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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Bisti Wilderness and Shiprock


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Our first stop on the long drive to the Bisti Badlands was the Monday farmers market in Española. We only knew about it because of a sign we'd seen while driving the Low Road, and it turned out to be a pretty small operation. We bought some snacks and looked around for a few minutes but there wasn't much to see. The driving was pretty routine until we turned off the main highway to state road 96 after Abiquiu. Almost immediately we drove by a huge lake that was so pretty we had to turn around and visit the overlook. This was Abiquiu Lake, a reservoir formed by the damming of the Rio Chama. The still, chalky lake was surrounded by juniper-covered hills with stately mesas in the background. For the next hour or so the one lane road snaked gently through the mesas of the Santa Fe National Forest, passing by towns on the map like Coyote and Gallina that were barely more than clusters of buildings.
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As we drew closer to the New Mexico badlands the ground flattened completely and the vegetation largely disappeared. The last hour and a half of driving was as dry and boring as anything we'd experienced on the trip. It was tempting to cut across the badlands on one of the ramshackle county roads but I knew we had enough time to make our rendezvous if we took the longer, more conservative route so that's what we did. We arrived at the meeting point which was just a sign at the intersection of two roads and waited about fifteen minutes until our guide arrived. I'm pretty sure Navajo Tours USA is the only outfit that conducts tours of the Bisti Badlands. Our guide Kialo founded the company and he leads almost all of the hikes himself. I was glad to be a part of supporting a local small business with a mission of introducing travelers to this largely unknown natural wonder.
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One of the things that drew me to Bisti was that I had never heard of the area before beginning my research for the trip, yet as soon as I saw the pictures I realized that it would be an unforgettable experience. I don't think I'm alone in my ignorance. I haven't spoken to a single person outside the immediate area who has ever heard of it either. Bisti Badlands is the western section of the larger Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness. Both Bisti and De Na Zin are derived from the Dine language of the Navajo, with the former meaning "shale hills" and the latter meaning "cranes". The area is protected and administered by the Bureau of Land Management but does not enjoy any special federal status.

The hike was scheduled to be five hours, but I prevailed on Kialo to shorten it a little for the sake of the kids. I've never known them to walk more than three hours at a time, and that was in cities with frequent breaks. I soon realized that part of the reason for the long duration of the trek is that we had to walk almost an hour from the parking lot across a relatively featureless expanse of dense, cracked ash. Kialo kept the kids entertained by teaching them about the geology of the badlands. The land where we now walked was once at the edge of a huge inland sea that left behind coal, fossils, and petrified wood. The kids had some fun playing with the red "clinkers", clay chips that had been hardened by a cataclysmic fire thousands of years previously.
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Eventually we reached some taller hills of hardened ash and clay in shades of beige, black, and ochre. As we crossed through them we began to see clusters of hoodoo rocks, mushroom-shaped structures formed through millennia of gradual erosion by water and wind. Some of them looked fragile enough to be toppled over with a gentle push and probably were, although they may stand for centuries longer if undisturbed by human touch. Eventually all the ones we saw will crumble to be replaced by others which hopefully will be marveled at by future generations for centuries to come.
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The heart of the Bisti Badlands was a breathtaking, barren tableau of grey-striped ash hills, flat clearings criss-crossed by the dry beds of ancient streams, and innumerable clusters of hoodoo rocks. I could easily have believed that we had been deposited on the surface of some unknown planet as this was the most alien landscape I had ever experienced. I was grateful to have an experienced guide as the area seemed designed to disorient neophyte hikers.
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I could have spent hours exploring the badlands and marveling at every new vista and formation but it was clear the kids were getting exhausted. We still had an hour walk back to the parking lot which proved very brutal for them. We were lucky that it wasn't hot but the distance was really overwhelming after we had already been walking for three hours. Even after we passed the last hill and could see the parking lot in the distance it was still forty more minutes of walking. Eventually both Spenser and Cleo flagged out and needed to ride piggy back part of the rest of the way which was no small burden. It hadn't come easy, but seeing this incredible and unique place had been completely worth the effort.

