Wednesday, February 22, 2006. I’m heading for Window Rock in northeast Arizona, almost New Mexico. Bright sunny day. Leaving Phoenix is always a joy. I like to see the city and its blight drop over the horizon in my rearview mirror. Phoenix recedes in stages. Off the freeway on to the Beeline Hiqhway north across the Salt River Reservation. The immediate landscape is sparse and open, reservation houses on my left, sand and gravel operations and, farther north, the big landfill. Lots of red tile roofs in the distance to the east. North of Shea Boulevard and the Fort McDowell casino, I cross the Verde River, leaving most city signs city behind me. Not all, scattered houses are still visible. But soon even those intrusions are gone. Now the Superstition Mountains stretch east and south. North and east is Four Peaks, the southern rampart of the Mazatzal Mountains.
North of Four Peaks road, I cross into the Mazatal Mountains. Phoenix is well out of sight and mind. As if to celebrate, cresting the ridge offers a panoramic view of Round Valley, the wide, rugged basin cut by Sycamore Creek. The landscape is open and expansive. The many rocks, crags, peaks and canyons give the valley a feel of greater depth and scope. Yet this is only a small space in the scheme of things. How truly massive is this planet of ours. I climb over ridges, in and out of basins, gradually working up the Sycamore drainage, snaking my way through. Crossing Sycamore Creek for the last time, the road follows Kitty Jo Creek as it climbs the southwest face of Mount Ord on the Mazatzal Divide. Now these mountains are to my left as I head into Rye Creek drainage.
The Mazatals are my mountains. I’ve walked this range many times beginning in 1983. Mostly four and five day trips and mostly without seeing others. Although the wilderness area is within a couple hours of a major metro area, few venture here. The Mazatzals are rugged and difficult walking. Solitude and grandeur. Worth the effort but it’s a big effort.
The long climb from Rye to Payson goes quickly. I head east on Route 260 on a combination of new and old roadway. The road runs under the Mogollon Rim, a long escarpment that is the southern end of the Colorado Plateau. New construction has all but obliterated the old two lane route. Driving is much easier on the big, new road. Climbing again, this time to the top of the Rim, with views of the Mazatzals to the south and west. On the Rim, I stop and nap for a while.
Through Forest Lakes and Heber before heading north toward Holbrook. Still climbing. Landscape is sandy, rocky and brushy. No big vegetation, juniper and pinon pine, open range. Nearing Holbrook, I see the buttes and mesas north of the Little Colorado River–Navajo country. To the west I catch a glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks, a small blue-gray jagged bump on an otherwise flat horizon. Turning east on I-40 now. Traffic’s not too bad. Moving fast. Across the Painted Desert, north of the Little Colorado and then the Rio Puerco. The land is wide open, mostly empty except for the railroad tracks that parallel the highway and scattered Navajo Homes. East of Holbrook is the Dinosaur Park with its life-size beasts posed along highway. Big as they are, the dinosaurs look small against this land. Near Petrified Forest National Park the land turns strange, undulating bands of red, gray and their infinite permutations wrap around hoodoos and other surreal formations.
Farther east, I am heading toward the sandstone ramparts that mark the Arizona-New Mexico border. The sheer cliffs shine brightly, tinged with a red. At Lupton, two miles shy of the state line, I turn north on Indian 12, heading into the Rez. The road is narrow, two lane but good. The land is bent, uplifted and eroded, mostly forested. A few dwellings and buildings are along the way but they are pretty spread out, often family compounds. I see houses of all shapes and states of repair. Mobile homes, stock pens and derelict vehicles. A small human presence on a vast land. Oak Springs is a community of buildings and home sites clustered around the Chapter House. Now I climb the final ridge. I can see Window Rock in the distance, across a rocky, tilted landscape.
In Window Rock, I am back in a city but it is small in scale. The town sprawls across Black Creek Valley, homes, businesses, livestock, government all together in this remote space. The land is open under an infinite sky. The sandstone cliffs on the east glow fiercely in the late afternoon sun.
Checked into my motel, I eat and then walk, following a bike route from when I lived here. It climbs to the ridge overlooking the Window Rock, a solitary natural arch formation in the sandstone. As I climb I pass what I call BIA Hill, an area of finely built stone homes that must have housed officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs who oversaw the Navajo Nation in the pre-sovereignty days. The stone is red sandstone cut into broadly faceted blocks, the style is distinct and common among the older buildings in town. One is noticeably larger than the others–the superintendent’s, no doubt–and has arguably the most spectacular view in the area. The view looks down the valley and encompasses the cliffs, now exploding with light at sunset.
About half of the houses, including the big one which looks renovated, are boarded and vacant. Others are occupied, many with large gray-blue shipping containers nearby. Several houses have been well restored. Dogs bark at my passing. The few who come forward to challenge me retreat at my sudden increase in size as I raise my arms and hands. At the top of the hill, I see the Window Rock. My position is almost as high as the arch and overlooks the Navajo Nation government buildings surrounding the Council chambers.
Twilight as I descend. The sun is behind the Defiance Plateau in the west. Horses graze alongside an abandoned road. Two, both white, turn toward me as I pass. One looks like it is coming to check me out but it cuts behind me with its companion. The air cools quickly. This day is done.