The Four Corners region of the Southwest is the place where the Architect did something different. After he was done chiseling the vast gorges all over the Colorado Plateau, when he was finished letting his spit fly into the Colorado, the San Juan, the Green and the Little Colorado, when he was bushed after a hard day sculpting the West Slope of the Rockies, he had some extra material left over. This was the salvage yard where he hauled whatever rocks were left over. It wasn’t much, mind you. Just some shale and siltstone here, a little igneous there, some metamorphism and eroded reef from the Morrison Deep there.
He had a lot of sand, though, from his old sand box. Throw in a little fold and thrust, a few hotspots and some accreted exotic terrain, bake it all together, and pretty soon you got yourself a glorious contingency, a stupendous accident. The Four Corners was the Architect’s attempt to imitate Jackson Pollack in 3D. He’d missed modernism, and I guess he figured he’d better catch up.
So today on this cool afternoon with a turbid, October sky, I made the drive from my hotel in Farmington, New Mexico out to the Shiprock monolith. I could see its jagged, arrowhead profile as I wound through the shallow canyon to the edge of Navajoland. Renegade rains plastered the windshield of my rent-a-car. Finally, the endless strip towns corrugating the highway gave way to the high semi-desert. The land stretched into heaving scrub plain sentried by chain-mesas. The oily blacktop gleamed with a patina of cool, shimmery rain.
I left the town of Shiprock behind and turned toward eponymous monolith. I rambled off the pavement and trammeled down a road half sand and half paved with old seafloor basement. It was sidewalk and toothy by turns. My radials and low-slung chassis rebelled against the ruggedness evolved only for off-roaders and pebble-pocked, ranchers’ pickups. I drove until I figured I wouldn’t be able to go on without impaling my gas tank on an unforgiving fang of rock. I alighted from my car and slid on my old, yellow Gortex rain jacket.
Out here in the high wind, I was an out-of-place figure in the middle of the Architect’s yard for his Dream Discharge. I followed some cattle down another unpaved track toward the main fantail of Shiprock, where the livestock flowed like molasses over a break in the dike, graceful in their distant ambling. I perched on top of a knife edge, a volcanic dike that discharged from the southern exhaust of Shipr ock. I was zipped up in solitude for 20 miles in every direction except for the faroff, silent glints of the trucks along the highway toward Red Rock. I hiked up to the Shiprock Monolith.
The La Platas were already sewn in with snow, the day before All Hallows Eve. Sleeping Ute Mountain, in reality an entire range of volcanic rock, slumbered due north. I was all turned around, with no way for my mind to orient to the cardinal points. The Architect was no city planner. He’d abandoned the grid system out here.
Shiprock the rock threw on its blue halo, bluer and darker near the ridges of its sharp shoulders than the same sky that lay flat on the far horizon. The main dike radiating from the monolith stretched south toward Gallup. Up close, it was Hadrian’s Wall from the north of England, a massive fortification. My unaccustomed city eye honed in on my rented Honda Civic, half-buried a couple miles off in the flat brush where I abandoned it like a broken down burrow. It was just a shimmering pin prick just now.
The consistent wind forced me alee along the west face of the dike. The high semi-desert opened up from the west side of the wall. A pinnacle rock pointed like a witch’s hat, another stubborn neck of old dolorite, perhaps.
I turned my head in a steady, fluid arc like a camera panning an establishing shot. Low mounts thrust up to the northwest. I didn’t know what they were called. Better they remained nameless. So many ranges like this west of the Rockies dot the Colorado Plateau. To slap a name on each mesa, to study the specific origins of the geologic hiccup that caused a monocline to lean just the way it did, only seeped more of the mystery and gigantism out of the Four Corners of the earth. That made the Architect’s great ghost retreat back down through the fissures in the earth from which he emerged.
I just wanted to describe it so I could remember it, keep my memory of it pristine when I felt affronted by the pettiness of the news of the world. A stubby outcropping of sandstone germinated from the bed due north. Another heap of low mountains, some teased with snow, dissolved into the backdrop of clouds northwest. A pair of crows cawed to each other, spiraling down the thermals in a figure-eight. Deer flies basked on the warm kopje of my black Nike sweats, which, along with my green fleece pullover, are my second skin wherever I go.
Shiprock had other fantails besides the major dike flowing south for almost two miles, interrupted only by the black tongue of highway. Another dike flowed west, one northeast, and one northwest. Shiprock was an old volcanic neck, made of sturdy igneous rock that resists erosion. It was burping and throwing up magma back in the Pliocene, over 30 million years ago. The dikes that flowed from it in a radial pattern were the remains of underground eruptions, called igneous intrusions, where molten stone injected itself into surrounding rock below the earth’s surface. When the soft shale of the blanketing plains weathered away, the stubborn volcanic rock was exposed. Old histories were finally revealed.
