The last day in Mesa Verde began with our last breakfast at the ARAMARK cafeteria. After this day, we’d at least have options for food, but up on the mesa, it was compromise, compromise, compromise. The day before we tried the “world-famous” Navajo Taco for lunch. It was an utter joke. For ARAMARK, fossilized shammy = flat bread. And I won’t even go into the toppings…
Despite the bleak food situation in the national park, we weren’t looking to skadaddle too quickly. The dwelling tours were captivating, and we had to complete the trifecta with a morning climb/jaunt/crawl/tour of Balcony House.
While Cliff Palace overwhelms you with its grandeur, Balcony House moves you with its intimacy. There is no easy overlook off the road, no dramatic viewpoint on approach — just a nestled little community that you don’t really see until you’ve entered it via a 32-foot ladder. In fact, to leave the dwelling you have to crawl on your hands and knees through a narrow dusty passage before ascending two dramatic ladders back up to the mesa top. Not once do you have a stand-back-and-survey-the-whole-dwelling moment. It’s pretty cool because of it.
Upon entrance, to the right of the landing where the first ladder delivers you, is a small stone arch enclosing a pen of some kind (above). Archaeologists believe that the Ancestral Puebloans kept their turkeys in these pens, an ingenious construction that was part meat locker and part ADT security alarm. Spend any time among live turkeys and you quickly understand how frantic and nuts they are. If anything or anyone approached Balcony House, the turkeys would let the whole community know.
The dwelling takes its name from a 30-foot balcony attached to the second floor of one of the structures. You can see it in the middle left side of the top left photo of this blog post. Our ranger speculated that residents of the structure used the balcony as a hallway between rooms more than anything. Standing there, seeing 5-foot-9 tourists standing next to this balcony, you quickly begin to realize just how short the Ancestral Puebloans were. I asked the ranger about this, and sure enough, they averaged anywhere from 5-foot to 5-foot-3 in height, but then again, she noted, so did most people in 1300 AD.
I’ll be honest: I’m not one for tour guides in any scenario. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that they show you a place in the way they want you to see a place. The focus of a tour is never in sync with my eye, and 75% of the information goes in one ear and out the other. It’s just how I’m wired.
Plus, I think there is something lost when your questions are answered. I know very little about Siena’s Duomo, about the history of the Pantheon, and about the symbolism of the Good Friday Parade in San Miguel de Allende — but I understand them in a very different way that is visceral, emotional and full of curiosity. That’s because I approached them through the lens rather than through a tour guide. I’m not saying my way is better than their way. Not at all. I’m just saying their approach doesn’t suit me.
At one point, the ranger scolded me for moving five feet to the right to take a photo while she was talking. She said it threw off her concentration. My first instinct was to feel bad, but in hindsight, I think it was a bullshit thing to do. Bullshit because the only way to see Balcony House is by guided tour. The least the guides can do is allow for silent periods of five minutes here and there so that you can process the mystery of a place, or see it with your own eyes. But in the end, they have 45 minutes to tell you everything there is to know about the Ancestral Puebloan people, and like I said, with me, a lot of that goes in one ear and out the other.