Arizona to Colorado

I am going to jump out of order. I want to write about our trip from Salt Lake City, Utah to Bryce Canyon as well as our trip through the southern rim of the Grand Canyon, but the trip yesterday from the Grand Canyon, as spectacular as the above two sections of our trip were, is so vivid in my mind that I want to get it down on my screen.  

We woke up early and were on the road by 8:30 a.m. That was a record. But we knew it would be a long day to reach our target for that day. (To jump ahead, we never reached that goal.) We had two basic choices. We could go the longer route by traveling south away from Grand Canyon National Park along Highway 64 to a thruway, Highway 40 traveling east before turning north on another express highway. This was the longer route in terms of driving distance but the shorter route in terms of time because the driving, except for the initial piece, would all be on expressways.

On the other hand, we could drive north and east on Highway 64 through the Grand Canyon Park again to highway 89 and turn north. We could then switch to highway 160 running north-east to the four corners monument where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado abut one another and then, continuing on highway 160 through south-west Colorado. Since that highway was like the hypotenuse of a triangle, and because we were continually traveling east and north, it was considerably shorter, but longer in time, not even taking into account that we would make many more stops – as well as navigation errors. We are accident prone. We chose the latter route.

These were all good paved two-lane highways, but we could not travel at the same speed, and this was not simply because they were two lane roads. For example, when we drove back through the south-east rim of Grand Canyon National Park, we would inevitably get behind cars which had stopped to watch deer. Or we could not stop ourselves, but would stop at certain points that we did not stop at on the way into the park to observe one last time, and then one more last time, the exquisite grandeur of the Grand Canyon which I will save describing for a separate blog. Later we would be slowed down as mountain roads clinging to the sides snaked through the terrain that rose higher and higher. Sometimes, the fastest we could travel then was 25 mph.

Back in Grand Canyon, it took a long time to get through Kaibab National Forest in the park – it took us 90 minutes. The distance is longer than one might think and the speed limit is 25 mph. But we had taken account of this in our calculations. Since I will be describing the Grand Canyon in a separate blog, I will begin when we first turned north-east on Highway 160 about 2.5 hours after we left our hotel and turned north at Cameron onto Highway 89 and driving between Navajo territory on the north and Hopi territory on the south.

The temperature was above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but the air was very dry. On both sides of the road, we could see only arid rock-strewn flat land covered with sage brush with mountains or outcroppings in the background. Though we stopped at one stall and one gasoline station advertising native crafts, we were very disappointed. The products available were just chachkas, very economical to buy as memories of a tourist trip but otherwise uninteresting.

However, as we moved further east and the rock formations in the background came closer, it was hard not stopping at the side of the road and snapping pictures. (I tried to include my wife’s photos in a previous blog, but readers were unable to upload them.) And, as with much of what we saw in Bryce Canyon, in the Grand Canyon and on yesterday’s trip, pictures say more than even a thousand words.

For example, even before we got to the cliffs, rocks seemed to arise out of the earth like huge prehistoric monsters. For example, sitting on a pile of stone rubble about 20-30 feet high were twin red rocks – really assemblages of rocks perhaps 40 feet high and 100 feet wide. The taller of the twin rock upthrust was joined at the hip to the shorter one and it might even have been 60 feet high. But, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Perhaps the most impressive sight until we reached the mountains was a large red outcropping that looked like a giant version of Emperor Qin’s Terra Cotta Army that I had seen in a British museum one time. There were no chariots or horses in this red rock army, but these were not part of a man-made elaborate mausoleum to accompany a dead emperor in the supposed after life. These were giants. They stood shoulder to shoulder. With each outcropping from a central core, each group or platoon lined up in a single row. Natural erosion had revealed these monstrous forms rather than an archeological excavation.

We passed some totally decrepit housing on the north side of the road on the Navajo Reservation and we hoped that the Navajo were no longer living in those battered, broken-down and dilapidated homes. We were reassured when, in the midst of this arid desert, we passed a large modern health centre literally “in the middle of nowhere,” surrounded by modern bungalows.

As Highway 160 crossed the corner where Arizona on the south abutted Utah on the north and each in turn abutted New Mexico and Colorado respectively, we suddenly realized – or at least my wife did – that the real Four Monuments that signs informed us that we were approaching, was, in reality, simply the conjoining of the four states.  Evidently, it is the only place in the USA where four states meet and abut one another.

We were soon in Ute country. The Ute Tribal Park’s Visitor Center is located at the corner of Highway 160 and Highway 491. As we traveled through Ute country, at the top of tall red cliffs could be seen a necklace of stones. At one point, a sentinel, like a very tall and fairly wide chimney, stood in the midst of a cliff, like a giant champion guarding a homeland. As it turned out, the cliffs once actually housed cliff dwellings. Wall paintings had been discovered within them. In the distance, we saw rock formations that looked like huge castles and others that looked like flat-topped red “apartment” buildings.

