By Jim Turner
Monday, January 21st, 2013 was the fifth day of my info-gathering trip for the third edition of Native Roads. It was such an exceptional journey, I can’t believe it’s been almost a year since I drove it.
That morning I worked on my notes until about 9 a.m. The Best Western Canyon de Chelly Inn was definitely not crowded that time of year, so I got to park right in front of my room, the old-fashioned way. Many newer lodgings have gone back to the hotel design, which means you have to haul your stuff through the lobby to the elevator then down a long hallway, instead of schlepping your bags a mere eight or ten feet from car to motel room. Much better for us absent-minded professor types who go back to the car constantly for things we forgot to bring in.
When I got all bundled up and made the leap from warm room to cold car, I was looking at a windshield full of frosty snowflake patterns. One of my climate-savvy friends told me that frost on the windshield may also mean black ice on the roads. Like the proverbial groundhog, I retreated to my motel burrow for another half an hour.
On this clear but chilly morning, I backtracked north on Route 191 to its junction with Navajo Route 12. The time of day and direction made it look different than it did the day before, but there were still wide vistas, lots of red rocks capped with several inches of snow, and another beautiful sunny day.
Before we go on, a word about highway names. In Native Roads, Kosik uses the local designation “Navajo Route” for roads maintained by the Navajo Nation, but atlases and online maps often refer to them as “Indian Route.” Navajo Route 64, which goes east-west from Chinle to Tsaile along the north edge of Canyon de Chelly, is only about 26 miles, but I’ve traveled that road in the summer and didn’t want to chance it now with mud and slush. So I took a slightly longer route up to the junction at Round Rock, then down Navajo Route 12.
Round Rock Trading Post opened in 1881, co-owned by Stephen Aldrich and Henry Chee Dodge. Dodge was a survivor of the 1864 Navajo Long Walk to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. He became a successful cattle, horse, and sheep rancher and was appointed the first chairman of the Navajo tribe in 1884. He was a strong advocate for more and better schools, and the Navajos selected him as the first chairman of their tribal council in 1923. Unfortunately the trading post is no longer open.
Route 12 parallels the Lukachukai Mountains for about 16 miles, getting up close to the base as you get to the community of Lukachukai. These beautiful red Wingate Sandstone mountains tower more than 9,000 feet in some places and have many spires and formations almost as striking as Monument Valley.
Of the dozens of places I visited following the author’s excellent directions, Lukachukai was one of the few where I got lost, and even that was only for a few minutes. The second edition of Native Roads was a bit vague about the location, and the map made it seem like it was right on Route 12. Instead, there was a GIANT gas station at the junction of Navajo routes 12 and 13 and nothing else for miles in any direction.
Then, just as I was about to give up and head off down the road, I saw a large billboard on the north side of Route 13. At the bottom was a wide arrow pointing east with letters about a foot high that said, “Beautiful Downtown Lukachukai, 1.5 miles.” Sure enough, I followed the arrow and there was the new two-story trading post, more like a grocery store, with sacks of Blue Bird Flour stacked on display at the head of the center aisle. The second floor housed the Navajo arts and crafts.
Back on Route 12 it’s about nine miles to the entrance road to Dine College, the first tribally-controlled community college in the United States. I didn’t stop this time, but I visited about eight years ago when I was working for the Arizona Historical Society. That time I took Route 64 through pristine red rock/juniper country. I still remember how impressive it was to come around a bend and see this incredible multi-story, eight-sided, mirrored-glass hogan looming up in front of me. It’s an amazing piece of architecture, especially in the early morning or late afternoon when the sunlight transforms it into shining sculpture.
Heading south again, Route 12 jogs back and forth across the New Mexico border, winding up at Fort Defiance, Arizona, fifty miles south of Dine College. I’d never been to Fort Defiance before, but knew it was the first United States Army fort established in Arizona (1851). I was aware that there was nothing left of the fort, but was at least able to find the Indian Health Service Hospital, close to the original site.
Window Rock, the end of the day’s trail, is only seven miles farther south, but I took time to visit Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park and Veterans Memorial on the north edge of town. I had seen some great pictures of the Navajo Code Talker statue there and wanted to take some of my own. I visited Window Rock several times while working for the Arizona Historical Society, so I was surprised when I first saw a picture of the statue and wondered why I’d never seen it while I was there. I learned there were several reasons for my ignorance: 1) the statue is two miles north of the Navajo Nation Museum, 2) it’s on an administrative side road, so you don’t see it from any highway, and 3) Ute sculptor Orland C. Joe didn’t create it until 2008.
The staff and accommodations at the Quality Inn Navajo Nation were excellent, and I had mutton stew for dinner that night, not something you’ll find in very many Quality Inn dining rooms. I was worried about crossing Narbona Pass in the Chuska Mountains the next day, but didn’t lose any sleep over it.
I’ll have the story of Day 6 soon.
Jim Turner is an historian, editor, teacher, researcher, and author. He received his masters degree in U.S. history from the University of Arizona and is now an editor for Rio Nuevo Publishers. He writes history articles for various newspapers around the state, and his pictorial history book, “Arizona: Celebrating the Grand Canyon State,” was named a “Top Pick” for Southwest Books of the Year by the Friends of the Pima County Library. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.