My last morning in Durango began late, with me missing the motel’s continental breakfast window. So I drove over to another diner, called Oscar’s, where the single pancake I ordered literally filled the plate. I don’t see the appeal of this, but so be it. Today I would head to Albuquerque via Shiprock.
So I drove southwest to Shiprock, a town in the Navajo Reservation in northwest New Mexico named for the eponymous volcanic plug southwest of town. Last week in Santa Fe I’d bought a photographic print of this geological wonder, and I wanted to see it for myself.
Throughout the long drive to Shiprock I was struck at how civilization has marred the landscape. The mountains of Colorado rapidly diminish in the desert heat as the land flattens out and dries up. Yet the rock formations dotted by scrub are quite beautiful, until you notice the power lines strung up everywhere.
No matter where I looked, I saw power lines. They are often strung on both sides of the highways, and when they aren’t, it appears they made sure to string them on the more scenic side. There wasn’t a single great scenic view throughout the drive to Shiprock that didn’t have power lines strung across it. Reddy Kilowatt brought modern living to this area, but at a great cost.
I first glimpsed the Shiprock formation when I turned west in Farmington off Highway 170 onto US 64. The rock solidified in the throat of a volcano, thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface, 27 million years ago. Exposed by erosion, it towers alone today over 1,500 feet above the surrounding plain.
I knew it was located on the Navajo Reservation, and that its spiritual significance to them and their isolation might well mean there would be no tourist amenities – and there weren’t any. The Navajo do not allow camping or climbing at Shiprock, and they seem to discourage visitors by passive neglect. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the nation, and the Native Americans on the Navajo Reservation face many challenges linked to poverty. Life on the reservation is a far cry from that along gallery row in Santa Fe. I can see why last night’s Farmington acquaintances discouraged the trip, for the magnificence of Shiprock is blunted by its surroundings.
In the namesake town you see silhouettes of the formation adorning many businesses, but there are no signs to the formation, no visitor center, not even a decent road. You have to drive miles out on a highway toward it and know when to turn on a virtually unmarked highway to get close to it.
That side highway is deserted except for the occasional pickup roaring by. You can stand in the middle of the road and feel like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, waiting for a cropduster to appear. I pulled off to the side to shoot Shiprock from one angle, and when I pull back the shot you see the ubiquitous power lines.
I drove onward to eventually find a washboard road leading to the formation, but it was unfit for a passenger car. So I pulled off, got out, and at my feet found what I feared I would see: part of a tire buried in sand, part of the packaging for a case of beer, and an empty glass beer bottle. The rock is said to play a significant role in Navajo religion, myths, and traditions. But its impression on me is one of broken dreams: the Navajo have been strung up with power lines, imprisoned in trailer homes, and poisoned with alcohol. That is the new troika replacing the conquering one of guns, germs, and steel. Capitalism has failed these people in many ways. I well remembered today why I was glad to leave the Four Corners area when my father first brought me here twenty years ago – this land is so beautiful yet so cruel, and the unsolved problems of European conquest are evident and heartbreaking.
I decided not to press on down the highway for a better access road, but instead drove away, admiring the countryside while trying to ignore the power lines. (Now that I’ve mentioned them, don’t they bug the heck out of you when you look at the photos?) Back in Farmington I had a yummy lasagna at Bernardone’s and then drove south toward I-40. The desert sky was gorgeous (yup, more power lines) and the rough terrain gave way to flat fields. I was in the land of crop circles – not the fake crush patterns created by mischievous pranksters, but the immense circles of green crops grown in the desert by irrigation. The landscape was dotted by water towers, seeming like immensely tall invaders – perhaps these were not water towers at all, but Martian attack tripods out of The War of the Worlds.
The landscape was terribly flat and empty, and some lane arrows led me to exclaim, “Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”
Far ahead I could see a thunderstorm building up, with dark sheets of rain and occasional lightning bolts. Empty channels and exposed rock layers and erosional oddities glided by. Between two formations I saw a hoodoo convention underway, and then the highway led toward and then on into a rainstorm.
