As I sat in Goulding’s Campground I detected—from the multilingual chatter echoing off the red rock—half the campers to be Europeans in rented RVs and wondered about the Mecca-like appeal of such places as Monument Valley. Indeed I wondered about the appeal of the road trip as I sat muttering behind cars creeping along over the divets, exposed rock, and inches of red sand that compose the 17 mile loop drive accessible to the public through Monument Valley Tribal Park. I was muttering because I was being prevented from having my kicks with all-wheel-drive on a glorious rough road in deference to the white Honda Civic with California plates in front of me, the driver of which kept being smooched by the passenger and didn’t seem to be minding the potholes at all. Despite the minor inconveniences of ‘tourons’ however I was thoroughly impressed by the stone giants. It was a little dark for photography, but never mind that, film will never quite capture presence, which the valley has in spades. The reason for darkness was an incredible thunderstorm moving in the direction of the campground—where I remembered I had not put the rainfly on my tent… Forked lightning, ancient rock, the smell of juniper; a damp shelter was a small price to pay on the return.
After an epic tour of the loop road—having survived rez dogs looking for handouts, a Navajo guide looking for tourists to entertain on horseback, the aforementioned “city cars” on backcountry roads, massive crowds gathered around The View Hotel, and a few dollars lighter after succumbing to a Navajo jewelry vendor—I headed back to camp for the equivalent of cowboy pork and beans: Chicken Polynesian in a bag, just add hot water!
The Southern approach to Monument Valley is prefaced by Agathla Peak, an impressive volcanic neck thrust eerily into the sky; the guts of the earth exposing a hardened, herniated intestine. According to the Navajo, Agathla (meaning “much wool,” so named according to a legend involving a snake living in the vent who would toss antelope fur out “the door” after eating his fill) is the center of the world. The peak is thought to transmit prayers to the Holy People and to create more distance between the earth and sky. In other words, it’s hot here, and the peak holds the sky up at a higher altitude as to distance us further from the sun.
Upon arriving at Goulding’s General Store, a local, who was slightly inebriated, asked if I was Italian. I thought this was somewhat random, although explained by the drink, until he made the additional comment that “There are lots of fir’iners [sic] around here.” A true statement. Which brings me back to the pilgrimage aspect of road trips. We used to be nomadic people. Is the road trip a visceral reaction, a counterforce to ensconcing ourselves within a fortress of corner convenience stores? All our material needs available at strip malls and supermarkets—impervious to drought, locusts, raiders. If we aren’t out on the road to gather nuts and berries anymore, then we must be out to meet other “tribes.” People from North Carolina, Oklahoma, Navajo Nation. One’s worldview broadens as a result of these encounters, or rather brings home the fact that all people are out seeking liberty, justice and the pursuit of open roads.
Speaking of justice, since the majority of my road trip to the Four Corners area was spent on Reservation land, let me just say that you don’t need to travel to Afghanistan or Darfur to experience poverty; and before you say “what about casinos…” let me enlighten you: You will not find a single casino on Navajo or Hopi land. Land that is “held in trust” by the federal government I might add. This “trust” is a tenuous thing. While no property taxes are collected, nor is that revenue being generated in local communities for development and maintenance of infrastructure, although some tribal governments levy taxes on reservation land. For example I noted a sales tax on my receipt at Goulding’s Trading Post. You bet a federal income tax is imposed, and tribal members conducting business outside the rez are subject to state and local taxes like everyone else. The IRS even imposes a tax on powwow contestants who win $600 or more in prize money, but that shouldn’t be news to lottery winners or philatelic enthusiasts (stamp collectors) who are taxed on profit gain (I sold my Basel Dove!), but cannot deduct their losses (bummer, the washing machine ate my Inverted Jenny).
Those that know me know I’m not a numbers gal, but I was strangely drawn in to the (surprisingly) entertaining world of tax law after meeting a Navajo man who came on a Ranger-led tour of the Hubbell House in Ganado. He grew up next door to the historic trading post site and was doing research on Indian education on the rez. The building that currently houses the Visitor’s Center used to be a school, one that falls through the cracks in the Indian history books because it was not affiliated with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the string of notorious boarding schools dotting the West. The school was started by Lorenzo himself who hired the teacher. Anyhow, the man proposed that economic development on tribal land is inhibited (among other things) by complex relations with the federal government including the limitations on land “held in trust.” Well, after bloody competition with the Spaniards, Manifest Destiny, Kit Carson and The Long Walk, and a roller coaster “stock reduction program” (that continues today) think about how much you would “trust” the government? Betty pointed me to The Rights of Indians and Tribes: the Authoritative ACLU Guide to Indian and Tribal Rights (Pevar, 2004). The title should read Rights AND Responsibilities as to avoid perpetuating the common misbelieve that Indians simply live off checks generated by the backbone of the non-Indian taxpayer. No so. I challenge you to consult your local librarian and do the research before making assumptions. My favorite Navajo artist, Shonto Begay, sums up the landscape of Navajo country in Reclaimed by Silence (2009). Does this look like the lap of luxury?
