To the tune of Carly Rae Jepsen, we rattled up the last stretch of the fifty plus miles of poorly maintained dirt roads that had abused my 17-year-old Volkswagen’s ailing struts on and off that day since the turn-off to El Chaco in New Mexico. As incredible Arizona red rock monoliths loomed and disappeared in our dust trail I cringed in the back seat, seething inwardly until the last karaoke stanza of “Call Me Maybe” trailed off and relative silence returned. Unwilling to let go of my indignation just yet, I suppressed a smile. This wasn’t what I imagined Arizona would sound like. Suddenly Gwen Stefani steps into the spotlight, then any trace of a smile vanished as Akon’s in-house backups began yodeling, “WEEHOO . . . WEEYOO!”
My contemplative idiom entirely shattered, an eyelid twitched as I shrank into myself and prayed for strength. Eventually, we arrived.
After driving on the Trail of the Ancients through western New Mexico from El Malpais, visiting El Chaco National Historic Park on the way to the Four Corners Monument, we were staying the night on the Arizona Navajo reservation in a hooghan whose hospitable owner has put up for rental on AirBnB. After passing a white gelding and a few mares grazing on the unfenced hill bordering the dusty road, we pulled into the ranch. We met our friendly host (and his friendlier dogs), who suggested we take a hike around his land after settling in. With the red-rock Chuska mountains looming on the horizon, and a few solitary mesas standing guard at their middling outposts, Johnny and I set out to see what we could see.
The nearest scrubby ridge concealed a rocky red gulch that appeared to be a dry stream bed, which became our path. The soil in this part of Arizona feels much more like loose, dry dirt than the sandy floors of New Mexico. All the rocks have fluid shapes, as though softly formed by wind and water over a longer period of time than I can comprehend. We crossed ridges, rock shelves, and tiny canyons, following the streambed. Lola and Miller, our host’s dogs, stayed with us, ranging about, chasing lizards and digging at prairie dog holes. We passed a horse skeleton, scattered by water or scavengers over hundreds of feed down the streambed – huge, dry bones bleaching in the sun. The dogs sniff them but seem to prefer consuming bones with some bit of stinking black flesh still attached instead.
Disappointed at not finding the cliff he’d been searching for over the latest hill, Johnny turned back to the ranch. His ambling form quickly disappeared, swallowed up by the vast expanse of land our Navajo host was kind enough to share with us. We’d traveled too quickly. Our minds hadn’t caught up with our bodies speeding down the interstate, and we were still relying on our outdated North-Eastern sense of scale and geography. We’re not used to spaces like this. A cliff or canyon can look like it’s just over the next ridge when really it’s miles away, only appearing so close because we could see so much farther in the dry atmosphere, and the cliff is massive. Even the lighting on the geography played tricks on me; I couldn’t seem to spot the depressions between ridgetops until we were upon them, or Johnny reappeared, a tiny white dot emerging straight out of the earth.
I continued on alone with the dogs as the sun crept lower on the horizon. Spying a rock shelter in the distance that reminded me of the amphitheaters in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, I weighed the risk of being trapped in a strange new land riddled with prairie dog holes after nightfall against the reward of reaching the rock formation. I looked at the dogs and the dogs looked at me, and we took off for the eastern horizon.
We crossed ridge after ridge. Scaling rockbalds and tiny canyons, vaulting over prairie dog warrens and praying I wouldn’t suffer a broken ankle for my zeal. Eventually, all of us panting, and the sky behind us turning a deepening shade of dusky purple, I realized I’d made another error in scale. The rock shelter was too far away.
I called the dogs and we turned back to the west. Eyes stinging from the wind, ears deafened by the same, alone in the middle of one of mother nature’s harshly beautiful and equally dangerous playgrounds, I suddenly realized where mankind’s love for dogs began. Indefatigable, obedient, and eager, Lola and Miller were my traveling companions in our little slice of wilderness, my eyes, ears, and nose. Where they looked, I looked. When they froze, I froze. A pang of fear struck me when Miller shot off like a bullet after a jackrabbit, crossing two hills and a narrow ravine in seconds, Lola in hot pursuit, the both of them leaving me far behind. But their owner trained them remarkably well; they returned when I shouted after them, albeit reluctantly. Still far from home but reunited and reassured of our companionship, we turned again to chase the sunset.