The road trip: that iconic form of travel that lets us explore at a different pace. If you have ever crossed the country on four wheels, you know the role that gas stations play, both for keeping your vehicle going, and for strong black coffee and snacks. If you are lucky, there’s even a good diner attached. But as more and more people fly to complete their trips, is the iconic middle-of-nowhere gas station a thing of the past?
For today’s Photo of the Day Flickr user smallscreen gives us a great look at a piece of Americana, a ghost-like gas station in Chloride, Arizona, that’s reminiscent of a time where gas was 35 cents a gallon and people were cruising in old Chevrolets.
Do you have an interesting look into your travels? Add your photos to the Gadling Flickr pool to be chosen for the Photo of the Day feature.
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.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be young, broke, or drunk to stay at a youth hostel. I’ll be the first to admit not all hostels are created equal, but as a perpetually cash-strapped journalist in her 40s, they’re often my only option for indulging in the snowy outdoor pursuits I love. Fortunately, there are clean, efficient, well-run hostels throughout the West that make a stay pleasurable, rather than painful.
There are other good reasons to bunk down at a hostel, whether it’s a dorm, private, or shared room. If you’re planning to play all day (and possibly night), who needs an expensive room? Hostels are also great places to meet like-minded people to hit the backcountry or slopes with – a huge advantage if you’re traveling solo.
Most hostels also possess a decidedly low-key, “local” atmosphere where you’ll get the inside scoop on where to cut loose (on the mountain or off). In many instances, hostels also offer tours or activities, or partner up with local outfitters, which make life easier if you don’t have a car or require rental equipment. Also…free coffee.
Below, in no particular order, are some of my favorite Western hostels, based upon their proximity to snowy adventure: St. Moritz Lodge, Aspen, CO
I’ve been a regular at this place for a decade now, and I’m still smitten. Its groovy, ’70s-meets-Switzerland ambience; friendly, helpful staff; clean, well-lit rooms, and free mega-breakfast kick ass…what’s not to love? It’s just a few minutes walk from the slopes, and free parking is plentiful. A dorm bed is $44, and a private room/shared bath $95, high season.
The Abominable Snowmansion, Arroyo Seco, NM
Just outside of Taos is this classic, rambling old hostel with a communal feel. Arroyo Seco is an adorable mountain hamlet (all you need to know is that Abe’s Cantina gives great green chile). A private room/bath at this hostel is $59 in winter, and the region abounds with backcountry opps and natural hot springs.HI-Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel, Banff National Park, Alberta
The photo at right shows the sauna at this off-the-grid cabin near stunning Lake Louise. If you’re good with no shower and using an outhouse, this 20-bed spot will keep you cozy after a day ice-climbing, snow-shoeing, or skiing the backcountry.
Grand Canyon International Hostel, Flagstaff, AZ
Owned by the same people who have the janky Du Beau hostel in town; I recommend this place instead, which is located in a historic, multi-story building minutes from downtown. “Flag” has loads of opportunities for outdoor buffs, from backcountry, to downhill skiing at Arizona Snowbowl, 20 minutes away. The hostel also offers year-round tours to the Grand Canyon, 80 minutes away. Flagstaff itself is a happening little college town; before heading out for the day fuel up on caffeine and divine, house-baked goods at Macy’s European Coffeehouse (I accept bribes in this form).
Alyeska Hostel, Girdwood, AK Girdwood is pure Alaska-weird. Moose wander the main street, and quirky locals are just as likely to invite you to an all-night kegger in the snow as they are to take you cross-country skiing (the bonus of being female in Alaska, I discovered). This tidy hostel will set you back $20 for a bunk bed, making it the best deal in (a very, very small) town.
Hostel Tahoe, King’s Beach, CA
I’ll be honest; I’ve never bothered to stay in a hostel in Lake Tahoe for two reasons: dirt-cheap motels abound, and my brother lives there. But I came across this place researching this story, and it looks great. You’ll need to self-drive or shuttle to ski (it’s mid-way between South and North Shore, but right by a bus stop servicing Northstar, Squaw, and Alpine Meadows), and it looks infinitely more pleasant than some of the budget lodging I’ve enjoyed in Tahoe in the past. King’s Beach is old-school Tahoe at its best: funky, boozy, and a bit down-at-the-heels. Crested Butte International Hostel, CO
Cheap lodging is tough to come by in Colorado ski towns, which is what makes this place such a find. Eighty dollars for a private queen with shared bath in downtown CB is a hell of a deal, and a $39 dorm bed can’t fail to make cash-strapped skiers and snowboarders happy. This is also the place to induct hostel-phobic friends or partners. I find it rather sterile, but it’s spotless, quiet, and kid-friendly. With two apartments for families ($184/night) and off-site condo rentals also available, CBIH makes family vacay do-able. Bonus: loads of free parking, and just 100 yards from the free mountain shuttle (Mt. Crested Butte is 3 miles away). Fireside Inn Bed & Breakfast and Hostel, Breckenridge, CO
This sprawling, historic old home converted into a warren of rooms is a treasure if you’re a lover of hostels. Friendly and walking distance to downtown (you can shuttle to the Breck Connect Gondola, Peak 7 and 8, and the Nordic Center), it’s got the patina of years on it, but it’s cozy, homey, and a great place to meet like-minded travelers. Love.
The Hostel, Jackson Hole, WY
In this spendy little ski town, affordable accommodations are rare as a ski bum with a Platinum card. Located at the base of Teton Village, The Hostel offers dorm beds and private rooms. Backcountry fans will love being just one mile away from the glory of Grand Teton National Park (be sure to check park website for information on restrictions or necessary permits)
Sometimes, the wait is worth it. After surviving a snow, hail and wind storm, Flickr user oilfighter captured this breathtaking image of the sun breaking through the clouds into the crests of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
It has snowed the whole day at Grand Canyon, causing us to be confined to the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge. Finally, during the late afternoon, the clouds broke a little, and the snow finally stopped. We jumped into the car and drove out to Point Royal. As I walk towards the view point, the weather was beginning to turn south again, and I saw a group of photographers take cover and shouting at each other to run back to the car.
I got setup on the edge as the overlook was clearing out. Finally, it was just me left. It began to hail as I was setting up, and the wind was really strong, which was a good thing. I was betting that the wind would clear a hole in the clouds. Not long after I got setup, the scene unfolded in front of me. It was amazing! The light streaks lasted all but 1 minute, but it was enough for me to take a few pictures. This is probably one of the most dramatic pictures I’ve taken.