Retracing Native Roads: Tuba City, Hopi Mesas, Keams Canyon, and Beyond . . .

by Jim Turner

AB28868My first blog left off in Page, AZ, at the end of the first day of my ten-day trip updating Fran Kosik’s excellent guide book, Native Roads: The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations. Before I left, I spent weeks going over Native Roads, figuring out which chapters to combine in order to average several hundred miles a day and allow time for all the stops. Some trips can be done in one day, others are half-day adventures. I was adding a new chapter, so there was lots of route-mapping and mile-measuring.

January weather kept me from following all nineteen trips described in the book. It was first published in 1995, so I had to research new developments at places like the Navajo Generating Station. There’s been a lot of controversy about it in the past eighteen years . . . but you’ll have to read the new third edition to get the whole story.

Navajo Generating Station

Since the generating station is right on the edge of Page, I went out early in the morning to get a picture of it (best light, better clouds. I pulled up on a dead end street to get a good view, but only took a few shots. Since 9-11, I’m uneasy taking pictures of power stations, dams, and courthouses. I don’t look like a spy, but they even search little grandmas in airports, so better safe than sorry.

After snapping the pics I topped off the gas tank and hit the road. A wise friend said he doesn’t let the tank go below half when he’s on the road if possible, and I felt more at ease doing that. But I didn’t get very far out of Page before it was time to pull over for another scenic wonder.

Colorado Horseshoe 270

The Horseshoe Bend Overlook on the Colorado River wasn’t in the book, but it’s on Highway 89 about four miles south of Page, so I had to check it out. It’s not quite as impressive as Goosenecks State Park near Mexican Hat, Utah, where I stopped a few days later, but the 1,000-foot drop at Horseshoe Bend is still awesome. The three-quarter-mile trek from the parking lot to the rim is sandy, rocky, and steep in places, but definitely worth it. Creeping out to the edge to get a picture is a bit scary, especially since you’re on an overhanging ledge. But wow, the view is breathtaking, pictures don’t do it justice.

I had a pretty big day lined up for this second day, so back on U.S. Highway 89, 65 miles south to the junction with U.S. Highway 160 (also known as the Navajo Trail) going east to Tuba City and Kayenta. About four miles along there’s a sign on the right and road to the left that takes you to the famous dinosaur tracks!

038_Dino tracks 1

I stopped there when I was writing pictorial history book, Arizona: A Celebration of the Grand Canyon State. For years I ‘d heard there were dino tracks in Arizona, but I’d never seen pictures of them in any books. The great thing about writing your own book is that you decide what goes into it — until it gets to the editors, of course. So I wanted mine to be the first history book with a picture of the dinosaur tracks. Imagine my surprise when I found a 1930’s snapshot of tourists pointing to the tracks in Native Roads. I wonder if the couple in the picture had a young Navajo guide show them the tracks. My enthusiastic guide had some fascinating stories about the tracks. I didn’t stop there this trip. On to Tuba City instead, four miles down the road.

The highway goes right through Tuba City, and I spotted my hotel for the night, the new Moenkopi Legacy Inn at the junction of U.S. Hwy 160 and Arizona Hwy 264 (the latter is also Main Street to the north).  But I had a lot of touring left to do, so I headed south on 264 to the Hopi Mesas and Keams Canyon Trading Post.

This two-lane road winds up, down, and around the beautiful snow-capped red rock Hopi Mesas. Sometimes the speed limit was down to 35 mph so I had plenty of time to enjoy the view. As with many of the roads in  Native Roads, you can’t plan your road time by the number of miles to your destination. Time seems to slow down up there, far from the hustle and bustle.

Snow on Second Mesa

Most Hopis live on one of three mesas, creatively named First, Second, and Third mesas. They are named from east to west, and since I was approaching from the west I reached Third Mesa first.

I respectfully refrained from asking anyone “Who’s on First?” while I was there. The Hopi culture is very private, and the “Experience Hopi” web site lists rules for visitors at the bottom of their FAQ page.

My next stop, Old Oraibi, is a good example of the land that time forgot. Most history books I’ve read over the past four decades say that this Third Mesa village dates before AD 1100, and is therefore the oldest continuously inhabited village in the United States.

However, before hitting the road I spent several months researching and contacting experts. I was disappointed to learn that leading anthropologists now fix Oraibi’s origins somewhere between AD 1200-1344, according to tree-ring dating measurements. Nevertheless, I still get a reverent feeling when I visit the mesas, knowing that I’m standing within yards of where Coronado’s men came through in 1541. There are only a few Ponce de Leon sites in Florida (1513) that can claim this “same spot as first Europeans” experience.

Hopi Summer coverMonongya Gallery on Third Mesa was my first stop. I was pleased that they knew my friend Carolyn O’Bagy Davis, who has spent a lot of time up in the Hopi lands writing several books, including Hopi Quilting: Stitched Traditions from an Ancient Community, and Hopi Summer, winner of the “One Book Arizona” award for 2011 — published by Rio Nuevo Publishers, of course!

I also stopped at the Hopi Cultural Center and Museum, where you can see stunning vintage photographs of the Hopi people taken in the early 1900s by Edward S. Curtis and Kate Cory. I bought some piki bread there, made from corn meal and light as a feather. It is so airy and delicate that the sign on the shelf says something like, “if you break it you buy it.”

There were a couple of young men carving katsinas (formerly spelled kachina) and I bought a very nice one. I tried to spread out my spending for the ten-day trip, but I knew I wouldn’t get a better opportunity to buy a Hopi katsina from the carver, so I purchased without guilt. Adding up all my purchases at the end of the trip, I think I broke even as far as how much Rio Nuevo paid me to go and how much I spent on arts and crafts.

From Second Mesa I continued east on Hwy 264, then dropped down a thousand feet onto the Colorado Plateau and then east twenty-two miles to the Keams Canyon Trading Post, also known as Keams Canyon Shopping Center. The “center” is a grocery store with a good supply of hardware items, a café, and an incredible Indian arts and crafts gallery, museum, and store.

Keams Canyon Shopping Center

One of the best things about this country is that you’re always running into beautiful galleries and rug and basket rooms out in the middle of nowhere. The one at Keams Canyon is truly a hidden treasure. I bought a beautiful turquoise ring there, one of four major purchases. It was one of the best pieces of jewelry I’d seen so far, plus I knew I could tell people that I bought it at Keams Canyon so aficionados could smile and nod knowingly.

With that purchase, my job for the day was done. I piloted the white CRV — which looks a lot like a tennis shoe on wheels — back over Hwy 264. Driving west into the setting sun around mountain curves was exciting. The Friday night special at the Denny’s next door to the Legacy Inn was spaghetti and meatballs, a far cry from the Navajo taco the night before. I didn’t know then that next night’s dinner would be a linen-napkin-restaurant gourmet meal in Kayenta, but that’s another blog . . . .

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