The United States come in all shapes and sizes, as we know, from the thousands of curving inlets and islands of Maryland and Virginia to the swampy, sodden earth of Louisiana. However, as you continue out west, it becomes clear that the construction of the boundaries between the newly purchased (or conquered, depending on who you ask) became increasingly lackadaisical. A lot of the western states look like big squares, and some, like North and South Dakota, are essentially the same size and shape, one just hovering above the other.
While American imagination and ambition may seem limitless and all encompassing, the unusually uncreative division between the states in the west is a stark contrast to that ideal. This is the nation that created the Model T, the airplane and the submarine, and yet we have states, little bite sized nuggets of the nation, that are essentially identical as if they just came off a giant factory assembly line. Make that a massive assembly line, as these states are enormous, all right angles and monotonous on a massive scale.
Perhaps nowhere is this phenomena more focused than where the four states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah come together at a single point, their upper right, upper left, lower right and lower left corners - all right angles - touching at a single point of geometric and geographic continuity. This place, perhaps shying away from the imaginative naming of things in the west (towns such as Dead Horse and Bumblebee come to mind) is known simply as the 'Four Corners', and it attracts tourists to this empty place in the desert like moths to a flame on a pitch black summer night.
I, too, was much like a moth, excited by the prospect of seeing this unique place. Ever since I was a little kid, I always loved maps, and the allure of the four corners, of the meeting place of four different states in one shared locale, excited me beyond measure. While some friends and I were touring northern Arizona, it dawned on me how close I was to that strange place and how I’d always regret not making the drive out to see it. I knew I had to do it, and my friends happily - or at least willingly - obliged.
From Flagstaff, Arizona we loaded up the car when it was still dark, the quiet of the desert complete and deafening in its totality. It was almost like hearing the world itself breath, in the predawn moments when even the birds still slumbered. With the roar of the engine breaking up the silence of the morning, we rolled east toward nothing. Nothing at all.
The sun came up and the desert came to life. Birds chirped and the heat from the morning sky came down onto our car. Air conditioner promptly turned on, and we rolled on happily toward a strange location known as Tuba City.
Tuba City is the largest predominantly Native American city in the United States. It is a town, really, with a population of less than 10,000. The empty desert highways and the huge, blue cloudless skies yielded to what can only be described as a shanty town. Tuba City is not the type of place you would want to walk around, even in the day time. There is no aesthetic, no beauty there. And it is apparently very dangerous to go around this hovel at night. The rate of spousal abuse and rape is higher here than almost anywhere else in the USA, and the drunk driving rate is off the chart. I remember trash being strewn everywhere. Later on, I looked up some law on Arizona’s reservations, and it turns out the zoning laws are nearly nonexistent. This explains why we found houses crowded together in haphazard fashion, streets in terrible disrepair, and huge holes in houses roofs and windows.
Tuba City should not be thought of as a result of its population’s priorities, but rather as a sad side effect of the treatment of Native American’s in the United States. With very few opportunities and only seasonal work really available, this town had a recipe for disaster built into it from the first settlement. Despair mixed with unemployment and desperation can never yield anything good. We stopped at a Sonic for some snacks, but the windows were all broken and the sign was nearly falling over. We bought some water, got back in the car and left the town behind us.
Here is where the vastness and emptiness of the American southwest became really apparent to me. From Tuba City, it was another four hours by car to the Four Corners. In all honesty, it was breathtaking at first. Huge rock structures that just appeared on the horizon, alone except for the sand that flanked it and surrounded it, that gradually got bigger as you got closer to them, only to vanish behind you, after many miles, as you drove past. Giant saguaro cactuses like you see in cartoons, massive and spiny, green and vibrant with flowers blooming in their hides. Areas with outrageous names, like Bumblebee or Mexican Hat, that are as isolated as they are unique, dot the landscape.
And of course, no other people.
We drove for hours and passed one other car. We saw more wild horses than we did other people, because we saw two wild horses. They were running throughout the parched and open land, bucking around. It was startling to see this very special kind of empty. I didn’t think it existed in the United States. This made parts of Maine, which are thought to be nearly devoid of people after a certain time of year, look like a thriving metropolis. As we listened to music, I couldn’t help thinking that if our car were to break down, we would be at the mercy of the desert indefinitely. And the desert is not merciful. I imagined our skin peeling off as we wandered, desperate for water while insects and other creatures more attuned to survival in a place like this feasted on our bodies. I listened intently for any sign of car trouble.
More hours passed, and while we did pass incredibly named places like the Valley of the Gods and Valhalla, the beauty became mundane. It was like sailing through the ocean, with the vastness so all encompassing you forget that it's everywhere. The car became a little world for us in this great expanse of sun, sand and sky. After an incredible amount of emptiness and sunshine, we finally arrived at Four Corners.
Stands were erected. Not permanent settlements, but stands, like what you might see at a carnival or fair. They were selling fried bread, which is a food commonly made and sold by the Navajo Nation. Also, souvenir t-shirts and hats were in abundance. Everyone working at this location was a Native American; every tourist was not. In the back of all these stands, there was a small monument, complete with stairs. It was made of granite, and was in the shape of a circle. Divided into four perfect sections were the four states that make up the corners. Naturally, being a tourist, I lay down so one of each of my limbs was in a different state and then ran rapidly around, crossing state lines in the most efficient fashion possible.
Beyond that, there was not much to do here. I talked to some of the workers and learned that they were all family. I felt bad, after having seen Tuba City and the Four Corners, that this was the world the white Americans had banished Native Americans to. After a bit more walking around the area, we got into the car and drove off.
We decided to take a different route home in order to catch sunset in the Painted Desert in New Mexico. Heading south, we drove through more beautiful and rugged landscapes, and saw occasional roadside stands for Native American knock off items; dream catchers or T-shirts, mostly. I had felt like the adventure was sort of unsatisfying, having only seen something arbitrarily put on a map by unwelcomed conquerors, who stole this land first from Aboriginal people and then from Mexico. Now I was part of the demographic that visited these people’s ancestral homelands, drove by the remnants of their adobe homes that predate the pilgrims and conquistadors, and made a long sojourn to an arbitrary point in the middle of nowhere so I could say I had been to four states at once.
As the sun was lowering itself in the sky, the day felt incomplete. We had welcomed its rising, and it had illuminated the vastness of this place for us, but we had only skimmed the surface of what this place was really about. I was fortunate that we had a few more days to explore the real natural beauty of the southwest, and not something designed by longitude and latitude in some stuff old office in Washington, D.C. a hundred years before.
I felt pangs of guilt as the day came to a close, but it was about that time that we arrived in the Painted Desert. The sand literally sparkled like stars in the sky, catching the last rays of the sun and glimmering like a million crystals. It was one of those moments that make me believe in magic. It took what I saw - which most of us are attached from - and made me realize, well, that THAT'S the real world. Not the office or the classroom, but that sandy hill in the New Mexican badlands, glimmering like gold and catching my heart in my chest. I looked at the horizon, and knew more mysteries existed in this ancient place than I would ever know. Smiling, we made our way back toward the car, and the long ride home. Dan Hall is a student and avid traveler who likes offbeat paths and seldom visited corners of the world. When not adventuring, you can probably find him in one of the many libraries of Massachusetts with a good book.
Dan Hall is a student and avid traveler who likes offbeat paths and seldom visited corners of the world. When not adventuring, you can probably find him in one of the many libraries of Massachusetts with a good book.
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