Even uninhabited, Four Corners Country would be worth seeing for its look: the mountain-rimmed horizons, the landmark volcanic spires, the improbably hot-hued layered mesas, the wind-scraped deserts and the histrionic light and weather.
But it is the cultural layering, past and present, that make this so compelling, even haunting, a land -- this mountain plateau where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet.
Riding an open truck into Arizona's 1,000-foot-deep Canyon de Chelly recently, we listened to Navajo guide Joe Thomas explain about the canyon's ancient ruins:
The cliff dwellings, he said, had been built between A.D. 1100 and 1300 by Anasazi people; that's the Navajo word for "ancient strangers." They were strangers to Joe Thomas and his people, not the ancestors of these present-day residents.
In fact, Joe Thomas' feeling about the prehistoric Anasazi and their dwellings is negative: Mummified bodies have been found in some ruins, so to Thomas -- with his Navajo beliefs about mortality -- these ruins are houses of death and distinctly undesirable places. Should it be necessary in his job as guide to enter an Anasazi dwelling, Thomas would feel compelled to undergo a three-day Navajo purification rite.
Traveling, like living, in Four Corners Country is a cross-cultural experience.
Though the Anasazi abandoned this land in the 13th century, the remains of their pueblos and cliff dwellings are scattered across the area. The Navajos migrated here during the 14th century, and the Spanish explorers followed two centuries later. The area was and continues to be Hispanic. It was and continues to be Indian.
Specifically, the land of Four Corners is divided by the reservations of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Mountain Ute, Southern Ute and Jicarilla Apache Indians. The upshot is that you might drive past the Navajo Tribal Motor Pool, stop for a lunch of enchiladas, shop for Zuni silver and turquoise bracelets, then tour the remote Anasazi cliff dwellings in Ute Mountain Tribal Park.
In fact, there's enough in Four Corners for months of enlightening travel. (Although unless you like trivia, ignore the actual Four Corners point, where the states join. It's a nondescript sage flat.) If you can spare no more than a week, choose from these essential places:
* Chaco Culture National Historical Park: In its dry corner of New Mexico, 29 dirt-road miles southwest of the Nageezi Trading Post on Rte. 44, Chaco Canyon seems remote. But in its own time, about A.D. 1050 to 1250, it was the center of a civilization. A dozen major Anasazi ruins lie in or near this shallow 15-mile-long canyon, including Pueblo Bonito, a village with about 800 rooms -- some of the sections four stories high -- around a broad paved plaza. (The canyon has hundreds of smaller ruins.)
On our arrival after a dusty drive, my wife, sister, brother-in-law and I walked around and through Pueblo Bonito, crouching at the low doorways and marveling at the meticulous detailing of the stone walls, with decorative bands of different colors, shapes and sizes of stone. (Evidently the intricate stonework was done purely for the builders' pleasure, and whatever gods they knew, since all walls were originally plastered over and painted.)
Because it takes time to reach Chaco and to absorb the details and implications of these silent, stately villages, we stayed in the park's campground. It was cold enough in the desert night to turn our coffee water to frozen slush, but the only other accommodations are so-so motels at least 75 miles away at Bloomfield, N.M. The park has a good interpretive visitor center, but neither food nor fuel.
We spent the day walking around in the hard sunlight and listening to our own questions. Casa Rinconada's great 63-foot kiva is clearly a ceremonial building with its niches and benches and entrances. But what, exactly, went on in there? We walked to other ruins, to Wijiji and Kin Kletso, then climbed up through a steep fissure in the cliff for a five-mile round-trip hike past the cliff-top view of Pueblo Bonito to a windswept unexcavated ruin, Pueblo Alto. Was it a guardpost? A suburb? An observatory?
As you walk around and stare at these stones, you realize some small truths: Thousands of people lived here for a span of years equal to the lifespan of the United States. At the time of the Crusades, when the English were starting Westminster Abbey, the Anasazi were building Pueblo Bonito. It is evident they understood engineering, architecture -- including solar heating and cooling -- irrigation farming and art. They knew enough about social organization to build and sustain these places for generations.
The Anasazi did not know about the wheel but they knew enough to build a 300-mile system of roads, mostly about 30 feet wide, to connect the center at Chaco with about 75 outlying communities. Paralleling the Anasazi's routes, we drove our camper van to some Chacoan "outliers," as they're called. When using the region's many unpaved roads, it's not necessary to carry spare fuel (just keep filling your tank at every opportunity), but it is prudent to carry water and a small shovel, and to pay close attention to the weather. "Dirt" roads may be caliche, a substance that when wet turns slick as grease. On a rain-soaked caliche road, even a four-wheel-drive vehicle can become uncontrollable.
