Four Corners, Part 2

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?  


Four Corners, Part 1

After moving to Albuquerque, I was hungry to explore the Southwestern lands well beyond the cities and towns.  My first exploration was to the Colorado Plateau country northwest of the city.  The Plateau is a 130,000-square-mile, amoeba-shaped upland whose geographic center lies just west of a place known as the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, uniquely among American states, meet.  It is predominantly a land of mesas, canyons, badlands, buttes, and volcanic necks, of cracked, broken, and naked sedimentary rock; yet it also encompasses scattered mountain ranges, and such major Western rivers as the Colorado and the San Juan. 

I wasn’t a complete stranger to it.  Ten months prior to my arrival in Albuquerque, I finally visited the Moab, Utah, area, the locus of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and regarded by many as the premier destination of the Plateau country (although, today, Moab having exploded with residents and tourists, Abbey would surely disagree).  I would visit Moab two more times before moving to New Mexico.  Like Abbey, I am fascinated by this arid “red wasteland” of timeless, 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 would enter it alone from northwestern New Mexico―in Abbey’s words, the “way I wanted it, naturally.” 

On a Friday afternoon in March, directly from work, I headed west on I-40.  In Red’s rear was stowed my latest camping gear: a 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 Solitaire.  I had no idea where I would lay my head that night.  Fifteen years earlier this prospect would have frightened me somewhat; now, I reveled in its possibilities.  After all, I was now an actual 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 18-wheelers.  I glanced south at the frequent freight trains on the Santa Fe Railroad (today, the BNSF Railway) main line, which through much of northwestern New Mexico is within sight of the interstate.  I passed the pueblo of the Laguna Indian Reservation, a small, pale apparition on a hill overlooking the highway.  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 skirting or about to skirt the southern edge of the Navajo reservation.  I crossed the Continental Divide, a mere swelling on the land, a trifling imitation of its soaring, rugged, snowbound stretch in nearly all of Colorado.  I passed an exit to the settlement of Rehoboth, named after a well in the Book of Genesis. 

Out of curiosity, I switched on Little Red’s AM radio and began turning the tuning dial from far left to right.  Almost immediately, at about mid-60’s 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 variety of Chinese I’d overheard as a busboy at Denver’s Lotus Room years earlier was odd enough; the language of the announcer sounded like a recording of Chinese sliced and diced and then 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,” “chapter house.”  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.”

Ah hah

In a chilly twilight, I exited the interstate in Gallup, New Mexico, and, as the Stones’s rendition of “(Get You Kicks on) Route 66” played in my head, I motored down that city’s stretch of the former 66, which seemed as long as the western New Mexico horizon was wide.  In what I presumed was the city’s center, the traffic on the five-lane blacktop was considerable.  However, its businesses, primarily Indian merchandise stores and pawn shops on the south side of the thoroughfare, were all closed, with many storefronts obscured behind drawn scissor gates.  Immediately on the north side of the street, the Santa Fe Railroad, heretofore consisting of merely two tracks, now appeared to swell to a dozen, with many of the tracks loaded with long, dark strings of freight cars.  The string nearest to me was crawling westward. 

Just a handful of pedestrians appeared along the way.  A small group of men, each lean, broad-shouldered, and bearing a waterfall of raven hair―Navajos, I presumed―wandered through some trees and brush beside a chain-link fence that partially cordoned off Gallup’s Amtrak railroad station.  A woman in a tee-shirt emblazoned with “GEORGE STRAIT” staggered east down the south sidewalk, her forward progress only slightly more than her lateral. 

By now, I knew―from conversations with long-time New Mexicans, stories in Albuquerque newspapers, and Abbey’s musings in Desert Solitaire―of Gallup’s history of rampant alcoholism among its visitors from the vast Navajo reservation immediately to the north.  On this Friday evening, I tried to imagine the bars of Gallup.  Were they joyous places?  Was that “cowboy,” George Strait, crooning on their jukeboxes, the Indian wars now obviously over, differences now reconciled, all forgiven, and let’s drink to that?  Surely some of the bars were profoundly grim venues where sipping and light repartee were dispensed with because the object was to get hammered as quickly and cheaply as possible.

We destroyed their way of life and now expect all of them to remain sober?  I thought.

Fifteen years earlier, had I been in Gallup, perhaps en route to Tucson or Phoenix to visit friends or relatives, I would very likely have entered one or more of these establishments, slumming, getting buzzed, as I occasionally did on Denver’s skid row.  For there was a time, a generous time, when bars offered me laughter, male companionship, female companionship, and one fight (which I lost).  I certainly never sought self-destruction in alcoholhonestly, who, initially, does?but I often found comfort and occasional fortitude.  Now, in Gallup, New Mexico, I was grateful to be free of the regular patronizing of bars of any repute, free of their predation.  Today, I acknowledge the enormous complexity of alcoholism, including and especially Native American alcoholism. 

I continued through Gallup, past its cold, dark buildings of brick and sandstone, without stopping.  The last thing I noticed, while negotiating a bridge over the Santa Fe tracks, were two pairs of rails leading westward.  Above their grime, the crowns of the rails, cleaned and polished by the wheels of billions of freight cars, held an eerie glow that seemed to defy the dying twilight: silver ribbons afloat on a black sea of desert that spread to eastern Arizona.  Ah, to be borne along, to a destination, known or unknown, both agreeable, on a string of grimy, disinterested carriages of steel scented with the remote.



While living in Denver during the next seven years, travel kept me in contact with the Southwest.  En route to Arizona, I stayed in a motel in Las Vegas, New Mexico.  I visited friends in Tucson and Bisbee, Arizona.  I visited a cousin in Seligman, Arizona, where, on a chilly November evening, every street in the high-plateau railroad town was perfumed with juniper smoke from the many wood stoves of the town’s residents. 

An image from one of these travels has never left me.  One evening, in the New Mexico quadrant of the Four Corners region, a friend and I were racing along a deserted highway leading to the town of Shiprock.  Up ahead, in the twilight, a half-dozen men, all in a line, appeared to be standing beside a wooden fence that paralleled the highway.  “Funny time to be repairing a fence,” I remarked.  However, as we passed them, we realized they weren’t exactly standing.  They were leaning against the fence.  Some were even draped over it.  All were obviously dead drunk.  Then, a lonely roadhouse appeared on the same side of the highway, and out of it staggered and weaved another procession of Indians.  Our road map indicated that we were on the Navajo reservation. 

Occasionally, out of a Kerouac-ian romantic inclination, I’d slum at the Gin Mill, once Denver’s most notorious skid row bar, and drink with Native Americans well on the path to alcohol-fueled oblivion.  I wondered if their sad condition was due to the fact that they were trapped in the urban cauldron, wrenched from their Mother Earth, their rural roots in Arizona, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Florida.  Thus, it surprised me to see, as our car hurtled along toward Shiprock and I sipped on a can of Bud, such pitiful self-destruction even in the pristine high-desert of northwestern New Mexico. 

I’d much to learn.