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Four Corners Sojourn – Part 5

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 1,000 feet below, meandering through a canyon as convoluted as my small intestine. The dramatic geological transformation was baffling. At what point over those 20 miles, I wondered, did the pleasantly daylit San Juan make the plunge into this appalling underworld, shed its 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?

The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spread at the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that ran from northeast to southwest. I parked Little Red at the entrance to a dirt road that, according to my map, looped through the valley. Cars and trucks trickled onto it as I remained parked.

Preferring solitude, I decided to avoid it. I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of formations, yet no less lovely. In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed. Their piles of manure, dark, rippling, and glistening when fresh, gray and crusty when aged, were not infrequent. But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me. Again, so charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted them as just one more part of the beguiling landscape.

After establishing a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering myself from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as a rain fly. The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me. After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104°F, and September, when the weather was cooler but equally dry. So I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah. In any event, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition. Thus, in the shelter of the fly, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the rock rampart at my back. This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.

The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its “geometry,” a result of its sedimentary nature. The natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill and Adirondack mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand. Curves characterized these landscapes. Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws. It did not flow. It chomped.

Meanwhile, this rather linear landscape had a charming familiarity. I loved it for its natural qualities; yet I loved it as well for the man-made constructs these natural formations recalled: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin. And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and heads of phalli.

It was a naked land. Before witnessing southeast Utah and northwestern New Mexico, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils. The canyon country, however, was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth.

Space in the canyon country looked and felt different. All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of space, trap it, concentrate it, lend it a remarkable substance. Huddled beneath my rain fly, I could almost hear space colliding with the massive rock wall that ran behind me.

All in all, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.

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Four Corners Sojourn – Part 4

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.”

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Four Corners Sojourn, Part 3

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, ghostly apparitions coalescing in my headlights, were some one dozen northbound hitchhikers, presumably 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 hitchhikers 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 before the 10 o’clock weather report.   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 white man, obviously very un-tribal. Meanwhile, KTNN broadcast “No Reason to Quit” by Merle Haggard, the ultimate drunkard’s rebel yell (without the yelling, however, only Haggard’s incomparably beautiful baritone).

After 70 more miles of darkness, flecked only by the occasional light of a house near to or distant from the 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.