Wandering in the Desert

A few years ago I became interested in the biblical concept of “wandering through the desert.” While there are many instances of people in the Bible being lost in the wilderness, this phrase is most often used in reference to the people of Israel after they escaped slavery in Egypt. (A side note for those who are inclined to treat any biblical reference with extra scrutiny, I would ask that at least for now, if not always, you look at Exodus for its merits as a story, fable, or myth. Like Hamlet or Toy Story.) My interest in this was the idea that perhaps we all must go through times of wandering in the desert. The aimless years right after high school or college, for example. Or maybe the months after a breakup or divorce. We’ve all experienced that feeling of undirected lateral movement. And more often than not, it’s good to take that time to live without purpose, goal, or intent. This is what I call wandering through the desert. The Israelites did it for forty years. I chose to do it for four days.

Watering Down the TracksI dropped my big sister off at the train station in Flagstaff, did some much needed laundry, then headed off into the Painted Desert. My route was loosely based on a National Geographic Road Trip, and to really cement the wandering feeling I was planning to camp each night. I spent most of my time on Navajo reservation land, and my first stop was to see some dinosaur tracks. Now, when there’s a hand painted sign on the highway that just says “Dinosaurs Tracks,” and it points to a dirt road where you are immediately met with a couple of trucks, some makeshift wooden shelters, and a woman offering to be your guide, a certain amount of suspicion stirs in you. Is this a trick? Are they going to try to swindle me? Are these even real fossils?

Outline of a footI parked my car and followed the woman out onto the basin. Within a few feet, she stopped and pointed her water bottle at the ground. there was a small hole poked into the cap, making it the perfect, tiny squirt gun. She sprayed the foot-shaped impression on the ground, explaining that the water makes it easier to see. She was right, the indent changed color as it was sprayed, and for a minute or so the shape was very clear. The desert sun would dry it back out in minutes, but we were already moving on by then. Sometimes small rocks had been moved to outline an object, sometimes fossils previously spread out were brought back together. She sprayed various places on the ground, explaining that this track was made by this type of dinosaur and this was the bone outline of another. Everything was very close together, and demostrated a seemingly wide variety of species. I tried to keep my skepticism in check, and at one point my guide even made a joke about people accusing her of making up fake tracks. “You think I have time to come out here with a hammer and chisel at the rocks?” she laughed. I talked with my guide about her eight kids and two marriages, and about how her oldest daughter called her in a panic last week, “But you know it’s just about a boy.”

Jewelry StandsShe explained how the fossils had been found in the early part of the 20th Century, and how for awhile people would come and carve up sections of tracks to sell to museums. The Navajo people didn’t understand the significance of the tracks, so they didn’t bother stopping them. “Now the museums refer to them as donations,” she said. She told me they’ve had offers from the government to make it a national park, but the structured fee system didn’t sit well with the Navajo tradition of humility. Instead, they’re raising money to make their own site, complete with fences to keep out the vandals.

When the tour was over my guide showed me the handmade jewelry she had for sale, and I asked if I could make a donation instead of buying anything. She gladly accepted and I went along my way. My internet research later indicated that indeed the tracks themselves are real and the Navajo Nation is trying to set up an official site, though the particulars given about each fossil might not be accurate. I was pretty sure of that one already. I mean, how does a dilophosaurus track end up next to a tyrannosaurus print? They lived 100 million years apart.

Anasazi InnI continued my long and beautiful drive through the desert, stopping by the Navajo National Monument to see an ancient native pueblo settlement nestled into a canyon wall. It was getting late, and I drove to the nearest town in an attempt to get cell reception and/or find a campground. After some frustratingly futile attempts to talk to Siri, I employed the tried and try method of asking a gas station attendant. She said there were no campgrounds within 30 miles. All the land is privately owned, and people get upset if you try to camp on their land without permission. With camping out of the question, I checked into the Anasazi Inn, where I had to sit in the doorway of my room to get the internet signal from the router in the main office. Sitting out there gave me a chance to cool off my room with the slightly more comfortable night air, as well as catch snippets of conversation from a group of men a few doors down.

They had pulled a pickup truck up to the door, and one shirtless man sat in the tailgate drinking a beer, while the others leaned on walls or sat in the doorframe. From what I could gather, these men worked for one of the highway construction crews. They talked about posts for 30 minutes. That is in no way an exaggeration. The conversation about posts, more specifically about certain men being incapable of correct post placement, went on for half an hour. Eventually they went to sleep and so did I.

Black ArrowThe next morning I drove out to Canyon de Chelly, a national monument featuring a beautiful system on canyons and many ancient ruins. From far away the ruins look like tiny dollhouses. They were all built by the Anasazi, the name given to the ancient people who once inhabited the land. I couldn’t help but think of The X-Files the whole time, as they had a pretty extensive storyline involving the Navajo desert and the ancient Anasazi people. I drove to the various lookout points, each time being greeted by a member of the Navajo nation with art or jewelry to sell. I appreciated the way the park trails were laid out. Because the ground is often a smooth, hard, rock surface, there is little paving. Instead, they mark the path with a series of unobtrusive arrows painted on rocks, or painted footprints not the ground. When necessary they carve out steps and slopes, but they are so well integrated I often couldn’t figure out what was natural and what was man-made. I kept driving along the desert, thinking about the little ways in which a reservation really is its own country. I drove past mobile homes and model homes, stuck out in the desert as tiny signs of progress. They are poor masks for poverty, and I was filled with a sense of White Guilt as I considered the how we all ended up in this duel-country state, and how all possible ways out seem fraught with problems.

Judgmental SheepI stopped by the Hubbell Trading Post, a testament to the old pioneer days. It’s been restored to include a lot of the old ranch equipment, and still functions as a trading post, though trading is mostly grocery items and rugs. They still keep a handful of animals on the ranch, though I imagine they are mostly for show. I tried to take a picture of the sheep and they looked up just long enough to give me a judgmental stare I thought only cats were capable of producing. They keep a turkey in with the chickens, and for reasons I wasn’t sure of, the large bird kept stopping its feet. I don’t know if you’ve ever been near a wild turkey stomping its feet, but I hadn’t. The first few times it happened I couldn’t believe it was comping from the turkey. The ground actually trembled, as though a large piece of farm equipment had fallen out of a barn loft. Do not mess with a turkey.

PetroglyphsI made it out of the reservation and camped at Lyman Lake State Park. My tent site was nothing but gravel and completely exposed, but I didn’t much care. I went on a short hike up to see some petroglyphs – pictures and symbols carved into stone by the Anasazi. In general, archeologists have no idea what they mean. But the are fascinating to look at, and apparently numerous enough that as a tourist you can just wander around at your leisure. I cooked up some dinner on my camp stove (I’d been traveling in fire-ban areas since northern California), and set up camp in the windy gravel. I would have one more night in the desert before I reached the great civilization of Albuquerque, but this would be my last night in Arizona.