Day 43 – Thursday 15th August 2013 – Cortez, CO to Blanding, UT
The ride out of Cortez was much like the ride in. Scrubby desert and lots of low rise buildings, We passed a place selling small wooden cabins as affordable homes. Later in the south, I’d see even smaller, tiny sheds on sale as homes.
We carried on, out of Cortez and into the arid desert, and on to the Navajo Nation indian reservation. The flat desert, with its scattered sagebrush, stretching for mile after mile. Handfuls of trailers and cabins appearing like lonely shanty towns in the bleakness of the desert.
We turned off onto US Route 160, searching for the spot that 4 states come together. The barren desert still seeming to run for miles and miles in all directions without interruption. And then all of a sudden, in the midst of this wilderness, there was the turn off into the National Monument.
Unlike many other National Parks and Monuments, the Four Corners National Monument is run by the Navajo Nation. The admission fees are less than many of the National Parks, but you have to do without the glossy handouts. Four Corners marks the point where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. It’s the only place in the US where 4 state lines come together like this .
The car park for the monument is gravel, which is never my favourite place to leave the Trooper. I parked well back on a piece that looked like it had concrete underneath. Others got right up close to the monument enclosure.
The monument itself is a granite disk marking the spot where the 4 corners of the 4 states join, and of course we had to pose for photos, with Doreen straddling the 4 states at once.
The monument is surrounded by an enclosure of stalls purveying Native American arts and crafts. This was going to be a common sight in the Navajo Nation, if my memory served correctly, with clusters of stalls every few miles near the major tourist attractions like Grand Canyon. Most of the stalls are wooden, jerry-rigged affairs, whereas these were purpose built from brick.
The American Indian art work is beautiful, but we were 2 people travelling on 1 bike for 4 weeks, so space was at a premium and we didn’t spend long perusing things we could not carry. What we needed was a cold drink, the temperature was reaching the high 90s F (mid 30s C). It had been a 40 mile ride in the Colorado corner from Cortez to the monument, and it would be another 80 miles in the Arizona corner until we reached the next “big” town of Kayenta, and it was only going to get hotter. We found a stall selling indian fry bread, which also had bottled water. We drank one each, and took another for the road.
Riding on through the desert of the reservation, I couldn’t help but think again what a bum deal the indigenous population got all those years ago. Whilst some of the indian reservations may contain sacred sites, so many of them are on poorest of land – the white invaders having taken all the best bits for themselves.
We rode for perhaps 50 miles without seeing much in the way of settlement, just a few homesteads here and there, and then out of almost nowhere, we rode past what seemed a fairly large, new build settlement called Red Mesa. It’s location in the desert seeming almost random. There were perhaps 50 or so homes, a health centre and a school, but as far as we could see no businesses and no shops. We wondered what the people here did for a living, where they shopped or ate. We guessed it must be Kayenta, another 25 miles further along the road.
Large parts of the desert are just flat with the scattered sagebrush, and interspersed with ravines, but there’s also parts where red rock seems to erupt from the ground as mesas. The Red Mesa settlement is near one such large mesa. We’d sped past before thinking that a photo might have been in order, but a little further along we came to a smaller mesa, which should give the idea.
Across the road from this were a line of low pale rocks, formed I guess, from ancient sand dunes. Looking across at these, I was sure I could see a face carved into the rock – was it natural or man-made?
Kayenta was smaller than I remembered. The last time had been after a torrential downpour near Monument Valley. The rain had been so bad I hadn’t even attempted to turn off to see the valley. Riding the US-163 past it had been like riding through a river. Both the Trooper and I had been covered in red mud. In Kayenta, I’d tried every motel, but no rooms were free, either taken by people similarly fleeing the monsoon, or else the hotels were put off by the red mud-covered biker seeking shelter, and just said they were full. The story was the same when I reached Tuba City. I had to ride over a hundred miles before finding a free room, after dark, at the Anazasi Inn.
This time, we had a chance to take a better look at Kayenta. Since it was the main town for many miles, it was surprising that it seemed to consist of just a couple of small general stores, and a few motels and fast food joints. But the place did seem to have plenty of churches from numerous denominations. Missionaries, from presumably a begone age, had done their job well and must have converted a lot of the native population to be able to fill these churches, since over 90% of the population of Kayenta is Native American.
I guess we are so used to living in heavily populated Britain, where apparently the average distance to the nearest supermarket is under 5 miles and 67% of Britons could walk to it, that we struggle to understand what it must be like to live in some areas of the vast USA. There really aren’t many areas of Britain anywhere near as remote, except perhaps up in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and even there the distances are not on the same scale as remote parts of the US.
