Hopi Taco

The Grand Tour 17: The Secret Museum and the Perfect Taco

This entry is part 17 of 22 in the series Grand Tour

We cannot separate a people from their landscape. To visit one is to visit the other. This makes tourism a kind of natural resource that people living in attractive or unusual landscapes can choose to exploit as they would oil or timber or fertile crop land. But in the case of tourism, the choices and the control are not so completely in their hands. The road brings all who wish to come. Along Route 66 it is clear that people are working hard to exploit the tourist potential of the old route and welcome those who travel it. As we wander off the old road into yet older country, the receptiveness of the people is less clear cut, though their manners certainly never fail. 

May 14, 2019: Winslow to Tuba City. You can’t see everything, we keep telling ourselves, but today there are two things we really want to see, and they are in opposite directions. West along Route 66 itself is Meteor Crater (yes, that’s its name). But from Winslow we want to make a detour off Route 66 to visit Second Mesa, a detour that will continue to the Grand Canyon. So, for the first time on the trip, we decide to simply double back. We head out on Interstate 40 to see the crater and then drive back to Winslow before turning north towards Second Mesa and Tuba City.

Map Winslow to Tuba City

The Meteor Crater, as you would expect, is a very large hole in the ground. The problem is to get any sense of scale. It is surrounded by the flat desert plain so when you approach it you can see the raised lip of the crater for miles before you get there. From a distance it looks like a low flat-topped hill. Then when you get to the top of it, you can see miles and miles across the plain to distant hazy mountains and mesas.

Vast desert plain seen from rim of the meteor crater.

The vastness of the plain rather dwarves the crater. Even a line of trees on the crater rim would help, but there is not a tree anywhere to be seen in the desert plain. There is a boulder visible on the rim that a sign says is as big as a house and that looks, from our vantage point, to be the size of a Volkswagen. They try to express its size with analogies such a 16 football fields or grandstands for 2,000,000 people. It doesn’t help. There are life size cut outs of astronauts on the crater floor. But you can only see them through the telescope provided for the purpose, so this doesn’t help either because when you see the cutout through the telescope, you can’t compare it to the size of the crater. All the efforts to provide a sense of scale are for naught. The crater just looks smaller than it is. The brain has nothing to scale it again and decides to reduce it. It still looks like a mighty big hole in the ground. It just does not look as big as it is.

Interior of the meteor crater.

Besides the size of the thing, one would also like to get some sense of the force that created it. You can get some sense of it by looking at how the layers of rock on the plain­—normally flat sedimentary strata—have been twisted, bent, folded, and melted by the force of impact that formed the crater. But then again, what knowledge have I of the forces that can bend and melt rocks and punch huge holes in the ground. None at all. Again the scale of the thing escapes me.

Meteor Crater rock

They claim that this is the best-preserved impact crater in the world, and the place where geologists first figured out that there were impact craters on earth, and how to tell them from volcanic craters. All this is presented in a short film in the visitor’s center, but the film is maddening because it tells you that someone figured it out and thus won the argument with someone else but it does not tell you how they figured it out. Popular Science is not so hard, and done well it interests most people. If the film is going to talk about the controversy, it should explain the science that resolved it. Is this incompetence on the part of the storytellers or contempt for their audience’s intelligence and curiosity? Actually, those are the same thing.

Though the brain refuses to register the scale of the crater, the crater does have the same virtue as the Rio Grande Gorge at the point of the route 64 bridge. Being all alone on a vast plain, and existing at a scale where the eye can take a whole thing in, it enables you to see what such a feature looks like in isolation, and this allows you to grasp it in a way more a complicated environment would make impossible.

Incredibly, to me, the crater is private property and the visitor center and all the amenities are a private enterprise. I cannot imagine this being the case in any other country but the USA. In any other country, this would be a National Park, as it should be here.

After the Meteor Crater we head back East to pick up Arizona 87 towards Second Mesa. Arizona 87 takes us through some of the most desert-like desert we have yet seen. Here there is none of the yellow grass that covers most of the Arizona plain. It is sand with a sparse covering of low shrubs. There is one actual sand dune beside the road. At first the road runs incredibly straight, but then we get one of the best surprises of the trip—a kind of mini-Monument Valley with several volcanic shafts on both sides of the road, as well as one perfectly conical hill—steep-sided like a volcano but with no evidence of a crater on top, just a perfect cone—which we were at a loss to explain, unless, perhaps, like something from a Charles Williams novel, we have stumbled into a place where the geometric plain breaks forth into the real world.