I kept asking myself whether I’d ever see Shiprock again. There were so many places to explore in the Four Corners alone, and they each seemed inaccessible to an easterner like me. I wanted to hold onto the jagged monolith. I wanted to grasp this sharp spire and set it in a sheath and take it home. That’s why I had so many coffee table books with panoramas from all over the world at home. If I had the Canadian Rockies in glossy color, I could somehow possess their essence. I suffered from the delusion that I could contain spirits. That was why we put things in bottles, from Genies to Jack Daniels. I lusted to acquire whole histories.
But Shiprock held other histories, unknown to me. The Navajo call it sa-bit-tai-e, the Rock with Wings. It was the great bird that brought them from the north..
I circumnavigated the monolith. I was running low on water. Up close, the multiple summits of sharp lava breccia stood like spears of broken glass. They were formed by violent explosions that shattered an igneous core within the volcanic vent. This happened 3,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Steadily, these spiked shoulders rose from underworld to overlord, born ancient, curing slowly in the atmosphere.
The topography alluded to apocalyptic events that had long past. For the remainder of its life, Shiprock would succumb to erosion and be ground to dust. This landscape pointed toward endings as well as beginnings. I perceived ruins perhaps because I’d said goodbye to a possible future out here. A relationship had ended. I’d grieved that, and felt the cleansing freedom of an undetermined future, where all possibilities lay equidistant from where I stood now.
I looked at a cross-section of the main dike as I approached the pass into the surrounding plain. Below its jagged incisors that formed the bottom half of the jaw of a 30 million year old crocodile, gentle folds of talus swept outward, sprinkled with sage and broken volcanic detritus like shattered bottle glass on skid row. I stood still long enough for a sleek, black spider wasp with iridescent blue-black wings to mistake me for a wolf spider. She tried to anesthetize my boot with her stinger. But I’d be damned if I’d go down her burrow, not without a fight.
I hopped down onto a boulder field that guarded the west approach to Shiprock. The dike was a shapeshifter. From head on, it was the spine of a stegosaur, tapering off on the other side of the highway into a battle-ax tail. The dinosaur must have burrowed its head deep within the mantle, hibernating perhaps, until liberated by the wind and sand, waiting until the two-leggers forfeited the earth.
I peered into my past, viewing recent history from multiple perspectives. I couldn’t be a prisoner of my history as long as my view of it kept shifting, and that it would do as long as I kept changing in the present.
I scrutinized the boulders tumbling down from the base of the monolith itself. I perched on one and contemplated the plains that roiled like the troughs of vast storm waves. Far off, another volcanic plug, shaped much like Shiprock, floated in a convoy of landed ships, stranded by the regressing, long ago sea. Still more miles south, another monolith broke against the sky, shaped like a bar graph. The land rose and fell like this most of the way to Gallup. Closer up, just a mile or two on the other side of the road, a discontinuous mesa paraded by in four pieces. Lenticular clouds hung like bonnets over the low mountains west of Shiprock. I scanned the horizons like a robot, memorizing the mesmerizing jaggedness and orangeness, inhaling the soft sands. The sun slid lower, and the teeth of the smaller dikes hung gaunt shadows the shapes of evergreen cones on the desert floor. The very end of the main wall nearest Shiprock itself was pocked with kettle holes and a sandblasted battlement window made for a small cannon.
I had to record this place. I had to move out into it, and buy land near it. I clung to it like a jealous lover when I believed that. I wrapped myself around what I loved, afraid of losing it. My past was something I could call mine. My history belonged to no one else. That was why a man clung to his pain so; because it was his alone, the only thing he didn’t have to share, since no one else wanted that ache. It could become his whole identity. Pain adhered. But when I clung to what I loved, then what I loved had to peel itself away from me in an act of self-preservation. How could these thousands and thousands of majesty miles be freeze dried and bottled, even if aspects of them seemed to stand as frozen mountain top or dry mesa? How could the miles of road be owned, even though I drove over them? Although this landscape appeared unsubject to the law of time, which counted most in cities where it was held in high value, it too was in flux. No snapshot in word or picture was a reasonably accurate representation of forever. Solitude could only be seen in a frame beyond pictures and heard in a language beyond words. These dried shores can neither be owned nor studied well. When I cling to this place out of fear of losing it, it crumbles to dust in my hands, and shrivels to a mirage before my eyes. When I decay with it on its own terms and recede with it into a shared history, I remind myself that I become the self that it is.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just