And, if you like the game of clouds, they revealed themselves as dinosaurs and foxes, amorphous snakes and big bears. At one point – oh I do wish I could show you a picture – there was an abstract version of “The Thinker,” but sitting on his haunches and arms at his side rather than one on his lap and the other against his chin. It seemed to symbolize a very different way of thinking, far less cerebral yet more contemplative and ethereal.

Then huge and very tall mountains loomed before us. We could clearly see that many of them were snow-capped even in the heat of this summer. We stopped at the Cortez Cultural Centre and we re-learned a lesson we have absorbed before. If you want to see the best of local art, do not go into commercial stores selling wares to passing tourists or to stalls on the side of the road. For one thing, in a cultural centre, you get to see the artifacts in a context that explains the meanings of the different patterns and learn a small bit about the culture. We also wanted to get to the Anasazi Heritage Center near Dolores, but we never got there.

The exquisite artifacts were extremely economical. Many were donated to sell to help support the cultural centre. There were absolutely beautiful examples of fine basket weaving, of Kachina dolls – the tall and very detailed and meticulous wood forms of gods or shaman dancers of the Hopi and the shorter, far more elaborate and feathered figures of the Navajo. There were cards – like the ones you send as a thank you when you have been a guest at a dinner – but these were limited edition lithographs with wonderful drawings. They cost all of $4 each. An old amber stone necklace and matching earrings sold for $15.

If you ever pass through Cortez, visit the Cultural Center there. The two women volunteers said they had quite a few visitors – though only one came in with her son in the hour we were there. The mother bought three pieces of rock candy for her son for $1. As the ladies explained, they have visitors, but few spend much money. There was a wonderful painting of horses in black and white. When I and my wife compared notes later, we both loved the same painting. But we both knew we had no more room to hang another painting. All of these items were beside the costumes and tools and carvings there for display only.

We asked the volunteers advice on the most interesting route to Alamosa on Highway 160 which was our target. They told us that if we continued on Highway 160, we would get there in about 2.5-3 hours. Since it was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon, we asked about a possibly more scenic route up through the mountains. That evidently would take about 4 or perhaps 5 hours. We opted for the detour.

The ride up through the mountains was spectacular. Skiers familiar with Vail or Telluride in south-west Colorado will know what I mean. This was ski country. When we drove north from Durango (at about 6,000 ft.) to Silverton, a distance of 48 miles – it took us 1.25 hours – we rose along s-curves along the edge of the mountains. We could not believe it. At one point, we were at a height of over 11,000 feet.

I was not sure about the name of the road since at some places, signs designated it as the Million Dollar Highway. At another point it was called the San Juan Highway, but perhaps that was just a sign pointing to the San Juan Highway. We also passed a narrow gage railway, currently in operation for tourists. We wanted to get to Red Mountain Pass. We passed cattle ranches and mountain chalets. This was rugged country. It also historically had a horrid history of settlers pushing Ute Indians onto narrower and narrower strips of land as the white men broke treaty after treaty. With all its greatness, lying and cheating have been integral elements of the American DNA.

The views were spectacular. The clouds even more so as they piled one on top of the other as they hit the high mountains. When we got to Silverton, we stepped into a café at 6:15 – it was 7:15 local time. We were dressed in light t-shirts, but the customers were wrapped up for the distinctly much cooler weather. We wanted to double-check the direction to cut through the mountain pass across to Hinsdale – what is called the Alpine Loop. It looked like a distance of 20 miles or so before we rejoined Highway 149 back down to Highway 160. We spoke to the proprietor since the waitress was new to the area.

The proprietor had been born and raised in Silverton. She informed us that this summer they had considerable snow. Unless our car was a four-wheel drive and had chains, even if the road were open, we would not be allowed to try to cut through the pass. We could go up further around the mountains. That would take about six hours to reach Alamosa. Or we could go back to Durango.

We decided that we had enough driving and would stay in Silverton overnight. It seemed like a quaint very old mining town. The owner of the café recommended the Triangle Motel as the best. The sign, however, said, “No vacancy.” From the looks of the hotel, we decided that was a blessing and changed our mind again to return to Durango.

Always allow more time, not only to cover a chosen route, but to travel other routes like the one through the Dolores River Canyon. As you will read in future blogs, we could never get enough of seeing canyons. In Durango, we checked into the usual type of motel, a Hampton Inn and we also had one of the best hamburgers, the best steak fries and a local organic cola that was superb. The dining place, Chainless Brewing, had been highly recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. It was better than we would have imagined.

In any case, our imaginations had gotten us into enough trouble that day.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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