By Jim Turner
The seventh day of my Native Roads editing trip was all new ground. John Heider, Rio Nuevo/Treasure Chest sales rep for that area, was the one who recommended that we update Fran Kosik’s terrific book. He also said we should add at least six more trading posts and expand the text on some of the others, like Teec Nos Pos Trading Post at the Four Corners.
It just so happened that John’s suggested locations fit nicely into a trip from Shiprock to Farmington, and then south on New Mexico Highway 371, right along the eastern edge of the Navajo Reservation.
I started the day with Fifth Generation Trading Company. It’s a big unassuming building in downtown Farmington; nothing on the outside will prepare you for the beautiful art gallery inside. That part is called the Southwest Showroom, and it is nothing short of amazing. The fine art quality sand paintings are my favorite, but the sculptures are the best I have ever seen as well. I never would have expected art museum quality work in Farmington, and it was definitely a pleasant surprise.
Next stop, the Shiprock Trading Post, which is in Farmington, not Shiprock! That’s just another one of those quirky things that makes the Four Corners area so intriguing. They present high quality art, especially the sculptures, but on a smaller scale than Fifth Generation. I can see why John had me visit these Farmington trading posts; they are uniquely personal and beautiful.
Since this was a brand new chapter, I was now in charge of what I thought was important to see and recommend for the readers of the third edition of Native Roads. So of course, with my background, my first choice was a history museum. When I was the historian for the Arizona Historical Society, one of my jobs was to support more than sixty museums throughout the state.
I’ve seen many varieties of museums from the mom and pop, all-volunteer store fronts to multi-story, architect-designed, mega-museums. But the size and exhibit design of the Farmington Museum really wowed me. Farmington’s estimated population in 2013 was 45,000, and I haven’t seen a museum this well-designed in Arizona except in cities with populations of 500,000 or more.
My favorite exhibit is “From Dinosaurs to Drill Bits, the Oil and Gas Experience in the San Juan Basin.” It’s got everything I like, from paleontology to geology to kitschy 1920s gas station memorabilia. I love it when a museum focuses on what made their town famous instead of presenting yet another pioneer classroom or kitchen with artifacts you could find in any town across the country.
After buying books at the well-stocked gift shop, where there are also plenty of free brochures and maps, I took a “scenic detour” eleven miles east on Highway 64 to visit Aztec Ruins. I’m a big fan of prehistoric sites and was lucky my parents took us all over the Southwest when we were kids.
Aztec is one of the bigger sites, with what may be the biggest kiva of any of them. This was one time that my visiting in January had its advantages. The several inches of snow on top of the walls provided a beautiful contrast that no summer tourist will ever see. In spite of the season, there were a couple of photographers there with cameras on tripods. I have learned that when you see those tripod guys, you probably want to stand next to them or behind them and get the same shot. They have developed an eye for angles and composition and are usually willing to share it.
From Aztec Ruins I backtracked to Farmington and then headed south on Highway 371 to Gallup, passing the Bisti Badlands. I first ran across the name when planning the trip several months earlier, and the name “Beastie Badlands” brought to mind some kind of Maurice Sendak fantasy kid’s book location, someplace I’d like to go just because of the name.
I was equally disappointed a few Internet clicks later when I realized that this fantasyland of petrified logs, fossils, and bizarre multi-colored rock formations is not only two miles off the highway on a gravel road, but then there’s a two-mile hike to the best formations. I had the company Honda CRV all-wheel drive, but Native Roads is for regular, not-so-adventurous tourists, and none of the other trips in the book involve gravel roads or hiking. Plus, it was January, and growing up in Tucson as a Sonoran Desert brat did not prepare me for winter hikes. And to top it off, I learned at Aztec Ruins that it’s pronounced “biss-TYE” badlands, not “beastie”; shucks.
About thirty miles south of the turnoff for Bisti, this time on the west side of Highway 371, is the town of Crownpoint. Anyone who knows Navajo rugs will agree that the rug auction at Crownpoint is the best in the world. The town is not very big, but since 1968 on the second Friday of every month from 300 to 400 hand woven Navajo rugs are auctioned off by the weavers themselves at the Crownpoint Elementary School. I pulled off the highway just to make sure I had the mileage and directions correct for the book. I was not there on the right day for the auction, but I’m sure I would have come home with a rug or two if the timing was right. Here’s a clever sales pitch from their web site: “Decorate your home in style for less. Stock up on presents that everyone will appreciate. The money you save buying directly from the artists will help pay for your vacation.”
When planning this new chapter, I chose my next stop just for the name: Thoreau. Imagine my surprise when further research turned up the fact that the locals pronounce it “Thuh-ROO” (as in “just passing through”). To make matters worse, further investigation showed that a local historian claims that it was not named for transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau. You’d have to buy her book to find out more about that though.
Where most of the places I’d stopped were wide spots in the road, I’d say this one was a “not-so-wide” spot. But the combination tire store and trading post turned out to be well worth the stop. That’s where I got the final item on my jewelry wish list, a watchband. Of the total—ring, bola tie, belt buckle, and watchband—I paid much much less for the final piece than I had for the others, and yet of all the treasures I got on this trip, I still get the most favorable comments on the watchband.
Back in the car for the last of this day’s journey, I was once again cruising past some beautiful red sandstone and mudstone cliffs, but I also encountered a light green variety of rock, almost the color of gray-green lichen. Poking around the Internet, it seems that this color variation may be due to iron in different phases of crystallization, especially when there is potassium present. All I know is, after six days of red rocks, it was refreshing to see some unexpected green ones for a change. Fran Kosik did a lot more homework on the geology for her book than I did for Chapter 19, but then I had just a few weeks to write my chapter. I am awed by the amount of research she did with the natural history, as well as cultural, archaeological, and historical aspects, a veritable encyclopedia. Everyone agrees that Native Roads is truly a labor of love and that’s just one of many reasons that so many readers have appreciated it over the years.
Thoreau is very close to Interstate 40, and it was just 56 miles to Gallup from there. Another day of interesting information, from art gallery type trading posts to an excellent museum to prehistoric ruins, but I was glad to know I was getting close to completing my travel circle. Gallup and Winslow lay ahead for tomorrow, and then all the way home to Tucson the next day.
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 email@example.com.