Cat Flag’s Southwest Tour

 

I just got back from another trip – this one to northern Arizona. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, I did go to the Grand Canyon about this time two years ago. And, yes, I had to visit it again, just to make sure it was still as awesome, inspiring, and beautiful as I remembered.

Yup, still amazing!

However, this time I took far more time to see far more of the sites in the Grand Canyon State. I spent a week touring various notable locations in the side roads off of the I-40 that I had never previously explored. Arizona is the sixth-largest U.S. state, after all, and I wanted to learn as much about it firsthand as I could.

The first thing that I learned was how truly grateful I was for Willis Carrier, the inventor of air conditioning. It was quite hot for almost the entire trip, usually with temperatures in the 80’s, and one day that hovered around 100 degrees. (For those who use Celsius, that’s 26 to 38 degrees.) I had to wonder how people survived in such hot, desolate conditions with little to no water before modern conveniences made life in such a place bearable.

Yet, people have lived in Arizona for millennia. One of the places I visited was Wupatki, the medieval ruins of an ancient Indian town that flourished between 1100 and 1300 AD.

I was thrilled to see such an ancient and historic place up close. The National Park Service has put in a walking path that lets visitors walk right up to the ruins, and I couldn’t help but feel awe at being able to reach out and touch something with such a deep history.

Of course, the descendants of the people who settled at Wupatki are still around, the Hopi Indians who live a few miles to the north. Indeed, they still come to visit the site to remember their history, and according to the information at the nearby visitor center, they tell an Atlantis-like tale of how it fell due to its people forgetting their sacred deities and rituals.

I also drove through the Hopi and Navajo tribal lands during this trip, touring their respective reservations. I very briefly passed through Oraibi, the oldest continuously-inhabited settlement in the United States, estimated to be about as old as Wupatki! Oraibi is a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village built near the edge of a cliff. I noticed that it featured a number of very old buildings with newer, more modern wings added on, and I thought that was a clever way to preserve the history while still making the ancient homes habitable. Sorry, I have no pictures of the town, as photography is not allowed there.

In contrast, the Navajo Nation capital at Window Rock was almost indistinguishable from any suburban neighborhood anywhere in America, with a supermarket, a Chinese food restaurant, well-maintained roads, government offices, a McDonald’s, and even a zoo! I say almost indistinguishable because, of course, it had fantastic and impressive rock formations just sort of sticking up in the middle of town:

This rock formation was right next to the zoo

This is the sacred “Window Rock” for which the city is named, still used for important Navajo rituals

The Navajo Zoo was actually a fascinating concept: a zoo that only hosts animals that are native to northern Arizona. Many of the animals in its care were injured or sick animals that were rescued and are recuperating until they can be released.

Just next door to the zoo is the Navajo Nation Museum, a museum dedicated to preserving and teaching the history and heritage of the Navajo people. Appropriately enough, it features an extensive exhibit dedicated to Chief Manuelito, a Navajo war leader that led the resistance against the attempted expulsion of the Navajo people from their land in the 19th century, and later became one of the most important advocates for Navajo children being given a modern education. The museum also will soon feature the actual treaty that the United States signed with the Navajo in 1868 that allowed them to return home. Sadly, I arrived a few weeks too early to see it – the exhibit was under construction when I visited.

Another thing I noticed about the Navajo Nation was that it featured a number of memorials and references to the WWII-era Navajo Code Talkers, volunteers who fought in the Pacific Theater and sent vital military communications in their native Navajo language to avoid any English-speaking Japanese soldiers or spies who might be listening in from being able to understand them. This beautiful memorial statue was the largest one I saw:

The Navajo and Hopi lands also include a large part of the famous Painted Desert, so-called because it includes amazing colorful geological formations, such as this one:

I mean, it’s blue and purple! I didn’t know they made rocks in those colors!

That one was actually taken at the nearby Petrified Forest National Park. This park is filled with fossilized trees such as this one, which give it its name:

Millions of years ago, Arizona was not a desert but a tropical swamp near the equator, and it is positively full of fossils, which is why many of the roadside stops have giant dinosaur statues. Trouble is, with all of the sand blowing in the hot, dry, high-altitude air, many of these statues look like they could use a little TLC.

