I headed north on Highway 666, unaware of this number’s modern-day association with the antichrist or the devil. (Some 15 years later, as a result of its Satanic connotation and periodic thefts of its official highway signs, the “Devil’s Highway” would be renumbered/renamed 491.) Scattered along my first 10 miles of 666, apparitions coalescing in my headlights, were some one dozen northbound hitchhikers, undoubtedly yet more Navajos. On the one hand, it was an odd sight: in a nation overflowing with cars and trucks, all these individuals afoot and seeking rides; on the other, it suggested a solidarity, a remarkable faith, surely tribal in nature, on the part of each and every one of these thumbers that, sooner or later, despite the obvious competition, he or she could count on a car or truck for a lift to Sheep Springs, Newcomb, Sanostee, Little Water, or Shiprock in time for the 10 o’clock news. Few, I sensed, are forever left by the wayside in Navajoland.
Although, that night at least, no thanks to me: I passed them all, wiping their existence away in the wake of my high beams. My current solitude was too delicious, too individualistic, too white man, obviously un-tribal. Meanwhile, some station on the right side of my AM radio dial was broadcasting Merle Haggard’s “No Reason to Quit,” the ultimate drunkard’s rebel yell (without the yelling, however, only Haggard’s incomparably elegant baritone).
After 70 more miles of darkness pinpricked by the occasional light of a house near to or distant from 666, I arrived in Shiprock, New Mexico, a veritable metropolis in this remote country, for the first time in a dozen years. At a Taco Bell, I purchased some Mexoid and a Pepsi to go.
Determined to get even closer to the Four Corners, I left Shiprock, heading west into Arizona. As I drove, I knew that somewhere not far to the south loomed the legendary formation that gives 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, all 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 is required), but beyond that, not much. Small wonder each state provides only the merest corner of itself to the place, I thought.
I resumed my drive for a number of miles and then, exhausted, I 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’d forgotten it), I lowered the back seat of Little Red, raised the hatchback, and crawled in like a furtive high-desert creature. I was thoroughly confused, unable to determine which of four possible United States I was in, and the mystery amused me to sleep.
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 roughly north. I crossed the San Juan, which flowed through a dismal landscape of barren gray hills, its shoreline dense with 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 place was devoid of any traces of humanity. I passed a sign welcoming me to Colorado.
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 10-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 leading 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 increasingly 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 far more curvaceous than those I recalled 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 dotted with diminutive green shrubbery, all occasionally punctuated by a juniper tree.
Shortly after turning north onto a road leading to the Valley of the Gods, I diverted onto a side road that led briefly to a place called the Goosenecks. Since breakfast, the San Juan River had been shadowing my journey, flowing meekly over the desolate land, nearly always visible. Then it seemed to disappear at Bluff. Now, some 20 miles from the village, I stood at a railing at the Goosenecks, staring at the same river one thousand feet below and flowing through a canyon whose convolutions recalled intestines; geologists call it an entrenched meander. The staggering geological transformation baffled me. At what point over those 20 miles, I wondered, did the pleasantly daylit San Juan make the plunge into this appalling underworld, shed its flimsy blouse for an overcoat? And why? And how? Staring at this spectacle, I had to wonder: Which had the greater appetite, the river for the land, or the land for the river?