Further down the road I met a man in Chinle while waiting for the gas station restroom key who asked if I was traveling. He was sober, so I concluded that the locals are a curious sort, interested, even amused, when not suspicious of the white species. He was missing a few teeth, wore a bright red cowboy shirt, and looked like the sort of grandfather that would show you how to craft a sand painting or shear a Churro (sheep). Back at Goulding’s I went for a stroll to locate a “Hidden Arch” indicated on the campground map. I found it along with a group of five local teenage coeds chilling in a sandstone alcove. One hung back from the group to strike up a brief conversation, which I found useful practice as I will soon be re-indoctrinated into the world of the teenager. He announced that he had flunked 10th grade twice and had an Auntie who lived in Oregon. I have concluded that “Aunties” are in abundance and figure as prominent family members in Navajo culture, which after all is a matrilineal society.
Later, when I went to leave the area, the encounter took a slightly creepy turn as he too leapt up, and I could no longer distinguish whether he was simply hungering for new people to interact and demonstrating his reluctance for me to leave in an awkward way, or, er, hungering for something else. I have reasons to be suspicious. I once had an unfortunate experience on a Mexican subway, and a traumatic experience as a child where a group of men pulled up next to Mom’s Plymouth Duster in a grocery store parking lot, stealing the gas cap off it while my baby brother and I were inside. Along with that there are countless grandmotherly admonitions and Reader’s Digest “It happened to me!” tales, ingrained into me from cautious elders. You could say I was more than wary, despite my inclination to think the best. Would someone please buy me a Bowie knife for Christmas? The only knife I own to speak of (besides the kitchen variety) is a Swiss Army type multi-tool given to graduating seniors of my FFA chapter in high school. I need one that fits in a hand-tooled leather sheath with a belt attachment. No guns please. All NPS buildings have a prominently displayed “No firearms” sign on entrances. These appeared after our beloved George the Second deemed it necessary to allow loaded and concealed weapons into National Parks reversing a long-standing restriction…but let’s not go there. Back to the road trip.
I toured Harry and Leone (“Mike”) Goulding’s trading post and home turned museum. Just behind the museum is the “John Wayne Cabin” which was part of the set for his film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which housed his character, Cavalry Captain Nathan Brittles. Plenty of John Wayne paraphernalia in the modern “trading post” which is really a gift store with everything from John Wayne toilet paper, “It’s rough, it’s tough and it doesn’t take crap off anyone!” to exquisite Navajo rugs which I wish I could afford.
I got rained on in the wee hours at Goulding’s campground, so the rain fly finally came out. It was one of those storms you heard from a distance, with thunder and lightning moving progressively closer, but so snuggled in a sleeping bag it’s a difficult thing to rouse yourself in the predawn hours and fiddle with zippers, attachments, and stakes that don’t ever want to go deeper than in inch in oven baked Arizona ground. I love thunderstorms so after rain-proofing my shelter I crawled back in and enjoyed the sounds and smells from within. When I did rise for good I was rewarded with an amazing sunrise seen from the open door of the tent camper’s bathroom while brushing my teeth. That crepuscular light emerges quickly and fades, a short-lived phenomena defying capture, disseminating the vaporous nature of beauty. After an intentional shower I came out to find a full rainbow arching the sky, a coda to the first light storm.
After gingerly packing up my soaked tent I headed north through Mexican Hat a small settlement named after the head-in-a-sombrero-shaped rock nearby. A brief detour revealed Goosenecks State Preserve, a unique occurrence where the San Juan River takes three drastic U-Turns into the landscape. An intriguing sign marked “Valley of the Gods” beckoned, but I didn’t have time to explore, I was headed for Mesa Verde in southeastern Colorado.
