Oct 17, 2012
Today we left Farmington and headed for Canyon de Chelly, with a detour to see Four Corners Monument. We were in Navajo country all day, a land made famous to the rest of the world by their friend, Tony Hillerman. Tony Hillerman was a ’white man’ and an author, but his love for the Navajo people and for their traditions and culture was so evident in his writing that the nation named him “Friend of the Navajo People", an honor not often bestowed.
Tony Hillerman wrote mystery novels, and his favorite theme was the adventures of Navajo Tribal Police Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and his able assistant Sgt. Jim Chee. His plots were complex and brilliantly resolved, but the best things about Hillerman’s novels were his rich characterizations, and his haunting descriptions of the high desert landscape. Over the years I read everything Tony Hillerman wrote - and I was extremely sad when he passed away. I felt like I had lost a friend - and my friends Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee with him. I would never read about those men again - never know how their lives worked out. It may have been fiction that introduced me to them, but the loss I felt was absolutely real.
Today Tony Hillerman’s world came alive for me again, as we passed landmark after landmark that I had learned about in his books - Farmington, Shiprock, Teec Nos Pos and Four Corners, signs pointing to familiar places like Lukachukai, Window Rock and Tuba City. It was a great way to spend a day, a day I will always remember.
We reached the Four Corners Monument in early afternoon and paid the nominal admission required to see it. This is Navajo land and they can use the money. The monument is interesting but not real impressive, as it is set in a depression with little view of the surrounding landscape. There are lines etched in the concrete floor and a metal disk at the point where they cross, and there are openings in the surrounding structure so you can look out at the places where the boundary lines point, but the effect is anticlimactic if all you are looking at is an embankment 100 feet away. There are no vistas that let you see the mountains of Colorado, and the place where they meet with the mountains of Utah.
There is also the fact that this monument is not placed at the real point where the officially described boundaries intersect. The western boundary of the Colorado Territory was set at the 32nd longitude way back in 1868, and it was first surveyed using instruments that were the best available at the time, but not as accurate as we can survey them now. The boundary between New Mexico and Utah was set at the 37th parallel in 1850 by a Congressional compromise trying to maintain the balance between the free states of the north, and the slave states of the south. It too was surveyed early and not too accurately.
Plaques at the site discuss the inaccuracies, but they are vague about how the problem stands today, and about if and when it has been legally resolved. A later surveyor claimed an inaccuracy of 8,192 feet in the boundary between Colorado and New Mexico, and another said the east/west boundary was ‘significantly’ farther north than the original, but there is no mention of how far ‘significant’ is. The conclusion drawn from the information at the site, seems to be that no matter how far off the monument may be, the original placement has been accepted and in use for so long that is it now ‘official’ and will not be changed. This brings up all kinds of interesting questions about legality, but those will have to wait until more information is available.
The rest of the afternoon we drove south in Arizona to the town of Chinle. The whole time we were on Navajo lands, passing small farms and ranches, and an occasional small community or town. The scenery was open and interesting, with rock formations in every view, sometimes up close and always far in the distance. They come in every color here, from off white through the warm spectrum of yellow, orange and red to brown and in the distance sometimes purple. The land is dry, but tree lines of yellow cottonwood show that water is present, if not in the form of open streams, at least in the occasional river and close to the surface in the dry looking river beds. Later I was to learn that there are wells that provide some water, but that often they are contaminated with the uranium in the ground.
We reached Chinle, the gateway to Canyon de Chelly, and we took a campsite for the night at Canyon de Chelly’s Cottonwood campground. We will explore the canyon tomorrow.