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You are driving US-64 west along the ragged collar bone of New Mexico, leaving the Farmington of young men hauling their stuff in trucks, of unrepentant Trump voters, and jug-eared rodeo cowboy seniors in your rear view mirror, heading toward Navajo Nation and Shiprock — a somewhat destitute and forlorn place. On the glide path approaching Four Corners, a dislocation of boundaries occurs as the separate states merge into one vast desert country. You watch the surreal mushroom landscapes mash up against the unsightly aluminimum-sided, drywall manifestations of humankind. To visit is to seek out some primordial, seemingly eternal magnificence; to live here is to obviate your surroundings, ignore them, and thrive despite them.
From inside a rented Nissan, a ghost blue haze is visible draped over the far off mountain range that seems otherworldly, like an alien planet projection. In the near distance, the gargantuan Shiprock rises jagged and monolithic. Omnipresent when studied, but blending in with the sky and clouds over time. Town mascot or just another hallucinatory upthrust? For you, a compass: Am I approaching it or is it receding behind me? And if I’m passing below it, must have taken a goddamn wrong turn at the junction. Old New Mexico route signs once coloured tree-bark brown or black-on-white are pummelled and faded, even knocked down, so best to engage an inner radar.
You question Robinson in the passenger seat whether you should keep going. In a flannel shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals, his large forehead is gleaming. As usual, he is telepathic. “Yes to everything,” he says before you can ask, followed by a single “ha!” Robinson is a legendary recording engineer, the keeper of music and enthusiasm for this trip.
The 30 odd miles between Farmington and Shiprock are speckled with white and Day-Glo orange placards. Safety Corridor – Double Fines for Speeding, watch your speedometer, check your side mirrors, and Road Work Ahead – Next 50 Miles. Single-story businesses line the roadsides: tyre repair, self car wash, pawn shop, Navajo fry bread, 7-Eleven, church bingo, Dollar Tree, rodeo billboards, old pump gas stations named Alon, Mustang, and Giant. Women’s faces framed in laundromat windows show unguarded expressions. Boredom. Resignation. Fatigue.
Extended wagons hitched to pickup trucks veer across lane dividers, nearing banged-up, rust-bucket vehicles that gush charcoal clouds of exhaust while silvery horse trailers reflecting sunlight come on all rattle-and-thrum as they jostle over the asphalt.
Hitchhiking, fallen into obscurity and disrepute in much of America, remains a method of travel here among Native Americans. Though some prefer the term American Indian. From every cross street, dusty dirt and white sand blows then whirlwinds into the air. Young hitchhikers stand immersed in personal cyclones, bandannas pulled down like masked bandits. Amid the blurry static of particles they resemble Bedouin nomads in a desert sandstorm. Traffic staggers to a crawl. The Nissan slows down for one guy.
“You going south to Window Rock at the junction?” he asks you, not seeing Robinson.
“No, I’m heading west, all the way to Arizona.”
So Bandanna waves you on. And after you edge back into the traffic flow of 64, he remains waiting for a ride, buffeted by the elements as if that was normal, while you barely survived 20 seconds of the opened car window allowing a hot gritty blast of Southwest reality to scour your pale, sensitive face.
You drove out to this nuclear-blasted openness for inspiration, for rejuvenation, and you speed like a motherfucker because the distances are vast and the towns sparse beyond Shiprock and across the state border. Practically flying. But the faster one drives, the wider the desert spreads to slow forward motion. It’s important to know how far to go, and exactly how long to stay so that you can return bearing gifts of revelation, the hypnagogic visions left over from our earth ancestors. Stay too long, and you dry up into a desiccated husk, parched and aged before your time, the social rot and soul pollution you sought to escape a fool’s errand in the grizzled face of dehydration. Go too far and you’ll haunt the horizon as a heat wave mirage to be eye-rubbed away in disbelief.
“Should I turn back?” you ask Robinson, forever riding shotgun.
“I ain’t scared,” he replies and cackles. “Further in; further out.”
What does he have left to lose?
The whole world, the tufted crust of the earth, is laid out ahead. Rough road. Watch your speed. Beyond the flat top mesa stretching for miles, past two looming buttes and through the conical hoodoos hugging the route you hope to find . . . sanctuary. Peace. Closure.
