Route 66 travelogue #7
Santa Fe to Chinle Arizona
Or “Hey How Are Ya Hey How Are Ya!”
After a relaxing couple of days at Buffalo Thunder ‘The Regiment’ was ready to saddle up and with Captain Mike Barker taking first shift we headed westwards once more. The mornings views we’re the long, yawning, flat stretches of endless sandy brush we’ve come to expect from New Mexico. As you might have figured out by now these travelogues are about a day behind as i usually write them on my iPad in the back of the car and that’s what i did for the first leg of the journey. We decided that for the longer drives of six hours we’d take shifts of 2 hours each, that way, everyone arrives equally fresh (or tired) so after a couple of hours on the road we stopped off at the Laguna Burger at Rio Puerco for some lunch and to change drivers.
The Laguna burger is effectively a gift shop/truck stop with a burger joint strapped to it. Mick had the Laguna burger, Mike had the foot long hotdog with everything on it and I had a toasted cheese sandwich, fries all around. We had no expectations, just wanted something to fill a gap but the food was surprisingly good. A solid 8/10 all around, that’s the equivalent of stoping at a petrol station and getting a TGI Fridays meal!
Mick took the second shift and after just over an hour we hit the New Mexico state line and crossed into Arizona. After a few miles the difference between the 2 states became clear. This is Indian country (feathers, not dots!). Should you be offended by my use of the word ‘Indian’, don’t be. Native American is the correct term but while I was in Buffalo Thunder I spotted many uses of the term indian throughout the resort, on signs, fruit machines, exhibits and menus. I mean no malice by the term but when I was a kid I played ‘Cowboys and Injuns’ not ‘Cowboys and Native Americans’
We passed the Museum of the Navajo Nation and not far down the road there was something going on. By the roadside there as a line of tents, right next to the road. At first glance i thought it was roadside workers using the tents to provide shade while they worked on cabling beneath the street but as my gaze turned to the road ahead I could see people camping wherever they could, in the backs of trucks, cars with the trunk open and people sitting in the back. I can but assume that these people had traveled into town for a festival of sorts, a funfair was set up in a field of to the left of the highway, the bright colours of brashly painted amusements jumping out against the sandy backdrop of the plains. It would seem that even here, 6000 miles away from home, where there’s travellers, there’s a funfair!
Not long after the roadside camp site we stopped for our third shift change at the yah-ta-hey truck stop (I swear I’m not making this up!). There’s a distinct lack of self consciousness when traveling, I usually wear camo shorts, sandals, a tee shirt and occasionally a baseball cap, very basic functional clothing with little or no fashion credibility but quite nondescript and unnoticeable. The hotel we were en route to had guest laundry facilities and I was running out of clean tee shirts so I threw on the Chicago Tram and Bus company tour shirt I’d picked up for free at the start of the trip. Bright white with a glaring orange Chicago logo on the front. Walking into the yah-ta-hey gas station I felt more like a tourist than at any other time on the trip. Everything about my appearance was in contrast to my surroundings. My brightly coloured shirt, pasty white skin and very British accent in this place made me feel like “The White Man” personified! I was the only white guy in the place.
The Navajo Indians generally have strong brow lines and arching noses, the stereotypical Indian Chief from every western you’ve every seen (Not the one with Johnny Depp though!) and this is not a face that smiles easily, a powerful sternness seems to be the default setting. There were some guys wearing road workers clothes, another chap was sporting jeans, boots and a bandanna. All with the same, icy, stern stare. ‘Bandanna’ paid for his fuel and made his way out to his Harley and roared off in a cloud of red dust. The feeling of being a complete outsider, an alien of sorts is uncomfortable but this is my own insecurity. There is nothing negative from these people, no malice and I’m obviously in no danger. My fear was one of the unknown.
I’ve learned a little about the different facial traits specific to each tribes since my visit to the yah-ta-hey and had I been better prepared I would has walked in and thought “they aren’t angry at me, they’re just Navajo”. I share this with you at risk of showing myself in an unflattering light to try and give you a flavour of what it feels like to be the outsider, even if its only my perception that’s put me on the ‘outside’ in my head.
We are all human and equal but there is no denying we are also very different, in appearance as much as in culture. I don’t think it’s racist to observe these differences, if you do then I’m sorry, I promised honesty, not indifference. After paying for my Dr Pepper and popping to the rest room i headed back to the car for leg 3.
I could have filled a whole memory card with pictures from this leg of the trip had i not been driving and filled a page describing each picture, this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been without doubt. One scene sticks out in my mind as being particularly stunning.
About an hour into leg 3, the road was slowly dropping down and winding round to the right. As the road straightened it rippled on towards the black mountains on the horizon, rising at the base and climbing steeply and quickly. This upturn in terrain was only visible as a thin black seam, halving the mountain like a paper cut. To my left was a perfect vanilla sky. Luminous, cotton clouds of many shades hanging above the faded blue mountains, ghostly at such a distance and shimmering, as the heat rising from the dusty ocean of the desert floor rippled the hot, acrid air. To my right the roadside fell away revealing a drop of many hundreds of feet down to the pale, suede canyon floor. Great dark, orange boulders sat in the sun, the shadows giving the illusion that the floor was the back of a huge, sleeping leopard, basking beneath the red rock line of the distant canyon wall, above which, an empty blue sky hung in silence, seemingly as awestruck of its view as I was of mine. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road surrounded as i was by such effortless magnificence. Had there been somewhere to pull over and savour the moment I would have done just that. I’m not a religious man. Far from it in fact, but if you see the hand of your God in such sights as these, I promise you, some of his finest work lies in Arizona!
Chinle Arizona is indeed in the middle of nowhere. If you find yourself there you are either stopping over on your way to the Grand Canyon or you are very, very lost! Upon finding our hotel we unpacked, threw our washing in the massive American washing machine and headed to the restaurant. Mike went with Chicken fried steak, Mick with baby back ribs and i had the trout. Mick’s ribs were so tough they offered him out, they only get a 2/10. Mike gave his steak a 5 and my trout got a 5 also. If the mash and veg hadn’t been Luke warm it would probably have been a 7 from me. The best part of my meal was the coffee which I had 3 or 4 cups of. The AC in the restaurant was on the fritz so I took a brief walk to migrate the washing from the washer into the dryer and cool off a bit.
On the way back into the restaurant I was stopped by a young girl of maybe 12, desperate to show me her paintings of Native American symbology on terracotta. Her story was an interesting one, she was trying to raise enough money to get home with her younger sister who was sat on the wall carving a smaller piece. On asking the price of her paintings she went seamlessly into some very savvy sales patter. I know when I’m being hustled and I might have bought the smaller piece but I got the distinct Impression that this was indeed home and she was exactly where wanted to be, fleecing gullible tourists for $30 a pop!
I made my excuses and rejoined the guys. Shortly after we headed back to the room and after editing over 200 photos in a caffeine fuelled whirlwind of cropping and tweaking, I hit the sack and dreamed of the wonderful views from earlier.
Next stop… The Grand Canyon
J Dubya D