American Southwest Bro-Trip, Part 3: Open Roads and No Coverage

Driver Dan, looking ready for a pizza and hot wings.

We slept really well at the Best Western in Santa Rosa. We woke up the next morning, bright and early, and walked to the lobby for the complimentary breakfast. At 6 A.M. MST, the sun was already peaking over the horizon. Daniel commented on how calm and quiet the desert was, even in a town.

We helped ourselves to the bounteous, delicious breakfast as we watched the local news and people-watched other travelers. An older man with a thick Texas accent and a booming voice came into the lobby and asked the staff, “Do y’all know the road conditions going up to Pagosa? I’m trying to get to Pagosa and I don’t know what the road conditions are.”

“No, sir, but we can check for you,” said the man at the counter.

“Naw, that’s all right, I can do that myself. I’s just wonderin’ if you knew.”

He then grabbed a plate and loaded it up with breakfast items. Daniel was retrieving some sausage and eggs at the time, and the gentleman came up behind him. “Oh, excuse me,” Daniel said.

“Naw, don’t worry, bubba, I’s just goin’ to tell ya to leave the lid up for me, I’m right behind ya!” he declared to the whole room.

“Oh, well, there you go!” Daniel said as he stepped away.

“Thanks, pard!” The man placed some eggs on the plate and then left as Daniel returned to our table and we chuckled. He was evidently from far west Texas.

A minute later, he came back. “I got this food for my wife; she’s still in bed. She might appreciate a fork!” I think everyone in the lobby cracked up.

After we finished breakfast, we walked back to our motel room to pack our last things and then hit the road. We saw our cowboy friend again, but this time he was walking a little brown terrier and talking on the phone. “Yeah, I’m just out here in Santa Rosa, walking Bear!” he hollered. “I just got breakfast for Lori; she’s still in bed!”

A few minutes later, as we were loading the truck, I heard his voice again. “Bear! Come here, Bear!” I guess Bear decided to go for a morning run.

From that point on, we joked about the funny west Texas man throughout the trip. Daniel even called me “bubba” for the whole trip and I called him “pard.” And there were more than a few cases when Daniel faked a Big Tex accent when talking to strangers just to see what their reactions would be.

It just goes to show that the things you do on trips are fun, but oftentimes it’s the people you meet who make travel even more memorable. We would meet a whole cast of interesting characters during our journey.

On the road again, we drove to Albuquerque, still with a high wind blowing straight into us. We decided to stop at a Wal-Mart there so Daniel could buy himself a real water bottle to replace the one he left behind. Also, I had read online (and made the mistake of mentioning to Daniel) that the house used in the TV show Breaking Bad was located in an Albuquerque neighborhood. Daniel, a fan of the show, got very excited and said we had to see it. So we did.

Daniel standing in front of Walter White’s house. No, we didn’t buy any blue meth to take home (or take, period).

We bought the bottle at Wal-Mart after taking a bathroom break, then drove to the Walter White house. Since the show was filmed, the owners have erected a fence around the property, installed security cameras, and placed a sign out front indicating that “visitors” should take their photos from across the street and not disturb them. The house also has a new roof since, apparently, previous “visitors” threw pizzas onto the old one. (It’s a scene from the show, which I haven’t seen.)

One of many BNSF trains we passed along I-40.

After I took several photos of Daniel in front of the house (all from across the street, as the owners requested), I let him drive Vader for the first time on the trip. I navigated him back onto I-40 and we continued west to gas up in Gallup. The terrain is very interesting along this stretch of highway, and makes the BNSF trains look very small in comparison. Otherwise, there’s not much to see or do, so we kept listening to Daniel’s playlist of 70s and 80s hits while rolling on. We crossed the Continental Divide to Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” which, if you haven’t heard it before, you need to listen to immediately after reading this.

Mount Taylor as viewed from I-40.

In Gallup, I gassed up the truck while Daniel went into the station to use the restroom. He couldn’t find the men’s room, so he grumbled his way over to the nearby Panda Express to do his business. I, having finished topping off the tank, walked into the gas station and asked the attendant if there was a men’s room. He handed me a piece of wood with a key attached and said it was on the side of the building, outside. I thanked him and used the secret bathroom that Daniel didn’t bother to ask about. (Though I will say that the bathroom in the Panda Express was probably better.)

With a full tank and empty bladders, I took the wheel and we drove north on U.S. 391, known as the Devil’s Highway because it used to be numbered U.S. 666. The reassuring part was that we’d only be on the Devil’s Highway for a short distance, as our route took us along New Mexico 264 into Arizona. I suggested we listen to “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden during our short stint on this highway some thought to be cursed, but Daniel instead put on some Hall and Oates. Whatever.

We crossed into Arizona in the town of Window Rock and almost immediately the terrain changed again. It’s interesting to me how one can cross state lines and the geography changes so fast. It’s hard to explain how it changes; it just does. I could already tells that the Arizona desert, or badlands, looked different than those of New Mexico.

