We both ordered “The Heep” (sic), a breakfast hash-garbage plate hybrid, made relevant due to its inclusion of geographically emblematic green chiles. It was our last day in New Mexico, and we were intent on indulging in the regional delicacy once more. Growing up in New Jersey, diners are a way of life, and TJ’s was so quintessential it looked like it was plucked from a familiar memory. The spot had been used as a location for a number of films, as a predictable collection of signed headshots gracing one wall attested. The previous night we had walked past, and I had gotten nostalgic for diner toast, soppy with marigold butter. TJ’s didn’t disappoint.
After an Americana-laden breakfast at a local diner in Farmington, we drove to Aztec National Monument. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the site itself is Pueblo and has nothing to do with the Aztecs except for being visited by the more than occasionally confused Spanish conquerors of the region. The ruins, remains of a large settlement, were every bit as staggering and awe-inspiring as the cliff dwellings at Bandelier. The notion that these people were primitive or inferior to the supposed advancement of the Old World is beyond ridiculous, and a very convenient way to disparage a harmonious belief structure.
The Aztec Ruins in Northwest New Mexico are half right, in that they are ruins, but the Puebloan people who lived there between the 11th and 13th centuries were actually ancestors of the modern-day Hopi. The Aztecs never got above central Mexico, but Spaniard colonizers assumed the people living there were the same people they had encountered much further South, and so a tradition of finding all brown people indistinguishable from one another was born in the New World. In the 1800s, after the term “Aztec” was incorrectly used to describe the site in a number of articles, the name gained traction, and in 1923 the site was declared “Aztec Ruin National Monument.”
The ruins are well-preserved, and much of what is known about these people has been gleaned from this particular archaeological site. The West ruins consist of a Great House with a number of small kivas, a plaza, and a central, Great Kiva. Archaeologists have preferred to preserve the delicate ruins of the East complex by leaving it covered by 700 years of accumulated dirt. Despite building materials being brought from over 50 miles away to complete its intricate construction, the pueblo was inhabited for just 200 years.
There is still no sign as to what spurred the inhabitants to leave, though the Puebloan descendants feel the question is beside the point. The Pueblo creation myth tells of the dark world they inhabited before this one, a world below ours. They heard footsteps above and sent a bird scout, who told of a world of light above their sky. They climbed a fir tree, through the heavens, then up through the navel of this world (a sacred spot said to be in an unknown location nearby). As thanks for the gift of life in this world, they are destined to wander across it as its stewards.
The Hopi believe that their civilized ancestors’ proclivity for moving would not be impeded merely because they built a particularly grand structure. I found myself impressed by these people, embodied with a respect for conservation, a sense of wanderlust, and growth mindsets, long before any TED talk could come up with a hashtag-worthy buzzword to define such ideas.
The Great Kiva has been rebuilt in approximation to what it would have looked like. Round with an entrance in the roof, to simulate their emergence from the Earth’s navel. Kivas were the first place built when the Pueblo people created their villages, a place for ceremonies and gathering. The Great House was expertly crafted, three stories high in places, with complex corner windows and doorways with lips that would keep out pests when reed curtains were hung over them. Long-abandoned metates and grinding stones still littered the rooms. It’s easy to see why the Hopi believe the spirits of the people who lived here remain.
We headed North to Pinkerton Springs, catching our first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains. The Spring sits right alongside the highway, and we veered onto the shoulder to explore its globular bulk. The bulbous mass was all slick rock and ochre mud. Warm water gurgles up with a slight effervescence, like day-old Pellegrino. Mr. Pinkerton had bottled the chalky waters, selling it at a premium to the town’s elegant elite.
We learned a bit about the creation myths of the Pueblo and spent our time there drawing parallels between the architecture and the culture, putting more pieces of the human jigsaw into place. There was a definite power that emanated from the structures, from the place itself. It was serene and austere. With the noted exception of the willfully long-haired bald gentleman sitting on one of the ancient walls, droning on over speakerphone about his flatscreen television.
Leaving felt like a weight had been lifted, a duty fulfilled, a happy set of eyes watching over our travels. We took a quick drive to see the Pinkerton Hot Spring, which you will miss if you’re not paying attention. It’s a massive mineral-crusted spring, burbling away at the side of the highway. The water is hot, mineral-heavy, and lightly carbonated. Like everything in the Southwest, beautifully unassuming, straightforward and powerful. Satisfied with the brief detour, we set back off.
The shrubbery along the road to Cortez was swathed in saffron, mustard and paprika, contrasting gorgeously against Two Buttes. We stopped for souvenirs at Hogan Trading Co., a Native American craft emporium. The legitimacy of its wares is somewhat overshadowed by a comical display of giant teepees beckoning drivers off the road. A plaster horse of approximate scale was fitted with a sign around its neck asking patrons not to ride it. It’s the type of sign that gets hung when an owner becomes tired of requesting that people refrain from doing a thing which should obviously not be done, and I was embarrassed by the tourists who had sparked its need.
The walls within were lined with jewelry, rugs, knives, and all manner of artisanal novelty, and the hand-made arrows and horse-hair pottery were particularly exceptional. Had we had a home, we certainly would have bought some. As anything purchased was to remain carried around with us indefinitely, we settled for a few small trinkets.
The day got away from us, and we stopped at the tragically named Lotza Pasta to load on carbs before calling it an early night. We walked through the dining room onto a back porch that opened onto a spectacular view of the moon cresting over the sunlit Rocky Mountains. The meal and local beer were surprisingly satisfying, a warm comfort in the early evening chill.