We slow down to well below the limit to take it all in—to the annoyance of absolutely no one, since we are entirely alone on the road. We are so enthralled we largely forget to take pictures, though truthfully this is not the kind of landscape that a snapshot captures well. Once again all sense of scale is lost in the picture.

Volcanic cone by road.

After twisting a bit through mini–Monument Valley we crest a ridge to see the road running out before us straight as a plumb line, as if some ancient principality or power had drawn it on the landscape with a ruler and a magic marker. This utterly straight road is mesmerizing and I have to turn on the air conditioning vents full on my face to make sure I stay alert. Over several straight miles, maybe two cars passed us in the opposite direction, and one travelling the same direction that went from a dot in the mirror to a red streak going past to a dot rapidly receding towards the horizon.

This ruler-straight highway continues for miles. Twice more we crest a rise, thinking that maybe at last we might see something­—some feature, some sign of life—only to once again see the road ruled out to the horizon, a single black line dissecting the yellow plain.

Pencil-straight road

I have remarked several times on the difference between viewing a static scene and travelling through a landscape, and expressed my preference for the latter. Here, though, the straightness of the road and the uniformity of the scene have a different effect. We are moving through a great nothingness, like a starship traversing the void between the stars. On most journeys you pass through other stuff–not your destination, but still stuff. Here it is a void between hither and yon, and the pencil line of the highway only reinforces the nothingness and your aloneness in it.

Thankfully, this road without features is not, as on the geometric plain, a line without end. At the end of the third such ruler-straight section, the mesas begin to grow large before us, and we come upon something remarkable­—a curve! Actually it is kind of a remarkable curve because it is so long and so gentle that the whole thing is a passing zone in both directions. After the curve we come to the foot of the mesa and begin to climb.

This is what we call a Miata road from the time I drove a Miata and lived for twisty roads. This is probably the best Miata road in the world. It is also the most beautiful and spectacular Miata road ever, and we opt for observing the beauty rather than attacking the curves. I get out of the way of a couple of locals and meander up at tourist pace, while Anna snaps pictures through the windows. The pictures, alas, convey nothing of its drama or beauty. It is a matter of scale perhaps, but also, I think, that this is the type of landscape you have to move through to marvel at. Static photographs just don’t capture it.

Road to Second Mesa

The climb brings us to Second Mesa, which, we learn, is not really a community but the physical feature that host a cluster of villages, none of which are on the main road, though we can see them off to the side. Physically they are wholly unremarkable desert communities, at least as far as we can see from a distance.

Our destination is the Hopi Cultural Center, which is a combination of motel, restaurant, museum, and multiple craft shops. We begin with the restaurant, since it is lunch time, and choose from the Hopi specialties section of the menu. I choose a lamb Stew and Anna has a Hopi Taco. Both are served with blue corn fry bread. This is a revelation. The fry bread at Taos Pueblo was good, but this is far better—more substantial, fluffier, tastier.

Hopi Taco

My lamb stew is good but could be improved with a little more spice and a few more vegetables—though this might not be as authentic. But the fry bread is the star. Anna declares her taco the best she has ever had. It is a very different thing from conventional hard-shell tacos, being served flat on the puffy fry bread. She offers me a piece, and based on the sauce/bread combo alone, I have to agree. Best taco ever. I speculate on buying a deep fryer and finding a recipe for fry bread.

The museum is interesting, though small and old. And odd. To begin with, it welcomes us with a notice that not only forbids photography, but any form of sketching and even notetaking. It says something to the effect that “We share this information with you personally. You may not take any notes or copy anything or share it with anyone else.” If you want to know anything about Hopi culture or history, apparently, you have to come and pay for the privilege. I can’t quote the notice exactly, as that would have required photography or note taking.

So, I can say nothing of the information in the museum except to say that there isn’t much of it, the type is too small to read at any distance, and the paper it is printed on is starting to yellow. Everything seems to have been put together years ago and has not been maintained since and at one end of the display area you find a pile of scaffolding and a step ladder lying beside a row of empty display cases.

