Determined to get even closer to the Four Corners, and certain that I would be sleeping under a sea of stars, I left Shiprock, heading west into Arizona. As I drove, I knew that somewhere not far to the south loomed the legendary rock formation that gave Shiprock its name, but I was unable to see it in the darkness beyond the lights of my car.
At a place named Teec Nos Pos, I pushed north on an even more remote highway, well aware that it was late, yet hoping that, in the light of a new day, I would find myself among those grand and colorful mesas and canyons, vibrating with broken rock, that I associated with Moab. After some five miles, I paused at the junction of a road that, according to a sign, led to the Four Corners Monument. I consulted my map: the monument was less than a mile away. I stepped out of the car, its motor and lights off. When my eyes adjusted to the starlit darkness, I looked around: no grand cliffs and canyons, not even a manmade structure; just a bland, rolling, nearly treeless upland. Thus, my introduction to the Four Corners: a cartographer’s curiosity, and some additional income for the Navajo nation (an entrance fee to the monument was required), but beyond that, not much. Small wonder each state provided a mere corner of itself to the place.
I resumed my drive in a northeasterly direction, but, exhausted, I soon stopped. Wary of sleeping on the ground so close to the highway, yet equally wary of bumbling off into the gloom with a loaded pack on my back without a flashlight, I lowered the back seat of Little Red, raised the hatchback, crawled in like a furtive high-desert creature. I didn’t know which of four possible United States I was in, and the mystery gave me a cheap thrill. Crumpled in my car, I spent a nearly sleepless night.
Dawn found me, to my surprise, at the top of a slope that led briefly down to a broad river, the San Juan, which I had skirted in Shiprock the previous night. I hastily repacked my gear and continued northeast. I passed a sign welcoming me to Colorado, so I assumed I spent the night in New Mexico. I crossed the San Juan, which flowed through a dismal landscape of barren gray hills, its shoreline dense with squat trees yet to leaf out. Other than the highway and a littered parking area beside a brief trail that led to the river bottomland, the area was devoid of any traces of humanity.
Immediately upon climbing out of the river basin, I pulled the car over and had a breakfast. Hungry as I was, I would have liked five scrambled eggs smothered in chile verde, a side of chorizo sausage, and two ten-inch flour tortillas, but I settled for my stewed apricots and coffee. As I ate, I studied Shiprock, not the city, but the actual geological formation, the Navajos’ “rock with wings.” It stood 25 miles to the southeast, aglow in the sunrise, jutting above a horizon of dun-colored tableland, like a lone, worn tooth of a saw blade.
Driving on, I turned, at a junction as desolate as the one that led to the Four Corners, onto a highway that led west to Bluff, Utah. After Aneth and Montezuma Creek, two reservation towns of ramshackle trailer homes, cars and trucks on blocks, muddy roads, and roaming dogs, I finally returned, just east of Bluff, to the red rock country that recalled Moab. Bluff was a tiny, tidy town with a grocery store, motel, homes that were actually built there, and even some lawns. Great sandstone formations hugged the north side of the town.
I didn’t linger there. Under mostly cloudy skies, I pressed on to a place northwest of Bluff with the alluring name of Valley of the Gods. I plunged and climbed through a massive canyon at the bottom of which ran Butler Wash. More gigantic rock formations appeared, although these were less angular, because far more curvaceous, than those in the Moab area. They stood upon a sea of the most beautiful combination of native soil and plant life I’d ever witnessed. Even under cloudy skies, the soil was vibrantly red as chile powder and peppered with diminutive green shrubbery accented occasionally by a juniper tree. As the man himself had lovingly proclaimed two decades earlier: “Abbey’s country.”