After the hot, 80 mile ride from Four Corners to Kayenta, we were both in need of a long, cold drink, and once again McFranchise got my dollars due to the guaranteed wifi. It was surprisingly busy – obviously the place to be in Kayenta at 2pm on a hot Thursday afternoon, as there didn’t seem to be much else to do, except perhaps attend church.
I wanted to take a look at hotel options further ahead, the recollection of struggling to find a room in these parts, made me remember that our intended destination for the day, Mexican Hat, was also scarce on hotel options. I’m glad I did look, as I discovered that not only are there less than a handful of hotels in Mexican Hat, but they are also very expensive for what seemed to be very basic places. Bluff further up the road didn’t look much better, so we decided we would try to head for Blanding, and even booked ourselves a room on-line, after checking that there was a bar within walking distance of the hotel.
It’s only about 30 miles from Kayenta to the turn off for Monument Valley. As we approached, we could see the buttes in the distance. Doreen was apparently getting excited at the prospective of seeing this iconic piece of the American west. As a kid, she had watched a lot of old westerns with her father. John Ford’s movies defined what a lot of Europeans see as the Wild West. Soon she would be standing looking at the backdrop to the movie Stagecoach.
As we pulled over to take the picture above, we noticed a crude wooden shelter, with half a dozen or so dogs and sheep tried up beneath it. These were the first sheep I had seen in America – lamb and mutton is all but non-existent on menus, except, oddly, in some of the upmarket big city restaurants. I don’t know why this is. I would have thought that sheep would have thrived in some of America’s rugged terrain, but Americans just don’t seem to have a taste for it.
Some French tourists in a rental car had also pulled over at this stop. The kids seemed to think it would be a good idea to climb the fence to go pet the dogs. Until, that is, every single dog there, yapped and growled as the kids got near the fence. Just doing their job, I guesss, guarding the sheep.
Monument Valley is another national monument that is run by the Navajo Nation. We turned off the US-163, and rode the mile or so to the tribal park entrance. Only after paying our $10 entry, did we notice the small sign telling us that the loop road around Monument Valley is unpaved (i.e. dirt or gravel), and not only that, but heavily pot-holed and rutted, and not suitable for RVs or motorcycles. That was disappointing. They could have informed of this sooner, as I’m pretty sure that the distant views of the valley as just as impressive, but then they wouldn’t have had our money. They really ought to charge a little more and invest that money in upgrading the facilities and paving the road.
We went up to the visitor’s centre and took some photos from there. Doreen wasn’t that disappointed, and felt that seeing the valley in person was everything she had anticipated.
I don’t know if the views are any better driving through the valley. I suspect not as impressive as the vista at a distance.
We also called into the visitor centre to find a drink and had to walk through the gift shop before reaching our goal. I was surprised to see pictures of John Wayne for sale there, even though he had been in Stagecoach, given his white supremacist views and the views he expressed on Native American land rights in an interview:
I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. – John Wayne
As we rode north toward Mexican Hat, Doreen looked back and noticed that the view of the valley when you approach from the north is nearly as impressive as it is from the tribal park, but the shoulder on this road is gravel, so not great to stop on with a bike. And I guess, the $10 you pay to get into the tribal park gets you the visitor’s centre, clean restrooms, refreshments, and of course, a huge gift shop.
Having decided not attempt to stay in Mexican Hat, we only stopped there briefly for more cold refreshment, but we saw a couple of the places where we could have stayed if they hadn’t been so expensive.
We also had only a fleeting glimpse of the rock that Mexican Hat is named after.
And since we were travelling further today than originally intended, we were trying to make up time and passed through Bluff pretty quickly, but I had taken photos there last time when I came down this road in the opposite direction.
It took us longer to reach Blanding than we had expected. Both Doreen and I were hot, tired and hungry, and very much in need of a cold beer and some food. We’d booked a room at the Stone Ridge Lizard motel online when we had been in Kayenta. The Stone Ridge Lizard turned out to be a great motel – one of the better ones we stayed at, but unfortunately, it was also in Blanding.
It didn’t take us too long to discover that Blanding was DRY!! I thought I had done my research on this, as when we had been looking at hotels, I had also searched Google maps for bars in Blanding and Google had come back showing the Homestead Steak House as a bar, and it was only a short walk from the motel. The closest thing the Homestead Steak House had to an alcohol beverage was an “apple beer” which contained neither any alcohol nor any apple. Needless to say I was a grumpy boy.
We even tried the gas station on the way back to the motel, and I am sure they were just trying to taunt me, for tucked away on the top shelf of the fridge, like some embarrassing porno mag, was some 6-packs of some kind of Utah non-alcoholic beer. I mean what’s the point!
We went make to the motel and made our own entertainment, but it would have been really good to have had some beer or a bottle of whisky in the saddle bag that day.
And I noticed when I was checking a few facts to write this, that the Homestead Steak House is no longer listed as a bar by Google. I wonder if it had anything to do with the review I left.