Interstate I-40 East, From Winslow, Arizona to Gallup, New Mexico
Whenever I am in Winslow, I stay at the Homolovi Ruins State Park campground. Although close to town, Homolovi itself feels like a place lost in time. From its Ancestral Hopi Indian ruins to its often-deserted campground, there is plenty of peace and solitude to go around at Homolovi. Departing at noon that day, I was the only human visible anywhere in the area.
From Winslow, east to Gallup, I-40 obliterated much of old Highway US-66. Side roads to the current interstate highway are the only remnants of Old-66, the “Mother Road”. Taking advantage of a gradual ascent towards Holbrook, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) parallels the highway on the south side. Following the gentle gradient of the Little Colorado River, this transportation corridor takes the shortest and flattest route available. For those thirty-five miles of travel on I-40, the sagebrush desert stretches almost unbroken to the horizon.
To break the monotony of this stretch, travelers can marvel at the advertising signs along the way. For reasons unknown, most Indian trading post billboards have yellow backgrounds, with hand painted red lettering. Some of the signs harkened from an era when clean restrooms were a rarity, and thus a major draw. Other signs tout “cold ice-cream” or “Indian Blankets - $9.99”. Some of the billboards date back to the heyday of old Route 66. A few billboards were so well built against the wind, if not the weather, that only a trace of paint hints at their original subject matter.
In several places, the BNSF railroad tracks are close enough to the interstate highway for motorists to see the action. Years ago, workers laid a second set of tracks adjacent to the original east/west line. Rather than waiting on sidings for opposing trains to pass, this stretch of track is like an expressway, with trains operating in both directions, and around the clock. Elsewhere in the High Southwest, you might still see trains pulled by old Santa Fe Railroad locomotives. Here, however, there is a need for speed. The raw horsepower required to pull these long trains at 5,000-foot altitudes dictates the use of newer BNSF engines.
Painted in variations of orange, yellow and black, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotives look clean when they are dirty and dirty when they are clean. Even when speckled with their own diesel exhaust particulates, they always look tailored for business. With their yellow lettering on a dull orange background, the BNSF locomotives reminded me of highway billboards advertising, “Chief Joseph blankets - $9.99”.
In Snowflake, Arizona, my friend Kathy Hemenway has a Route 66 vintage trailer stored in her yard. Outfitted to shield sensitive individuals from aberrant radio-frequency waves, its classic single-axle chassis belies its stainless steel interior. From its lonely perch along a High Southwest ridge, the little trailer appears ready to hit the road to high adventure. Although I would not relish sleeping on cold stainless steel, Kathy's trailer might convert well to a mobile kitchen.
Exiting I-40 East at Holbrook, I stopped for supplies at the local Safeway market. While waiting for service in the deli department, I spoke with an old-timer about the petrified wood trade around town. Although just a handful of shops and yards seemed to have the whole business tied up, he assured me that “almost everyone in town” had crates full of the scarce rocks in their garages. If I wanted a bargain on some rocks that had once been trees, he would have been happy to oblige.
Leaving Holbrook, I traveled eighteen miles southeast on US Highway 180. As I turned to pick up the highway to the Petrified Forest National Park, I glimpsed an industrial-sized yard full of petrified wood for sale. To the rear were the manufacturing and sales buildings. Well into the twentieth century, locals and opportunists often ignored bans against harvesting petrified wood from government land. Today, with legal collection of petrified wood from public lands long gone, I wondered who had gathered so many large chunks of our nation’s heritage and placed them in private hands. With so much petrified wood scavenged from the land, would there be any remaining for me to see at the Petrified Forest National Park?
Having turned sixty-three years old a few weeks earlier, I was intent upon buying my “Golden Age Passport” at the first national park I visited. After rolling up to the booth at the park entrance, I paid my ten dollars and received what the National Park Service now calls a "Senior Pass". As it turned out, I had been eligible for the pass since the day I turned sixty-two. With my lifetime pass, I can now gain entrance to any national park in the U.S., free of additional charge. As a reward for all of the federal taxes I have paid in this lifetime, I am happy to accept this federal government largess.
The young woman at the entrance booth reminded me that it was illegal to collect or transport any found item from the park, especially petrified wood. I assured her that I had no interest in collecting anything at all. In fact, it looked like the locals from times past had removed almost all of it anyway. She said that illicit collectors often develop remorse and return their ill-gotten rocks to the park headquarters. Although the park will accept such “donations”, they cannot return them to their natural place in the park since no one knows exactly where that place might be. Once taken from their original place of rest, these rocks become vagabonds within the mineral world, with no home of their own.
To a new visitor, most of the Petrified Forest National Park looks just like the surrounding desert. When we think of a forest, we think of trees standing upright, whether they are petrified or not. Actually, the Petrified Forest was a place where millions of years ago, large tree trunks washed into ravines, and then became covered with silt. Over the millennia, iron and other minerals infiltrated the cellular tissue of the logs, replacing cellulose and wood fiber with stone.
From about 12,000 BCE until 1300 CE, three distinct prehistoric cultures (Anasazi, Mogollon and Sinagua) occupied various parts of the park. As is true with almost all of the Southwestern United States, the climate today is drier and less hospitable than it was during the days of early human habitation. This land was not immune to the Great Disappearance of early tribes around 1300 CE.