I quickly exited the rainstorm and saw beautiful formations on the drive around Crownpoint. I merged onto I-40 and hoped to visit some of the volcanic formations at the El Malpais National Monument, but that side trip proved highly problematic.
I turned off I-40 and drove under heavy skies toward the monument. Clearly it had just rained, and rain and the desert do not mix well. Suddenly the road hit a shallow channel and water flooded across it. A car approaching me made it through without incident, so I followed. But ahead I could see more flooding and in the far distance an emergency vehicle. This wasn’t going to work. So I did a three-pointer to turn around without going any deeper into a flooded area. That’s when things went rather awry.
As I was executing my turn-around the policeman or ranger who had been in the far distance came roaring down the road at full speed, lights flashing. My passenger window was down as he unexpectedly roared by through the water at full tilt. I had my finger jammed on the control to lift the passenger window but it did not seal in time. A flood of muddy water gushed all over the back and side of my car, and it was like someone had thrown a bucket of muddy water in through the window. It splashed all over the dashboard and windshield interior, spattering my shirt.
The patrol car roared onward to some emergency while I sat there watching the muddy water drip off the dashboard. I pondered whether to laugh or to cry; I laughed, but I decided not to snap a photo. My July Jinks turned into July Jinx! I used some Puffs to clean up the worst of it, and determined I was definitely heading straight to Albuquerque for the nearest Wal-Mart.
I drove 60 miles down I-40, thinking that my car must resemble those muddy off-roading trucks one sees – but only I knew the mud on my windshield was on the inside. I pulled in to a very busy Wal-Mart on the west side of Albuquerque and bought ArmorAll cleaning wipes and RainX window wipes. Then I spent a considerable amount of time in the parking lot wiping down every inch of the dashboard, the center console, both doors, and cleaning the windshield and window interiors.
I got it all shined up so that now the only indications of a problem are that the dash seems a bit cleaner than normal, in a few cracks and deep in the vents ones sees what could be the splatters of a spilled chocolate milkshake, and somehow a few drops of that mud milkshake managed to seep in behind the glass of the radio display and dry there, unmolested.
I found my hotel, which is much cheaper yet nicer than the one in Durango, but has lousy WiFi. Then I supped at the Route 66 Diner near downtown. I filled up at a Phillips station next to the hotel since it had a carwash, but of course it turned out the carwash wasn’t operating. So tomorrow I’ll have to stop off at one before the long drive to Oklahoma City.
From the post you might think this day was a depressing disaster, but I actually had a fun time driving through the desert, which was quite beautiful despite the power lines, enjoyed seeing Shiprock, and even managed to chuckle as I slowly cleaned up the car. This is the last of my July Jinks posts – no side trips tomorrow, just a straight haul.
I had a good time on my July vacation and it fulfilled its purpose, substituting beautiful desert and mountain scenery and highs in the 80s, plus a couple of fun live shows, for the sweltering heat of home. But this week I have a long meeting to attend, a speech to prepare and give (thanks to a phone message I received while aboard a steam train high up at Cumbres Pass!), and several physics curriculum orders to fulfill. Oh, and a birthday to celebrate – at 45, I’ll definitely be at mid-life if not beyond. Here’s hoping for an interesting crisis!
As Mr. Frost said, I have miles to go and promises to keep. So this post is the conclusion of July Jinks 2011, and, as always, happy trails!
Click here for a slideshow from today’s adventure
This area definitely has some of the most interesting landscape I’ve ever seen. Being there always makes me feel isolated from the “real word” and a little sad. It’s like traveling back in time – or to the moon – take your pick. The combination of the desert and poverty makes my heart heavy – yet the vivid sunsets and the strangely beautiful rock formations are powerful sources of inspiration.
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