Arizona high desert plain

Grand Tour 16: Finding Fern Seed and Elephants in Petroglyphs and Rock and Roll

This entry is part 16 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

Sights ancient and modern are larded with claims of certain knowledge that are dubious at best, given the available evidence. Without contradiction, a guess hardens into assurance. But our certainty is tinged with aspiration.

May 13, 2018, Gallup to Winslow: I’m not sure what the climate classification is for the landscape West of Gallup, New Mexico, and into Arizona. I think it is high desert, but it does not seem quite a desert to my eye. Instead, it is an endless plain of yellow grass punctuated more or less richly by pale green shrubs. It is not lifeless, but it is muted. But anything it lacks in vibrancy, it more than makes up for in vastness.

Arizona high desert plain

This is a few miles out of town, though. In the immediate vicinity it becomes apparent why Gallup is important. It sits in a narrow gap between two ridges of unguessed length. The railway, the freeway, and the old road all squeeze through the narrow gap, particularly dramatic at one point where two ridgelines rundown to the open gap, almost as if a gate had been planned in a vast wall. Curiously, the old road, which should have second dibs on the space after the railroad, actually climbs over the foot of one of the ridges while the Interstate plows right through the gap. We are grateful for this curiosity, in any case, as it provides a better view than you are likely to get from the freeway. As so often, we seem to have the road entirely to ourselves, so we can slow down or stop whenever Anna wants to snap a picture.

Gap outside Gallup

A little way into Arizona, we are forced onto the freeway as the old road turns to rough gravel. At this transfer point there are the most garish signs advertising Genuine Indian crafts, blankets, jewelry, etc. If most of the garish commerce on Route 66 has declined, it is still thriving here, though the size, garishness, and sheer number of the signs seems mostly intended to pull people off the nearby Interstate, rather than to preserve a bygone era of the Mother Road.

There is no subtlety here, no attempt to represent the refinement of a culture. This is all about separating the white man from his cash (or, I suppose, men or women of any hue, as long as they have green in their pockets). I think I am equally jaded by the crassness of the marketing here as by the high cultural claims one hears elsewhere. The truth is, everyone needs to make a living and they make and sell what others are willing to buy. And most people need a cultural outlet that lets them express how they see the world and how they live in it. One would like to see each of these needs moderate the excesses of the other. One gets the sense, though, that just the opposite happens, not just here, but in most places.

The more upscale gift shops, like those in El Rancho and the national park, are less garish and more expensive. Even in these, though, you have to read the labels. A lot of stuff is marked as coming from the “the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico.” But if you look closely, stuff so labeled is made in Mexico. If you are looking for genuine local native crafts you have to shop carefully, and expect to pay up. One only hopes that the money from both the crass shops and the posh shops is actually going to the locals.

Once on the freeway, things get very flat, very wide, and very fast. One has to maintain a pretty high speed simply not to be in the way. It is a wide straight road, so the speed is manageable but it does not leave much attention for the scenery. Nonetheless, we skip a couple of on/off sections of Route 66 as described in the Easy Guide so we can get to the Petrified Forest National Park before it gets too hot.

Map of our Route from Gallup to Winslow

All the maps show the Painted Desert as North of I40 and the Petrified Forest as South of it, as if they were two separate places. This is inaccurate. They are one place and the petrified forest is in the painted desert. This is particularly evident at the Crystal Forest Trail, where petrified logs are scattered in great abundance over a painted desert landscape that seems, in a couple of places, to include old lava flows—though this may be a mistaken impression on my part.

Petrified wood in a painted desert landscape

The Painted Desert Overlook, North of I40, around the Painted Desert Inn, doesn’t have any petrified wood, but the Blue Mesa trail in the middle of the Petrified Forest section is all about painted desert scenes. In short, it is one park with both features, sometimes together, sometimes separately.

A friendly guide at the North entrance circles her favorite places on the map for us. Later, at the South entrance, I hear a different guide give completely different recommendations to another party. As I have noted before, you can’t see everything.

The guard at the official entrance gate makes a comment about it not being too windy yet. The “yet” will prove prophetic.

I am of two minds about the painted desert scenes. Not all landscapes are beautiful, and these are badlands—barren, inhospitable and virtually impassable. They seem to consist of stratified layers of gravel that have been carved into lumps, with occasional hotter rocks jutting out or creating table formations. On our first sight of the, a lot of the gravel is grey or black. The result is a forbidding, almost nightmarish scene. Fascinating for sure, but is it beautiful?

