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“In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall…. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.”

Quietly compelling and beautifully written, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather is two stories in one. The first and third parts of the novel focus on Godfrey St. John, a middle-aged history professor in a midwestern university town in the early 1920s, who, despite his successes, is struggling with a deep disappointment with life.

The middle section, “Tom Outland’s Story,” detours to the southwest, centering on a young man who died in the Great War and whose memory looms over the professor and those of his wife and daughters. Before traveling north and meeting the St. John family, Tom Outland was a cattle herder in New Mexico, where he discovered and explored the “Blue Mesa,” an ancient cliff city.

The Blue Mesa in Cather’s tale is based on Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. I spent four years traveling full-time around the United States, and Mesa Verde is one of the most spellbinding and surreal places in the country. Constructed by Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, the adobe dwellings, which date from the 13th century, are perched on high peaks under overhanging rocks.

Cather first ventured to the Colorado park in 1915, spending a week there to conduct research. The next year she penned an article on the history of Mesa Verde for the The Denver Times, which compelled adventure-seekers, history-enthusiasts, and other tourists to visit the area. Cather’s descriptions in The Professor’s House of the cliff dwellings and the civilization that once thrived there are vivid and fascinating.

The Professor’s House is partly intriguing armchair travel—and perhaps inspiration to explore Mesa Verde in person someday.

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