We had managed to do our planning the night before in fairly slip-shod fashion, and the only other goal we hit for the day was a store along a lonely highway selling native handicrafts at steep discounts. I bought a green carved stone Zuni fetish- a bear, for power, healing, and the journey. Y picked up a buffalo tooth for a future necklace and a pair of wooden hoop earrings.
Walking out of the store as they flipped the sign to CLOSED, we realized our plans were in need of management. We doubled back and stopped at a pizza and pasta restaurant we had poked fun at on the way by. The restaurant was a pleasant surprise, and we gorged ourselves on carbs, the storybook view from the patio and a few beers. Over dinner we reserved a room at a motel and firmed up our plans for the next day. The rest of the evening was spent sipping red wine and taking advantage of the time to relax.
We started the day with a trip to the local dispensary, where we met the overwhelming array of items for sale with an awkward, freshman-like wonder. This was alleviated somewhat when the young woman guiding us through our purchase admitted to basically having smoked for breakfast. We both snapped to attention at seeing pineapple among the vials of flavored oils she presented us with. In addition to being a delectable fruit, the pineapple is a symbol of hospitality, and so it was decided.
Our first stop for the next day was to a dispensary, having fallen in love with a friend’s oil pen on an earlier trip. The prices were fair, the exchange was quick, and most importantly, the pineapple flavor was in stock. I would later have issue remembering how I started my day when it came time to write my journal entry. As Y would explain, “The reason you can’t remember what the day started with is what we started our day with!” The test run of our new toy was successful, to say the least.
Once the scope of our trip had been decided in the planning phases months earlier, I was fairly adamant about going to see Four Corners. The whole experience was made stranger by the realization that the Navajo were merely profiting off of the same dumb white people who moved them, created the dollar and drew the borders, making the Four Corners an actual place. Because it’s really not.
We scanned the artisans’ stalls, making note of things both garish and geared to the waddling masses and items we would want in our home, once we manage to find one. After appreciating the immensity of the sky and rock dominating the scene, we set off again.
Four Corners National Monument sits on reservation land, and I couldn’t help but think the state lines would have been redrawn had the government known how ready white people were to pay $5 to see a plaque on the ground. We entertained ourselves watching older gentleman straddle the fabricated borders on all fours before taking a lap to peruse the craft stalls. Again, we were impressed by the talent, the intricately adorned pottery, and the artisan carving arrowheads from sheets of obsidian.
We drove through the Navajo Nation towards Monument Valley. Oil drills dotted the pink hills, tirelessly bobbing, and I realized the government was probably pissed about a whole lot more than losing out on some $5 entrance fees. We stopped at Twin Rocks and Mexican Hat, and I was moved by how striking and singular the formations were, standing visibly against the landscape from miles away. The road dipped downward and Monument Valley lay before us. We pulled off onto the scenic lookouts which lined both sides, awed by the enormous scope of the formations and the dopey tourists standing in the highway taking photos between the traffic.
Mexican Hat was next on our list and with it a slice of Monument Valley. The landscape in this part of the country is prone to sudden shifts, as if part of a living slideshow. The massive red towers of rock lack context, and had there been a gullible child around, I would have woven a rich tapestry telling the tale of Ozymandius, perhaps in an effort to give myself comfort in an expanse generally devoid of human imprint. We eventually came out of the desert and tucked in for the night at a state forest campground. We stopped in town down the road for some no-frills burgers, returning to our site just as the last light of dusk showed us the way.
Church Rock is set up against the highway and we pulled over to take a few shots. Piss jugs, a punchline I had previously assumed was a sitcom myth, were strewn about the shoulder. Far from resembling a church, the formation is actually a deadringer for a prominent part of the female anatomy. I imagine the Mormon virgin who named it had an uncomfortable bout of deja vu on his wedding night.
In the morning, we headed to an overlook to get a glimpse of the Needles, stopping at Church Rock on the way, which could just as easily be renamed for a certain part of the female anatomy. All worship is not created equal. The drive itself was an experience, and I find myself constantly surprised by Utah’s shifting landscape. It’s completely different every few dozen miles. From Mars to yellow scrublands to clutches of juniper to riparian mini-forests and back again. The view at the Needles overlook was staggering, and the height got to me a little. We shared the overlook with the type of people who would lose the plot in a Michael Bay movie, exchanging “Well, now, who’s that?” with “Why do they call it Needles?” Clearly, the view was lost on some.
The Needles overlook was beautiful in its own right. The small park’s natural sandstone steps ascend the deeper you venture, affording a panoramic view of Canyonlands National Park. 200 million years of deposited rock and sediment have been forged into the mesas of the Islands In The Sky district, the free-standing red spires of the Needles, the various hills and buttes, all in the relatively short period of 5 million years. The Colorado River Basin now spans a wide valley, dwarfing the silty waters which still cut a canyon at its center. The winds whipping across the basin were like thunder, sounding their arrival long before their gust was felt. The intensity was staggering, seemingly threatening to lift us over the edge and producing a whistling from the gaps between boulders.
The rocks of the cliff side whistled and jeered, both mocking and celebrating our presence. The towering spires, remnants of ancient red sand dunes, looked as if an alien forest had left its eulogy in the land itself. The crushing scope was like nothing I’d ever seen; the red spikes climbing up from the valley floor towards us, the vicious gash carved by the Colorado River, the stretch of scrubby grasses and shrubs flowing out past the Six Shooter Mesa in the distance, the slow roll of the sparse clouds on an azure backdrop, all of it incredible.
Interested in taking your own trip to Aztec Ruins National Monument? Check out our guide here.