The display cases in use contain a number of pieces of excavated pottery, presented on a field of pottery shards. Again I am struck by the similarity of these to the other examples of ancient pottery I have seen. Storage jars and water vessels are similar in shape and while the patterns are different, the dye colors are similar. Without knowing the patterns, you might not tell Hopi from Etruscan or Saxon or any other early low glaze/no glaze pottery. Same needs plus same materials equals same basic designs, world over.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the museum is a large collection of early black and white photographs. Respecting the information restrictions on my entry fee, I will say nothing except to note that people in the photographs wear a great deal more clothing than in any of the scenes portrayed in the dioramas and models we have seen in other museums. These are from a more recent period to be sure, but where else in the world do desert dwellers walk around in nothing but a loin cloth? I would think the sun would burn the skin off you walking around like that. Is there any actual evidence for this reckless nakedness or is it just a prejudice that Edenic equals naked? Or is it a case of the later photographs showing a learned or imposed Puritanism among a formerly more lightly-dressed people?

The notion of a museum for your personal enlightenment only is a strange one. The same might be said of the rule they post about observing ceremonies. You can see, but you cannot record or describe. This is not secrecy, since you are allowed to see. Nor is the prohibition on recording of performances unusual if we are talking about professional performers who expect to get paid. Nor is the prohibition on copying information unusual, this is all normal copyright stuff. But here it goes one step further, prohibiting uses that are fair use under copyright law. It is the equivalent of a novelist insisting that any reader must come to their house, surrender their phone and camera, read the novel in manuscript form, and swear not to reveal a single detail to a soul. To what end? Commercial? Religious?

Or is it to prevent anyone telling their story but them? This is perhaps understandable in a people who feel they have more commonly been misrepresented. As a Catholic, I can sympathize with this. Catholics are routinely misrepresented in media of all kinds. But I suppose it is probably fair to say that almost every culture, religion, political party, etc., is commonly misrepresented, or at least feels that it is. Most people are only interested in positioning things relative to themselves, and do so in a superficial way. Real understanding requires a depth of study that most people have neither time nor interest for. We map the world around us so that we can move around with confidence, but our cartography quickly gets fuzzy and fades to “Here be Dragons” territory.

So yes, this does make some sense as a way for a small culture to buttress itself against the tide of a much larger one. But does it really help to get your story out if you will only tell it to people on the condition they don’t pass it on? If the misrepresentations are already out there, does placing a gag on others telling your story simply leave the misrepresentations free reign? Or is that not the point at all? Is it not a matter of whether the story is told badly or well, but a desire that it should not be told at all–that is should be a private possession of this very small and isolated people?

We are talking, after all, about a culture of (per Wikipedia) some 20,000 souls, who reside in three clusters of villages in the middle of the Arizona desert. It is hardly to wonder that the museum is a little old and shop-worn—the wonder is that they are able to maintain a museum at all. And having such small numbers, it is certainly understandable that they will feel the need to use extraordinary means to preserve that distinctiveness—even if that means preferring to keep things secret or limit their dissemination.

I suppose that one could see the secrecy as a subtle tourist development strategy, creating a sense of violation or initiation into ancient mysteries for the more transgressive tourist. But I don’t think so. I suspect the Hopi would be just as glad to be left alone, and if so, who could blame them? We came for the scenery, not to intrude in the lives, and I am glad we did no more than visit the museum, eat in the restaurant, and buy something in the gift shop — all public places open for business in the commercial part of the community.

Of course, one cannot expect the community to be of one mind on matters like this. Some, like the people who run the gift shops and hotels, doubtless welcome tourism. Some will certainly resent it, even if they need the jobs and the money it brings. What is the balance of feeling in this community? I can get no sense of it. To attempt to gage it would only be to further intrude. All I can say is that it makes me uncomfortable, though in every actual face-to-face encounter no one has done anything to make me feel anything but comfortable. It is the printed notices, the restrictions and prohibitions, I think, that give this sense of discomfort, not the behavior of the people you meet. And it is a discomfort not born of a sense of universal entitlement to go anywhere and see anything. Rather, it is the uneasy sense that one is trespassing or that one might at any moment make some terrible and unforgivable faux pas. It leaves you just that little bit on edge. Then again, perhaps your should be, when you are holidaying in someone-else’s home.

