First Trip to the American South West - NeilBennettPhoto

© Neil Bennett Photography 2018.

Day four of my trip, in Cortez Colorado, started poorly. Aside from the fact that my $40 motel room had either fleas or bed bugs, the bedside phone rang at about half an hour past midnight with no one on the other end of the line. A few minutes later it rang again - no one there again. Quiet for a while it rang again around 1:30.

“What?”

“Room 22?” slurred an inebriated voice.

“No - room 2. Stop calling.”

A few minutes later the phone rang again.

“WHAT!!?”

Same inebriated voice, “Room 22?”

“WRONG AGAIN!!” and I hung up. The room became quiet once I detached the phone from the wall.

Cortez, like so many other small towns in this part of the US is replete with pawn shops and liquor stores. Not always side by side but not too far apart either. The sign on one liquor store caught my eye and I’m not sure if this is a comment on kids in Cortez, husbands in Cortez, mothers in Cortez, or just the humor of the owner. The saddest possibility of all is that no humor was intended.

I had been to Mesa Verde on the afternoon of day three to scope it out as I was taking part in a ranger walk through one of the Anasazi ruins the next day. Subsequent to the middle of the night interruptions, I was off to a nearby Mom and Pop diner for breakfast. The interior walls were corrugated steel and the lamp shades (sconces, in effect) were made of half a metal pail, cut vertically, and attached to the wall. It didn’t really look like a rough kind of place, or town, but I wasn’t there after hours. In at least one nod to modern times, there were compact fluorescent light bulbs behind the half pails.

It was a patriotic kind of place too, with part of one wall being set aside for photos of those who had joined various branches of the US military. The waitress, clearly from Texas by her accent, was talking with another patron about a certain high school graduate who would soon have his picture on the wall. And, being the US, the sheer volume of food presented for breakfast was overwhelming. If, as Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach, an army having breakfast in this particular diner in Cortez would march a long, long way.

Having left Vancouver by car three days earlier en route to Santa Fe, New Mexico, I had been through Washington, Oregon, Idaho and into Utah. Much of the intention of the trip was photography, for which I hadn’t had much time until day two in Arches Park near Moab, Utah.

After driving most of the day under grey and wet skies, I took a chance on the possibility of good light just before sunset at Arches Park and I hiked out to Delicate Arch. There was a tiny strip of blue sky on the horizon and just before sunset the sun popped out and illuminated the arch beautifully.

Moab is the epicenter of much outdoor activity in this part of the US including mountain bike riding on the slick rock, river rafting, hang gliding, back country hiking and camping. It seemed to me like the US equivalent of Canmore, Alberta. It is glorious country where the sandstone is red due to iron deposits and wonderfully photogenic. The area set aside for parks is truly enormous and includes interestingly named places such as “Dead Horse Point”. Moab is filled with two kinds of vehicles: big trucks with big sand tires and downhill bikes. Most certainly a place to which I would like to return with a mountain bike.

Mesa Verde National Park is a US National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Montezuma County, Colorado. The park was created in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect some of the best preserved cliff dwellings in the world, or as he said, “preserve the works of man”. It occupies 81.4 square miles (211 square km) near Four corners and features numerous ruins of homes and villages built by the Ancestral Puebloan people, sometimes called the Anasazi. There are over 4,000 archaeological sites and over 600 cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people at the site.

Mesa Verde is an excellent place to visit and deserving of more time than I had. The previous afternoon I had walked down to one old ruin, apparently discovered by a couple of cowboys who were looking for a lost cow, peered across a narrow valley to see old mud-brick housing in a cave. The morning tour was led by a ranger who had a wealth of information to impart and we were able to get up close and personal with a very large ruin. The Anasazi left the area some 800 years ago due to drought conditions, leaving their buildings behind. The buildings were constructed of mud bricks, held together with a mud mortar and because they were built into natural caves in the sandstone rock, thus remaining dry, they have survived remarkably well.

Much of the early excavations were conducted by a Swedish individual who shipped many of the artifacts to Sweden. They now reside in Finland. Evidently the removal of these artifacts caused Congress to pass legislation requiring that artifacts discovered in the US cannot be removed. The ranger decried the fact that these artifacts had been removed. As much as I agreed with her I wondered what she might have to say about artifacts from around the world residing in US museums.

I was headed to Santa Fe after Mesa Verde and I had at least two road options. I opted to take the faster of the two options and this led me close to Four corners Monument. It’s a survey thing after all, so I detoured to look at the monument where four states touch at the same point.

I haven’t been through such desolate country in a long time, probably since working in Saudi Arabia. It was so deserted that I didn’t even see a hawk circling looking for a mouse. I didn’t even see roadrunner being pursued by a coyote with ACME dynamite! The Four Corners monument is located on Navajo tribal lands and given that the Navajo charge $3 just to enter onto their land to look at the monument, and given that I have likely saved some people from going to such a desolate part of the world by showing some pictures, I will expect an influx of $3 cheques (maybe $3 bills are more likely?) from those who feel they no longer have to go to the Four Corners monument. I’m sure that will help defray my gas costs. I’ll be waiting by the mailbox.

The monument is surrounded on all four corners by lines of stalls. There are perhaps 20 stalls on each corner, several in each state in other words, where people sell various items made locally. Being no judge of what is considered good Native American art, I didn’t partake. There were others at the monument: four big, sort of rough looking guys who didn’t appear like normal tourists. The fourth person in this group was somewhat behind, wearing dark glasses and he had a curly wire going into his ear. He also had a sidearm. I gave all of those people a wide berth.

After a short visit I was back on the highway, headed for Santa Fe. The road passes Shiprock, which is nicely identified by a McDonald’s sign. Governed by the Navajo Nation, Shiprock is in the Four Corners region and plays a significant role in Navajo religion, mythology and tradition. It is located in the center of the Ancient Pueblo People or Ancestral Puebloan civilization, a prehistoric Native American culture of the Southwest US. Shiprock is a point of interest for rock climbers and photographers and has been featured in several film productions and novels. It is the most prominent landmark in northwestern New Mexico. Who knew that McDonald’s took such an interest in the diversity of American culture?

The Southwest in an enormous area and there are miles and miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles and miles. Towards the end of day four I began using my Garmin as I knew I would require it in Santa Fe. At one point the voice told me to turn onto a certain highway and drive 240 miles to intersections with the next highway. A big country indeed. I wondered how the original peoples navigated, found food and hunted. I had to wonder, as well, why the American governments of the 1800’s spent so much time, energy, money and lives fighting the native peoples here - I could easily see leaving it to the Navajo. Surveying this country in the first instance would have been a monumental undertaking and likely harder than the original surveys of the Canadian Prairies, due to the desolation and lack of water.

Stopping along the highway from time to time to take a picture and do other things - let’s be honest: the rest stops are a long ways apart - I couldn’t help but think that archaeologists of the future may well wonder about these long linear things with so many pop and beer cans along them. The country is so large that you even have to plan your fill ups: anything like half a tank is a good reason to fill up.

I enjoyed the open country: the blue skies, the smells and the taste of the dust in the air. The desert has been described as the world with no clothes on and this image suits me well. Day four had started poorly and early and had been filled with new treats for my senses, and adventure. There were many days ahead and I was looking forward to every one of them. It is truly an enormous part of the US and I couldn’t help but wonder what had taken me so long to start exploring even a small part of it. I will certainly be back for more.

- Neil Bennett
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