We also were officially in the Navajo Reservation, a sovereign nation within the United States. The land is owned by the Navajo tribe collectively and not by individuals. And it certainly did feel like we were in a different country.

For one, most of the vehicles on the road were older trucks. We saw many Navajo men shouldering packs and walking alongside the road. As we traveled, we’d encounter numerous hitchhikers. I can only assume that it’s a common occurrence on the Navajo land, and that it’s a courtesy for one man to give a ride to another. Even if we did want to help someone out (we didn’t), we didn’t have room in our packed-out half-ton.

We also noticed the more, shall we say, rustic way in which many of the people lived. Houses looked dilapidated. In fact, lots of things looked dilapidated on the Navajo land. Stray dogs and horses roamed about the desert land that was every man’s but no man’s.

The land itself though was beautiful.

Blue skies and open roads stretching as far as the eye can see. This is what road trips are all about.

We drove through the Navajo National Forest, reaching an elevation of 6,000 feet with snow on the ground on either side of us. We then descended significantly into a broad desert plain, with mesas stretching out all around us. I wished I were on a motorcycle, or driving a convertible. These were the quintessential American roads, and the scenery quintessential American West!

Oh, and we lost cell service the minute we crossed into Arizona and, thus, Navajo territory. More on that later.

Canyon de Chelly as viewed from the canyon rim.

We again headed north on U.S. 191 to the Canyon de Chelly National Monument near Chinle, AZ. The national monument is on Navajo land and therefore most of the hikes and trails require a Navajo guide, and a guide costs money. There is, however, one trail that is unguided, and therefore free: The White House Ruins trail. We gathered some information from the visitor center and then prepared for a hike to break up the driving.

As I waited for Daniel to finish up in the restroom, a whole fleet of Suburbans and Tahoes pulled into the parking lot. At first I thought some dignitary might be visiting—why else would these many vehicles roll in at once?

And then they parked, and then they got out. Italians, dozens of them.

The couples had evidently rented SUVs for an American West trip not too unlike our own. From the magnetic signs they had affixed to the vehicle doors, it appeared that they were either starting or ending in Las Vegas. They looked to be mostly couples, late thirties and up. They stood around and took pictures and chatted quickly amongst themselves.

I tried to strike up conversation with a man nearby. “Where are you from?” I asked, playing ignorant but trying to be pleasant.

He looked at me blankly for a few seconds. “Non capisco,” he said. I don’t understand.

I smiled and waved. “Well, have a good day then!” I said, even though he wouldn’t understand that either. I hoped he understood the intention behind it, at least.

The White House Ruins from above…

Daniel and I started The White House Ruins hike after refilling our water bottles and grabbing some snacks. It would be about two hours total, and consisted of a six-hundred-foot descent into the canyon and then an ascent back up to the canyon rim. The main fixture of the trail is a small cluster of ancient homes, white houses, built in the recess of the canyon wall. Unlike Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, and maybe other similar places, you cannot go up to these ruins and walk through them. They are fenced off, but you can admire them from a distance, as we did.

…and from below. Note the pictographs of what appear to be a man and a bird just to the right of center.

As we approached the ruins, an elderly couple advised us to use my long-range lens to view the pictographs on the canyon wall up close. As we switched out the lenses, a young Navajo (sales)man named Wilbert stopped us to explain his history, the history of his people, and the meanings of the different pictographs. He also explained that the different between a pictograph and a petroglyph is that a pictograph is painted on the rock (in this case, using a mixture of egg white, animal urine, and other ingredients) while a petroglyph is carved into the rock. He showed us this with the facsimile carvings he had made into sandstone, which he had on display in front of us.

“Wow, that’s some really great artwork,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said. “It’s my craft. It’s my art. It’s how I express myself, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, a fellow artist. Knowing where the conversation was going, I took the initiative. “I take it you sell these?”

“Oh, yeah, you know, I sell these,” he said. Fresh meat.

“How much?” I pointed at one with the white houses and the glyphs carved into it.

“I usually sell this one for thirty.”

I looked at Daniel. “You want one?”

“Sure,” he said, reaching for his wallet.

He had two rocks with the white houses carved into them side-by-side. “How about those two for forty?” I said.

“Yeah, I can do that,” he said. He wrapped both pieces in newspaper and handed them to us as we passed him two twenties. “Thanks.”

“Thank you, Wilbert,” I said. “We appreciate you telling us more about the graphs and your people’s heritage.”

He wished us well, threw the remaining rocks into his backpack, and walked off to his home, somewhere in or on the canyon. I felt like Daniel and I each got a good deal—our first souvenirs for the trip—and Wilbert walked away with forty bucks he didn’t have that morning. Forty dollars for selling carved stones probably isn’t a bad way to make a living for someone in his way of life.

An ancient footprint in the rock?

