Utility workers found a mammoth bone a few years ago, a quarter of a mile from my home in Peoria, Arizona. They thought it was a log and left it by the side of the road. Just to the east of this serendipitous discovery, Indian petroglyphs continue to be found in the eroded hills that grace the horizon. No more than six miles from this same location, my young son and I once looked out of our van window and were surprised to see an unidentifiable silent aircraft that looked as though it came from the twenty-fifth century or a comic book. (As a former Naval Reserve Intelligence analyst, I’ve been trained to recognize most military aircraft, and this was not one of them.) We got out of the van to get a closer look and it was gone; we continued about our business – it was just another day in the Southwest. There is so much beauty, history and strangeness afoot here that one scarcely knows where to begin.
Let us go back in time to a younger and newer earth. Four billion years ago, a great fire appeared in the sky and a sound like ten thousand freight trains filled the air; in one incandescent moment, a thousand square miles of what is now Arizona were rearranged forever. A mere 50,000 years ago, according to our best reckoning, another meteor blazed down. This one struck east of Flagstaff and north of Sedona, creating a crater a mile wide and six hundred feet deep with an explosion many times larger than that of the first fateful atom bomb test at Trinity, New Mexico. It is now a tourist destination. The multiple craters of the first ancient touchdown, however, can only be seen today from high altitude photographs. The circles created by the meteors are so ancient as to be nearly obliterated but modern cities and towns in Arizona such as Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Sedona, were founded on lands shaped by the stars.
Today, another circle of events is celebrated in the Southwest. Nine hundred miles of desert, lost cities, abandoned mines, ghost towns in New Mexico and Colorado, and vast Lake Powell (1,960 miles of shoreline) make up what has come to be called the Grand Circle Tour. Within the Circle there are seven National Parks: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon North-Rim and Mesa Verde. There are also seven national monuments in the area: Navajo, Natural Bridges, Cedar Breaks, Pipe Spring, Canyon de Chelly, Hovenweep and Rainbow Bridge. The magnificent Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area round out the Circle, which is just north of and includes small parts of the ancient impact zone of the four billion year old meteor strike. As you look at the map, the Grand Circle looks like a vast bull’s eye. The Grand Circle is, however, only part of the story.
The Southwest, or what we commonly think of as the Southwest, includes the states of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. It also traditionally includes parts of Southern California, Southern Colorado, Southwestern Oklahoma, West Texas and the northern reaches of Mexico. This is a land that has been torn by the forces of wind, water and geology for millions of years. Oceans and rivers have risen and disappeared, leaving coral reefs at the top of the Grand Canyon and maritime fossils at the bottom of other canyons all over the Southwest. Hoodoos and other wind and water sculpted formations at Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah, along with the fantastic Arches at Moab and Arches National Parks, attest to enormously long periods of erosion and stability.
The four major deserts of the Southwest – Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan – were created by the rain shadows of great mountain ranges, themselves the product of ancient tectonic plate movements that have been spreading the continents apart since the Earth was young. The Sangre de Christo Mountains, the Panamints, the Superstitions, the Sierra Nevada, the Hieroglyphics, the Guadalupes and the Chocolate Mountains, all are desert builders and ancient ocean keepers on their leeward sides. Parts of Nevada and Utah seem eroded beyond time’s keeping.
There is something deeply appealing about ancient landscapes that silently endure all manner of geologic chaos. This unearthly patience of the desert is what has drawn generations of adventurers, outlaws, poets, painters and writers to its secret Bedouin heart. They come to soak up the fierce romance of desert, wind and sun. The timeless duration of this land lends itself freely to the thoughts of those who wish to meditate on its history and vistas. Frederick Remington perhaps said it best: “the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever, and the more I considered the subject, the bigger Forever loomed.” Forever is always just beyond the horizon and for Americans, forever is tied to the lands of the Southwest in the uniquely American images of cowboys and Indians that are so aptly described in Travelers’ Tales Southwest by the Rosebrook father and son team in their story, “John Ford’s Monument Valley.”
Alex Shoumatoff, in his excellent book, Legends of the American Desert, refers to the Southwest as a “tongue, the northernmost projection of Latin America.” This is not an inaccurate assessment. The red and gold banners of Spain were flying in America long before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.
But of course the Spaniards themselves were newcomers. The Hisatsinom (the ancient people), as they were called by the Pueblo, or Anasazi (ancient enemy), as they were called by the Navajo, were the ancestors of many of the Indian tribes of the Southwest. They explored, settled and built small towns throughout the Southwest many centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. The influence of the Spanish, however, cannot be overestimated in the cultural formation of the Southwest and that influence is now reasserting itself. There are enormous numbers of Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest doing an extraordinary amount of work. Construction and business growth is at an all-time high in the region, and much of it can be attributed to these hard working folks from Mexico and Central America. They are, as Shoumatoff notes, part of the fifty million people who traveled and moved to the lands west of the Mississippi during the twentieth century.
