Pipe Spring

Pipe Spring National Monument is out of the way, but that’s what makes it interesting. I stopped there between Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. There was a little clash of cultures between Paiutes and Mormons around this important water source in the otherwise barren and beautiful Arizona Strip.

Arizona euphoria, Mississippi dystopia

Yesterday morning I was driving across the yellow hills of central Arizona in a Lincoln Town Car owned by the Hertz Rental Car Company listening to music on the satellite radio. I thought, “I don’t want to go back.”

Well, here I am. When I got back to the airport last night the humidity was around 100%. My car wouldn’t start and I had to get it towed. The mechanic hasn’t figured it out yet and I remain without conveyance. On top of this a real shit storm is brewing at work. It doesn’t involve me, but I will have to be very careful to stay out of it.

I had a great time in Arizona, I really did! I made some friends, renewed my sense of purpose for my career, camped and hiked, saw lots of scenery, drank a lot, and visited with my brother and his wife.

Photos from Arizona:

Moab, Utah

I’m back in Moab for a final night. Tomorrow I’m going back to my brother’s place, and I’ll spend the weekend with him.

A desert Christmas card: orange-red sandstone cliffs, olive-green junipers and pines, and white snow under a silver sky.
Tsegi Canyon
I left Many Farms really early this morning to get to Navajo National Monument by 8:00 a.m. Roger, the ranger I met earlier in the week (turns out he’s the superintendent) was surprised to see me. The tour didn’t start until 10, and it was a four-hour hike to the Batatakin ruins. The Keet Seel hike is scheduled for tomorrow. The locus of this foul-up is an employee named Earl. Earl will always have a special place in my voodoo-doll collection.

White petroglyph shaped like a deer on red sandstone.
Deer petroglyph
It wasn’t so bad. Turns out the ranger’s wife Peggy was on her way to escort some bioliogists into the canyon so they can inventory the aquatic biota of the seep springs before leading the tour to Betatakin. He invited me to go along with them. The place, way on top of the Shonto Plateau, still looked like a Christmas card with all the snow. We hiked pretty much straight down the cliff into Tsegi Canyon, dropped off the biologist, waited for a couple of Californians to catch up, and headed for the ruins.

Red sandstone village ruins in a tall cliff alcove.
What can I say? The place was beautiful. The ruins were fantastic. I’m sure I’ve written that a bazillion times already. Batatakin was built into an alcove in the cliff. There was only one large square kiva in the main village. A granary was built about 100 feet above on a ledge in the alcove, accessible only by a long-gone ladder. There were petroglyphs and pictographs and loom holes on the cliff wall, pottery shards (“potsherds”: my new vocabulary word) on the ground. Little seep springs with unusual plants grow out of the cracks, a relict glacial forest of aspens and horsetails covers the canyon bottom. Snow everywhere except in the village, sheltered from it but not the sun by the alcove. Peggy found the tracks of a bobcat and drops of blood from its kill.

On the drive out I finally saw a black-tailed jackrabbit; it ran along the road and I slowed down to let it cross. It ran along side my car for a bit, then jumped into the brush. I looked at the speedometer: it read 30 mph.

Red sandstone buttes against a deep blue sky.
Monument Valley as John Ford intended
So with another half-day to kill, I considered, in spite of my resolution to avoid it at all cost, visiting the Four Corners Monument so I could stand in four states at once. But I realized last week in Durango- cut off from the rest of Colorado by mountain passes, and all throughout this trip, that the cultures of the Four Corners area- white, Hopi, Navajo, Mormon, Spanish, Mexican, whatever- are all intertwined, and that the state borders were arbitrarily division drawn across the Colorado Plateau by long-dead bureaucrats in Washington. So screw the Four Corners, I drove up through Monument Valley again. This time the skies were clear and I saw them as John Ford intended. I did some Christmas shopping at Goulding’s Trading Post nearby, and then again in Bluff. I made Moab by evening, checked into a very nice, very cheap motel run by the Methodist Church, and visited the Moab Brewery for a snack and a Scorpion Pale Ale before they closed.