Grim painted desert scene

At first I conclude it is not. But by the time we get to the Painted Desert Inn, red has come to predominate in the stratified layers of gravel and when seen on a grand scale in the right light, it is beautiful. Not as beautiful, to my eye, as the sandstone mesas that we saw in places like Dead Man’s Curve, but beautiful, nonetheless. I suspect different viewers will like different parts of it better, just as different people like different color schemes. For me it will always be the reds. but I prefer my red offset by green, and there is no green here. The landscape is much more notable for its strangeness and drama than for its beauty. Strangeness and drama, however, are well worth seeing.

Red painted desert scene

Per our guide’s recommendations, our first stop is the Painted Desert Inn, which is not an Inn anymore, but an historic site. As an historic site it perhaps takes itself a little too seriously. For instance, it treats sturdy furnishing from the thirties to the fifties, such as stout wooden chairs, as if they were something excavated from an Egyptian tomb or Viking longship, plastering them with do not touch signs. The Inn itself is rather dull, but it does have a couple of interesting features such as the punched tin lamps made by the men of the Works Administration crew and the skylight ceiling made up of glass panels painted in the patterns of many local tribes.

Tin lamps at Painted Desert Inn

Tiled ceiling at Painted Desert Inn

We walk the trail from the Inn to Kachina Point, which affords some interesting views but is also a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs in the morning cool.

From there we move on to the Blue Mesa Trailhead, where, we are told, there is a fairly steep path but spectacular views of some of the bluer parts of the painted desert. We make a lunch here of apples and oatmeal Raisin cookies in the shaded picnic area and then get our walking sticks out and start on the trail. The early going does promise some interesting sites, but the wind has picked up and the path is narrow and runs very near the edge of some very steep drops. One good gust we fear, could send us over.

Blue Mesa Trailhead

We turn back and decide to visit and walk the trail at Crystal Forest instead. This proves to be a fortuitous choice.

When you see pictures of the Petrified Forest, you think, “Oh rocks that look like trees, cool.” But when you see the real thing up close, it is totally different. The rock is essentially quartz, in a variety of vibrant colors and so while it is shaped like a tree trunk, it looks nothing like a tree. in fact it looks so not like a tree that the fact that it is shaped like a tree is completely dissonant. It is a challenge to the senses. the eye rebels at a lump of quartz in which all signs of tree rings are entirely absent but which is encased in what looks for all the world like bark.

Petrified wood

Another dissonant element is that much of the petrified wood is broken into sections about 12 to 18 inches long. It has snapped straight across and at points you see whole tree trunks 18 to 24 inches across that have snapped off in regular chunks as if they had been chain-sawed. In short, it looks like petrified firewood that has been sawed to length and is only awaiting a petrified ax to chop it into petrified kindling.

Petrified firewood

This is all weirdly dissociative and it is the dissociative nature of the experience that makes it special. The external appearance is of ordinary fallen logs such as you might see in any forest. The quartz is ordinary quartz such as you might see anywhere—most of the petrified wood jewelry you see on sale (it is everywhere) looks just like any other piece of polished quartz. It is the dissonance of seeing the substance of one in the form of another that is fascinating. It is a practical demonstration of transubstantiation, if you like.

But if all this sounds like something rare and special, it really isn’t. There is a truly astonishing amount of this stuff. There are signs everywhere in the park forbidding you to remove petrified wood, but it hardly seems necessary. You can buy the stuff cheap in any gift shop in a one-hundred-mile radius, and several shops we drive by have so much of it that great logs of it sit in empty lots beside the shops.  You feel like you could order a couple of truckloads and build a house out of the stuff.

Indeed that is exactly what the man who built the original Painted Desert Inn did. But it turns out the quartz is not actually a good building material. It fractures too easily—as all the petrified firewood in the park illustrates. The guide informs us that the original quartz-built Painted Desert Inn quickly fell down and was rebuilt by the Civil Works Administration in the 1930s using full adobe techniques.

After the Crystal Forest, we proceed to the park museum, which is rather dull compared to the park itself. We learned from a signboard in the park how the petrified wood formed and why it fractured into firewood the way it did, and the rest is rather dull and pedantic.

Another feature of the park is the Puerco Pueblo, which is noted particularly for its petroglyphs. But the petroglyphs at Puerco Pueblo do not have the artistic sophistication of, for example, the Lascaux Cave Paintings. Honestly, they look like the work of a child, especially the faces.

