Half my life ago I left Gallup, New Mexico, a small town one day’s drive south of Dinosaur National Monument.
Fourth of July weekend was my chance to go back. Marie Jimenez and I left early with a borrowed tent and a cooler of hot dogs, a list of geological destinations eagerly programmed into our phones. First stop on the list: Dinosaur, Colorado. For fossil fuel, of course.
After filling the tank, we turned right and headed to Route 139, a windy mountain road filled with potholes and lined with sweet-smelling yellow clover. Then the mountains spilled out into plains again and the clover traded places with familiar sagebrush and juniper.
First stop on the list: Dinosaur, Colorado. For fossil fuel, of course.
A few miles further, red cliffs of the Entrada formation took over the landscape, and we knew were approaching the area of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. We only had time for one, and we picked Arches.
Red spires in suggestive shapes greeted us past the entrance. Our first stop was Balanced Rock, a precarious sandstone boulder atop a mudstone-and-sandstone pedestal.
The first hike we planned was to Delicate Arch. A warning sign greeted us: “HEAT KILLS,” followed by a ranger at the trailhead with a barrel of water. I topped off my bottle and figured I had plenty for the three-mile hike.
My phone claimed it was 98 degrees, but on the surface of the petrified sandstone dunes we had to scale it felt like 100 or more. People coming back looked exhausted, but toward the top of the dunes they gave words of encouragement as they passed the struggling uphill hikers. “It’s not that far.” “It’s worth it!” “It’s like another ten minutes.”
Half an hour later we finally found shade and stopped to have snacks and cool off. This freakin arch better be right around that corner, we both thought.
It was. The trail was carved into the rock leading up the arch, and as we followed it around a cliff, a small crowd came into view. Then the arch.
Sixty-five feet high and supported only by two feet like a lumpy sandstone slinky, it dwarfed the tiny hikers posing under it for photos.
Even Marie looked like she was about to pass out, and she grew up in the tropics.
We were both out of water by the time we got back to the parking lot. Under layers of sunscreen and sweat, a week-old sunburn on my legs had started blistering. Even Marie looked like she was about to pass out, and she grew up in the tropics. We blasted the air conditioner, got our back-up water out of the cooler, looked at each other, and both said what the other was thinking.
“So this is our only hike today.”
We drove through the rest of the park, leaving the air conditioning only to refill our water bottles and take a few more photos.
We’d planned to cook hot dogs over a campfire, but we found out (happily before we got there) that the KOA in Moab wouldn’t allow campfires, so we hunted down dinner in town and found pizza. Then we set up our tent and crashed.
We aimed for Four Corners the next morning. I’d been there in the 90s when it was a wood platform. Now it’s legitimate monument, with brass inlay marking the only place where four state boundaries meet.
It wasn’t just Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado we stood in, though. We were also at the border of another political entity, superimposed on three of the others: the Navajo Nation. Its flag waved proudly with the others above the monument, and its people worked the merchandise stands in all four directions. We left with tee-shirts, post cards, and stomachs full of frybread-wrapped goodness known as Navajo tacos.
We were also at the border of another political entity, superimposed on three of the others: the Navajo Nation.
Our next stop was one of the four landmarks on our new tee-shirts: Shiprock. In Navajo, it is Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings,” a holy site featured heavily in mythology. It’s also a spectacular example of igneous geology, and on a road trip with a geologist it was a must-stop.
It was dinner time when we rolled into Gallup and parked in front of my friends’ house. Melanie Smith is a nurse who I went to high school with, and Robin Lasiloo is her artist soulmate, monster designer on the Monster Slayer Project, and graphic design instructor at the local university. They have four cats and a three-legged chinchilla. We all laid waste to the hot dogs that were miraculously still below room temperature in the back of my car. (Except the chinchilla. He prefers grilled corn husks.)
Around the fire pit, Melanie caught us up on the goings-on of my old home town. “Did you see the new sign coming into town? Gallup is officially ‘the most patriotic small town in America.'” It remains unclear how exactly it earned that tagline, but I came up with a theory the next night, on our nation’s birthday.
But first, I hadn’t been to the legendary Gallup Flea Market since I moved away in 2000. So on the Fourth of July, Marie and I tracked the place down (Google maps failed us) and found all the dream catchers, pottery and native-print throw pillows we’d been hoping for. We had breakfast burritos like the ones I used to buy from Leo Montano in 10th grade that I’ve been dreaming about ever since, with ground beef, potatoes and chile–no eggs. I was in $4 food heaven. I even tried something new: Navajo tea, made from a desert herb called greenthread. I washed down a hot slab of frybread with it under a tin roof after a heavy thunderstorm set in. Every stand less sturdy was forced to close up, and some were blowing over.
every time I go to New Mexico I feel like I have to take in as much of it as I can in the short time I have. And by take in I mean eat.
Marie was probably bored out of her mind at this point, but every time I go to New Mexico I feel like I have to take in as much of it as I can in the short time I have. And by take in I mean eat. I’ve never found these flavors anywhere else.
On our way back to Melanie and Robin’s, we made a detour to the edge of town. There it was on the sign: “MOST PATRIOTIC SMALL TOWN IN AMERICA.”
The fireworks started well before it was dark. Because of the thunderstorm earlier, fire risk was low and the fire department seemed content to let the neighborhoods have their fun. We walked into view of the official city display, but it paled in comparison to the hours and hours of explosions that filled the sky above the back streets. It occurred to me over the course of the night that patriotism must be measured in illegal fireworks per capita.
I fell asleep long after the ribs and grilled corn were gone, a little while after force-feeding myself a cupcake, and just a few minutes after the very last firework fizzed out in the street.
We drove straight back the next day, not quite ready for the workweek.