June 9: Climbing ladders and squeezing through tunnels, oh, and two 10,000 foot passes

Today was a two-part day. The first part of the day was my 10 am tour of Balcony House. I’d never done this one before, and I was a bit nervous about it. A 36-foot ladder was only the beginning. A 12-foot long, 18-inch wide, and 2-foot high tunnel, two more 12-foot ladders, and a set of stairs that rather reminded me of that part of the Mist Trail in Yosemite where you’re shinnying along a cliff edge that’s about a foot wide, with nothing between you and a hundred-plus foot drop except what looks like an old chain-link fence anchored into the rock. The only difference is that at least you’re not getting soaked with spray from Vernal Falls. Then again, with the temperature in the high 80s at 11 in the morning, the spray would have felt good.

36 foot ladder into Balcony House.  That was seriously scary.
36 foot ladder into Balcony House. That was seriously scary.
Inside Balcony House.
Inside Balcony House.
The view from Balcony House.
The view from Balcony House.
A kiva in Balcony House.  A kiva is an underground spiritual/social place.  That little hole just below the firepit is a sipapu.
A kiva in Balcony House. A kiva is an underground spiritual/social place. That little hole just below the firepit is a sipapu.
More Balcony House.
More Balcony House.

But it was worth it. Balcony House isn’t as big as Cliff Palace, but it’s got a lot of interesting pieces to it, and this ranger’s emphasis was on how the Ancestral Puebloans (the modern name for the people who lived in Mesa Verde, instead of calling them Anasazi, which is kind of pejorative, basically “ancient enemy” in Navajo) managed to live in a pretty darned harsh place. I’d always known they lived short lives (to their 20s and 30s, mostly), and that they only stayed in the cliff dwellings for about 80 years before they moved south to become part of the ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni and several other tribes, but their existence was a lot bleaker than the red Indians of the Mesa Verde book that came home with us from my first trip here made it out to be.

I read and reread that book as a kid, and even made a school project diorama about them, inspired by the really wonderful, elaborate 30s-era (WPA strikes again) dioramas in the Chapin Mesa Museum. I don’t know why they fascinated me so much, but they did.

One of the dioramas  at the Chapin Mesa Museum.
One of the dioramas at the Chapin Mesa Museum.
Spruce Tree House, which you can't go inside of anymore because of rockfalls.  It's near the museum.
Spruce Tree House, which you can’t go inside of anymore because of rockfalls. It’s near the museum.

By the time I managed to get back to Merlin and stop by the museum to see the dioramas once more, I was hot and sweaty and ready to head to the mountains.

A sculpture outside of the visitor center.  That's a man, climbing a cliff with a load of wood on his back, just as the Ancestral Puebloans would have done to reach their cliff dwellings.
A sculpture outside of the visitor center. That’s a man, climbing a cliff with a load of wood on his back, just as the Ancestral Puebloans would have done to reach their cliff dwellings.

Which I did. With a stop in Durango for lunch and gas and ice, I headed north (I know, I know) towards Silverton on what’s locally called the Colorado Skyway. Aptly named, too. Merlin climbed over two passes, both over 10,000 feet, this afternoon before I stopped for the night. I have one more to go, at 11,000 feet (only 3,000 feet lower than the summit of Mt. Rainier!), but that’s for tomorrow.

Along the road between Durango and Silverton.
Along the road between Durango and Silverton.
Another view along that road.
Another view along that road.

Tonight I’m in a forest service campground at around 9000 feet, next to a river rushing with snowmelt. The best part? It’s in the fifties out there, and is supposed to get to the thirties tonight (my sleeping bag is rated to 30dF, so I will be fine <g>). No more desert! No more heat!

At my campsite in the Lower Mineral campground just north of Silvertion.
At my campsite in the Lower Mineral campground just north of Silvertion.

At least not till I hit the plains of eastern Colorado and Kansas in a few days. Eep.