The Road to Mexian Hat
by Francois Camoin
Draw a line east-west across Utah along the latitude of Moab, or maybe a few miles north, so you can include Arches, which Ed Abbey called his favorite place on earth. Another line north-south through Hanksville, which will intersect the Colorado at Bullfrog Marina, leap the more or less foul waters of Lake Powell, that testimonial to the demented Western passion for progress, and end up crossing the Arizona line northeast of Page, in some of the most deserted country on earth. The piece of Utah inside those arbitrary boundaries is called the Four Corners. There’s actually a spot, reachable by highway only from Arizona, on the road north of Teec Nos Pos, where you can lay your hand on the marker and be in four states at once. It’s an odd, artificial, metaphysical sort of place, this actual Four Corners, a kind of Greenwich meridian of the American West, a pure product of the geographic mind. “Just think, my hand is in four states at the same time,” you say to yourself. And then you look around at the desert and maybe for a moment question the wisdom of the mapmakers who sat in their offices in Washington, ruled dead-straight lines across the landscape and decreed Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, who, for our convenience and theirs, laid this political grid over a landscape they’d never glimpsed.
Here’s another way to define the Four Corners area, maybe better: a right-angled triangle whose sides are the state lines of Colorado and Arizona, and whose long crooked hypotenuse is the Colorado River from Westwater to Wahweap Marina, just north of the dam that drowned Glen Canyon and created Lake Powell for the pleasure of houseboaters and the enrichment of the quick-buck developers. Enough wastes, human and technological, have been dumped into the stagnant waters of the reservoir that it’s now not safe for swimming; if you should catch a fish there only the courageous or ignorant would eat it. The lost battle to save Glen Canyon is part of the history of this corner of Utah, as much so as the Old Spanish Trail, the Crossing of the Fathers, the pioneer trek from Escalante to Bluff by way of Hole in the Rock, the Anasazi settlement at Hovenweep, abandoned when a drought, an overworking of the land, a threat of invasion, a deep cultural melancholy (pick the theory that suits you) caused an entire people to pick up and move. Most of the Mormon settlers of Bluff left too, soon after they arrived, when repeated floods of the San Juan river washed out their crops.
So begin in Moab, which a friend of a friend of mine once called the center of the fourth dimension. Maybe not. But as far as I know it’s the only town in Utah to have a shoe named after it. The spelling is different (here too you can pick your own version of the story) either because the Nike company thought potential customers would have trouble pronouncing the name unless they spelled it phonetically, or, the other story goes, because the city fathers of Moab asked for payment in return for the use of their city. Moab is the largest town in the Four Corners, and, with one possible exception, the least typical. Despite its Biblical name, religious fervor appears to be well under control here. Once a uranium boom town, it now caters to mountain-bike enthusiasts (who are as passionate as any preacher in the defense of their sport, and whose theology is not, finally, much more peculiar than the average); they flood the town every spring and fall.
Unlike other towns of the Four Corners, Moab has bookstores (one is a kind of shrine to Ed Abbey–but why not, there are reports of a primitive mountain tribe in Vietnam who worship Victor Hugo, and British youth who think Eric Clapton is God. Ed Abbey, who wanted to blow up Glen Canyon Dam is OK by me–we could worship worse people). Moab has (of course) bicycle shops, motels by the dozen, a couple of junkyards, oil-drilling companies (I assume, perhaps wrongly, that’s that what those places are which display large metal pipes and derricks in front their prefab steel buildings); Moab has musicians and photographers, writers and painters. It has a newspaper–a Mark Twain, Washoe Zephyr sort of enterprise whose editor in chief has an eye for the oddities of human existence and a fair gift for invective. It has companies which will for a price rent you a raft, a jeep, a mountain bike (naturally), or will, also for a price, take you down the Colorado in a jet boat or over the desert in a helicopter.
There’s a lot to like about Moab, including a restaurant where non-smokers are relegated to the bad-art room, a little cubicle in the back with stunningly ugly murals and uncomfortable chairs, whereas smokers can sit out front just as if they were normal people. It’s as if that nineteenth century rabbi had passed through town, who decreed that to hasten the coming of the Messiah his congregation had to break each of the commandments of Moses every single day.
Drive south out of Moab, however, and everything changes. Ten miles down the road and you’re back in Utah, or more precisely in what Wallace Stegner called Mormon country. Or maybe, if you look at it another way, nothing changes. It depends on what you think matters, on how, in your own mind, you construct place. If human settlement is what counts, then this is very much Mormon country, at least as far south as Mexican Hat and the beginnings of the Navajo Reservation, Dinetah, the land of the people. If you worship landscape instead of God, if you think of the land as sufficient reason for its own existence, instead of as a place for human beings to work out their theological destiny, then Monticello, Blanding, Bluff, Montezuma Creek, Aneth, Mexican Hat, even Moab, are largely irrelevant. The rivers and the mountains don’t care much.