Welcome to Arizona.
The tribal elders and the young badasses — who couldn’t give a damn about spirits or traditions — and the uranium cowboys all know you. They’ve seen your kind coming for years, decades, from deep into the previous century, clutching Kerouac and Edward Abbey paperbacks. Seeking something; escaping everything. Though not every astronaut who blasts off into space truly returns. Some come back as shells, stamping around on the minimal battery power of life, rendered aimless and broken.
And the locals are right. Desert Solitaire is mashed in your bag along with Desolation Angels, because Kerouac describes his fire lookout duty on Desolation Peak in the Cascades of Washington State. That’s the link. Edward Abbey was a fire lookout at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, blurred and distorted in his novel Black Sun. Not random travel books; everything brought along has a purpose.
Foolish outlanders perish in the desert terrain between May and September, hiking in hundred-degree heart-attack heat, running out of food and water, or drowned anonymous by a flash flood in a remote canyon. Remember running from a muddy river of rain at the base of the slot canyon that bisects Tent Rocks? Upon reaching open air, the hail hammered down until that prized fedora was smashed and shapeless, your neck pimpled red from the stinging downfall.
So when the aged Indian — who doesn’t hate you but finds you a bit pathetic — at a no-name gas station advises, “Better fill up your tank here,” you damn straight listen. Because you’re 30 miles away from the sign that will tell you what tumbleweed town you’re 30 miles away from. Mexican Water, Bluff, Rock Point?
Continue on, past indifferent horses grazing at the lip of the road, beyond fenced ranch spreads, until the only visible motion is the oil pumpjacks see-sawing back and forth like grotesque outdoor iron sculptures. Not a soul in sight.
Slow down. Cattle crossing, reads the sign.
“That don’t not make sense.” Robinson smiles, all teeth and burly beard. “Indubitably.” You’ve memorised your friend’s expressions. He lingers both within and without on this final journey together.
Time melts and stretches like the freight train snaking through the hills and flats in the distance, spread out so long that you can’t see either the locomotive or the caboose. It staggers and clanks along at five, maybe ten mph, heading west to some far-off destination. Will the people waiting for it still be alive when the train arrives? And if so, will they even remember the freight they once ordered?
“I should write a blues song for the lizards and rattlers that thrive out here.”
“Hell yeah.” Robinson fades, leaving you alone for the duration.
Families bury the mortal remains, but friends must decide how to inter and consecrate their friendship. Plant his ghost somewhere righteous along the route before moving on. Leave the wadded-up grief behind.
Again the vast space overwhelms and dominates thought.
Can one comprehend the people, and this land once the base of an ocean, or the substrata of matter: Precambrian, greenstone, granitic rock, and Navajo sandstone coloured red, yellow, black or green by iron minerals? No. Logic is a slim twig to hang one’s hat on.
Life maybe gives you five or ten more trips to such a place. Make them count.
Tourists visiting canyon country freak over the massive silence. Humanity lives among constant sound: beeps, pings, people shouting into phones, drones buzzing overhead, car alarms, ambulance sirens, jets, helicopters, motorcycles revving, refrigerators, arguing neighbours. At some point the roar becomes normal, white noise, a sign of civilisation. Stripped of such distraction, one is naked, alone with one’s own interior voices.
I could have spent more time with him this last year. His last year. I didn’t call because the bastard never answered his phone. Why didn’t I join him for that Grant-Lee Phillips concert he invited me to six months ago? I figured there would be another one and another one…
You persist in writhing amid the serpentine coils of what if. How many hikes will it take to dispel the guilt gas?
Bring water, maps, and more water if you leave the car. The destination is ambiguous, perhaps nonexistent; the journey itself remains the essential fluid truth.
Like photography, existing on the Colorado Plateau is all about timing. Early mornings and the hour before sunset. If you think you’ve found heaven at Four Corners, remember that conditions are half past hell. Admire it, even reach for it, but if you can’t turn away and retreat, or don’t understand holding your breath in a slow-motion explosion, then you risk dry drowning in the desert. The coyotes’ atonal yowls will mark the moment and the place where you dropped, synapses shorting out like the electrical system in a car.
“Cause of death?” Those who care may ask.
“He blew his fuse.”