I had a nice conversation there with a couple of guys, one a traveling geophysicist who studies active volcanoes and consults on Caribbean aquifers, the other a part-time bicycle guide who made Moab his home. So, in the end, the trip out to Keet Seel might have been more arduous than necessary and my afternoon less leisurely, and so I will withdraw the pin from Earl’s rear.

Many Farms, Arizona

I’m staying in a high school dormitory tonight. Yes, I am. It used to be a boarding school, and now it’s an inn run by the students at Many Farms High School so the reservation kids can learn the tourism trade.

I’m running out of steam. This is by far the longest I have ever been on the road. I’m going back to Navajo National Monument tomorrow for an all-day hike to the Keet Seel ruins (8 miles to get there-yikes). I called today and signed up, so I’ll finish Indian Country with a big flourish.

Red stone stable.
Hubbell stable
I’ve been toodling around Indian country doing this and that. Yesterday morning found me at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site in Ganado. Ganado is the home of the Ganado Red style of Navajo rugs, and I finally made a purchase of one: my gift to my brother and his wife to decorate their home. The trading post is run by the National Parks and their local nonprofit cooperating organization. I took a tour of the Hubbell house and a little of the grounds. The ranger who led me around was new to the area from San Francisco. We had a pretty long conversation. As usual, we know someone in common. I commented that I would like to work in one of the western parks, but since I’m single the isolation of some of these places might bother me. She agreed; her boyfriend lives in Page, Arizona (probably about 3 hours driving) and they don’t see each other much. I related my impossible overseas relationship to her.

There’s not much more than a couple hours worth of stuff to see at Hubbell (usually there’s a Navajo weaver working in the visitor center but this morning the lady was just rolling up a ball of yarn), so I drove back out to Hopiland to see the cultural center in Shungopavi. The museum there is pretty good, in a shabby kind of way; with better presentation (i.e. more money) some of the stuff would be pretty smashing. The Hopi are a little more outgoing than the Navajo, and the docent answered a lot of my questions. He suggested I drive out to Walpi, one of the ancient stone villages still inhabited.

First I ate at the restaurant next door (all of the tourist facilities, except the many craft stores, are concentrated in the Hopi Cultural Center complex). I noticed the Indians here don’t add any kind of seasoning whatsoever to their food. The Hopi dish I had (can’t recall the name) was pinto beans, hominy, a whole roasted green chile, and a couple of fry breads aside.

On fry bread. I’ve had this a few times now. The Indians are not on the low-carb bandwagon. It’s a big, fluffy, zeppole without the sugar, and tastes a little like a fried wonton. My first sample was at Twin Rocks Cafe in Bluff when I ordered a Navajo taco. If you’ve ever had a chalupa at Taco Bell, that is a Navajo taco. Anyway, sometimes fry bread comes in one massive serving, a clue to the weight problem among Indians. Though not nearly as fat as your average Mississippian, they’re certainly wider than the average Coloradan or Utahazoid. All the women are a little chubby.

Anyway, I drove out (up) to Sichimovi. You can’t drive all the way to Walpi, even though the three villages on top of First Mesa are right next to each other. There’s a little visitor center/community house, and a sign reminding you to not take pictures of anything, anywhere. I hired a guide (bring small bills to Indian country: nobody ever has change) to escort me up to Walpi. While I was waiting for the guide, Loretta, to scare up some small bills, I looked at the crafts for sale by local artists. I stopped in one potter’s shop. He was working on his masterpiece, a ceramic vessel with the Hopi creation story in relief. He showed me the pigments he used (they use a lot of traditional natural pigments) and told me a little about his career. He told me up front he is becoming better known, and his stuff was pretty steep. Even his daughter’s work for sale there was expensive, a few hundred dollars a piece.