The same ground is mapped differently from different points of view. On an Texaco map the roads are what matter—mountains only appear as little crosses with a number giving the elevation of this or that peak too famous to ignore altogether; rivers are too faint to see; whole mountain ranges disappear as if they never existed. The organizing principle is that if you can’t take your air-conditioned Winnebago there, the place doesn’t exist. On a topographical map, it’s the roads you can barely see–the mountains and rivers are everything, the shape and contour of the land is what counts.
Actually it doesn’t even take a map to experience this curious shift. Drive down the Interstates and the Interstates are what matters—the exits, the rest areas, the towns at the far end of the off-ramp where you can get a quick hamburger and a tankful of gas. But drive, as I did last fall, down a dirt road in the San Rafael Swell, a dirt road that winds between rock walls, dives down into sand-filled washes, goes nowhere and everywhere; when the road comes, as this one did, to Interstate 70, it’s the big four-lane highway that seems irrelevant, just another obstacle. You drive under it, through a concrete tunnel that seems more like a culvert than an underpass, and out the other side, and it’s forgotten.
So drive down Utah 191. Drive out of spring in Moab at 4,000 feet of altitiude, into winter in Monticello, 3,000 feet higher, where there’s still five feet of snow and all that’s to be seen of the barbed-wire fences along the road is the top six inches of each fence-post, then down again into spring in Blanding. There you can take a bad dirt road into Hovenweep and out of the 19th century into the 13th and another way of being in the world.
The Anasazi, about whom we know, finally, not a hell of a lot, were if nothing else, architects of considerable imagination, though it may be wrong to use the word architecture, which like landscape, is an idea perhaps peculiar to our culture. This ancient people built things out of stone which to us call forth ideas of architecture that might have been incomprehensible to the builders. Still, the Anasazi are gone into history, or into New Mexico where they became somebody else, and here we are, faced with what they left. Being a busy and word-oriented folk, we have to talk about it with the words we have. Square towers, round towers, a curious pair of buildings with a narrow gap between them. One structure built under an enormous boulder which at some point shifted, destroying most of the masonry, leaving gaps through which we can glimpse more distant buildings. The idea of defense against invaders is irresistible; structures are built on the edge of precipices so that they can only be approached from one side, designed with narrow entrances and few windows—it all brings to mind sieges and other narratives of war. But then why make some corners round, others square, sometimes on the same structure? Why build one tower, as romantic in its decay as anything Byron could have dreamed of, in the very bottom of the canyon? It’s possible, of course, that the Anasazi, like us, were simply an eccentric, quarrelsome people, who disagreed with each other about what was beautiful, what was useful, what was architecturally decorous. For all we know these differences might be theological distinctions worked out in stone; maybe round corners and square corners express different versions of the Godhead.
We hiked through the ruins, along trails marked with little piles of stone (Boy Scouts?). We’d been joined by a writer friend, Phyllis Barber, formerly of Utah, now living in Colorado. A practical person as well as a visionary, she brought along wine and cheese and dried apricots. We talked with the ranger in charge about what it all meant, but he didn’t know any more than the archeologists. He said he liked living here. The sky above Hovenweep, a Ute word that means deserted valley, was a dead blue-white, marked only by the contrails of jet liners. From thirty-five thousand feet, St. Exupery said, you can’t see any signs of human habitation. He hadn’t flown over Colorado and seen the circles of irrigation, but other than that he pretty much had it right.
Phyllis asked if the ranger was married. He said yes, that his wife made the most of her time by studying various subjects; she had an extensive library. I wanted a cigar but there’s no smoking in the park. I took photographs of the ruins, hoping that the prints would later reveal something not obvious to the unmediated eye. We hiked back to the ranger station and headed south again, in the direction of Mexican Hat.
We drove through Aneth, Montezuma Creek, West Montezuma Creek, where I stopped to take a picture of a sign that said “The Church of Chris Meets Here.” Local people stared at me from a gas station on the other side of the road and I had a momentary attack of traveler’s paranoia, a conviction that they were about to come running across the asphalt and beat me up for making fun of their town. Phyllis has a son named Chris and I thought he’d like the photo, but could I have explained that? Later we stopped to look down at the Goosenecks of the San Juan, an unlovely name for a lovely place. Stegner says the river travels six miles along its length to cover what would be a mile and a half in a straight line. The full moon was coming up; two people on the far side of the parking area appeared to be making love on a picnic table. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do at this time, in this place. We went down a little ways toward the river on a half-hearted trail; when we came back up the lovers were gone.
Mexican Hat is named after a balancing rock north of town that to the imaginative eye looks like a sombrero. There’s a lot of that sort of naming in the Four Corners, an attempt to throw a net of familiar words over an alien landscape that must often have seemed threatening and hostile to the first European settlers. Monticello, as if the incantation of the name could have called up the soothing democratic presence of Thomas Jefferson. Cow Canyon. Mule Canyon. The Blue Mountains. Sunset Point. Montezuma Creek is named after a story that the Aztec emperor escaped from Cortez, made his way north and was retaken at, logically enough, Recapture Point. Other names have more commonplace origins; Blanding was the maiden name of the wife of a man named Bicknell, who gave half his library and his name to that town—the renaming of the place was a condition of the gift. Blanding got the other half of the library.