Looking for evidence of running water in the park, I stopped at the confluence of Dead Wash and Ninemile Wash. Here, near the Puerco Indian Ruins, a confluence of two meager streams forms the Rio Puerco, which in turn flows into the Little Colorado River. The Puerco River, here flowing under the roadway in a culvert, looks more like a drainage ditch than a river. Although it still flowed sluggishly in May, I doubt that one would find running water here in late summer or fall.
After traveling almost half way through the park, I found the first petrified wood visible from the road. Stopping my rig, I confirmed that there was still some petrified wood left at Petrified Forest National Park. Until I saw tree rings in stone for myself, I had my doubts as to the authenticity of the whole enterprise. Until then, I wondered if the entire national park was perhaps an elaborate hoax.
To document the authenticity of the place, I got both of my Kokopelli and Coney (the traffic cone) out of my travel trailer. Posing them on one of the large petrified specimens, I took their picture as documentary evidence that the place still exists, and so too, do they. Reflecting my own stubbornness, sometimes they are hard to convince. In the second photo of my superhero friends, I unwittingly captured a picture of the Other, casting his shadow across the hard stone. It was late afternoon and I still had many miles to go before camping at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I ensconced all of my little friends in the cab of my truck and headed for the eastern exit of the park
After passing under I-40, I found myself stopping to stare at The Painted Desert. As a child, I grew up watching old Walt Disney documentaries about the desert, but I never imagined how realistic the Disney artists’ recreation really was. From each turnout, I could see a different view of a pastel colored desert, with subtle hues reflected in late afternoon sunlight. When architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Grady Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University, in Tempe, critics cried foul at its pastel color scheme. Its exterior seemed to glow, with a pastel pink tone often predominating. Those who claimed that Wright’s colors were not true to any real desert should visit The Painted Desert. There they shall find proof of Wright’s veracity. His vision presaged the contemporary trend toward natural color schemes for Southwest houses.
Before leaving the Petrified Forest National Park, I came across the Painted Desert Inn. In 1947, Fred Harvey brought his famous Harvey Girls to the Painted Desert Inn, operating it as a hotel and restaurant for many years. In 2006, the National Park Service completed a major refurbishment of the original buildings, which are open for food service and souvenir shopping today. Gone now, are the only overnight accommodations anywhere in the park. I would not be surprised to find that this is the only national park to close its gates at sundown, reopening again after sunrise each day.
As I exited the park, the ranger on duty at the booth asked if I had collected anything during my visit. I answered, “No, I don’t believe in it”. Carrying with me a copy of Craig Childs' new book, “Finders Keepers – A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession”, I had lost all desire to collect artifacts or natural objects from any public land. OK, I do admit to bringing one souvenir piece of Redrock home each time I drive to Moab. If each of us collects only a few rare items, soon there will be no natural or ancient artifacts for humans to find and contemplate.
Now, when I find a potsherd in the desert, I observe it, photograph it and then return it to its place of origin. Unburied by my boot heel, it shall lay there until it welcomes its next visitor. If the next "finder" is also a "keeper", it shall be, "Goodbye, in-situ potsherd". With the fragility of desert environments, it is best to conduct one's search along established trails or in dry-washed arroyos. There, your boot can do no further damage. And if you do find a piece of hard-baked white ware, with indigo lines painted on to its white glaze, you will know its beauty immediately. Once removed from its rightful place, its value is nil. It may have taken eleven hundred years for our potsherd to make it from its original camp to a floodplain in the desert. I believe that each artifact is imbued with the Spirit of the Ancients. With that knowledge, one can see that the spirit accompanying that potsherd chose to bake there in that wash. Until the keeper found it, the spirit of the potsherd waited patiently for The Flood to carry it further on its journey. Having that potsherd in one's dresser drawer does not further the cause. Simply put, humans should not abscond with ancient potsherds, nor pieces of petrified wood, for that matter.
After seventy-two more miles of driving on I-40 East, I arrived in Gallup, New Mexico. Gallup is a regional center for Indian Country, with a business district that speaks to its long history. Pawnshops, Indian art galleries and trading posts occupy many of the old brick buildings in town. Drawn out over a long stretch of Old-66, the town appears larger than it is. If one drives only a mile north or south from the highway, there is more desert to see than there is city. Still, with Old-66, newer I-40, plus the BNSF rail line all running through town, Gallup is the largest transportation and lodging center between Flagstaff, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
As I drove through town late that May afternoon, there were vehicles everywhere. On either side of the old highway and along the center median, I saw huge wicker baskets resting in truck beds and on trailers. Although there was not a hot air balloon in sight, it was obviously a rallying point for hot air balloonists. As if it were a normal occurrence, many balloonists were testing their propane gas jets right in the middle of the highway. Within a few blocks, I had passed the balloon-less balloonists and once again had the road almost to myself.
With sunset about an hour away, the light was low as I pulled away from the corner of Highway 66 and Second Street. On my right was a long block of gritty buildings. To my left, I saw an Amtrak train stopped at the Gallup Amtrak Station. Originally built as the El Navajo Hotel in 1918, the train station now shows a more contemporary front to motorists. After stopping for fuel, I headed east on I-40. With Chaco Culture National Historical Park as my targeted resting place, I hoped for a long dusk to light my way.
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