If the intersection is marked we do not see it, but the Blake’s Lottaburger is impossible to miss. Swinging into the turn, nose attentive for the divine aroma of fried burgers and green chile, I point out how full the restaurant’s parking lot is. As compared to the Arby’s we just left. But the codgernauts, sated, bellies filled with insipid gruel, are volubly and crudely unimpressed. The road climbs from the San Juan Valley and the city falls behind, and with the high plains before us we pass into a sovereign nation not our own.
I was here thirty-something years ago with my younger brother. Or not, it’s hard to say. It was before detailed maps, and we roved the highways and backroads with little idea of where we were or where we were going. Theoretically our destination was a moonscape known as the Bisti Badlands, a 4,000-acre void of multicolored hills, wind-sculpted hoodoos, fossilized trees and dinosaur bones, but anything photogenic would do—the forbidden church at Tecolote, a half-collapsed bridge near Cabezon Peak, eroded bluffs, a sunning collared lizard. We never found it.
Now it’s easy to find. But Chod’s getting fidgety as we trade pavement for washboard and he soon tells me to pull over. Grabbing a roll of toilet paper, he lopes across the sand and disappears down an arroyo. Jim and I meander to a shallow wash studded with stunted salt cedars where a lone Cassin’s finch plays hard to get. When we get back to the truck Chod is pale but wearing that ineffable grin of his. “I can say I left a part of me in Bisti,” he says. It sounds like an oldtime heartbreak tune, something sung when the world was young. Jim snorts. I groan.
There are no facilities at the trailhead other than a wooden sign announcing our destination and a gap in the barbed wire fence. No map, no visitor center, no gray-shirted ranger. With no idea which way to go, we just go, and as at Chaco it’s in a rush.
The badlands look like a wasteland where God threw all the unused parts left over from creation. We pass twisted rock spires jutting from seamed bluffs, black sand hammocks lumped atop red gravel piles (and vice-versa), sandy washes streaked with alkali, iron and other minerals, rock falls, hills so rounded they look like butter melting under a hot sun and a broad arroyo of water-sculpted ridges. It’s not a place to be in midsummer. Even here in late October it’s warm enough to shed clothing. I’m stripped down to a T-shirt and it’s soaked with sweat. From our latest exertions we’re past the point of rancid—we’re downright offensive.
In places the soil is fine and soft and hard as stone in others, and soon my legs are tight and sore. My right shin hurts fiercely, has had since yesterday, and now my left foot is cramping. I’m falling apart at the pace.
But I manage to gimp across the wash to the opposite side, a distance of perhaps a half-mile, where worn hills form deep ravines topped with teetering sandstone slabs, many of which have fallen to form impenetrable jumbles. A few scraggly plants make a scenic foreground so I hunker down to frame them in the viewfinder. The shutter snaps, freezing time’s inimical progression in a fraction of a heartbeat. My sense of haste blinds me to what I just did. In the distance the others are tiny specks against a raw and unformed land, and as I straighten the immensity of the phantasmal wilderness stretching away for thousands of square miles comes down like an unburdening, and the camera, solid in hand, as integral as throbbing leg or gritty eyes, becomes a half-forgotten sense of completion, a true compass to a place I once thought would be my meridian. And then it’s gone, fleeting as thought, and I’m left with a mile of sunblasted earth to traverse and an inkling that something has irreversibly changed, though what that might be is impossible to determine.
Where would we be without maps? They show us where we are and where we’ve been, and proffer nearly unlimited futures, given time enough, and money. According to the map a good road branches off toward the town of Shiprock, which would shave 35 miles from tomorrow’s destination of the Hovenweep ruins on the Colorado-Utah border. A vote is cast and we subsequently change course.
What maps cannot render is what will be found, or not found, making them a sort of cartographic augury no more accurate than divining tea leaves or foretokening steaming piles of entrails.
We enter Shiprock from the south. The town seems in a general state of disrepair, a sort of modern Anasazi ruin whose inhabitants have fled without a trace. There’s a half-abandoned mall with shuttered stores and empty windows, rusted cars moldering into lifeless yards, trash-strewn streets and a cluster of duplexes swimming in mud and trash. We stare aghast at the latter, taking in the desultory plywood walls devoid of paint, the wrecked vehicles, the listless mongrels, the sad scraps of clothing pinned to sagging clotheslines.
We want a motel, someplace with a shower and a real bed, but Shiprock is bereft of such accommodations. After driving through town we turn back and take the road north, but it soon breaks free into the desert. Another road leads westward, but it too peters out. I turn around in a high school parking lot where a group of Navajo teens watch us. Our waves are not returned.
Again we pass the hovels. I want a photo but am incapable of taking advantage of other people’s misery. The sense of abject poverty is palpable.
“This is worse than the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota,” Chod says.
Jim says, “Nobody in the United States should have to live like that.”
Me: “It makes me ashamed to be an American.”
A chorus of amen’s echo the sentiment. The long drive back to Farmington is a subdued one.
(Continued next week)