We took pictures of the houses and rocks and then hiked back up the trail, some of the last people around as the sun began to drop lower to the west. We still had quite a bit of distance to cover before we reached our destination for the night: Goulding’s Lodge in Monument Valley.

One of many behemoths that dotted the landscape.

Daniel fired up Vader the truck and we hit the road again. We passed lots of buttes, mesas, and other amazing (and strange) rock formations, wondering how they came to be the way they are. We also passed plenty of Navajo homesteads, some nestled beneath or into the rocks, others with grand views of the giants in their backyards. It is indeed a different country.

Our first Arizona sunset.

One thing about driving in the west is that routes are indirect by virtue. It’s impossible, or at least doggone expensive, to build roads over the incredible landscape that forms this part of America, so the roads wind around these amazing feats of nature for miles. Somewhere along the way to Kayenta, we got on the wrong road and wound up traveling much farther north than we intended to and had to double back southwest.

As the sun set, we decided to stop at the Pizza Wave restaurant in Kayenta, right next to the local Ace Hardware. Famished from the hike, Daniel wanted a large pizza and wings. We split the cost, and ate most of the king-sized pizza and twenty wings (ten mild for me, ten hot for him) alone in the back of the restaurant. (I’d managed to bust a plastic cup trying to put a lid on it, and spilled water everywhere. I figured we’d better just stay out of the way after that incident.)

And we still had no cell service.

As a habit, one of us tried to ping Mom and Dad every few hours just to let them know where we were. We’d been out of range all afternoon, and I kept thinking, “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this place,” or “Maybe we’ll get service when we reach this town.” No such luck.

Green skies at night.

I let Daniel grab to-go boxes for the remaining food and I drove us the last twenty minutes or so to Monument Valley in the dark. It was only 7:30 P.M., but I was still apprehensive about driving on a lonely, two-lane desert highway. I just turned on my high beams and kept my speed reasonable.

We crossed into Utah for the first time and then took a left off U.S. 163 to get to Goulding’s Lodge. As we approached, Daniel leaned forward to look up. “Matthew, is that a cloud?”

I looked ahead of us in the darkness. “That’s no cloud—that’s a rock.”

Looming right ahead and above us in the parking lot was a towering butte, and Goulding’s is nestled right underneath it. Daniel freaked out in excitement. “Oh, man, that’s so scary!” (I don’t think he thought it was scary; I think he just didn’t know what to say when confronted with such a big hunk of rock.)

I parked in the wrong place, but we managed to find the lobby and walked inside to check in. “What’s the last name for the reservation?” the lady at the front asked.

“Baker,” I said.

Matthew Baker?” the other lady at the front asked.

I was a bit surprised. “That’s me.”

“I just got off the phone with your mom!”

Oh boy.

Apparently, Mom had been fairly worried about us since we hadn’t been able to communicate with her all afternoon. She called the lodge to see if I’d checked in, and they had just got off the phone with her.

“I’ll call her once we get to our room,” I assured the ladies at the front. “Thanks for letting me know.”

I didn’t even stop to take in the furnishings of our room; I went straight to the phone, not knowing what to expect. I dialed her number. I listened to the phone ring.

I heard her pick it up.

“Where have you been?”

Oh boy.

Come to find out, she’d called police departments all along our route through the Navajo Reservation and even had the Arizona State Patrol on the lookout. She was reassured by the fact that they checked local hospitals for patients and we weren’t among them. But we were still MIA as far as she was concerned.

Also come to find out, there are only certain cell providers that have coverage in that part of Arizona and Utah. The things you learn.

I did my best to reassure her and to thank her for her concern, and then asked her to call off the cavalry. We’d do our best to communicate with her tomorrow, I said. I figured we’d have service when we made it to Page, AZ—at least I hoped we would.

Next time, I’ll just ask to use a gas station phone.

With that taken care of, we were both pretty tired. The motel room at Goulding’s was plain but well-furnished, and comfortable. We had a balcony looking out towards Monument Valley, and were assured that we would have a beautiful view of the monuments come sunrise.

We were too tired to do much else but shower and hit the hay. I kept thinking about Mom and her concern for us, how blessed we are to have a mother who cares about our safety on the road. I mean that in all seriousness. Maybe next time she wouldn’t have to alert local law enforcement, though.

I did feel a tinge of homesickness as I realized that Daniel and I, two brothers on a spring break trip, were the outliers at a place like Goulding’s. Middle-aged adults and retirees flocked to places like this, and here we were, two college dudes showing up to lower the median age. This was the kind of place Mom and Dad would love to stay, and I felt a sense of something—not guilt, but similar—that we were enjoying something that most people our age would never enjoy, and certainly would never appreciate, until they were thirty years down the road. Even then, I’m not sure if they’d enjoy or appreciate it. Heck, we hadn’t even seen the monuments in the daylight yet!

With those thoughts running through my mind, I slowly drifted off to sleep after a long and eventful day, a little warm, but not too hot in the motel room at Goulding’s Lodge, with a sleeping, ancient giant watching over me.