Loretta walked me up to Walpi. It’s separted from Sichimovi only by a narrow road; on either side of it is a sheer cliff. The village built a stone s
taircase down the side of the mesa to the canyon floor where the small farms are. Walpi is at the very end of the mesa, fortresslike. It’s a stone pueblo directly descended from the ruins I’ve been visiting. Electricity and water only came to the mesa-top villages in the 1990s, but Walpi stills has none of that. As a result it’s only partly inhabited and some of the rooms are used only for special occasions. Walpi dates back to the 17th century, and it’s not the oldest either– Old Oraibi, on nearby Third Mesa, is nine hundred years old.

Loretta was very nice. I asked a lot about the local economy and how the stone pueblos are designed and used. I avoided asking particular details about religious rituals, since they won’t divulge that sort of thing. Lots of people come through Indian Country during the warmer months, and I bet they get their share of condescending tourist from all over. She asked me where I was from and what I did for a living. I wonder if the seashore seems as far away and exotic to people in the desert as the desert seems to me.

Since the Hopi don’t allow photography (they don’t want their culture exploited) I have none of my short trip to Walpi. The day before, I surreptiously took a photo of the canyon from my car while I waited for a road crew flagman to wave me down the mesa. I don’t believe they can stop me from taking photos. Even on Indian reservations, I still have rights. How do they deal with the press? But as a guest I’ll respect their cultural privacy.

On my way to the inn in the evening I did something I never do: I picked up hitchhikers. People hitchhike a lot in Navajoland. They also walk a lot; I see people walking along the highway in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Unlike the Hopi, the Navajo seem to live in very scattered communities, though there are a few towns. I was stopped at a gas station in Chinle checking my Lonely Planet guide for motels when an old man asked me for a ride. He was with two people. Why did I say yes? I don’t know, maybe I wanted to end the trip hacked into a million pieces. Buy people had been very nice to me during this trip, and this was a rural community, so I said yes. I figured I’d build up some credit with the universe. So these three older folks (sixtyish- two men, one woman) got in the car and asked me in heavily accented English to drive them to church on the other side of town. I didn’t understand a lot of what they said, but they told me the hotel at the other end of town was the only good one. They were quite nice, however, my leftover Hopi food was crushed by one man’s boot.

Looking down into a red sandstone canyon under gray skies.
Canyon de Chelly from the White House Trail
That was all yesterday. Today, I visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument. It wasn’t the National Park Experience I’d been having at the other places. Someone once told me he thought Canyon de Chelly was a great place to visit. He must have stayed in a $100 hotel rooms in Chinle and paid a guide to show him around. Because I was really disappointed in the place. Chinle, the town where the monument is, is kind of grungy and ugly. The three hotels are all significantly more expensive than everywhere else I’ve visited here (I ended up driving up to Many Farms last night, 15 miles away). You have to hire a Navajo guide to see the canyon, something I, as a National Park ranger, am adverse and averse to. It smacks of privatization of public services and of outsourcing of my profession and livelihood. I don’t mind it at a tribal park, but this is a National Monument. It’s mine as much as theirs. So I didn’t hire a guide (they hang out at the visitor center on a rotating basis- very Third World). There’s one trail you can walk down the canyon on your own, the White House Trail. It’s a wide developed trail. The canyon bottom is heavily trod by horses and four-wheel drives. People still live in the canyon- it’s owned by the Navajo Reservation and managed and preserved by the Park Service. Even the access road isn’t very scenic, it’s just a local road with homes and signs on it.

I will say this: when I got close to the canyon floor, I was looking down at a sheep pen on a farm. A little old lady walked out to it, opened up the gate, and all these sheep ran out. I might have been in Slovakia or Uzbekistan or some other pastoral country. How nice that such quaint, old-fashioned lifestyles still exist for my benefit. This is the sort of thing Freeman Tilden (an obscure naturalist now worshipped by National Park interpreters) used to write about. Besides that, the White House Ruins in the canyon were behind a six-foot chicken-wire fence, and I was in the company of this Canadian family with their eight loud teenagers. By the women’s clothes I judged them religious kooks to boot.

