The Center Place

I once worked an archaeological excavation outside of Cortez, Colorado, digging trenches into an 11th century great house. The crew was mostly on their knees, teams in their own trenches revealing masonry walls stories tall, remnants of an Indigenous civilization that covered the Four Corners from Mesa Verde cliff dwellings to the towers of Hovenweep and beyond. Mid-day, I sat on the edge of the trench and took in our mesa-top view. Landmarks stood around the site like chess pieces on a board a hundred miles across. The dark cape of Sleeping Ute Mountain sat across from Mesa Verde’s rim-line. The La Plata Mountains near Durango beamed with the last of their summer snow and the Abajo Mountains in Utah looked like rumpled bedcovers. It was the same view people would have had in the 11th century, a sense that you are in the middle of it all.

Wherever you stop and look around in this part of the country, you find yourself in a gallery of powerful landmarks. The feeling of being in the center moves with you. I live in Southwest Colorado, 50 miles north of the town Cortez as the crow flies, a hundred miles by road. Looking out my kitchen window, I see 40 miles of broken up mesas hiding countless shadowed canyons. The island of a mountain range stands across the way in Utah. The horizon is marked in my mind, where the sun sets in January and where it sets in June. You don’t need a calendar out here. As long as you are looking from the same spot, the horizon will tell you the month and the day.

This is old land. You feel it when you walk. Arrowheads and flakes of rock from ancient manufacture lie on the open ground. You may be tempted to pick something up and take it. Don’t. Part of what makes it old is that it is still here. The biome is high desert montane, drylands rising into mountain summits that reach 14,000 feet. What you think of is exposure. Everything is on the surface, artifacts to landforms, and the sky is big enough to swallow you whole.

Getting anywhere takes a long time. Roads rarely go straight for any distance. When storms come in low, I can see the far-off glow of Cortez, population 8,700. It would take two hours to drive there, highways going through hairpin turns and streaking across long, arid basins with hardly a tree to be seen. My town is about 500 people, same as the next town half an hour away. We are scattered about, yet close enough we can almost see each other.

I’ve found that somehow all these places feel closer together when you walk instead of drive. Highways make the land seem bigger and more unapproachable than it is. Rather than driving, I’ve walked with my kids from home to the nearest airport when we’ve gone on trips. The walk is between 40 and 60 miles and it takes several several days, camping in the deep woods of a 10,000-foot-tall plateau and tracking with backpacks through towering desert canyons. This way you get a true sense of distance, what a car, or a plane for that matter, will never give you.

You think locally in a place like this. You can’t help it. This is a visual landscape and with one glance around you know exactly where you are. Local doesn’t end at the horizon. You see the faint glow of towns that would take hours to reach by car. The night skies are so vast that any spot of human light stands out.

I imagine it was the same a thousand years ago. Night fires on a Puebloan great house above what is now the town of Cortez would have been visible fifty miles away. A signal fire lit on the rim of Mesa Verde would have been picked up down in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and on the spine of Comb Ridge in Utah. This has always been a landscape of locals, all of us living on this chessboard of the Four Corners, the center place.