Jenny’s punchy little engine revved through a downshift, pulling us over a rise in the highway and I absentmindedly flicked the high beams on. Three or four miles distant another set of headlights glimmered. It would be a few minutes before I needed to turn my lights back down. The West is massive. There are words to a song somewhere in the flat desert horizon and the hum of the tires on a sun-bleached highway in the early dawn.
I was the only one awake as I piloted us through the Navajo Nation Reservation. Genevieve was slumped in the passenger’s seat, mouth wide open; likely drooling. Jesse, on the other hand, was invisible in the darkness. He was piled somewhere atop the quagmire of backpacks, sleeping bags, and other gear that consumed the back of the car. It was around hour 28 of sitting and sleeping in Jenny as we drove across the country. Sunrise imminent.
The sun washed the landscape with pink light as it started its slow rise. I jabbed the other two awake and they groggily stared at their first views of the foreign terrain. Red slickrock rose from the expanse in erratic curves, punctuating flat sandy patches covered in tumbleweeds-to-be. I love waking up with the Earth. There is such majesty that you can only see in those brief moments as frost sparkles in the light, and residents shake away the night. Here, in the Navajo Nation, many of the residents emerge from shoddily constructed shacks scattered throughout the desert.
I think it is important to take a brief moment to discuss the people of this place. They have spent hundreds of years being discriminated against and hindered by the American government. The most glaring example to me is that about 40% of the residents of the Navajo Nation do not have running water. We saw that in the early morning trips to outhouses and community wells. Scenes you would have imagined extinct in the United States decades ago. Scenes that undoubtedly carry less majesty and bring a different kind of pause. Aside, complete.
Our first destination of the trip was Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. You know the place if you have seen any number of American Western films. The classic place where John Wayne, Thelma & Louise, the Lone Ranger, and many other movies were shot in the “Old West.” We rolled into a pullout to snap some pictures of the scene. My smile for being in the place was quickly stolen by the laughs at Jesse making jokes about the farting sounds coming from cars hitting the rumble bars on the highway. I never should have expected less.
A few miles after crossing into Utah we pulled into the gravel parking lot at Goosenecks State Park. This park overlooks a series of deep meanders created by the San Juan River as it makes its way to the Colorado River. From the overlook, at the park, you look down to the river, some 1,000 feet below. We stayed here for a while, enjoying the relative stillness and quiet after driving for 2,000 miles. This first view alone was worth the trouble. The Goosenecks cover a little over a mile of horizontal distance, while it takes the river almost six miles to go that distance.
For the rest of the day, we bopped through a number of places on public lands in the Cedar Mesa area. From Muley Point, we could see the Goosenecks and Monument Valley. In Natural Bridges National Monument, we met the first impact from the government shutdown. When we sat in the saddle between the two rocky rises that are the namesake of Bears Ears National Monument, we could feel the passion of the people fighting to protect it from resource exploitation. Walking up Mule Canyon to the House on Fire Ruin, Jesse and Genevieve got their first chance to explore a place that was once inhabited by the Pueblo People.
Here you get a sense of why this place is so special. There are countless examples of archaeological mysteries in the area. Each time I have picked my way through a remote canyon to find one of these sites, I find myself populating them with their inhabitants. From the canyon below, proud hunters carry in game after successful ventures, and women sit over concave divots in the stone grinding grains to make Piki. In this place, there is peace and serenity, not living in the world, but living with it. Entering these places evokes a sense of awe that I honestly believe is only possible if you experience them yourself.
As the sun began to settle back below the horizon, we bumped down the unpaved County Road 262 to find a place to camp for the night. In the distance, I spotted a spur road that ran away from the main stretch of road. “That’s the spot” I announced and a few minutes later we were locked into four-wheel drive going through a sandy wash and up slick rock ledges. Jesse tells the story of the rest of the night better than me.
These are the first musings from the trip I took showing my siblings some of the best of the West. I’ll be working on putting some more pictures and stories together in the coming weeks.