So was this just a disappointing experience or just travel fatigue? Can I really expect to be blown away every day for two weeks. Clearly not. Even “Star Trek: The Next Generation” experienced diminishing returns and was cancelled. It’s time to head back to Denver.

Gallup, New Mexico

Two mitten-shaped buttes in the snowfall; the snowfall obscures the usually magnificent view, but gives the valley a ghostly look.
The Mittens in the snow
A slowish day. This morning I visited Monument Valley, a tribal park. The weather was bad again this morning, foggy and snowy. The guides would only start a tour with two visitors, and it took a while to scare up a second person. Finally, after and hour or so of waiting, a British couple and their baby decided to join me. Our driver, Joe, despite his insistence that I stick around, was a little uncertain about the road conditions. He abandoned his tour van for his own four-wheel drive truck. He tipped forward the passenger seat and gestured for the British family to get in back. They peered in, and seeing it was not equipped with seat belts, asked to return to the tour van.

Before we got too far down the road, Joe got out to look over the conditions, and we watched some trucks tow out a couple of similar vans. Hmm. Anyway, we went into the valley.

The snow gives the red sandstone desertscape a different look than the familiar movie scenes.
John Ford Point
You’ve seen Monument Valley a zillion times on television and in the movies. John Ford used to film there all the time, and the nearby trading post preserves John Wayne’s favorite room. In fact, there is an overlook called Ford’s point. Lots of truck commercials are filmed there, too.

But this morning the visibility was pretty bad, and the snow was the first substantial fall after a six year drought. I was looking at the valley in a different way than I had expected: not entirely what I hoped for, but still a rare occurence. I don’t have the photos back yet, but I suspect the monuments will look like sandstone ghosts in the haze.

Joe tried to hustle me in the morning, but turned out to be a pretty good guide. I asked him a lot about Navajo life, the economy, the culture, the architecture of the hogans, the history, etc. I wondered if he would use any of those asanine Hollywood-style Indianisms like, “The coyote is my friend and the wind speaks to me.” He didn’t– he was pretty frank and sincere– but he explained how he used to go to different churches when he was looking for things to do and people to meet (he especially liked roller-skating). “But this is my church,” he said gesturing to landscape around us.

Can’t go wrong with Monument Valley as your church, I thought.

We only travelled about ninety minutes. The Brits were anxious to get back to Moab. It was a short, but stunning little jaunt, and I still had half a day. So, off to Navajo National Monument to look at ruins for the second half.

Green junipers and pinon pines along a snow-covered trail.
Sandal Trail in the snow
This place was pretty high up and it was still snowing. The ruins were accessible only with a guide and the guide had set off around the time the Brits and I were watching Joe clean out his rusty old truck. The ranger said a volunteer guide would be available again on Thursday (next time this happens to you write your damned congressman and tell them to fund these places properly- ed.). With a few hours of daylight to kill, I drove through the bulk of the Navajo reservation and through the Hopi reservation within it (finding the museum there closed), and so went all the way to Gallup for the night.

By the way, there is a Navajo rush hour, if you can believe it; from about five to six o’clock in the evening there are a lot of people on the two-lane highways. They must travel very far to work.

Opinion of Gallup: This is the ugliest city I have ever seen. “Historic Route 66” runs along the dismal downtown. It has lots of neon and tourist-Western schmaltz and seedy motels. The people here can’t drive for shit (one lady, with about ten feet of space on her starboard side, was having trouble negotiating around my car on her port). I thought there’d be something to do here at night. There isn’t, but I found a crunchy-looking cafe for dinner. The live band (some guy) played a couple of guitar tunes, then disappeared. Can’t complain, the Lonely Planet book warned me.