A Trip From Arizona to Colorado
After one highway sign too many, we succumb and take the turnoff towards “Meteor Crater.” This huge dent in the state was created 50,000 years ago when the ‘Canyon Diablo’ asteroid slammed into eastern Arizona, depositing tons of iron ore. And the iron from outer space means that this is not a National Park, but privately owned by the Barringer mining company. Billed as “The World’s Best Meteor Impact Crater!,” it’s so otherworldly it was used by NASA for Moon surface training. Today its a rocky outcrop where the idea of Apocalypse is an attraction; inside the information centre you can stand on an ‘X marks the spot’ and press a button to hear the sound of an annihilation impact coming straight for you, a kind of doom tourism.
Outside standing on the lip of the crater, the vast, flat landscape shows dark weather rolling in on all sides. Black rain clouds hang heavy, the entire sky a bowl of rumbling thunder with lightning cracking like whips around the edges of the storm. Walter de Maria’s legendary Land Art work ‘The Lightning Field’ can be found just southeast of here in Zuni country, near Quemado, which aptly means ‘burned’ in Spanish. We don’t make it there, but we don’t need to. Its all around.
Heading further east, the names on the map take on a mythic quality: “The Little Painted Desert” “The Island in the Sky” “The Canyons of the Ancients”. We choose “The Petrified Forest.” The road into it is sewn through the small town of Holbrook and overlooked by fancifully-painted full-size effigies of the saurians that lived here 200 million years ago. Its hard to imagine the complex sequence of geological forces that could transmogrify the matter of massive trees into a thick bars of crystal: glittering quartz to red agate to smoky purple amethyst. Adding to the fantastical effect are the smooth contours of the Badlands buttes striped blue-violet-grey-green and mustard powder yellow. Charcoal petroglyphs are scratched into “Newspaper Rock,” as yet undeciphered bulletins from the peoples of the deep past. This is deep pre-historical America and to it, roads and stop-signs, souvenir rock-shops, ranger stations and fake dinosaurs are a temporary fad.
After miles more of dramatic desolation, with the whistling wind the loudest noise, the town of Gallup, New Mexico is a comparative bastion of modern American civilization. Here again are commerical amenities: chain stores, hotels, motels and fast-food. From the assembled gang of gas stations, I choose the one ringed with gargantuan red and yellow arrows, as if struck into the dirt from a giant warrior’s celestial bow, or a Cupid turned Marvel-comic super-hero. It’s across from another station named ‘Love’s’. Most of the trading posts behind us were wrecks, but while Jack Rabbit’s is open, it’s wares, like cans of faux jackrabbit ‘milk’ come with a coating of the highway’s dark dust.
Saying goodbye to Route 66, we transfer to (former) Highway 666, now 491 – the name was changed because the sign kept being stolen. As we pass the small road to Fort Defiance and hurtle north through Navajo territory, the length of highway beside us is being torn up by machines to be laid down again wider. The earth tone changes to yellow, and Mad Max style mega-monoliths begin to loom; skyscraper-high electricity towers seem like Meccano toys next to these leviathans, the wooden telegraph posts like toothpicks. Fencing these vast tracts with thin wires looks absurd with these proportions, as futile as throwing a fence into the ocean and expecting the waters to go around it.
The road is so long and flat, my eye rides all the way to the horizon. It seems like you can see into the next state. And I can: Colorado and the ‘Four Corners’ – the perfect square where four states meet, as divided in some far-off East Coast drawing room by men who had never seen and could never imagine that ‘land’ was landscape, here. Stopping just before Shiprock, we meet a man who lived 12 miles away, and had no post-box; he had to wait for his mail all day in the gas station at Newcomb, pop. 387. He was waiting for a cheque.
Photo and text Hannah Bhuiya