Tranquility is a rare treasure for a world mired in turmoil. My nine-day road trip with my wife through America’s Southwest helped me take my mind off the heartbreaking images of misery in the world’s war-torn Mideast, where sadly war knows no religion.
October is the best month to drive through the country’s national parks — and in our case, also visit the tribal lands of the Navajo and Hopi people. Both the sun and the temperatures are lower, and the lines not so long to enter into our neighbor Utah’s red rock gems: Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks. Fall appears in its gold glory, putting the green of summer to rest before the white of winter, which already has arrived on some of Nevada’s highest peaks.
Driving through Fallon on an early Sunday morning reminds you that rural America is mostly quiet and appears still to be enjoying a day of rest. Heading east on Highway 50, “The Loneliest Road in America” (and maybe the most beautiful), we passed through Austin, Nevada, hoping to stop for lunch at the main street eatery that once billed itself as the “World Headquarters” for Donald Trump. Both enterprises were closed — for better or for worse, depending on your gastronomical or political preferences.
After an overnight stay and dinner with Guinn Center friends in Ely, we passed by the morning glory of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park, which is one of the least-visited of national parks in the country. Bathed in the low light of an autumn sunrise, Wheeler Peak greeted us as we passed on our way to Moab, Utah, the gateway to nearby national parks.
Moab is one funky town, especially for Utah. I don’t know if it’s because Moab has the lowest percentage of LDS church membership in Utah, but the town has more multi-body-pierced food servers, road houses, exotic restaurants, rock climbing safaris and off-road vehicles to rent than I’ve seen anywhere — with the possible exception of Boulder, Colorado. Moab (like its Biblical name of “land beyond the Jordan”) is truly a special place to begin a pilgrimage into the promised land of some of nature’s most sacred shrines.
Getting up at 4 a.m. to beat the crowds and reservation-only ticket-takers at Arches National Park’s entrance, Shin and I made it to the famous “Delicate Arch” trailhead when it was too dark to begin the three-mile round-trip hike to one of America’s most romantic natural landmarks. We made it along with the numerous other visitors from Germany, Kansas, and Laos — just in time to take the obligatory couples’ photo as the sun was rising.
The next day we repeated our early morning routine and saw some of the park’s more than 2,000 natural arches in a section of the park called “Devil’s Garden.” I supposed it’s named that because the spires and gruesome-looking monuments look vaguely demonic. Its seemed rather godly to me, being in this garden of early morning delights.
Another day was spent walking thru dried-up narrow washes with sandstone walls that appeared to touch the sky in Capitol Reef’s park. Canyonlands was next. There you see the mighty Colorado River in all its majesty, winding its way to Lake Mead and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. Word to the wise: Stay on paved roads in these remote parks. I ended up trying to ascend a one-lane dirt road that looked like Khunjerab Pass in Pakistan, before discretion got the better part of valor and I somehow managed to turn the car around.
Having seen the best the “new world” had to offer, we decided to visit the land of America’s oldest settlers once occupied. Driving along the Navajo Trail Highway, we came to Monument Valley. You’ve seen it if you ever watched any of John Ford’s cowboy movies with John Wayne. They were filmed in the middle of the Navajo Nation’s lands that they have since re-acquired — in fact, their lands are now the size of West Virginia.
The next day we visited one of the Navajo’s holiest and most beautiful sites at Canyon De Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY). One of the longest continuously inhabited landscapes in North America, it’s a national monument operated entirely by members of the Navajo Tribe. A young Navajo woman named Thedra shared with me the famous Navajo poem, “Walking in Beauty.” The words seemed applicable to someone with as many decades as I have under my belt: “In old age, wandering on a trail of beauty, living again … it is finished in beauty.” It seems true. As we walked above the ancient Navajo farmlands you could see the pueblo-dwelling remains of ancient homes built in the canyon’s walls by ancient inhabitants.
Returning again the next day, I asked Thedra about how Navajo younger people are faring as they attempt to exist between both the ancient and modern worlds. The answer came in a video she showed me called “Canyon Voices.” In it, young Navajo’s express their quandary of feeling like they “don’t belong in either world.” It made me wonder if American young people are facing the same dilemma: Do we belong in the world we now occupy or in a future world we are not quite certain of?
A possible answer came the next day when we visited the Hopi Reservation. Staying in the Hopi Cultural Center, the 80-year-old museum director connected us with her brother, the son of a Hopi chief who took us on a private tour of the iconic Second Mesa’s ruins. Our guide, Dixon, was humorous, and blatantly sarcastic in a most charming way. I could never tell whether what he was telling us was fame or fable. Which — as a case in point — is what the Hopi myth and worldview are filled with. I enjoyed how he toyed with us.
One thing that was as clear as the view the Hopis had from atop the Second Mesa of the invading Spanish centuries ago was the certainty of the Hopi’s view that they “are finally at home” on their ancestral lands overseen by the mesa. I suppose I feel that way to some degree at least — being near my childhood home of Lake Tahoe.
Our road trip brought us a back to the Silver State via Highway 375, the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Like the Hopi, the residents of Rachel, Nevada, believe there is more than meets the eye when it comes to looking out over desert landscapes and wondering what’s above and what’s below us.
Long road trips leave time to ponder both questions, and more. Ours concluded with a stay at Tonopah’s historic Mizpah Hotel. No ghosts from the non-Hopi world visited us that night. I suppose we were too tired.
Returning to Reno the next day, I thought of the ancient Chinese proverb, “The journey of s thousand miles begins with a single step.” It ends, or maybe just continues, when you finally return home.
It was a tranquil road trip amidst a tumultuous time. I hope the world one day finds the peace we found in America’s oldest canyons and among its ancient first peoples.
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“Memo from the Middle” is an opinion column written by RGJ columnist Pat Hickey, a member of the Nevada Legislature from 1996 to 2016.
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