Mexican Hat is several trading posts, a couple of motels, a few gas stations. Doris Valle runs one trading post; an item in one of the local newspapers we picked up along the way explained she’d recently burned her luggage to avoid the temptation to do any more traveling. If I lived in Mexican Hat I think I’d be tempted to travel too. When we got there the town was full of river-runners in Spandex suits stopping for the night. They were lined up ten deep at what is apparently Mexican Hat’s only pay telephone. One wore a cap in the shape of a large dead fish. We ate beef stew and fry bread at the Olde Bridge Bar and Grill. I had spent a day in Mexican Hat in October of last year, and over the beef stew I began to feel I might be doomed to return again and again to this peculiar place. More traveler’s paranoia, I suppose, and not to be taken any more seriously than the imagined revenge of the good people of West Montezuma Creek.
Still, there’s something not quite of this world about Mexican Hat. We’d come into town the easy way this time, along Route 163 from Bluff; in October we’d driven down from Hanksville along 261. That way leads through an inoffensive and pretty plateau until, without warning, you come to the edge of the world; the plateau ends in a sheer drop (it looks like several thousand feet–it’s actually closer to twelve or fifteen hundred) that drops into Monument Valley. A one and a half lane wide dirt road, built in the fifties by uranium companies for their ore trucks, is pegged to the cliff like a climbing rope.
But there’s more to it than the difficulty of the approach; no, there’s something metaphysically a little wrong about Mexican Hat, some sense of having carelessly stepped into another dimension, where life is almost exactly as it is in ours, but not quite. I recently met a river-runner who’d been there once, and she, a perfectly practical person, at home in the world, told me she’d spent the night huddled in her tent, hard by the river and the rafts, unwilling to go into town. She didn’t say afraid, just unwilling. Maybe it’s the peculiar nature of the population, half Spandex people, half Navajo. Maybe it’s the river, though the San Juan seems merely stark and beautiful in the way of other big rowdy Western rivers. More likely it’s the sense of being at another kind of edge of the world, for which the big cliff is only a sign—the dividing line between Dinetah, where life is different from what we are used to, and the Mormon Country, where the way of being is peculiar also, but homely and familiar in its eccentricity. Maybe it’s a slight sense (it doesn’t come from the people of Mexican Hat, who are friendly and helpful) of our not being welcome, of our intruding on something old and deep and better left alone. The feeling of being a foreigner.
Then again, that’s after all why we travel—to be strangers, foreigners, to find ourselves in places where we don’t belong. And sometimes we don’t have to go as far as we would suppose in order to get there.
Phyllis left in the early morning to go back to Colorado and her family. Barry and I drove back through Bluff, Blanding, Monticello, and Moab. We came down the canyon into Spanish Fork after dark; the smog we’d left behind three days before was still there, making everything a little darker, deformed, more difficult to see clearly. Barry’s driving got more erratic as we came up the Interstate to the city; he kept drifting dangerously across the white lines. My Sister Jane was on the stereo, singing about love and trouble. These women have clear and lovely voices, arrogant and sorrowful. They remind me that it’s always possible to so divide up the world that we end up not being a part of it. To sit in our office in some Washington of the mind, and draw lines that have nothing to do with anything except our desire to impose sense on a world, a land, whose reasons for being must ultimately evade us. The whole idea of landscape, or worse yet, scenery, is regrettable, finally. It’s the result of our effort to divide the world into the useful (mines, farmland, forests that can be harvested, townsites), and the useless. Struck with an obscure sense of guilt, we want to justify that part of the useless which we can call the beautiful. Hence National Parks, National Monuments, Wilderness Areas. As if it wasn’t all wilderness, even on State Street on a Saturday night in the City of the Great Salt Lake. Maybe especially on State Street on a Saturday night.
I think I could live in Moab and be happy precisely because it’s not a tourist town, though the tourists come there. Because it doesn’t exist simply for the sake of the beautiful. The junkyards full of rusted baroque monuments to our love of the road are nature too. And the suppliers of oil-drilling equipment, their pipes and rigs. The abandoned uranium mines, their tailings, can be a sort of beauty. The delicate arch in the National Park is far from the only one; look at the shape of the windshield of this ’57 DeSoto, slowly decaying under the same blue sky that hangs above Arches—that too is nature. The mountain-bikers who descend on Moab in the spring are at the bottom of a food chain as complex and as interesting as the one that begins with nitrogen falling from the air on the soil outside of town. That is what Ed Abbey knew when he killed the rabbit with a smooth rock near his little housetrailer in the park. The only thing he did wrong was that he didn’t go ahead and eat it. We are not exempt, he was trying to say . No matter how we draw the line.