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Travelers' Tales Abound Amid Mesa Verde Cliffs : Memories of Colorado's historic national park may extend beyond the ruins of Anasazi culture.

August 23, 1992|JUDITH MORGAN

The silver-haired Englishman, looking fit in khaki shorts and hiking boots, squinted into the noonday sun, a glare so fierce that it camouflaged the ancient cliff dwellings across the canyon in Mesa Verde National Park.

His mind was not on the Anasazi, who built these remarkable cities nine centuries ago in what is now southwestern Colorado.

His mind was on crime in the West.

"The police blocked the roadway to the Grand Canyon just as our bus approached," he was saying. "The prisoner was still on the loose, you see, and he had taken two hostages. They searched every vehicle. We were not allowed to go to our hotel on the South Rim for fear he was hiding there."

The object of the manhunt was Danny Ray Horning, a wily escaped convict who terrorized the Southwest for seven weeks this summer before being recaptured in Sedona, Ariz.

It was an outlaw tale that would be told and retold in the Sussex village that was the Englishman's home. "Frightful," he kept saying with a certain bold pride. "The fellow was a bank robber and a murderer, you see."

The high points of travel are frequently not on an itinerary. They are the oddball encounters in pubs and cafes, the back-alley bargains, the surprising moments when history abuts coincidence and you end up sharing an elevator with a film star or a king.

When I think of the magnificent Uffizi gallery in Florence, I remember my 1987 visit when Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" was missing from its usual place. The masterwork was being restored, a passerby said.

Before disappointment had really registered, I turned a corner and entered a hushed room with velvet walls, cordons of silk and a single painting: the sublime Venus floating on a scallop shell. Her skin was dewy, her red hair vivid, the colors of cornflowers and daisies, sky and sea so fresh that they could have been wet. The artwork, painted in 1486, had been returned to public view that very morning.

So I understood the Englishman's delight at the timing that linked him to the biggest manhunt in Arizona history. That is the episode he'll never forget about the American Southwest.

Yet even without headlines, Mesa Verde is a haunting place, a high plateau split by golden canyons whose pitted walls hold 600 cliff dwellings. More than 4,000 ruins--including excavations easily seen from the road--dot this 80-square-mile site, abandoned by the Anasazi by AD 1300.

The park, 36 miles west of Durango and 10 miles east of Cortez, is open all year, although most of the major cliff dwellings may be entered only from early May to mid-October.

An exception is Spruce Tree House, where the Englishman held court. Lying just below the Chapin Mesa Museum in a shadowy cliff alcove, 100 feet long and 80 feet deep, it's named for a large tree in front of the ruin. An easy half-mile trail is wheelchair-accessible.

With only half a day at Mesa Verde, I concentrated on the rim drive around Chapin Mesa, rich with prehistoric towers, pits and walls. From the Sun Point overlook, you can see a dozen major dwellings, among them Oak Tree House near the head of a canyon, the Sun Temple and, directly opposite, the Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling in North America. It is a terraced, four-level sandstone complex, with 217 living and storage rooms and 23 round, ceremonial chambers called kivas.

Cliff Palace was home, archeologists say, to perhaps 250 people. I would venture that almost that many were scrambling over the ruins as I watched--ants in bright jackets, T-shirts and baseball caps, bumping into each other, changing directions.

A hot, dry wind suddenly whipped along the mesa, shaking pinon pines and juniper and rabbit brush. Red-tailed hawks rode the updrafts, their shadows gliding over canyon walls. A man in a cowboy hat backed toward oblivion as his wife aimed the camera. "No!" he shouted. "Focus on the cliff dwelling, not on me."

On my next trip to Mesa Verde, I want to explore the massive ruins on Wetherill Mesa and perhaps see the Balcony House, which is accessible only on ranger-guided tours. The climb is strenuous, they warn at the visitor center: After descending 150 steps, you hike for half a mile, then climb a free-standing, 32-foot wooden ladder. ("That's three stories. Don't look down.") The exit is another challenge: a crawl through a 12-foot-long tunnel with an opening that measures just 18 inches by 28 inches, and a climb of 60 vertical feet on ladders and steps carved into the cliff face.

"There is no charge for the Balcony House tour," the ranger concluded brightly.

"I wouldn't go if you paid me," said a rather rotund tourist in a huff.

There's lodging within the park at Far View Lodge, open mid-April to mid-October. Rates run $69-$80. Write c/o Mesa Verde National Park, Mancos, Colo. 81328, (303) 529-4421 or (303) 533-7731. Morefield Campground, four miles inside the park entrance, is also open mid-April to mid-October and offers tent and RV sites.

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