Jan 20, 2010 | Mesa Verde, CO
Jan 20, 2010

Mesa Blanco would have been a more appropriate name, given the 22 inches of snow that carpeted the 20-mile uphill drive to Mesa Verde.

The park gets about 500,000 visitors a year, but today I was the only one — just me and the rangers, who made sure the roads could still be called roads, even though you wouldn't know them by sight.

With the crazy driving conditions, I got a ranger all to myself, and he showed me around the hidden cliffside dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people who lived there until about 800 years ago, when they were chased away by war, drought, or alien abduction, depending who you ask.

We went down into a kiva, which is an underground room used for keeping warm, weaving, and conducting sacred rituals. In addition to a fire pit, every kiva has a small hole in the ground called a Sipapu, which is believed to be a portal into the third world. Basically, when a world grows too terrible, with too much evil and too little hope, there is a collective migration to the next world. A long time ago, things in the third world got very bad, so the shamans organized an emergency exodus to the fourth world (which we currently inhabit), and used powerful magic to seal up the portal behind them, so that the evil spirits and demons couldn't make it through. But since their ancestors also remained in the previous world, they needed to keep a small portal open to keep track of what was happening there. So every kiva is outfitted with one of these portals, which is about the size of a baseball, and whose associated rituals you could probably call The Great Native American Game.

Some legends say that the fourth world is about to end, and that there will soon be a mass migration to the fifth world. Some claim that many Pueblo people have already made this transition, and that this accounts for the dwindling Pueblo populations in recent years in the American southwest. Others say the transition is only symbolic, like a shift in consciousness. And still others say the whole thing is baloney.

The ranger told me about the cultural and economic rivalry between the present-day Hopi and Navajo tribes. Apparently the Hopi are reticent to make public many of their beliefs and rituals, because the Navajo have a long tradition of stealing those beliefs and rituals and turning them into commercial products to sell in gift shops. There is now a law that any Kachina doll for sale must say which tribe produced it. Many Kachina dolls are Navajo copies of sacred Hopi designs, and according to the Hopi, these fake dolls are cursed.

Down in the kiva, the ranger was telling me all of this, and then mentioned that he had a number of these Navajo-made Kachina dolls in his house in Kenilworth, Utah, and that his house caught fire four times in six months, which by any count is very bad luck. I asked if he thought it was the dolls.

"No, I don't believe that stuff. I'm a scientist. I believe in science. There is a perfectly rational explanation which is that I had this crazy neighbor who was a pyromaniac and he set fire to my house several times. We caught him, we know it was him."

"Yeah, but maybe the dolls caused the whole situation in the first place, including the crazy neighbor," I said.

"I've heard that, people say that, but I don't believe it, it's just too weird," he said.

"So, do you still have the dolls?"

"No, I threw them out, just to be sure."

"Have you had any fires since then?"

"I haven't, and that was six years ago."