I can’t go on, captain…

The other common feature of these roadside stops that was a bit infuriating was that many of them had tipis. You know, the traditional home of the Plains Indians? The indigenous peoples of Arizona did not use tipis! Here, this is a picture of a hogan, the actual traditional home of the Navajo people:

By the way, that hogan was part of a really cool site that I visited: the Hubbell Trading Post. This is a store founded in 1878 to trade goods between the Navajo and Arizona settlers, and it is still in operation today, selling traditional Indian jewelry and blankets, books, and even some ordinary groceries and household goods, just like in the old days!

I have to wonder about those first pioneer settlers that moved into Arizona. How did they handle the heat in those layers of 19th-century clothing they wore? How did they make sure they had provisions for the journey, like water and food? How did they react to the way the landscape would change at the drop of a hat, from dry scrubland to piney woods with just a slight change in elevation or water availability? How did they respond when they saw the Grand Canyon for the first time? I’m just imagining some family on a wagon riding along through the pines and suddenly…

“Welp… I guess we’re not getting around this, folks.”

The Grand Canyon is far from the only awe-inspiring natural phenomenon in northern Arizona. One of my favorites is the Meteor Crater, a massive meteorite impact from 50,000 years ago that is the best-preserved such crater on Earth. It is an absolutely amazing sight:

However, it is not easy to get to. It is several miles down a country road, far from the highway, with absolutely nothing but empty land around it. If it weren’t for the signs assuring you it was up ahead, you might be tempted to think you made a wrong turn!

Interestingly, the Meteor Crater is NOT a national park, but is private property. I did notice a difference between this private business’s visitor center and the national park visitor centers I frequently stopped in on these trips. It was larger, better air-conditioned, slightly more well-maintained, and a bit more considerate of human creature comforts than the visitor centers built by our federal government. It had a theater showing a 10-minute film on the history of the crater, and it also had a Subway for customers to eat at. It was an interesting contrast to me, and allowed me to reflect a bit on how the government and private businesses have different priorities when designing the buildings they use. Admittedly, I kind of liked Meteor Crater’s visitor center a bit better.

Now, almost all of the travelling I did was based around what one could easily reach by turning off the I-40 freeway. This road was built in the late 1950s and much of it functionally replaced, or in many cases even destroyed, the historic Route 66 highway. Everywhere I went there were shops offering T-shirts, magnets, baseball caps, and other novelties that read “Route 66” on them. However, an even older mode of transportation was also constantly present: the railroad. Many of the towns in northern Arizona were originally railroad towns and were built to meet the needs of these massive machines transporting people and goods to and from California. To this day, railroads run parallel to the freeways and I was constantly seeing trains run by as I traveled.

Yet the romantic connection with Route 66 and the truckers who drove on it were also ever-present in the gift shops I visited, making it all the more sad that many roadside stops had clearly gone out of business and were sitting abandoned on the side of the road. It was a sad and stark reminder of the Great Recession and its continuing impact on America to this day.

Still, one small town is fighting back. Just off the highway, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is a community called Winslow that was briefly mentioned in a throwaway line in the song “Take It Easy” by the Eagles. Well, the town has milked that tiny claim to fame for all its worth, building an entire monument to the song in the heart of their tiny downtown:

It’s called the Standin’ On The Corner Park. Yes, really.

I found the whole novelty of such a bizarre monument quite appealing, and I think that’s what the town is going for. When I got there, about a half-dozen people were taking selfies by the statues; it took a while for me to be able to get a shot of just the monument itself and not the crowd. Meanwhile, all of the neighboring gift shops were playing the Eagles’ discography on loop. I couldn’t help but smile as I wondered if the cashiers ever got sick of hearing those same songs over and over all the time. Still, good for Winslow for finding a way to become a destination people might want to visit.

This road trip was a wonderful journey that I learned quite a lot from. Arizona is a fascinating state with stark natural beauty accompanied by scorching temperatures, a fascinating past, and a present that is full of surprises that will renew your optimism. I am glad that I went, and if you haven’t done so, I would encourage you on your next road trip to go off the beaten path upon occasion and see what you will find. You just might be surprised.