From Texas to Navajo Nation

We left Amarillo and drove across the flat plains to the west. Everything looked frighteningly dry: the grass wasn’t even brown from lack of water, it was bleached almost white.

At lunch time, we got off the interstate and followed Historic Route 66, as it is called in New Mexico, through Santa Rosa. We pulled in to a restaurant called “Route 66.” A man got out of a truck marked “City of Santa Rosa” and walked in in front of us. I figured it was a good sign that a city worker was going to eat there. Inside, the restaurant was well kept, with lacy curtains in the windows, Route 66 memorabilia on the walls, and pretty red and white artificial flowers in vases on the tables. It seemed like just about everyone eating in the restaurant knew each other; one older man stopped at nearly every table to greet people on the way to his table at the back of the restaurant.

A distinguished looking man with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a sport shirt and new and neatly pressed blue jeans, stood at the cash register. He asked us with a soft Spanish accent how our meal was. We got to chatting about the weather. “It’s the driest year ever since they’ve been keeping records,” he said in his soft voice. When he learned we were from California, he asked, “How is it there?” “We’ve had a wet year,” I said. “And cold,” said Carol, “our tomatoes just aren’t growing.” He shook his head at this news: wet and cold!

We passed billboards advertising Cline’s Corners. “We have to go there,” I said. “Why?” said Carol. “Because it’s a place that’s completely a product of Route 66 going through,” I said. A man named Cline, when he learned where Route 66 was going through, bought up the land where Route 66 would intersect the highway heading north to Santa Fe — this according to Route 66: The Highway and Its People by Quinta Scott and Susan C. Kelly (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), which we’re slowly reading as we drive across the country. We pulled into Cline’s Corners. It was a bleak small roadside stop, with a gas station, a Subway fast food joint, and a fair-sized store that sold a lot of crap.

We drove on, listening to an audio recording of a book by P. G. Wodehouse. I don’t remember which book by P. G. Wodehouse, but then the plots of his books are often interchangeable. It is much better written than the last recorded book we listened to, Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee. I don’t like the way McPhee uses words; for example, when describing a rapids in the Merrimack River, he calls it a “chimerical falls,” but it isn’t in the least chimerical, especially when he has to pull his canoe through it. Wodehouse, on the other hand, can be trusted to use words that mean what he wants them to mean; even if his characters and plots are interchangeable, his prose is beautiful.

We got to Albuquerque at three in the afternoon, too late for lunch and too early for dinner, but we stopped at the Frontier Restaurant anyway. Dad told me we should stop there. I got a big breakfast for six dollars and fifty cents, Carol got some pozole, and we sat there eating our food and watching the people. We saw a great variety of people. An older white man stopped and chatted with Carol for a minute, then sat in the booth next to ours and read an academic-looking book. A black man with close-cropped hair in combat fatigues and carrying a motorcycle helmet walked past us. A teenaged white girl, her hair in cornrows and wearing a blue sparkly shirt, looked longingly at the candy bars in the vending machine. A man with brown skin and a superb walrus mustache, wearing a ball cap and a sweat-stained t-shirt, sat across the room. A man walked past who had no discernible skin color because his entire face and shaved skull were brightly tattooed, even down to his eyelids. A thin blonde middle-aged woman who had seen too much sun waited at the counter to order her meal. Outside, a young woman with a mohawk walked next to a young man with dreadlocks. A thin black man of about my age, wearing a fedora with a tiny brim, a black shirt, and a flowered vest, watched the ambulance pull up outside, its crew get out, talk to a police officer, then drive away. “That cop is parked the wrong way,” said a waitress to a bus boy. “He’s facing the wrong way on the street. Do you think he knows it?”

“Tell you Dad that this was the right place to go,” Carol said. Dad had told me that this was a restaurant that Tony Hillerman frequented while he was alive. As we went out, I saw a sign on the door that read, “No study groups or meetings Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.” If we lived in Albuquerque, I’d bet that I would spend way to much time in the Frontier Restaurant.

Driving westward, we climbed up, and crossed the continental divide, at an elevation of 7,275 feet above mean sea level. Now we were in the Great Basin. At Gallup, we turned right, and headed towards Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation.

We checked in to our motel at about seven in the evening, and immediately went out for a walk. I have a slight head cold, so the elevation — we’re some 6,800 feet above sea level — made me breathe hard as we walked fast. But the dry thin air also cleared me out, and I felt better than I had in days.

The land is incredibly beautiful, in spite of the broken booze bottles along the side of the road and the plastic bags blowing everywhere: sage brush, scattered low trees, mesas and red rock formations rearing up on all sides. We walked to the seat of the Navajo Nation’s government, passing by the Tribal Police, the Navajo Nation Council Chamber, the Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Department of Environmental Protection, Dine’ College, and so on. The buildings were nestled in at the base of big red rock formations, and there, at the back of the complex, was Window Rock, a hole in a red rock escarpment.

Walking back to the motel, we detoured around some cows standing in the middle of the sidewalk. We stopped in at the Dine’ Restaurant, which is part of the motel, and I order from their Navajo menu: mutton stew and fry bread. The mutton stew was tender pieces of mutton, potatoes, carrots, and celery in a clear mild broth; the fry bread was round thin chewy bread, glistening here and there with grease, presumably fried in a frying pan. “You’re hungry,” said Carol, as she watched me polish off my meal.” “It’s really good,” I said.

2 thoughts on “From Texas to Navajo Nation”

  1. I’m glad you found the Frontier. My friend, who was on the faculty at UNM introduced me to it and told me that it is a favorite hangout of UNM people. If I lived in ABQ, I would spend lots of time there. We need a place like that here in Concord. Dad

  2. The old federal highways are a great way to travel. I took about half of U.S. Route 2 one time, from western Montana to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You see all the things that arose because of the highway and have declined since the arrival of the interstate.

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