A National Parks Service sight shows the supposed solar petroglyph among the many here. It is a very rough spiral figure, more of a rough circle with a squiggle in the middle. It is touched by a finger of light at sunrise for a couple of weeks around the solstice. The temptation is therefore strong to see it as a solstice marker.

Puerco Pueblo solar marker montage

The thing is, this is in a field of boulders covered with petroglyphs. As Wikipedia notes, there are over 800 petroglyphs, incised on more than 100 boulders. Chances that some shadow or shaft of light should touch one of them for two weeks around the solstice seems pretty high. And further, if this petroglyph was placed there to mark the solstice, what were the other 800 for? There is a tendency to regard every ancient thing has having deep significance. But their survival is a matter of chance and a long road trip teaches you that most things scribbled on rocks are not deeply significant.

This does not mean it was not a solstice marker, of course, but I find the evidence for this conclusion slim at best. There is something else too. If these petroglyphs were made by the people of Puerco Pueblo, as is supposed, there is a question of why they should choose this method to mark the solstice. These peoples were sophisticated engineers capable of building complex structures. If they had wanted a sundial calendar, they could have built one in a more convenient location.

Archaeology all too often seems to labor under the curse of Rumpelstiltskin, trying to weave gold out of straw. In his essay, Fern Seed and Elephants, C. S. Lewis decried the presumption of many biblical scholars who were attempting to discern the authorship and intended meaning of fragments of scripture based on absurdly flimsy evidence, while ignoring much more obvious evidence. “They claim to see fern-seed,” Lewis wrote, “and can’t see an elephant ten yards away in broad daylight.” Lewis goes on to write, “I wonder how much Quellenforschung [The study of the sources of, or influences upon, a literary work. – Wikitictionary] in our studies of older literature seems solid only because those who knew the facts are dead and can’t contradict it?”

Archeology is a field in which those who knew the facts are always dead and can’t contradict the conclusions. Even where the experts agree, the experts often share the same biases and the same interests. They want to make significant finds that shed light on the development of early people. A worthy goal, but one that predisposes them to find significance where none may exist.

G.K. Chesterton, in the story “The Honor of Israel Gow”, has his detective character, Father Brown, challenged to find a connection between several very odd pieces of evidence: hoards of precious stones, piles of loose snuff, miscellaneous bits of clockwork, and wax candles without candle sticks. He immediately comes up with several ways of connecting them, causing his hearers to ask if each in turn is true. Oh no, he says “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe.” As more improbable evidence accumulates, however, Father Brown is finally convinced that he has the full, true, and terrible explanation. He and his companions rush to prevent a horrible crime. But Father Brown turns out to be wrong too, and the explanation is much more prosaic, once they have the opportunity to ask the person who was there and can contradict all their speculations. Ten false philosophies will fit the universe, and ten false philosophies will fit many archeological findings. (And you should read The Honor of Israel Gow.)

A recent story that received much publicity was the discovery of a female skeleton buried with a sword in a Viking grave. From this has been woven into tales of hordes of Viking Amazons, or of transgendered Vikings. Such interpretations so clearly fit modern preoccupations that it is easy to see what motivated them. But this small incongruity could mean a dozen different things. (I briefly entertained the thought of writing a set of short stories with different explanations of how the sword came to be in a woman’s grave.) “Ten false philosophies will fit the universe,” and we will choose the one that suits us best. But the truth of the matter is, we don’t know, and can’t know, what a sword in a woman’s grave really means. And we can’t know if a circle with a squiggle on which the sun happens to fall at solstice was planned for for a solstice marker, or for something else, or for nothing at all.

There are more trails at the museum end, but at this point we have seen so much of the stuff lying around that it is starting to seem rather common, so we move on towards Winslow.

The road from the park gate is pretty flat and the land around it has the same yellow grass with spaced-out pale green shrubs that we saw leaving Gallup. It seems utterly unused. It is clear why people drive fast here. The roads are dead straight and there is nothing to see. At one point we see half a dozen cows gathered around a windmill, and apart from that, nothing. Often, driving in Canada, you see nothing because you are driving between green walls of pointy trees. You have no idea what might be going on behind those trees. But here the nothing stretches all the way to the horizon. It is a much bigger nothing and it is eerie.

After Holbrook, where we briefly stop for ice cream, we rejoin the Interstate for the run to Winslow—a part of the journey not notable for anything other than not being notable in any way at all.

