Coming away from Mesa Verde headed toward the Grand Canyon, we stopped off briefly at Four Corners National Monument, which we mentioned previously in regard to its prohibition against dumping your dead relative’s ashes there. Four Corners is in the middle of the Navajo Nation, described as a semi-autonomous region of the US covering parts of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, hence how they ended up with all four of the Corners.
At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is larger than ten US states. The nation formed a government in 1923 to administer all the oil leases on its land. I don’t know where the money from all that oil went, because the Navajo themselves are pretty much dirt poor. It is certainly true that oil prices have hurt the pocketbooks of a lot of fossil fuel investors, including the Navajo. However, I’m not sure their economic problems are new. Additionally, a recent accidental spill of toxic wastewater from a long closed Colorado gold mine, caused by the EPA trying to clean up the site, flowed right into the Animas River, which many Navajo farmers depend on for their water supply.
In the East, we take water for granted. Our problem of late has been getting too much water from bouts of torrential rain and flooding, which may be an effect of global warming. In the West, it’s the other way around. People have to buy their drinking water off tanker trucks, so whether to pour a glass of iced tea can be a major decision, let alone how often to bathe and whether they can afford to have a flower pot. Regarding the mine spill, there have been a rash of suicides in the affected areas which authorities speculate may have been related to the disaster.
So, to supplement the economy, the Navajo Nation does what it can to attract the tourist dollar. Along the major highways passing through the Nation, there are flea markets where craftspeople sell jewelry, weavings and souvenirs. A few of those products are actually made by Navajo. If anything epitomizes the tourist trap side of the Navajo economy, it’s Four Corners National Monument.
Four Corners is a curiosity. Not a geological phenomenon like Arches, or a window into history like Mesa Verde, or a natural wonder like Grand Canyon. It’s just a couple of imaginary lines drawn by surveyors to mark the point where the boundaries of four states come together on a map. It’s not even especially accurate, varying from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 miles either way from where the markers are.
The point here is not to debunk the mythology of this place, but rather to commend the marketing savvy of the people who turned it into a major travel spot. It’s a non-existent place, but everyone wants to come here! The tradition is for people to stand on this spot and have somebody take their picture doing twister. The Navajo Parks Department has built a circular pavilion that looks like an ancient Greek agora around the whole place. They charge an admission fee to get in here, and the site is lined with stalls selling Navajo souvenirs.
Imagine following the Navajo example. You could build a Four Corners replica in your back yard. Put a little plaque in the ground and charge people to have their picture taken there. Set up a souvenir stand and maybe a snack bar. It could be like the old Seinfeld plot where they produced a show about nothing. This could be a National Monument to nothing. It’s just a place that exists where it is. The attraction would be that it’s one of a kind, the only place like it. The exact spot of nowhere.
Call it the Nowhere National Monument. Think of all the people who get told they’re going nowhere. Now, they would have an actual destination. Something to be proud of. They could sport bumper stickers that say I’ve been Nowhere. Who wouldn’t want to go there? You’d make a killing. Japanese tourists would flock there. They’ll go anywhere they can take a picture.
You can make really good time driving through the Navajo Nation. They have no speed limit signs and nobody patrolls the highways. The country is flat and open and relatively unpopulated. You can crank it up to 90 or 100, sit back and lap the miles.
Not that they don’t have any law enforcement. There is a Navajo police force headquartered in the nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona. I know this because of Tony Hillerman.
For the uninitiated, Tony Hillerman was a newspaper reporter who turned to writing detective fiction with a series of books about two Navajo Police officers, Sergeant Joe Leaphorn and Patrolman Jim Chee. He wrote eighteen novels in the series before his death in 2006. The books are chock full of detail about Navajo culture, history, and particularly the religion. There isn’t a more informative way to learn about the Navajo, nor a more entertaining way.
At one of our stops on this trip, a National Park Service ranger commented that he learned everything he knows about the Navajo from reading Tony Hillerman.
One of the many tidbits about the Navajo is that they trace their family lineage through the mother’s family instead of the father. Another one is that the traditional Navajo dwelling is the hogan, an oval shaped structure that can be mobile if covered with hides or permanent when covered with earth or adobe.
In the books I read that many of the Navajo now live in mobile or modular homes but also build hogans on their property, which may be used for ceremonial purposes or in which their elderly relatives may live. Ever since I read the books, I wanted to see the hogans dotting the landscape, and sure enough we passed a lot of them on this trip.
Next stop, Monument Valley.