Journey to understanding in northern Arizona

Story and photographs by Bob Rozycki

My younger daughter’s spring break from college was like no other. Rather than heading to some clichéd bacchanal at a resort town receptive to such revelry, she decided to hang out with her dad on a four-day, 900-mile journey through Arizona.

The names of the towns we went through sound something like the chorus from Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” song:

Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa, Peoria, Oak Creek, Flagstaff, Tuba City, Four Corners, Monument Valley, Camp Verde, Tonalea, Glendale, Sedona, Oak Creek, Kayenta, Teec Nos Pos, Scottsdale.

From the torrid, AC-humming, hardwired, flat, beige cement grid that is the emblem of the greater Phoenix metro region – aka Valley of the Sun – we hopped in the car, cranked up the AC and headed to Flagstaff, 150 miles to the north along Interstate 17.

We planned to make no stops, that is until we spotted a sign in Verde Valley, just south of the Sedona turn-off, that intrigued us – Montezuma Castle National Monument. With no hesitation, we took Exit 289, going past a gambling outpost owned by the Yavapai-Apache Nation.

The misnamed castle – early American settlers thought it to be Aztec in origin and it’s more pueblo than castle – is etched in a sandstone niche in a cliff about 100 feet from the valley floor.

Its ability to withstand the elements and tourists – who were allowed to climb up and walk through it until 1951 – is something daughter Carolyn and I found amazing. The Southern Sinagua Indians who built this five-story, 20-room dwelling sometime between the years 1100 and 1300 were true architects well ahead of their time.

Unfortunately, preservation seems unattainable as the former home to untold families slowly crumbles and melts back into the landscape. It seems only our memories and photographic images will endure.

Heading up to Flagstaff, you really go up; as in ascending 6,000 feet from the cactus-strewn desert floor to the cooling Ponderosa pine forests.

Flagstaff is home to Northern Arizona University and a stretch of Route 66 that is proudly cherished and sold on signs, books, postcards, photographs and tchotchkes. The compact town sits at the bottom of the San Francisco Peaks that bump into the clouds at 12,000 feet. We spent the night at the beautiful, well-appointed Little America Hotel, a family-run company that owns seven other resorts in the West. We couldn’t get over the size of the room or the bathroom, itself larger than most New York City studios.

After a good night’s sleep, we again aim the car northward. We were heading for Four Corners, the only place in the nation where four states – Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado – come together. We were also looking for Monument Valley, which the driver mistakenly thought was in the same place.

Just south of Tuba City, named after a Hopi leader, Tuvi, who later became a Mormon, we disregard a weather-beaten sign’s call to – Turn Now Dinosaur Tracks.

Although dubious of the claims, we later find out that paleontologists have indeed deemed the footprints to be legitimate.

North of Tuba City we encounter some of the most unusual landscape on Earth. The mesas, the canyons, the dark black mounds; we later learn that all of this once lay under water.

It is in the middle of this land, which is deep in the heart of the 27,000 square miles that make up the Navajo Nation, that – and I hate to write this – an epiphany occurs. As our phones stop working, we realize we are disconnected in one sense from the rest of the world. But as we take in the rich blue skies, horses running free on the range, and tumbleweeds, yes real tumbleweeds, rolling into the side of the car, we are connected, perhaps not as spiritually as the Navajo, Hopi and other tribes, but at the very least appreciative of this beautiful land, unsoiled by cell towers, strip malls and other signs of modern civilization.

It is at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park that the connection to the land re-emerges. It is vast. It is land and sky. It is the red sandstone towers.

Maybe sitting on a cliff above the valley I am intoxicated by the view.

I hear no car, no person, no wind.

There is no sound.

Beauty, balance, harmony.

Do we have to leave?

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