All my life I’ve wanted to visit the colorful Southwest — storied places like the Painted Desert and Mesa Verde and Monument Valley — and thanks to my wife’s mother’s Buick, I finally got the chance.
After spending most of her life in Washington and Arizona, my mother-in-law moved to Boise. Her Buick, however, was still at her snowbird home in Phoenix, and at 86, she wasn’t up to driving it to Idaho. Her solution was to ask me and my wife to fly to Phoenix and drive it home for her, which was a little like asking certain Idaho legislators if they’d like an endorsement from the Flat Earth Society. She knew we couldn’t say no.
We were a few hours out of Phoenix en route to Flagstaff when my longtime nemesis, acrophobia, came calling. We’d been climbing steadily to a summit where it looked as if the entire Southwest lay below us. That much altitude and I’m leaving fingernail marks in the upholstery. As a respite from hurtling down a dizzying grade, I suggested as casually as possible to my wife, who was driving, that we “turn off here. This looks interesting.”
By that point, I’d have suggested turning off to look at a passing lizard, but in this case, “here” actually was interesting. Its name was Montezuma Castle. Named by a settler who clearly flunked history, it isn’t a castle and has absolutely nothing to do with its Aztec namesake. It was built by the Sinaqua Indians some 700 years ago, long before Montezuma was born, and is less a castle than a high-rise apartment complex.
And a marvel of construction. The dwellings were carved into a sheer limestone cliff hundreds of feet above the valley floor. Vertical ladders were used to reach them, making even the simple act of going home after a hard day in the cornfields a task ill-suited for the faint of heart. But removing the ladders once everyone was home made the dwellings all but immune to enemy attacks.
The valley below is, I think, one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. A creek, which provided the tribe with drinking and irrigation water, is lined with verdant trees, leafy brush and delicate wildflowers that provide relief from the encompassing desert and create a setting that is almost impossibly picturesque. The only sounds are the murmur of the creek, the birds in the trees and tourists asking how far it is to the nearest McDonald’s.
Most of the tourists, however, were quietly respectful. The place inspires something like reverence, both for its beauty and for the tenacity of those who built it. It’s easy to imagine an ancient but hardy people living and thriving there, growing gardens, raising children, living in enviable harmony with their surroundings.
But not for long. Sometime in the 1400s, the Sinaqua vanished. No one knows whether they were killed by enemy tribes, succumbed to disease or overworked the land and had to leave, later to be assimilated by other tribes — one of history’s tantalizing mysteries.
From Montezuma Castle, we pressed on to Flagstaff, a pretty little town high in the mountains and the home of Northern Arizona University. Its tidy, attractive campus is small enough that it could almost be a junior college. Not one fan in a hundred who attended BSU’s Big Sky-era games there would have believed that today their team would be playing national powers like Oregon, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Note to Chris Peterson: Don’t leave! Ever!
That brings us, by means of a smooth and natural transition, to Winslow, Ariz., and the Eagles. Like the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” I can’t stand the Eagles, an enormously talented group that for some reason I find consistently annoying. But if you’re passing through Winslow, you have to get your picture taken standing on a corner, right? We did. And I’m here to tell you that Winslow, Arizona, in your rearview mirror is such a fine sight to see.
The same can be said of Gallup, N.M., our first night’s destination. The best thing about Gallup is it’s not far from the Painted Desert, where we arrived at sunset to a panorama of brown, gray and reddish hills. In a blistered-desert sort of way, it’s haunting. Gallup is another story.
Like many parts of New Mexico, it looks like parts of Idaho. It would be nice if those parts were the Sawtooths or Teton country or the big northern lakes. But alas, they look almost exactly like ineptly named Mountain Home. We spent a restless night there, feeling like the airmen who come to Mountain Home expecting Switzerland and get, well, Gallup.
Then, our second day’s destination — lovely Santa Fe. Santa Fe all by itself is worth a drive from Idaho. I expected it to be a Southwest version of Sun Valley, meaning multimillion-dollar homes at every turn. The money is there, but for the most part understated. Santa Fe is just an ordinary town, provided the town is charming, historic, brimming with first-rate art and restaurants and utterly beguiling.
We spent three days there then headed north through some truly godforsaken country to Mesa Verde National Park, in the southwest corner of Colorado. I’d seen scads of pictures of Mesa Verde and imagined it as being relatively flat country. So you can imagine my reaction when the road from the entrance to the park began to climb like a mountain-goat trail. This went on for about 20 miles, at the end of which the aforementioned fingermarks in the upholstery had been promoted to claw marks.
I feel bad about Mesa Verde because we didn’t see it properly. To do that, you’d need a day, preferably two. We had half a day. As result, we saw the famous Pueblo cliff dwellings only from the overlooks rather than by taking a guided tour. That will have to wait for another time. The Pueblos, incidentally, did not disappear as the Sinaqua did but moved south to New Mexico and Arizona. Snowbirds.
I’d like to say something nice about Four Corners, where you can sit on a granite marker with one hand in Colorado, the other in Utah, a foot in Arizona and another in New Mexico. I really would. But Four Corners in autumn may be the driest, most parched and seared stretch of ground this side of hell. It looks as if no rain has fallen there in centuries. If someone had trained a giant blowtorch on it, it wouldn’t look more desolate. Worse, it’s a long drive to any place even remotely hospitable. So unless you have a perverse predilection for being in four states at once, as I did, skip it.
Monument Valley is almost as dry and desolate looking, but the red earth and towering pillars of stone for which it’s named are something every American should see. It’s a classic image, perhaps the classic image, of the American West. If you like movies, you have seen it. “Forrest Gump,” “Thelma and Louise,” “The Eiger Sanction,” “Easy Rider,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and dozens of others, especially Westerns, have used it as a location. John Wayne was so enamored of the place he had a home there.
Not so George Kennedy, now of Eagle. Kennedy and Clint Eastwood filmed a memorable “Eiger Sanction” scene there atop the Totem, a spire 450 feet high and a scant few yards wide. George and I got to know each other working on a television project that never came to fruition, and of the many stories he told me, my favorite may be that of him and Eastwood on the Totem. The film supposedly was a wrap when Eastwood called him with bad news. The cameraman who shot the dizzying sequence on the Totem was so frightened that the camera was shaking and the film was blurred. So they had to go back and shoot it again. If he ever sees Monument Valley again, George told me, it will be too soon.
Though not nearly as heartfelt, my feelings were similar as our journey neared its end. We saw all the places I had wanted to see, but one drive like that is enough. You can only take so much red dirt and weird rocks. Of the 1,800 miles we drove, the majority could be described without too much exaggeration as scorched earth. Not until Provo, Utah, did the feeling of being on some blistered alien planet begin to subside.
Perspective is everything. I’d always thought Interstate 84 from Boise to East Idaho was a desolate drive, but when we reached the irrigated farmland of the Magic Valley after a week of rocks, rocks and more rocks, the green fields looked almost tropical.
The Southwest is all right. It’s intriguing as only the desert can be, and parts of it are downright beautiful. It has singular enchantments, a unique allure, a rich history and culture. I’ll happily go back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, probably more than once. I’m glad they’re there. I’m even glad the rocks are there. But it was good to be home.
© 2012 Idaho Statesman
Tim Woodward’s column appears in the Life Section every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.