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Ancient history in plain sight at Four Corners

PHOTOS BY ROBIN SOSLOW FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE The patio on the grounds of Kelly Place offers a view of Sleeping Ute Mountain (above). Guests at the B&B can visit archeological sites located on outcrops and in underground chambers (below left) on the 38-acre property.
PHOTOS BY ROBIN SOSLOW FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
The patio on the grounds of Kelly Place offers a view of Sleeping Ute Mountain (above). Guests at the B&B can visit archeological sites located on outcrops and in underground chambers (below left) on the 38-acre property. (Photos By Robin Soslow for The Boston Globe)
By Robin Soslow
Globe Correspondent / September 11, 2011

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CORTEZ, Colo. - “One morning after heavy rains flooded that arroyo, I found a skull,’’ said Marc Yaxley, nodding toward the dry gully bordering his remote bed-and-breakfast. “I had my fingers in the eye sockets,’’ he said, before realizing he was handling someone’s head. “Every day is like a reality TV show here.’’

Plenty of B&Bs boast historic landmark status, but Kelly Place has its own archeological preserve. The grounds include two dozen documented prehistoric sites, including underground and cliffside chambers built by ancestral Puebloans dating to 1150-1300 AD.

Yaxley and Jerene Waite bought Kelly Place six years ago sight unseen. The 38-acre property in southwestern Colorado came up for sale when the couple decided to leave San Diego, where he was a software engineer and she a neuroscientist. “We wanted to find some forgotten place in low-density America between the coasts,’’ Yaxley said.

The lodge and its outbuildings, gardens, and orchards push right up to the otherworldly red rock hills of McElmo Canyon. Gaze from the patio at Sleeping Ute Mountain; turn and hike into the back of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. The vistas keep going, with magnificent views of Mesa Verde, La Plata peaks, and the San Juan Mountains.

Kelly Place began in the 1960s as a retirement dream for George Kelly, a horticulturist at Denver Botanic Gardens, and his wife, Sue. It was a curious retirement endeavor, given all that they built, planted, and excavated in their canyon oasis.

Unlike the Kellys, Yaxley and Waite had no plans to retire. They gussied up the main lodge, adobe-style cabins, and day lodge used for receptions, retreats, and workshops, and established RV and tent sites. They organize archeologist-led hikes and rent the onsite sweat lodge. They will get you a spiritual leader if you don’t bring your own.

The relic-rich land remains a hot spot for archeologists digging up pottery shards, cooking tools, and human remains.

“When we have a flash flood, it can uncover 8 to 10 feet of buried Indian relics,’’ Yaxley said. Examples include a metate and mano, tools commonly paired for centuries by indigenous people to crush corn.

“Interesting things always pop up. We found [the remains of] a whole family of seven dating to 975 AD,’’ he said. He recited proper protocol: Notify government authorities, usher in anthropologists who study the bones to determine age, sex, cause of death. The absence of marrow in some bones? Cannibalism. That revelation didn’t deter Yaxley’s junior apprenticing: “We reassembled all the humans in the day lodge.’’

This conversation took place over fresh-squeezed juice and blue corn pancakes. Yaxley, who begins cooking before dawn, said his recipe honors native traditions. He uses cornmeal from the nearby Cortez Milling Co. “Get some jelly,’’ he added. “I made it from our crabapples.’’

Kelly Place makes a good base for exploring the Four Corners juncture of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. The closest city is 10 miles east: Cortez, a small old West town rejuvenated in part by big-city refugees. From Albuquerque, and other Western hubs, it’s a side trip through some of the world’s most spectacular backdrops.

I was ready to explore, so Waite handed me a map marking sites on the property and accompanied me part of the way. Navigating dusty dirt paths, we passed beneath an unexcavated cliff dwelling in the red rocks. Waite identified wildflowers such as globe mallow, and plants such as hackberry used by prehistoric villagers for food, tools, and medicinals.

I climbed down a wooden ladder into an excavated kiva, a submerged chamber with earthen walls braced by wood pilasters and ringed by a bench. Found throughout the Mesa Verde region, kivas and cliff dwellings date to 1150-1300 AD.