In one of the attached gift shops, I buy a throw rug in a Navajo pattern. There is supposed to be tension between Navajo and Hopi but if so it does not show in the gift shops where they both sell each other’s stuff. I had always intended to buy a textile this trip but I knew that the genuine handwoven stuff was astronomically expensive and out of reach, so I decided I would at least buy something I could afford from an actual native owned store. Indian sold, if not Indian made.

It is about this time that we discover it is an hour later than we thought it was because between Winslow and Second Mesa we had effectively changed time zones. Arizona does not use daylight savings time, but, for some unexplained reason, the Navajo and Hopi reservations do. On entering the reservation, the time had changed. We were confused. even our phones were confused. Realizing that it is an hour later than we thought, and needing time to do laundry before they close, we head for Tuba City on the Navajo reservation.

The road down from the mesa is as spectacular as that going up, and the road in to Tuba City is almost as good, with vistas of distant canyons and mesas revealed from turn to turn. In between it was another ruler-straight road through absolutely desolate desert. We have never felt quite so alone and isolated as on that strip. (But the Mojave is yet to come!)

Once installed at the Comfort Inn in Tuba City, I putter over to the Navajo Experience Museum, only to be put off by finding that they have two sets of admission prices, one for Native Americans and another for everyone else. Perhaps a small people surrounded by a vast one may be able to make a case for race-based pricing, but I am not sure even for them it can be a good one. It is not something we saw anywhere else on this trip. Anyway, it left a sour taste in my mouth, so I went to the trading post instead. At this point we have seen most of the same goods several times over. There is a middle, lower, and upper end in the gift market. The middle stuff is generally the same everywhere. The low is a more or less miscellaneous grab bag of junk. The upper is largely common like the middle, but in different quantities in different locations. This is a middle to upper store, with the obvious specialty in Navajo blankets and baskets, which I don’t spend a great deal of time looking at in case I fall in love with something I can’t afford.

What does tend to differ from one store to another is the design on the t-shirts and hats, which is specific to each location. Only in Winslow, for example, can you get a “Standing on the corner in Winslow Arizona” t-shirt or hat and you can get an astonishing variety of them. It is in the Tuba City trading post that I see the best t-shirt designs I have seen all trip. But we have spent our t-shirt budget already so that is that. The great conundrum of shopping on the road is that you never know if there is going to be something better down the road, but if you don’t buy the thing in front of you, you will not be able to go back and pick it up later. I tend to take the “now” side of these arguments and Anna tends to take the “later” side, but there is really no right or wrong side to it. It is the luck of the draw.

Interestingly, I saw no prohibition on photography in the trading post. Prohibition on photography seems universal among the Pueblo people, but I did not see it here. The Navajo are a different people and a much larger one, so that may account for it. Or I may have missed the signs. On the other hand, nowhere in the Pueblo tribal areas did anyone try to charge me more money for not being native or forbid me to pass on any information I learned. Each community buttresses its culture in a different way, I suppose.

Dinner at the Hogan restaurant is less satisfactory than lunch at the Hopi Cultural Center. Their beef Stew is more potato than beef, and it is a thin broth not the rich gravy I associate with the word stew. The predominant flavor is beef broth. Perhaps this is authentic, reflecting locally available crops and cooking styles. When you ask for authentic you must not always expect it to exceed expectations. That would not be authentic. Still, somehow, there is an expectation that authentic will mean exceptional. It did in the Hopi Cultural Center. It doesn’t here. But there is no actual reason to think this, and every reason to expect otherwise. Which means that our notion of authentic probably isn’t authentic at all. Anyway, the beef stew was kinda sad.

Hogan Restaurant Beef Stew

The fry bread was quite different from the Hopi fry bread we had for lunch. Much thinner—much more like Yorkshire pudding. It was good, but the Hopi fry bread is the hands down winner in my book, based, admittedly, on a single example of each.

This is one of the perils of road-tripping, of course. So many judgements and impressions are based on a single case, for the road draws you onward and there is no going back for a second try. We have visited two peoples in a single day. We are only scratching the surface with each of them. Indeed, it is impossible even to know which part of the surface we are scratching. That is the downside of going from Chicago to LA in three weeks. One sees a little of everything, but very little of any one thing. It is, like this diary, I suppose, a parade of superficial impressions. What else could it be?

Series Navigation << Grand Tour 16: Finding Fern Seed and Elephants in Petroglyphs and Rock and RollThe Grand Tour 18: Amazing Scenery, and the Grand Canyon >>
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