The little corner of Utah I crossed provided no end to changing rock formations and variation in desert microclimates. Bluff, Utah is a remote outpost also taking its name from the winding geologic escarpment that shelters the dwellings. I passed through the Ute Reservation, distinguishing itself from its Navajo neighbor by the presence of a casino. The nightmarish bird shaped oil rigs pecking the ground on Ute land reminded me too of the dichotomy between economic subsistence and environmental sustainability that every tribe hashes out at countless chapter meetings and councils.
Only a few miles after crossing the border into Colorado the terrain evolved into a mountainous horizon, the Southern Rockies looming to the north while the barren plateau of New Mexico marked its territory to the south with the ghostly shape of Shiprock.
Cortez is the bustling “Gateway to the Southwest” where I stopped for gas and purchased passes at the Colorado Welcome Center for guided tours of ruins at Mesa Verde. The Center was staffed with lovely retired folk eager to share their knowledge of the area.
Mesa Verde, the Park Service’s first cultural park is literally a green oasis covering a labyrinth of tablelands and canyons the highest point topping out at 8,500 feet. I checked in at Morefield Campground and immediately put the rain fly on. Monsoon clouds seem to hover in perpetuity during the summer months. My next stop was the Chapin Mesa Museum and the self-guided tour of Spruce Tree House. There was an interesting tourist moment where we lined up to descend into a kiva (ceremonial room of the Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi). Those at the top waited for those in the room to come up the ladder and for a moment there it was like clowns in a car or mimes in a phone booth, they kept coming and coming…
I decided I had enough time to do the loop trail to Petroglyph Point, the trailhead enticing me on my exit from the ruins. I had a deadline to be at Balcony House for a guided tour—the only way you can see it. At 2.4 miles it was a quick stretch of the legs, but felt rushed due to my deadline. Unfortunate too, because the trail begged to be taken in slowly, with the rock arranging itself into tight passages, overhangs, and scenic overlooks into the valley below. While stopping for photo ops at the petroglyph wall I met a man with connections to Oregon who shared his trail guide explaining what all the symbols meant. The panel basically tells the migration story of the ancient people who lived there.
I made it to Balcony House with five minutes to spare for Ranger Castillo’s Indiana Jones adventure up ladders and through tunnels, which keep grandma and grandpa away from this experience. Another solo traveler from California emerged from the sea of Europeans on the tour and we traded Southwest experience stories while waiting in lines for the Indiana Jones archaeological experience. The tour ran long and I circled around to Cliff Palace for the next guided tour, considered the showpiece ruin of the Park’s 600 plus cliff dwellings. The Southwest travel enthusiast from So Cal emerged again, so that helped pass the time between tours. Cliff Palace is aptly named, it is definitely the largest structure of its kind. The tour took place in the evening but the sun never emerged to create that lovely glow you see in tour guides.
After a day on the road, a hike, and lots of standing I was ready for another meal-in-a-bag back at the campground. The weather just wouldn’t cooperate however and decided to pour just as I prepared to boil water. My new MSR Pocket Rocket however is much more efficient than my Dragonfly which seemed to take forever to reach boiling point. Vegetable Lasagna warmed the tummy and Mexican hot chocolate mix sent by a friend from Oregon served as the perfect night cap as I drifted off between the rain drops…
I skipped a shower the next morning in favor of getting on the road early. Next stop: Canyon de Chelly, jointly managed by Navajo Nation and the National Park Service. I was loathe to leave Mesa Verde, and Colorado as a whole. As I drove back through Cortez there were a group of hot air balloons launching from the back lot of a Wal-Mart. There was corn and even a mint field in the agricultural zone outside the city. Mint fields! Ever since I can remember, mint fields have played an important role in my summer experience.
On my way southward again I made a pit stop at Four Corners, paid my three dollars and proceeded to photograph a stranger standing at the famous junction instead of asking one of the hard ridin’ Harley clan to take a mug. Like I said, I hadn’t showered that morning and I wasn’t feeling very photogenic.
There were some bleak moments in the drive through the desert, but buttes and contours broke up the monotony. The best moment was the sighting of a free roaming pig trotting happily along the road. I had seen sheep, goats, cattle, horses and dogs beyond the white man’s fence line, but the pig was a new one.
Like the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly suddenly appears out of nowhere, a primordial crack littered with riparian growth at the bottom. What sets de Chelly, or Tseyi’ apart is the continued presence of the Navajo people, descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans. They graze cattle and sheep along the washes and streams running through the canyons. I hiked down the White House Ruins Trail, the only trail accessible to the public without the presence of a guide. On the way down I thought I heard singing from a member of a trail crew out laying stone steps. While it turned out to be a series of ballads from a radio, it had the otherworldly feel of the original inhabitants clanging stone upon stone as they carved out their dwellings, singing as they worked. The ruins are fenced off, but through the binoculars I saw that they had already been marred with graffiti, although the markings were distinctly local: Yazzie, Begay, Chee; common Navajo surnames. The equivalent of Thompsons, Johnsons, and Smiths.
