Of course I knew that Four Corners – the spot where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona meet – would be a tourist trap. But on a recent road trip from Durango to Monument Valley, Utah, I passed just five miles away from this geographically auspicious place and found that I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop and see the only spot in America where four states meet.
The Navajo Nation operates the site, which sits inside their vast reservation, which is about as large as West Virginia. After paying the modest $3 fee in a booth, I noticed a sign warning tourists against spreading ashes at the site, as the Navajo believe that cremation is a “malicious desecration.”
I parked and made my way towards the monument, expecting to be able to touch an actual piece of dirt where the four states meet. But low and behold, the site, which is set amidst some wild, beautiful southwestern scenery, is an ugly monstrosity.
Rather than allow an untrammeled view of nature surrounding the site, there are four hideous concrete structures with stalls for vendors – all but two of them were unoccupied when I was there – and the entire site has been paved over, so there’s nothing but concrete. It was a cold Saturday morning and there was just one family at the site aside from myself.
One of just two Native American vendors who turned up that morning told me that in the high season people sometimes have to wait in line an hour or more to get their photo taken at the spot where the four states meet. I couldn’t help but wonder which state would have jurisdiction if an enraged tourist decided to kill someone who was taking too long posing for photos on the spot.
After walking across the spot, I noticed that my car seemed to be parked in New Mexico, which baffled me. I’d be driving in Colorado and hadn’t passed any sign indicating that I’d crossed into New Mexico. I looked back at the spot and tried to rap my head around the fact that I could look in four directions and see four states. And for the first time in my life I was thoroughly confused about what state I was actually in.
“Excuse me,” I said to the Navajo woman operating the booth at the entrance to the site. “But are we in New Mexico right now?”
“This is New Mexico,” she said. “But down by the river, it’s Colorado, off to the right, it’s Arizona, and over there it’s Utah.”
“But there was no sign to indicate that I had left Colorado and entered New Mexico,” I said.
“A drunk driver smashed into the sign,” she explained. “So it’s gone now.”
I crossed back into Colorado and then into Utah, crossing my 8th state border within ten minutes. Or was it 7? I still have no idea.
I’d seen this quintessentially Western landscape many times before in Marlboro ads, Geico commercials, Roadrunner cartoons, and in dozens of movies. But until I started to plan a trip to the Four Corners region, I had no idea that the famous, starkly beautiful dreamscape of red sandstone buttes and mesas is called the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.
The 30,000-acre park sits on the Utah/Arizona border inside the Navajo Reservation, which is about the size of West Virginia and is home to about 300,000 Navajos, many of whom retain their distinctive language, which was used to confuse the hell out of the Japanese during WW2 and customs.
I almost never sign up for a guided tour unless I’m compelled to, but in this case, I decided to sign up for a backcountry tour offered by Goulding’s Lodge, a historic inn that was once John Wayne’s home away from home. I booked the tour because the Navajos only allow visitors to see a 17-mile loop of Monument Valley and because even that road requires a very sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle.
“Welcome to the Navajo Nation,” said my guide, by way of introduction, as I piled into a van and was pleased to find out that I was the only visitor who turned up for the tour.
Rosie Phatt is a Navajo Indian school bus driver and mother of six who has been giving tours through Gouldings for 13 years. We set off from the visitor’s center down a rocky dirt track and I was immediately in awe of the wild, untrammeled landscape, which is impressive under any circumstances, but even more so if you live in the flat Midwest, as I do.
“The name Monument Valley means Light in the Valley,” Rosie said. “These red sandstone buttes and mesas have been here for 250 million years.”
As we creaked our way through the Valley’s backcountry, winding our way betwixt and between the towering buttes and mesas, some as high as 1,200 feet, Rosie explained that there were 13 mesas, which are flat-topped rock structures, and 11 buttes, which are essentially the remains of what were once mesas. They all have Navajo names and English language names like The Three Sisters, Right and Left Mitten, and the Landing Strip. The English language nicknames were created by John Wayne, the legendary Hollywood producer John Ford and Harry Goulding, the founder of Goulding’s Lodge who lured Ford to the area to shoot movies in the ’30s.
