SECOND MESA, Ariz. – A road trip to the Four Corners region of the Southwest offers a window into Native American culture, from ruins older than any other man-made structure in the U.S., to glimpses of contemporary life amid the Navajo and Hopi. Named for the spot where the borders of four states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona — intersect, the Four Corners region is also home to surreal landscapes like the Painted Desert and Monument Valley.
On a recent weeklong trip with my mother and my 14-year-old daughter, we visited some of the area's cultural and historical riches. Here are some highlights.
Some native American sites are best visited with a guide. Our guide to the Hopi reservation, Gary Tso, met us at the Hopi Cultural Center, a museum, hotel and restaurant where the lunch crowd was split between locals and tourists. About 13,000 Hopi live on the reservation in Arizona, entirely surrounded by the Navajo Nation. Tso took us to villages including Old Oraibi, which dates to 1150 and claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the United States. Some stone houses there are centuries old, a living link to native American ruins elsewhere in the region. Tso rattled off a graduate seminar's worth of information about the Hopi as he drove, explaining that he is Hopi even though his father is Navajo because the Hopi are matrilineal. We met craftspeople making silver jewelry and kachinas, the wooden figures that represent spirit beings; we bought souvenirs but took no photos because the Hopi do not allow photography in the villages. Nor did we pocket any of weathered pottery fragments that littered the ground.
Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico is the center of a culture that flourished from the 800s to the 1100s. It is run by the National Park Service and is accessible only via dirt road. Our guide there was Larry Baker, executive director of the nearby Salmon Ruins museum, who showed us the partially excavated ruins of Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl and Casa Rinconada, with its Great Kiva (a room or chamber) 63 feet across. The people who built Chaco are sometimes called the Anasazi but the preferred term is now Ancestral Puebloan because Anasazi means "ancient enemy" in Navajo. We admired the intricate masonry that has lasted a thousand years and puzzled over how a people without written language, metal tools or the wheel could have built such monumental structures.
There were more mysteries at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, where Ancestral Puebloans built vast cliff dwellings starting about 1200 AD and then abandoned them 100 years later — because of drought? Invaders? Park Service tours are the only way to see most of the cliff dwellings up close, but Spruce Tree House, where visitors can descend a ladder into the circular kiva, does not require a ranger-guided tour. The tour to Balcony House involves climbing three ladders and crawling through a 12-foot tunnel. The inhabitants managed the vertiginous climb carrying water, roof beams and corn for their storerooms. Some sites at Mesa Verde close for the season after Oct. 20.
CANYON DE CHELLY
Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona is managed jointly by the Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Visitors can take the White House Ruins Trail to the canyon floor, a 2.5-mile hike that the senior members of our party judged too steep to try, or they can go with a Navajo guide. We stayed at the Thunderbird Lodge in Chinle, Ariz., and joined 20 other guests for a bumpy ride in an open truck. David John, our guide, drove us past 1,000-foot canyon walls and pointed out petroglyphs left by the Ancestral Puebloans (he used the term Anasazi) and the later-arriving Navajo. There are Ancestral Puebloan dwellings like the 900-year-old White House Ruins; there are also modern-day Navajo who spend summers on the canyon floor without running water or electricity. John showed us sites where the U.S. Army battled the Navajo in 1864 before forcibly removing them to a desolate eastern New Mexico reservation called Bosque Redondo.
MONUMENT VALLEY AND THE PETRIFIED FOREST NATIONAL PARK
The Grand Canyon is the Southwest's most spectacular natural wonder but there are many other awe-inspiring geographical features. Monument Valley in the Arizona-Utah border area is studded with dramatic sandstone buttes and was the setting for classic Westerns like John Ford's "Stagecoach" and "The Searchers." The fossilized tree stumps of the Petrified Forest and the banded slopes of the Painted Desert look like Dr. Seuss might have drawn them. A ranger at the Petrified Forest National Park offered to take our picture. I wondered if he was especially eager to please because his park is less popular than the Grand Canyon.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Navajo and Hopi reservations are dry, and restaurants do not serve alcohol. Restaurants and roadside stands sell Navajo fry bread, a disc of deep-fried dough that becomes a Navajo taco when topped with beans, cheese, lettuce, onions and salsa. Navajo cuisine also leans toward lamb and mutton, as the Navajo have traditionally herded sheep. A culinary highlight of our trip was the Metate Room at Mesa Verde, which serves haute versions of traditional foods like corn, squash and game — with wine and beer.
The Four Corners region is Hillerman Country to millions of readers of the late Tony Hillerman's detective novels featuring Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Officer Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. Hillerman, who died in 2008, was white but his books were embraced by the Navajo and other tribes for their sensitive portrayal of native cultures. Hillerman novels were prominently displayed in stores throughout the region and guests were reading them poolside at the Thunderbird Lodge.
If You Go...
MAP: AAA's Indian Country Guide Map is useful for navigating the Four Corners region.
HOPI CULTURAL CENTER: Second Mesa, Ariz., http://www.hopiculturalcenter.com or 928-734-2401. Hotel and restaurant open all year. Gary Tso, Left-Handed Hunter Tour Co., cultural and archeological tours of Hopiland, 928-206-7928, lhhunter68(at)hopitelecom.net. Moenkopi Legacy Inn & Suites, hotel run by the Hopi, Tuba City, Ariz. http://www.experiencehopi.com/hotel/html or 928-283-4500.
CHACO CANYON: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Nageezi, N.M.,or http://www.nps.gov/chcu or 505-786-7014, ext. 221. Open all year. Access is easiest from the north via U.S. 550. Guide to the area, Larry Baker, San Juan County Museum Association, 505-632-2013, sreducation(at)sisna.com
MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK: Mesa Verde, Colo., http://www.nps.gov/meve or 970-529-4465. The park is open all year but some facilities including the Far View Lodge and Balcony House close after Oct. 20.
CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Chinle, Ariz., http://www.nps.gov.cach or 928-674-5500. Open all year. Nearby accommodations at Thunderbird Lodge, 928-674-5744.