* Aztec and Salmon Ruins: Aztec Ruins National Monument in Aztec, N.M., and Salmon Ruins near Bloomfield, are each worth a stop. Aztec is a 500-room pueblo with many roofs intact and interior rooms open to visitors; with a charming 1930s visitor center -- itself a period room; and with a fully restored, plastered and painted great kiva. This is an evocative interior, seeming sacred and mysterious, and a vivid reminder of how prehistoric stone ruins must have looked in their time.
Salmon is a 250-room Anasazi pueblo built all at once (they knew about town planning) around A.D. 1100. It was excavated in the 1970s and some work is still going on. Walking over these rough walls brings a sense of the archeologist's immense task. Salmon has a fine exhibit of Anasazi objects: pottery, jewelry, utensils and even a small ceramic flute -- a confirmation of their pictograph suggestion that the Anasazi knew something about music.
To the west of these prehistoric pueblos, back on the Navajo reservation at Shiprock (name for the spectral, 7,000-foot peak that can be seen from all four states), the Eastern Navajo Tribal Fair is held each October. It is one of the Indian events that is open to Anglo visitors. For others -- the Ute Mountain Bear Dance or the Chinle Parade and the like -- check local listings. (Always keep in mind that the cultures of these Indians place a high value on privacy and a low value on photography. Never photograph -- or otherwise record -- a Hopi person, place or event, and never photograph any other tribesperson without permission.)
* Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.: Mesa Verde is dramatic. Approaching the park entrances, you watch the north point of the mesa -- a towering, ragged promontory -- for miles before you turn in and start your switchback climb up the cliff. It seems to call for powerful music, for "Night on Bald Mountain," or "Zarathustra," or a Beethoven symphony. The mesa forces a tantalizing pace of gradual revelation on every visitor. Twenty-one miles of serpentine two-lane mountain road see to that.
Once atop the vast mesa -- it's 15 by 18 miles -- and in sight of distant Shiprock, there'll be just a glimpse of ancient ruins at Far View. But the full effect, when you finally pile out of the car and go to the brink for your first look at Spruce Tree House or Cliff Palace Ruins, is like seeing the curtain rising at last on some heroic drama.
The color of sand, the cliff dwellings are set in shadowed, arching half-caves beneath the brows of bulging cliffs. The buildings are a jumble of neat lines, of buttress walls, of curiously placed but perfectly incised dark windows and keyhole doors. All colors are perfectly natural, as if the towers and walls had grown up from the native rock. But those neat lines, the unexpected symmetry, give it away as human. People made this, and their creation jumps into focus like the fairy castle half-hidden in the fanciful illustration.
Like every other visitor, we stopped at the sight and fell silent. Then we began to question: How long did it take to build? How did they carry the stone? Why was it abandoned?
Unless you can spend a week and see most of it (Mesa Verde has a 500-site campground near the entrance, plus a modern and comfortable lodge atop the Mesa -- both open May through October), Mesa Verde presents you with a difficult decision: What to see?
Cliff Palace is the largest of cliff dwellings, with more than 200 rooms. But Spruce Tree House is more accessible and has a roofed kiva to climb down into. Long House is varied and uncrowded but involves a ride over to Wetherill Mesa. In any case, what should not be missed is the ranger-led entry to Balcony House (excluding children and adults with heart conditions): That involves a steep and scary climb up a wood ladder and up a cliff face with a chain "railing," plus a hands-and-knees pass through a stone tunnel. But the canyon view and the walk right through the preserved rooms and kivas make it worth the effort. (I went twice.)
Less palpitating but no less indispensable is the circuit of excavations on the six-mile Mesa Top Ruins Road. These archeological sites describe Anasazi progress from primitive A.D. 600 pithouses to the ceremonial Sun Temple -- a maddeningly cryptic building design.
It's hard to choose. Mesa Verde is so serious and so much fun: It's at once a mythic lost city, and every child's perfect sand castle.
After Mesa Verde, it's not quite all downhill. Down in the adjacent Montezuma Valley, there's an exceptional pueblo at Lowry Ruin with a rare, still-decorated room. And along the Utah-Colorado border, the scattered stone towers of Hovenweep National Monument ("Hovenweep" is the apt Ute term for "deserted valley") are the most solitary, haunting habitations past or present I've stopped in.
