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Travel; USA: Another fine mesa...

Not even cop-killers can keep Ian Robinson from ancient tribal cliff dwellings hidden in the heart of Colorado
Though still only breakfast-time in the desert, a tuxedo'd doorman was welcoming punters at the Utes' new casino when I drove by. Above him, chipboard cladding had yet to be painted, so recent is this gamblers' oasis.

South-west Colorado has always been Indian country. Distorted vehicles dance in the heat haze on US666, an endless two-lane blacktop that arrows through two reservations, straight as an arrow. To the east, beyond the sagebrush and neglected stock fence, rise the green tablelands that early Spanish gold seekers christened Mesa Verde. There the Anasazi established their cliff villages 1,000 years ago, North America's answer to Machu Picchu. Through my other window, unmistakable Sleeping Ute Mountain, which pyramids into a Levi's-blue sky, guarded lazy Towaoc, the Utes' tribal home.

I learned, by chance, of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park through a Denver acquaintance. "You spend a day scrambling around incredible ancient ruins that few people have seen - the groups are small and restoration is so minimal that you can almost feel the original occupants," she enthused. "To get into the canyons a Ute guide leads you on an amazing 4x4 tour through the backcountry - but you do have to provide your own four-wheel drive."

So I rented a Jeep. From the state capital it's eight hours away, across the spectacular Rockies. Few tourists descend Wolf Creek Pass without reaching for the camcorder to capture the magnificent valleys and goldrush ghost towns.

The tribal park visitor centre is even more remote than the casino, perched above the sort of lonely Southern crossroads where I imagine bluesman Robert Johnson did his deal with the Devil. I stepped from my air conditioning to see a big "CLOSED" sign; not a Ute to be seen, only turkey vultures wheeling around massive Chimney Rock. This red monolith casts a giant shadow across the desert floor, dwarfing passing trucks that soon had me seeing wagon trains.

Back at the reservation filling station a Wanted poster explained the closure. Police were scouring the canyons for three cop-killers, no mean task in a terrain where a man can exist indefinitely, given water and a couple of snares; at least, that's how the Anasazi lived.

A week later, with the manhunt scaled down, I was back, following the dustcloud of Bryant Lehi, a Ute guide, along Mancos River Canyon. Four others in a mini motorhome (they've upgraded the road) completed the convoy.

We stopped beside a reconstructed pueblo - the only building on the tour that isn't at least seven centuries old - built by Ute youth to be the new visitor centre. A massive door shut out the harsh sun, and we descended a wooden ladder. Still adjusting our eyes in the halflight, a tunnel opened into a kiva, the circular religious chamber. The sipapu, a small hole in the floor, was the supposed ancestral entrance to and from the underworld. "Menfolk would cover this up when gossiping, to avoid offending the subterranean spirits," said Bryant.

Circling eagles watched as we stopped periodically on a 40-mile drive to digest insights into a culture that thrived here so long ago. We looked high along the fortress-like cliffs for grain stores and low for arrowheads and pottery shards on the desert floor - nothing more recent than 13th century. Bryant showed us Kokapelli, the dancing rain man, carved on a boulder by a long-dead hand, and rock art that is older than time. We focused binoculars on a lofty ledge where a stone lookout was recently noticed by the chief's son, walking out after a puncture. We speculated that swallows' mud nests beneath overhangs may have inspired the cliff dwellings and smiled on learning that some of the ochred wall paintings were later found to be made with red government paint given for branding cattle in the 1920s.

Although vandals burnt the old chief's house sometime after he died in 1971, the place where his family broke a hole in the ground to release his spirit into the underworld is a sacred site. While here, Bryant demonstrated the atlatl, a throwing stick that predates the bow and arrow, warning me not to spear my foot like the lady on the previous day's tour.

Soon our dust columns engulfed a hairpin climb on to the mesa top. Wild turkeys scattered into the pinyon and juniper as we bumped along the red dirt, half expecting to encounter Hollywood's Deadwood Stage. The yucca were in full white bloom, a plant put to so many uses by the innovative Anasazi, from soap to sandals and string.

With the Jeep thermometer reading 78 degrees I was glad to park up for the afternoon. Peering into Lion Canyon I shared the awe and excitement of the US Army lieutenant who was the first white man to document this magical hideaway in 1849. Several abandoned villages had lain unseen for over 500 years, protected from plunder largely by their inaccessibility.

The clustered remains are named according to their characteristics: Fortified House, Tree House and Lion House. There is also Morris 5, one of several excavated by archaeologist Earl Morris in 1913. We visited them in turn, descending ladders and following cliff paths in the shade of tall douglas firs, marvelling at original timbers and plasterwork, corn-grinding pits, knife-sharpening grooves and even the carved names and dates of the Wetherill brothers, local cowboys who were two of the earliest explorers of the canyons in the 1890s. I dropped another film into the camera and thought of photographer William Henry Jackson, who would have clambered over this same rubble in 1874, clutching his heavy equipment and fragile glass plates. Much of his work was wrecked by a bucking pack mule.

Colourful collared lizards fled our footsteps as Bryant pointed out T- shaped Anasazi doorways, rockface toe-holds, lofty turkey pens and a fissure where the remains of an Ancient One were found wrapped in a cloth. He indicated finer details such as weaving pegs, bone scrapers, 800-year- old cornhusks, a delicate length of spliced yucca string and original beam-ends cut with a stone axe. It became impossible not to imagine the sounds of village life filling the empty canyons - turkeys and dogs, women grinding corn and weaving baskets and the men sharpening tools of bone and stone. In Tree House we peered into Anasazi living rooms, ceilings soot-blackened from the original fires, and ran our hands over the intricate masonry of Lion House, ingeniously chinked to help the mud plaster dry.

Eagle's Nest completed the experience. Perched on an almost impossible ledge, the 13 crumbling rooms are accessed by climbing a 30ft ladder and traversing along a narrow shelf, before ducking below an overhang - still much easier than climbing the single notched trunk used by the Anasazi. Only the poles remain of a precarious balcony that spanned the length of the building, removed and cast to one side by archaeologist Morris in 1913 to facilitate photography without a flash.

Absorbing the late afternoon sun from an aerial lookout, it became a hard place to leave. Indeed, nobody is certain why the occupants abandoned these idyllic canyons and secure dwellings so abruptly around 1300 - a prolonged drought is one theory. We don't even know what they called themselves; Anasazi is a Navajo word adopted by early archaeologists that strictly translates as "ancient enemies". Today they're known as ancestral Puebloans since most of their descendants are found around New Mexico and Arizona.

One thing is certain. Driving north again, the queues for the new casino were much longer than for Eagle's Nest, which is probably a good thing for the Utes and can't altogether be such a bad thing for their forebears.

Fact File

IAN ROBINSON paid pounds 311 through Flightbookers (020-7757 2000) to fly London to Denver via Chicago with British Airways and American Airlines. At Denver International Airport, Dollar Rent A Car offers a Jeep Grand Cherokee at $84 per day, plus the usual collision waivers, State Tax etc. A full day tour in the Ute Mountain Tribal Park costs $25 per head, with your own vehicle. Tours for backpackers, mountain-bikers and photographers are available. There is a campsite and the chance to overnight in an Indian tepee. For reservations or brochures call 001 303 565 3751 x282, or write to Ernest House, Park Director, Ute Mountain Tribal Park, Towaoc, Colorado 81334, USA. There is hotel/motel accommodation in Cortez, 19 miles away. Nearby Mesa Verde National Park, a World Heritage Site, is also recommended (admission $10). Details from PO Box 277, Mancos, Colorado 81328 (tel: 001 970 529 4421).