Utah and Navajo Nation
One of the places I had most been looking forward to seeing in America was Utah, for no other reason than driving through Monument Valley. Used for decades as a backdrop to John Wayne films and more recently, flashy car adverts, I couldn’t wait to see its giant red sandy butes rising up like ancient skyscrapers from the flat desert ground and wonder at their creation.
We were in the Navajo Nation – a semi-autonomous nation within the USA and the country’s largest Native American reserve covering 27,425 square miles across three states. It was created in 1868 as part of the Navajo Treaty with the US government.
Our off-road jeep rolled over sand dunes, dirt tracks and through open flats where wild mustangs tentatively grazed. Once again, the weather had followed us and thick grey storm clouds gathered in the distance, serving to add to the atmosphere of it being a wild, inhospitable place.
Our guide, a Navajo himself, told us his ancestors history from pre-Columbian times through to the Spanish conquistadors and European American settlers, including their forced removal and internment, 300 miles away from their spiritual home in 1864. The Navajo also played a key role in World War 1 as code talkers relaying radio messages in their native tongue that the Japanese could not intercept.
Storytelling is integral to Native Indian culture, and we quickly discovered every bute has a name, usually relating to its shape and some not that ancient (one was called Snoopy!)
Although climbing on any of the butes is forbidden as they are considered sacred to the Navajo, at one point we clambered out of our vehicle to explore one of the rock formations up close. This particular rock had been hollowed out by the elements over centuries and had a gently sloping side and a large hole in the ceiling. Our Navajo guide encouraged us to lie down against the slope and look up – pointing out the shape of the cave above us which looked like an eagle’s head – the hole forming the eagle’s eye. As we looked up to the white sky beyond the rock hole, he sang a hauntingly beautiful traditional story-song in his native language, accompanied by a double flute. It was beautiful moment and perfectly demonstrated the Navajo’s revere and reverence for the natural world.
The spiritual connection the Navajo have to their surroundings featured continuously in the songs, music, dances and story telling that we enjoyed throughout the evening, in a natural rock amphitheater.
Their performances represent the Navajo people’s believed history; from run-ins with devious wild coyotes, crows that steal eyes, the god of rain, monster eagles and dangerous shapeshifters that come out in the desert nights. Everything the Navajo wears has meaning; from the grass fringed skirts, to the blue dyed fabric, to the eagle feather headdress – all fit together with the traditional music and dances to bring the stories of how they as a people came to be, to life.
My first reaction to this landscape was to appreciate it only for the physical processes and time taken for it to have been created. I left with a realisation of its sacred and spiritual importance to the Navajo people and how the two are inextricably linked.
New Mexico – the first landing?
New Mexico is a large state and apart from Santa Fe (which I’ll save for another blog) there isn’t too much in it. However, one place in this remote corner of the USA is world famous and attracts visitors all year round. That would be Roswell, and they would be alien enthusiasts (and me!).
Roswell is a small town – the fifth largest city in New Mexico with a population of just 48,000 people. It has fully embraced its history as the reported site of the 1947 UFO crash landing and supposed subsequent government cover-up. Everything in the town is alien themed, from street lighting with almond-shaped black alien eyes, to the MacDonald’s building in the shape of a spaceship. Every shop, has alien themed memorabilia in the front windows – even Walmart has little green men painted on its walls.
I popped into the International UFO Museum to see if there was any truth to the claims. Here, the conspiracy theories reign and it’s clear at least some people in the town do believe they were visited by extraterrestrials more than half a century ago. Regardless of its basis in reality, it makes for a compelling, if a little far-fetched, story and it’s not hard to see why the media and individuals became obsessed with finding ‘the truth’.
Sadly, I didn’t meet any real Martians in Roswell… not to my knowledge anyway!
Texas – Finding Cowboys in San Angelo and Austin
San Angelo is a small city in West Texas which became a regional hub for the oil and gas industry in the 1900s. Austin, in East Texas is the State Capital, a huge university town and lays claim to being the “live music capital of the world.”
You couldn’t get two more different places which both represent Texas; the cowboys and oil men of old, and the tech start-up hub of graduates, for new.
We were entering the south and with that comes the famous southern hospitality. On this count, neither city disappointed. I had some great and memorable (if i could fully remember) nights in both cities.
San Angelo felt like your traditional, wide street for big trucks, built on an commodity-rush, type of town. It had good restaurants offing hearty fare and huge portions and a strikingly large amount of its inhabitants wore cowboy hats, or leather clothes, or sometimes both, all in a non-ironic way, naturally. In one bar, two Texans paid for a round of tequila for their new English friends, asking us all about life in Blighty. Sadly I couldn’t say if they were true cowboys…the lack of hats said probably not.
Austin was hip, tech-savvy and full of packed out dive bars, with the clashing sounds of multiple live music performances in every drinking den. The city was full of students back for a University of Texas reunion and the vibe was an all-day street party. However, even here, it wasn’t without it’s cowboy references – a least one bar had a resident bucking bronco ride for any inebriated punters. We did a boozy bar crawl down Sixth Street, listening to some cracking musical covers, and went to the bridge to check out the city’s urban bat population that fly their roost at dusk.
Despite not coming across any real cowboys in Texas, my route was continuing to go in-country, to Tennessee, where I hoped to find hats, boots and leather chaps being worn proudly on the streets once again.
Navajo – We did the Navajo Spirit Day Tour – it was $80 but included dinner and lasted roughly five hours. For me, an absolute must do.
Austin – Casino el Camino bar – for the best burger I have ever had. It doesn’t look much from the outside or in, but trust me on the food and warm personalities of the staff. A total must if you are in the city.