After moving to Albuquerque, I was hungry to explore the Southwestern lands well beyond the cities and towns. My first exploration was to the Four Corners region, the Colorado Plateau country northwest of the city. Ten months prior to my arrival in Albuquerque, I finally visited the Moab, Utah, area, regarded by many as one of the prime destinations of the plateau country and the locus of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I would visit Moab two more times before moving to New Mexico. Like Abbey, I was fascinated by this arid “red wasteland” of relentless rock monoliths―like ruins of ancient, fabulous civilizations―and yawning canyons. On all three occasions, accompanied once by family and twice by friends, I had approached it from west-central Colorado; now I aimed to enter it alone from northwestern New Mexico.
On a Friday afternoon in March, directly from work, I headed west on I-40. In Little Red’s rear was stowed my camping gear: a circa 1976 Kelty backpack, Sears sleeping bag, foam rubber pad, plastic ground cover, Svea stove, surplus-store mess kit, plastic cup, can-opener, a can of baked beans, dried apricots, instant coffee, sugar, creamer, water, and my worn paperback edition of Desert Solitaire. I had no idea where I would lay my head that night. Fifteen years earlier this prospect would have frightened me; now, I reveled in its limitless possibilities. After all, I was now a cocky New Mexican, a Southwesterner, a friend of foresters, loggers, and sawyers, and no one could tell me I was a stranger here.
On I-40, I was among the steady stream of westbound autos and eighteen-wheelers. Meanwhile, I glanced at the frequent freight trains on the Santa Fe Railroad main line intermittently visible from the highway. I passed the Indian pueblo of Laguna, a small, pale apparition on a hill overlooking the highway. I crossed the Continental Divide, a mere swelling on the land, a trifling imitation of its soaring, rugged, snowbound stretch in much of Colorado. At Prewitt, New Mexico, an array of towering sandstone headlands, rosy in the setting sun, began to appear just north of the interstate. According to my map, I was now about to skirt the southern edge of the Navajo reservation. Soon I passed an exit to a place with the odd name of Rehoboth.
Out of curiosity, I switched on the Lynx’s AM radio and began turning the tuning dial from far left to right. Almost immediately, at about mid-60s kilohertz, I came upon an old favorite: Johnny Horton singing “Whispering Pines,” so I stayed there. At the completion of the recording, a voice, presumably that of a station announcer, came on. The Chinese I’d overheard as a busboy at Denver’s Lotus Room years earlier was odd enough. The language of the announcer sounded like Chinese sliced and diced, then recorded and played backwards. Occasionally, however, some English would bubble up through the bizarre linguistic goulash: a numeral, “auto parts,” “Chevy pickups,” “Baptist,” “Four Corners,” “booster cables.” After George Jones sang “Walk Through This World with Me,” the announcer returned with the strange lingo, but this helping included the utterance “66 KTNN, voice of the Navajo nation.”