Shoumatoff also aptly describes the Southwest as being one of the “four classic meccas” for people on quests. The other three classic meccas are the Amazon, Africa and Tibet. Henry Shukman, on a modern day quest to the Southwest, visits the former home of writer D. H. Lawrence in his story, “A Point of Human Light”, and has a titillating adventure of which Lawrence would have heartily approved. Lawrence once said that more than any another place in the world, the Southwest had changed him forever. Shukman, echoing this sentiment in his book Savage Pilgrims, from which we excerpted his story, describes travel as “bringing in the stores,” and he notes, “It would be a long time before this voyage’s nourishment wore off and might never wear off.”
As I have traveled throughout this torn and parched landscape, I can only affirm this – the stores that my wife, young sons and I have brought back have been sustaining in a way I sometimes feel I only marginally understand but immediately appreciate. Whenever I leave the agitated sphere of consciousness that comprise the likes of cities such as Albuquerque or Phoenix, and the mountains barrier themselves behind me, I feel a breath of fresh air moving in my soul. My entire being resonates with clarity, spaciousness and a hint of sweetness – a quest already fulfilled.
My younger sister Maggie, a reluctant Easterner, wrote after a recent visit: “the desert must echo something of eternity with it restful intensity, for I can pull the memory of it into my mind’s eye and it calms me. Funny, but the desert seems to be an oasis for me.” The desert will do that to you. It is as if an enormous and moving consolation has been made out of emptiness and wonder. People come to the desert for many reasons (including low-cost housing) but many come because something in the desert calls them to come and be broken, like the prophets of old, and made whole again with wonder. And there are so many things to wonder at in the Southwest.
I have been constantly surprised, for example, at ancient evidence, visibly present, for a lot of water moving through parts of the Southwest. The Guadalupe Mountains, which run along the Texas Panhandle and the New Mexico border, are connected to a ridge, the petrified remnant of the ancient Capitan Reef. Where there are now deeply eroded mesas, in many places there were once oceans. A mere ten million years ago in Arizona, north of Interstate 40 and west to the Grand Canyon, there was an ancient lake, once the size of Lake Erie. Lake Bidahochi, as it is called, lasted for nearly four million years before it finally dried up. Huge circular mounds of dirt and mud that could have only been deposited by enormous rivers of water are also found on the roads leading from Canyon de Chelly all the way to Monument Valley. I often ask myself, “What could this possibly mean in terms of our recent history?” Scientist say that the Grand Canyon and its even larger cousin to the south, Copper Canyon in Mexico, were created by millions of years of water erosion and “other earth changes.” It is those other earth changes over the short-run that bother me. There is still an awful lot we don’t know about Mother Earth.
Oceans of water also seem to haunt the collective imagination of those who live here. Lake Powell, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world, is almost surely the reincarnated image of ancient waterways such as Lake Bidahochi, where prehistoric creatures made their daily pilgrimage. How else might one explain the odd fact that the highest percentage of boat owners in the United States live in the middle of the desert in Arizona? I could take a full-sized submarine for days into the depths of Lake Pleasant, another large and growing man-made lake just north of Phoenix, and no one would know it was there.
The ancient sea bottoms of the American Southwest have conceivably influenced the fantasies and thinking patterns of more human beings than any other landscape on the planet. Who has not galloped into black canyons rimmed by fiery sunsets and chased outlaws into the purple sage with Zane Grey, John Wayne and other heroes of the imagination? Who does not have a little bit of the cowboy or cowgirl branded into their souls? The West is the real thing for America and the Southwest is as real as it gets.
Come with us and you will discover the truths of the Navajo with Douglas Preston, Alex Shoumatoff, and Tony Hillerman. Descend with us into the Grand Canyon and explore the heat of the Southwest until thirst stops you. In Travelers’ Tales Southwest you will uncover the history of Acoma, America’s oldest unsung city with Timothy Egan, and explore the vast staircase of Utah’s new Escalante National Monument with Jeff Rennicke. You will taste the richness of the land with Barbara Kingsolver in Tucson as she makes a pact with wild javelinas, and explore barely marked trails with John Annerino as he trys to run like an Apache. Enter the future with science junkie Michael Paterniti and have a few wild adventures with Terry Tempest Williams, Patrick Pfister and the Mad Monks. You will examine the origins and mores of Las Vegas and plunge into the radiance of a thousand suns at one of the fabled laboratories of the Southwest.
Do not be alarmed if you discover yourself smelling the sweet odor of sage after a desert rain while you are reading or, suddenly find yourself on the way to Moab, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Las Vegas or even Area 51. Hit the road friend, the desert is calling.