Photo Credit: Google Images
The 2016 Great American Escape
I am starting to give some attention to the western leg of our upcoming transcontinental odyssey. This would be “the back nine,” the homeward part of our journey as we meander from New England to California. By then, I figure, we’ll be tired. So it is indeed unfortunate that traversing the vast western expenses will provide us with some of our longest driving days.
Although we originally made hotel reservations for the entire trip, we subsequently thought better of that plan and decided to leave the western leg more or less “open,” so that we can stop whenever we decide that we’ve had enough for one day.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t have a few things we’d like to see on the way west. Chief on our list is South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore and, for the “grand” finale prior to our final sprint for home, the Grand Canyon.
A cursory glance at the map readily informed me that the route between those two high points is no piece of cake. Taking Highway 59 south to Interstates 90 and 25 should get us into Denver in about eight hours or so. We will stay overnight and visit friends there prior to embarking on an 11-hour drive to Flagstaff AZ, our jumping-off point for the Grand Canyon.
Even with two of us driving, eleven hours is a long, long time to be on the road. This involves taking Interstate 70 west into Utah, then U.S. 191 south past Moab and eventually on to U.S. 160 and U.S. 89 in Arizona. While the U.S. routes are generally good roads, it’s not like through route driving on the interstate. You have to slow down to go through a lot of towns, which is great for scenic charm and not-so-great for making time.
But then I noticed something else. Taking this route (instead of, say, just taking I-25 out of Denver and picking up I-40 in Albuquerque) puts us very close to Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States at which the borders of four states meet. From what I’m reading, this is a nothing of a spot run by the Navajo nation, out in the middle of nowhere, sort of between Cortez CO, Shiprock NM and Bluff UT. The monument’s website informs me that the nearest town is Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, about six miles away. Tiny Teec Nos Pos has a general store containing an ATM machine, apparently quite popular with monument-goers who find themselves without the $5 per person entry fee. The monument accepts cash only, no credit cards.
And what exactly does a visitor to Four Corners get for his or her five dollars? Not much. Clicking around on the web, I have learned that positioning one’s self in four distinct places at one time is a bucket list item for many. It’s actually little more than a surveyor’s mark that was designed to settle a state boundary dispute back in the nineteenth century. (And there are those who claim that the survey may have been off by anywhere from a few feet to two and a half miles, making the mark so frequented by tourists more symbolic than anything else.) But for those like myself who have been geography buffs and amateur cartographers since childhood, it is a place full of significance and well worth a special trip out to the wild open spaces.
The concept of four corners has a long cultural history as a metaphor for defining the limits of things by precisely locating the outer edges. My background in law has taught me that courts adjudicating contract disputes often refer to “the four corners of the document,” meaning the specific words of the contract, as opposed to “reading between the lines” or considering any external factors, such as the parties’ “course of dealing,” that could alter the document’s intent. Cartographers of old believed that the earth was flat, had four corners, and that sailing too far into terra incognita could cause a ship to fall right off the edge of the planet. This idea harks back to the Old Testament, with its Hebrew references to the dispersal of peoples al arbah canfot ha’aretz (“to the four corners of the earth”).
I suppose that, in this day and age of uncertainty when everything seems open to interpretation, some of us may find appeal in the prospect of setting limits and defining shapes that four corners would imply. Then there is the uniqueness factor: This is the only place in our whole wide nation where four states touch. Thus, I’ve flipped through many online photos of visitors standing on the exact spot where Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona meet, including several goofy shots of people doing backbends, pushups and headstands to twist their bodies into positions that reach all four states simultaneously. I’m surprised that I’ve yet to see someone’s pet dog or cat in a “four paws” pose at the monument.
Reviewers on sites like Yelp gripe that the Four Corners Monument is a tourist trap and a ripoff, that the pit toilets stink, the Navajo staff is rude and the surrounding booths are full of overpriced Native American junk. I saw a lot of complaints about having to wait in line in the broiling sun for half an hour just to take “the obligatory photo.” However, I was pleased by several references to the fry bread and Navajo tacos that are prepared in front of you when ordered.
I found numerous comments to the effect that the site is entirely overrated and that it involves a two-hour detour for a ten-minute experience. None of this deters me in the least from wanting to see this place.
The bottom line is this: Is such a basic, no-frills experience worth turning an 11-hour drive into 13 hours on the road? On one hand, if we’re already driving 11 hours that day, what’s the big deal about driving another two hours in order to have a memorable moment? On the other hand, eleven hours of driving is utterly exhausting and the thought of having to leave Denver at 5:00 in the morning only to tack another two hours onto the trip is deflating, to say the least. I just don’t know if it’s worth it. After all, we are headed to the Grand Canyon, one of the true wonders of the natural world.
Then I think of my father, who has told me over and over, since I was five years old, about a trip he took to Montana during which he peed on the Continental Divide so that some of his urine would flow to the Atlantic Ocean and some to the Pacific. Wanting to stand on the spot where four states meet seems more civilized by comparison.
The Verdict: We’ll just have to see about this one. Much as I’d like to, I just don’t know that we’re going to have the energy to pull it off.