In Winslow, we are staying at The La Posada hotel—a great sprawling pile of a building recently returned to its former glory. It is the kind of place where the public spaces seem much more important than the guestrooms. It is almost like the guestrooms are just a place to sleep while you visit the hotel, something like what I imagine the experience of staying in a noble country house must have been. (As the child of a teamster’s son and a coal miner’s daughter, such invitations have never come my way.) This experience is very different from a modern motel where you are expected to disappear into your room and only appear in the morning in order to pay your bill and leave. How maintaining all these public spaces—and they are magnificently restored and maintained—can be economical today, I don’t know. But thank God someone is making it work, because spaces like these are one of the joys of life.

Once settled in the hotel, we walked down to “The Corner”. That is, the corner made famous by The Eagle’s song “Take it Easy” that contains the lyric:

Well, I’m a standing on a corner
In Winslow, Arizona
And such a fine sight to see
It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford
Slowin’ down to take a look at me

Was this the actual corner in which the lyricist, Glen Fry, actually saw the girl in the flatbed Ford? He was alive to ask, and still the answer is uncertain. Maybe it wasn’t in Winslow at all, but in Flagstaff. Anyway, the town has decided that this is the corner and it is an item to check off our Route 66 must do list. I suspect the town council just picked a corner they had lying around doing nothing.

What will archeologists of the future make of the bronze statue of the young man leaning against the lamppost when it is all that remains after time has claimed all the buildings, the mural, and the flatbed Ford? With what significance will they invest this lonely figure? What grand conclusions about the mores and manners of our era will they deduce from the long hair and drooping mustache? Jesus in street clothes perhaps?

Statue on the Corner in Winslow Arizonas

In addition to the statue and the flatbed Ford parked at the side of the street, there is also a large mural of the girl in the flatbed Ford. The decay that will one day leave future archeologist to puzzle fruitlessly over this scene has already set in. Like every other mural we have seen on this trip it is faded and in need of repair. Most of it is not painted on the wall, but on plywood panels secured to the wall and three of them are missing. Beside it there is one of those fund-raising thermometer things showing $15,000 raised of the $30,000 needed for a mural restoration project. This strikes me as absurd. Why is this not a no-brainer vote in city council in favor of $30K to restore the centerpiece of your entire tourist industry? And if the City Council is too dumb to act, why don’t the businesses on the other three corners just chip in the money to fix it?

We go for a beer in a “brewery” across the street from the corner. I put brewery in quotes because despite using that name, it does not brew its own beer, though it does exclusively serve Arizona brewed beers. From the street-side patio we watch a steady stream of people taking their obligatory photos at the corner. The owner runs out to chase away a panhandler. From the way they shout at each other, this seems like a regular performance.

We have dinner in the Turquoise Room of La Posada. It is our first really fancy meal of the trip and our first proper sit-down meal of the day since we breakfasted and lunched on apples and oatmeal raisin cookies washed down with water. I have lamb. According to the menu it is from a special breed of lamb only raised by one Navajo farmer and only served in this hotel. It taste like lamb. But doubtless there are health benefits—even spiritual benefits—to eating something so exclusive. Anyway, it is cooked superbly and the Zinfandel recommended in the menu is a perfect match. Anna has elk, which is also excellent, she says. I have English trifle for dessert, our first dessert of the trip. It seems very odd to be eating English trifle in the middle of Arizona, but that is the world we live in. Everywhere is everywhere else. I’d like to say that this is a good thing but I’m not sure it is. Anyway, it was a good trifle, and a nice match for the last of my wine.

Over dinner we discussed the choices you make when traveling. We have given ourselves three weeks for Route 66 and side trips, but we are still seeing only a fraction of what the guidebooks list. At Petrified Forest we visited three of over a dozen sites. It would have taken two full days to see them all, and one could linger longer than we did at each. “You can’t see everything” we keep saying. After you have seen 1000 petrified logs, 1000 variegated gravel mounds, 1000 red sandstone Bluffs, 100 dead motels and gas stations, several dozen neon signs, do you really need to see more? But have you seen the best one yet? Ask, and everyone has a favorite that somehow you have missed. It is better to see a lot of a few things or a little of a lot of things? This trip is definitely about the latter.

This much I know. I have reached my lifetime quota of pointy trees and pointed snowcapped mountains. And I have no limit on sunlit beaches or quiet shaded restaurant patios beside rivers or overlooking the sea. But there is also this question: Is there a limit on the appeal of novelty itself? Is a point at which you just focus on the things you know you will never tire of? And will we reach it on this trip? And if we do, will we, as a couple, agree on the common set of things we never get tired of?

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