The house I rent in Cortez, Colorado, was built in 1933, 47 years after the town was founded and about 650 years after the abandonment of the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, south of town. My dwelling shows its age. When I moved in, invasive Siberian elm shoots had rooted in the gutter above the back door, giving the place the look of a Norwegian turf house. With its vacant lots and disused truck stops, Cortez doesn’t hide its abandonments. The new Walmart is always busy; the old Walmart sits empty. In 2002, when a wildfire threatened Mesa Verde’s curation facility, park staff moved 3 million ancestral Pueblo artifacts down from the mesa and into town for safekeeping at that old, vacant Walmart.
When I first visited Cortez in the early ’90s, I was on an archaeological road trip. I had a romantic attraction to ruins, and I was just starting to think about the complicated workings of tourism and archaeology on American Indian lands. I had not yet begun to work out what my interest in the prehistoric Southwest had to do with my identity as a half-Korean, three-eighths Norwegian, one-eighth Swedish American. (Much later, seeing petroglyphs—long ships and sledges—on a rock outcrop on an icy winter day in Sweden, I would start to answer this question.)
Four years ago, I ended up living and working in Cortez. Mesa Verde National Park and Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, MEVE and CANM, cast administrative nets over the land around town. Someday, I expect, these acronyms will lose their meaning. The landscape will remain: Mesa Verde to the south, Sleeping Ute Mountain to the west, the La Plata Mountains to the east. In the 13th century, depopulation emptied this broad valley. Now scientists are predicting another megadrought like the one of AD 1130–1180. The cliff dwellings at the park will outlast the drywall and siding of modern Cortez. Between the enduring past and an uncertain future, I feel at home in Cortez, here in the top layer of stratigraphy we call the present.