As we bumped along the rocky tracks all over the Navajo backcountry, we listened to KTNN, the voice of the Navajo Nation on the radio, which was playing a haunting Native American ceremonial dance that made a perfect soundtrack for our journey. Rosie said that sometimes tour vans and jeeps get stuck in the snow or mud.
“But no one ever complains,” she said. “They think it’s all part of the experience of being in the Navajo backcountry.”
I got out to take a walk at John Ford’s Point and felt almost weak kneed and giddy as I looked around at these gargantuan, timeless rock formations and the sea of earthy, deep red southwestern splendor in every direction. Why had it taken me four decades to visit this truly majestic, almost supernatural place? And why were there only a smattering of tourists, nearly all of them foreign in this glorious place?
As I popped in and out of the van, Rosie gave me some background and Navajo history, culture and traditions. The Navajo Nation has its own courts but for serious crimes like rape and murder, U.S. courts also get involved. Navajos run the gamut from completely traditional people who speak mostly Navajo, use medicine men and have traditional Navajo weddings complete with dowries and blue corn mush baskets to Americanized Navajos who worship in the white man’s churches and can’t properly speak the language, despite the fact that it’s taught in their schools.
The Navajo Reservation is completely dry, and people who live in this end of it near Monument Valley, have to drive 22 miles to Mexican Hat, Utah, just to get alcohol and all too many of them don’t mind doing just that, as alcoholism is a huge problem. (After the tour I picked up a copy of the Navajo newspaper and noticed that there were far too many obituaries for young and middle-aged people.)
At one point while I was out taking a walk while Rosie sat in the van staying warm, two snarling dogs came charging after me as I got a little too close to some sheep.
“They belong to that family over there,” Rosie said as I jumped back into the van, pointing to a modest trailer parked smack dab in the middle of nowhere.
“People live out here?” I asked, astonished that anyone could survive in such a desolate location.
Indeed, there are about 10-12 families that live in the backcountry of Monument Valley with no electricity, running water or central heat and they have to drive to Gouldings to fill water tanks several times each week.
Rosie was great company and the buttes, mesas and ancient petroglyphs we saw were unforgettable. As we retreated back to the visitor’s center for some sunset photo opps, I was touched by the fact that Rosie pulled out her mobile phone and started taking photos.
“For us Navajos, it’s all about nature,” she said. “I never get tired of the scenery here.”
As we drove back to Gouldings, Rosie called my attention to a huge butte off in the distance.
“We live over there,” she said.
“I don’t see any houses over there,” I said.
“It’s just us, we’re out there all alone,” she replied.
As she explained that they too had to trek to Gouldings to get water and also had just a wood burning stove for heat, it dawned on me that I’d gotten more than just an explanation of all the area’s natural beauty. It was also a little trip into another world, one that is very alien to me.
I could see the end of my road trip, on the other side of the deserts of the American Southwest, the sun-parched stretch of near nothingness that conceals some of the country’s greatest natural wonders. So after leaving Spaceport America in New Mexico, I prepared for a ironman push to the West Coast, my ultimate destination Los Angeles. Along the way, I’d stop at the Four Corners and the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas and probably some dusty, God-forsaken gas station in the middle of a field of rock and scrub and little else. It was going to be a long drive but, weirdly, I was excited.
Traveling the American Road – Road Trip Destiny Made Manifest
I found the Four Corners, the intersection of Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico and Utah, down a short dusty road on Navajo land just outside Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. It is, inarguably, one of the most touristy places I’d seen on the entire trip: There’s next to nothing here but for some trinket stands and a photo op, standing or sitting a paved circular monument to geographic coincidence, the only place in the country where visitors can touch four states at once.