Four Corners Country would be a formidable sight even without any cultural artifacts. The geology and the weather would be enough.
On the Navajo reservation, on our way to Monument Valley, we drove through the worst dust storm any of us had ever seen. In just five days, we had experienced burning sun, freezing nights, some rain, a whiff of hail, and now this. The wind shrieked through the afternoon at 50 miles per hour, scouring and slowing our van to a creep, while flogging it with flying trash and tumbleweeds. The dust formed brown clouds that shaded out the sun and fogged our vision. Dust drifted like snow around the fence posts. Grit sifted in everywhere -- in our van, in our lunch, in our teeth. Most of the horses and cattle we passed stood unflappably, tails into the wind. At one point, we passed three sheep at the roadside with their heads down together in a drain culvert.
* Monument Valley, Ariz.: Monument Valley looks very familiar and doesn't look like a valley. It looks like a barren high plain, palisaded by exclamation points of red sandstone. It looks familiar because so many classic horse operas were filmed here: "Stagecoach," "The Searchers," "My Darling Clementine."
We stayed at Goulding's Trading Post and Lodge, where the movie crews stayed (in the dusty Southwest, it's useful to alternate camping and staying near a shower), where the basic pine dining room was built for the set of "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." When you clump in for breakfast biscuits, you can almost hear the echoes of Duke: ". . . all right, sergeant. Le's move 'em out!"
Goulding's comfortable balconied rooms command a broad sweep of red desert. In the morning, we rose at first light to watch the shaggy buttes loom out of the grounded clouds like hulking creatures, slow and terrific.
In full daylight, we drove the sandy 17-mile road that loops around the eroded "monuments." Most rise a couple hundred feet above the yucca-spiked ground. In the strong sunlight and cloud shadows, towers and cliffs change from deep orange with purple shadows to rust to shining pink and pale red. Some moments, the bare rock looks muscular.
A four-wheel drive vehicle tour is available in Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, as are horse rides if you'd like to play cavalry, but we took it at our own pace, often stopping to walk. It seems incongruous to find Navajos living among these monuments, but this is their land. Their hogans and pickups and sheep lie half-submerged in the sage and chamiso, caught in the silence and the long shadows.
The Navajo reservation has plenty of room for its people -- 160,000 of them -- and their herdsman way of life: It's equal to the combined area of Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. It also surrounds the rugged Hopi reservation in Arizona. The pueblos of this most traditional of area tribes -- the Hopi are descendants of the cliff-dwelling Anasazi -- are worth a special stop. They are located on First, Second and Third Mesas along Arizona Rte. 264, with the Tribal Cultural Center at Second Mesa.
* Canyon de Chelly National Monument: Near Chinle, Ariz., Canyon de Chelly is renowned for its Anasazi pictographs and its small but spectacularly placed ruins. "White House" ruin appears to have been wedged like a doorstop under a mountain of sandstone.
At sunset, we drove the 36-mile South Rim Drive with its sheer overlooks, and concluded that Canyon de Chelly might as well be celebrated for the height and hot colors of its sculptured cliffs. Still, the trip into the deep canyon aboard a military surplus prime mover -- like a halftrack -- that sloshes right up the riverbed past the Navajo hogans and under the jutting cliffs is the thrilling way to see it. Especially if you are claustrophobic or acrophobic or falling-rock-phobic.
* Hubbell Trading Post: One last stop along a journey toward cultural breadth. Near Ganado, Ariz., and 30 miles west of Window Rock, "the capital of the Navajo Nation," the National Park Service has preserved the Hubbell Trading Post just as it was in 1930. That's the year John Lorenzo Hubbell died after a lifetime of trading with the Navajo.
His was an exemplary lifetime in a period and territory of renowned scoundrels. Hubbell learned the Navajo language, translated, mediated with the government, traded fairly, encouraged Navajo crafts like rug weaving and silversmithing, and generally did right. He was an uncowed lawman during range wars.
When Hubbell died, he was buried there next to his Navajo friend, Many Horses. He left a Spanish-style ranch house with Victorian-era furnishings, a massive library and a trading post that's now both museum and business. It's a good place even now to purchase Navajo rugs and silver jewelry.
Hubbell's is a genuine survival of what we Anglos are pleased to call the "Old" West. The facts that Navajo women still weave rugs right there, and that some park rangers are third-generation descendants of Navajos who worked with old "Double Glasses" himself, are tributes to the character of John Lorenzo Hubbell. He was a cross-cultural experience if there ever was one.