I got my first close look at the sacred datura plant during the hike. They have a trumpet shape like an enlarged morning glory, but grow in clumps near the water. There were jeeps congregated near the ruins, at the ready to share the history of the area. A few vendors hawked paintings and jewelry. After having hiked the Grand Canyon, the hike out of Canyon de Chelly was a walk in the park. There was one very nervous man leaning into the cliff as he ascended, lacking confidence in the slickrock footing, which, contrary to its name does not really make for slick walking. He reminded me of myself crossing snowfields in the Tetons, focusing one foot in front of the other. Everyone has their threshold.
Spider Rock Overlook was a peaceful spot with great rocks for sitting and contemplating the navel of the world. Spider Rock is named for Spider Woman, responsible for teaching the Navajo people how to weave. I could have lingered longer, but I was only halfway home to Grand Canyon at that point and I had one more stop.
Hubbell Trading Post Historic Site is just inside the Ganado settlement boundaries (the only incorporated township on Navajo Nation is Kayenta). This was a great visit with a working trading post stocked with the usual rugs and silverwork, but also dry and canned goods. The locals still stop in to make trades for Arbuckle’s Coffee and Bluebird Flour. I have yet to attempt the making of Indian fry bread myself, but I purchased some Bluebird flour while at Hubbell. I think it may have been the most appropriate place to purchase said flour. I also picked up some damson plum preserves. Just the name implies sweetness. Frybread was born out of the Navajo imprisonment at the end of The Long Walk. With government issued flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, and lard frybread came to life. Something out of nothing. A means of survival. On the other hand, many tribal leaders blame frybread for the epidemic proportion of diabetes among tribal members. Here is a great article from the Smithsonian about frybread’s controversial presence on the rez. It IS delicious, but so are french fries, and we all know how good those are for you…
While waiting around for the tour through Lorenzo Hubbell’s house, el jefe as the young man behind the trading post counter referred to him, I watched a ranger bottle feed a bummer lamb, observed the horses flicking flies in the corral, and examined a Hogan down the lane. Inside the Visitor’s Center a woman sat weaving a rug, while she and the man behind the information desk spoke in the lilting Navajao tongue. The ranger who led the tour ended up being a Teacher Ranger Teacher (1st grade) from Albuquerque. You could say that the Hubbell home was comprised of an eclectic collection of Southwestern art; including red cont crayon drawings by Burbank, requisite deer and bison heads, a fortune in Navajo rugs and baskets, a small library, and a few Catholic icons, as Hubbell came from a family lineage in Mexico. The kitchen held familiar vintage cooking tools my Mom has collected over the years. Adjacent the kitchen was the cook’s quarters, spare in comparison to the lush art in the guest rooms. The single picture hanging on the wall in the cook’s room was a headless, plucked bird of some variety. I paid my respects to the chickens in their coop before I left. The goal at Hubbell is similar to that of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch in Montana, to demonstrate with as much realism as possible, what it was like to be there during the peak of its existence.
Instead of taking the major highway back to Grand Canyon I drove the less traveled road across the Hopi mesas. This was scenic…and sobering. The Hopi seem to have even less economic enterprises going for them than their neighbors. Old Oraibi on Third Mesa is arguably the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the country. There was a horse trailer and decrepit truck broke down partway up a hill (the horses looked ancy) with a gentleman eyeing the exterior and a distraught looking woman in the driver’s seat. Further on I saw a man standing at the end of his driveway peering down the road, expectant of a ride is my guess. Hitchhiking men dot the roads all over the rez. Unemployment hovers around 45% for the Navajo. You thought 11% in Oregon was bad. I spotted some struggling cornfields among the sagebrush. They seemed so forlorn compared to the erect rows of tasseled fields in the Willamette Valley. The highway through Hopi country was so devoid of vehicles—excepting the occasional mini van and old Chevys—that it was a disappointment to return to Tuba City and “civilization.” I drove back into Grand Canyon after what must have been a recent rain shower, the roads were still wet, and the juniper ever perfuming the air.
Jenny Gapp, has eighteen years experience as a teacher librarian, four seasons as a seasonal state park ranger assistant, and two summers adventuring with National Parks in an official capacity.