boulder into a home.
The two- and three-story towers here were set on the natural stone as foundations without leveling their curves. These people worked with the landscape instead of forcing it to their will.
One detail I was intrigued by was the small flat stones inserted all along the mortar lines, which have a simple beauty beyond whatever construction purpose I suppose they held.
Archeologists estimate that at its peak Hovenweep – whose name means “deserted valley” in the Ute language – supported a booming population of 2,500. Today’s nearby town of Monticello, Utah, is half that and surrounded by the same sandy, unfertile soil and lack of reliable rain that challenged the ancient natives of this land.
The Modern Ones
Aside from the hushed memory of those ancient people, the current residents of the city’s ruins are lesser natives of the high desert: citizen chipmunks, bees, beetles, lizards, snakes and songbirds – all ruled by a majestic pair of ravens.
These two dark sovereigns lord over their domain, capering between roles as magnanimous hosts steering guests along a cultural tour and as petty tollkeepers demanding edible tributes from passing tourists.
With few others there, most of our visit was a private, somber stroll along the canyon trail, with pauses to contemplate what the place might have been like with thousands of people in residence.
We worked our way along the short two-mile circuit imagining long-ago children dashing between buildings as they played. We conjured men and women of the city tending the fields, preparing daily meals and, sometimes, gathering in kivas to participate in their unknowable, sacred rituals.
Around two-thirds of our way along the well-maintained trail I was climbing up a stony incline when – before my conscious mind knew what I was doing – I sprang high and away from a rattlesnake!
Seems this fellow decided the cleared stone path made an especially fine sun-worshiping altar, and he was rather put out by our crude interruption of his daily solar sacrament.
A two-minute stare down followed, with both parties trying to determine whether it was safe enough to exit the scene.
Frozen at first, then backing up slowly, we dared no sudden moves lest we provoke an attack.
Rattle shaking and coiled up tight, he was the embodiment of a deadly threat, poised to strike.
Once he decided he had cowed us sufficiently, he slithered into the nearby brush, all the while continuing to rattle his cantankerous scolding.
It roughly translated to a snake version of, “Get the hell off my lawn.”
Rattled by our encounter, we put some distance between us and the angry viper. We were able to explore the last of the ruins before the trail fell away before us at the edge of the canyon.
About halfway down the steep slope, my footing fell out beneath me on a bit of loose gravel. Before I could correct my balance, I fell, slamming hard on my rear – violently enough to produce a nasty hematoma along with my first experience with textbook shock symptoms.
A half mile away from the COVID-closed visitors center, the vertical canyon wall cut us off from cell signal and civilization. With no other options, lots of stops to ease my breathlessness, along with Glenn’s gentle encouragement, I wobbled my disoriented way up and out of the ancients’ canyon, and back into this modern world.
Today I’m healing but stiff, still feeling the lingering impact of my fall. Embarking on epic hikes will have to wait for some time. But when I go I’ll be sure to bring my hiking poles … which hindsight tells me I shouldn’t have left in the car that day.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say this historic place was out to get me, I acknowledge that my history of mishaps did catch up with me there.
Moving past our excitement with snakes and my own missteps this place was memorable on its own merit.
I really did fall for this place.
The legacy of the spirited people who once lived here call for a visit if you’re nearby.