By the time we reached Farmington it was dark and a steady cold rain was falling. We ducked into a Thai restaurant downtown for a quick meal before locating our Airbnb on a quiet little cul de sac in a nondescript part of town. It was one of those evenings where our only goal was to get our belongings indoors and get to bed as efficiently as possible.
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Farmington was a convenient place to crash for the night after an exhausting day of traveling and hiking, but it felt very generic from a cultural perspective. Main Street was a bland selection of fast food joints and Americanized ethnic restaurants along with the usual assortment of brew pubs, thrift stores, and tattoo shops. Armed with my research we did spend time at a couple of interesting businesses at the center of town. Artifacts Gallery is a collection of artist's studios with a small cafe that also sells chile-based foods and cookbooks, all housed within an atmospheric old lumber warehouse. Not many artists were there on a Tuesday morning but it was fun to browse through the displays. A few blocks away, Fifth Generation Trading had the best selection of Native American artwork and crafts that we had seen since Albuquerque, but the prices were significantly higher for very similar items. I was hoping to find a turquoise necklace for Cleo and concluded I could probably do better on the Navajo Reservation, where we would be spending the next two nights.
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There didn't seem to be much worth seeing on the drive from Farmington to Chinle on the Navajo Reservation with one possible exception. Shiprock was another Southwestern landmark I had never heard of, the solidified core of a volcano whose softer exterior eroded away millions of years ago. The rock is remarkable for its dramatic height of 1600 feet in an area that is mostly flat and nondescript. We probably wouldn't have gone far out of our way for it, but it seemed to be smack in the middle of our route. The drive west down Interstate 64 was quite boring until I noticed an oddly shaped blob on the horizon between the distant mesas. We were still twenty miles from our destination so I didn't think it could be Shiprock but as we drew closer the jagged outline became clearly defined and it was apparent that this isolated monadnock would be a more impressive sight than we had expected.
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Since I hadn't researched Shiprock very much I had failed to realize that I had set a course for the town of Shiprock rather than the rock formation. Once we reached the town it was clear we were still some distance from our goal, and some quick browsing indicated that we needed to make a southward turn down Route 491. Google Maps started to get a little squirrelly after this, frequently switching routes as we were driving. The turn off from 491 quickly became a dirt road, but we were heartened by the fact that we seemed to be moving closer and closer to the rock, although not in a straight line. At this point we were south of the rock and close to an amazing formation which had previously been hidden to us. This was a dyke of lamphrphyre, the same variety of igneous rock that formed the monadnock. Lava escaping from Shiprock's volcanic ancestor had filled a trench in the earth and solidified, and then had emerged as a jagged ridge as erosion tore away the softer layers around it.
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We noticed that the closer we got, the rougher the road became until we were eventually slowed to a crawl by ridges and deep trenches that appeared in front of us. Mei Ling and I probably would have continued if we had been on our own, but the thought of breaking an axle in this very deserted spot with the three kids in the back was too unpalatable. We reversed course and sought another route on the Google Maps GPS. For the next hour or so we coursed around the dirt roads nudging the GPS which didn't seem very eager to cooperate. One displayed route would dead end and we would touch activate another that the GPS had ignored. We would change direction, get a little further, and then dead end again. If we wanted to get closer to Shiprock, we would have had to go off road entirely. It seems strange now that we were trying so hard to reach the base of this rock formation that we could already see perfectly well, but both Mei Ling and I were feeling a strong pull to the site. I won't go so far as to claim it was something spiritual since we're not mystical types, but it was interesting because we hadn't felt anything similar in Sedona which is supposed to be filled with energy vortexes. Of course Sedona was beautiful and captivating, but we don't believe that places have any intrinsic energy except for the obvious kinds created by geothermal forces. I do think that we all have deep longings and emotions inside us and sometimes these can be triggered by objects and landscapes, and that effect was certainly apparent to us at Shiprock. Nevertheless, we eventually had to concede that there was no safe way to get close to the rock in our vehicle and we contented ourselves with recording the memory digitally as best we could.
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Perhaps another reason that we gave up on our quest to reach Shiprock is that when I was researching for a route online I learned for the first time that many Native Americans consider the rock sacred and disapprove of tourists off-roading all the way to the base. I did read some accounts of travelers being chased and harassed by locals but I didn't give them much credit at the time and I believe them even less now after spending time on the Navajo reservation. The modern Navajo tend to react to offenses committed intentionally and unintentionally by visitors with stoic resignation, rather than open hostility. Nevertheless, I'm glad in retrospect that we knew when to call it a day at Shiprock. It was still a highly fulfilling and rewarding experience, even if we were never able to touch the rock.

Feeling subdued by our encounter with the majestic monolith, we continued onward to Navajo Nation. The route across the border into Arizona through the Chuska Mountains turned to be quite fascinating. From the road we could see small communities and occasional monoliths with the colorful mountains in the backdrop. Occasionally we would leave the road for a closer look at a particularly interesting rock but all roads eventually ended in someone's backyard well short of our destination.
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The section of the highway that passed through the mountains was called Buffalo Pass. This was the most spectacular stretch of road that we had been on so far, with rapid changes in elevation and serpentine curves through stately evergreens and rounded cliffs of putty-like sandstone. Mei Ling had fallen asleep by this point which was ironic because she loves to take pictures of scenery and she was missing the best that the day's drive had to offer. There was nowhere to pull over but I had to slow the car down to a crawl at a couple of points because the road was too beautiful not to photograph.
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Close to the end of Buffalo Pass we stopped briefly at the Totsoh Trading Post. Many of the trading posts in Navajo Nation date back to the nineteenth century while others are modern convenience stores that have adopted the trading post aesthetic. I'm not sure which category Totsoh fell into, but they had an interesting selection of Native American crafts and goods along with the snacks and sundries for daily living. Upon our inquiry they took us upstairs to show us their collection of hand-woven blankets, each of which cost thousands of dollars.
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We were now in the heart of Navajo country. We knew that over the next two days we would be visiting some of the tribe's most sacred and historic sites and learning even more about Native American culture than we had in Zuni. With a growing sense of excitement we drove the last half hour into Chinle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 19:32 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arizona new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog

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