Which isn’t to say people weren’t enjoying it. A group of Italians were riding on each others’ shoulders, getting unique angles for their pictures. A couple was visiting with her parents, each standing in a different state. Young kids were by turns bashful and brash, forced into photos their parents will one day look back on fondly only to be disappointed when the then-teenagers deny any recollection of the time the family went to the Four Corners.
As I walked back to the car, another group of Italians was having a loud conversation when one woman’s cell phone rang. “Pronto?” she asked as she answered, taking a call from the homeland as she photographed her friends standing on the spot we all came to see.
At the Grand Canyon, I worried that I’d find more of the same, a promise of greatness tempered by an ultimately disappointing monument. How wrong I was: Seeing the striated canyon formed by the Colorado river was a multi-layered pleasure, unfolding as I took in the views from the South Rim, stopping at turnouts along the road to take panoramas while standing on the roof of my SUV. One woman asked me to snap a photo for her, as long as I was up there.
The canyon changed not just in space but in time too, as I watched the sunset turn the rocks deeper and deeper hues of orange. As the shadows lengthened, the gorges in the distance turned purple and blue and finally black. Cameras lined the canyon rim, but I was happy to simply enjoy the sunset, trying to mentally catalog all the colors rather than capture them with my SLR. After nine weeks on the road, furiously photographing my trip, it was a luxury to simply enjoy the view.
In the morning, after the haze had burned off, I struck camp and set out for Las Vegas, the final waypoint before the end of my journey. But I was more interested in a nearby sight than any neon magic on The Strip: The Hoover Dam, a man-made wonder from an era of economic uncertainty financed by massive public spending. The art deco masterpiece is less than an hour from the biggest casinos in Las Vegas, but it’s also a four-hour haul through the Arizona desert.
There’s little to see until you speed across the Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, when the canyon walls fall away and reveal the concrete monolith. Though walking across the top of the dam is quite pleasant, I prefer the view from the bridge, opened in October 2010 as a traffic bypass. A pedestrian-friendly walkway along its north edge provides a fantastic platform for photography–and contemplation of what extraordinary taxpayer spending and sacrifice can accomplish.
When I read through Gadling posts each week, there’s this potpourri of options. Jon Bowermaster has traded Antarctica for the Maldives, Tynan has been roughing it on a cruise ship and Mike has the scoop on the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. This week let’s hone in on places one might not think of to head to for a good time.
This week ,Brenda finished up her series Cuba Libre series that highlighted what a traveler might experience in Cuba. Her take on traveling as a female is that be prepared for whistling and catcalls, but otherwise, she felt safe.
This post from Grant certainly caught my eye. He wants to know whether he should stop over in Algiers or Tripoli on his way from Paris to Dakar. Please let him know.When I did this flight, I went through Madrid and Cape Verde. I’m jealous Grant”s going to Dakar regardless of how he gets there.
Alison dropped a surprising bit of news. Turns out Four Corners where four U.S. states meet is a sham. Not on purpose, but the boundaries are off so the tourist attraction is not accurate.
There’s yet another way to tour New York City. Annie has details about Gossip Girls tours where those who partake see where the TV series is set.
Tom”s post on art hotels in Orlando shows an aesthetic side of this city that is more commonly linked to Disney World.
In Egypt, there’s another pyramid that will be open for visitors’ soon. Kraig has the details about the Bent Pyramid that has been around for 4500 years but hasn’t been a tourist option up until now.
I hate to break the news to you. Remember that time when you diligently placed a hand or foot in each of the four states at the Four Corners? You missed two or three states.
Yes, the landmark that celebrates the intersection of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico is mislabeled. The real Four Corners is 2.5 miles away.
Big ‘oops,’ wouldn’t you say? Apparently, when the location was surveyed by the government back in 1868, they goofed. It’s not news to people-in-the-know though, and it seems unlikely that the landmark will move after so many years as a photo op.
This geometry-buff’s dream isn’t quite as perpendicular as you’d expect. The Deseret News mentions that 77 miles north of the spot, the Utah-Colorado border jogs significantly to the east–although (strangely enough) the Arizona-New Mexico border doesn’t.