A mid-1800s chicken shed shoved by settlers into a rock formation is now a studio where a local artist teaches primitive pottery. The corrugated surface of a sample piece intrigued me. The ancients found that water boiled faster that way, explained Waite, leading me to the onsite kiln. “It’s Anasazi style, using native clays and pigments . . . and [decorated with] brushes made from yucca.’’

We continued on to Ear Bob House, named for the Kellys’ discovery of triangular shell earrings and stone tools used by ancient agrarians. Among her finds, Waite described flint projectiles and a mug perfectly intact “until I broke off the handle when digging.’’

In addition to hikers who come for the area’s excellent trails, Kelly Place boards birders, anthropologists, archeologists, and ethnobotanists, some who come for onsite workshops. I noticed a class on flint-knapping - the ancient art of stone tool-making - on the event calendar.

With the 360-degree mountain views and lodging for 44 people, Kelly Place has hosted weddings, reunions, and retreats, said Waite. Then there are survivalists, such as Romana Augustin. Over homemade granola, my Swiss tablemate quickly trumped my hike-and-bike excursions with her Native American-inspired vision quest through the wilderness with minimal food and water.

But do pack water for a trek to Canyons of the Ancients National Monument. A back-entrance trail to the monument - one of the nation’s richest, densest archeological areas (about 6,000 documented sites) - is walkable from the B&B.

Fragrances of sage and olive blossom mingled as I hiked Kelly Place on my own, gingerly trodding along overgrown, disappearing spurs in search of a waterfall noted on the map. I thought I spotted the granary where, Yaxley said, centuries-old corn was so well preserved that it could still be cooked.

Night fell too soon, but compensated with a vista of silhouetted mountains sloping up into an indigo blue sky flecked with diamond-sharp stars and a full moon.

Perhaps this same timeless view helped inspire a Navajo prayer printed on a leaflet back in the lodge. It went something like this: I walk with beauty before me, behind me, above me, below me. I walk with beauty all around me.

Well, just as long as you are not walking with Yaxley after a rainstorm.

Robin Soslow can be reached at rsoslow@gmail.com.

If You Go

How to get there
Kelly Place is in southwestern Colorado in a mountain region dubbed Four Corners. It is 10 miles west of Cortez Municipal Airport, with Great Lakes Aviation (www.greatlakesav.com, 800-554-5111) flights connecting to Albuquerque, Denver, and other cities. The area is a 75-mile drive from Telluride.
Where to stay
Kelly Place Bed & Breakfast
14663 Road G
Cortez County
800-745-4885, 970-565-3125
www.kellyplace.com
Starting at $80 per person, $15 per additional adult ($10 per child).
What to do
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument
303-239-3600
www.blm.gov/co/st/en/nm/canm.html
Visitors center and main entrance: Anasazi Heritage Center, 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, Colo., 10 miles north of Cortez. Admission $3 per person, under 18 free.
Primitive camping allowed, but vehicles must not go off-road. (The closest improved public-land campsites are at McPhee Reservoir west of Dolores.) Mountain bicycles allowed only on designated trails.
Sand Canyon Trail
On County Road G
Six-and-a-half miles one-way from Sand Canyon Pueblo to the lower trailhead in McElmo Canyon; hike past several Ancestral Puebloan archeological sites. Near the McElmo Canyon trailhead, look for Castle Rock Pueblo at the large butte just beyond the parking area.
Cortez Cultural Center
25 North Market St.
Cortez
970-565-1151
www.cortezculturalcenter.org
Storytelling, music, and Native American dance in a restored historic site.
Where to eat
Let It Grow Nursery & Garden Cafe
90 Mildred Road, Cortez
970-565-3099
www.letitgrownursery.com
Healthy dishes made from homegrown ingredients. Dishes from $5.
The Farm
18 East Main St., Cortez
970-565-3834
www.sevenmeadowsfarm.com
Mostly organic and creatively home-cooked dishes. From $6.
Dolores River Brewery
100 South 4th St., Dolores
970-882-4677
www.doloresriverbrewery.com
Local music, great microbrews, and wood-oven pizzas. Dinner from $10.