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Paul Andersen: Navajo ghost towns on a lockdown road trip

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

“NON-ESSENTIAL TRAVEL ILLEGAL.” So read the sign board at the Marble turnoff on Highway 133 last week at the border of Gunnison County.

Twenty-two suicides a day among veterans gave me leeway in determining essential travel, so I was making a trip to Arizona on a scouting mission for Huts for Vets, the nonprofit that serves veterans at the 10th Mountain Huts.

I made the big switchback over McClure Pass and was wowed by the blue sky framing Ragged Mountain. Yes, the world can be beautiful — even during a pandemic.

Traffic was light as far as Delta, then heavy until Ouray where 550 climbs Red Mountain, Molas and Coal Bank passes. Looping mountain roads cut a swath through stunning landscapes of jagged alpine peaks mantled with snow.

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I stopped at Hermosa Creek for a two-hour recon of the Hermosa Creek Trail, mountain biking a buffed-out single-track. A discreet camp provided a piece of level ground beneath a juniper as wind howled through a blackened forest burnt out from wildfire two years ago.

Pushing south the next morning, I hit a checkpoint on the outskirts of Gallup where police cars had their lights whirling. When a Navajo sheriff’s deputy waved me forward, it was obvious that the pandemic has hit hard on the rez. I pulled a mask over my face and rolled down the window.

“What’s this about?” he gestured at the Huts for Vets logo on my door. I handed him a business card. “We serve veterans in the wilderness of Colorado.”

“I’m a Marine Corps veteran,” he said and called over a fellow officer. “Me, too,” said the other deputy, who called to yet another officer. Same thing. All veterans. All Navajo. All from the same nation as the World War II code talkers. Native Americans have the highest ethnic percentage of military service in the U.S. I invited them all on a HFV trip. They saluted and waved me through.

Traffic picked up on the Mogollon Rim where Phoenix escapes quarantine and summer heat. Only half of those I saw were wearing masks. I kept to myself in an isolated camp where that night coyotes called and owls conversed, Who … who … who? The moon rose full and round and cast shadows from alligator junipers.

The next day, while scanning through country music stations, I accidentally tuned into Rush Limbaugh. The prophet of the right scorned Democrats as sissies and boasted of brave Republicans while driving a wedge of pandemic partisan divide among Americans. I hit the scan button, moved on to a lilting George Jones ballad about lost love and betrayal, and sang along with full voice.

Arizona has a wealth of long-established group camps near the Mogollon Rim, three of which I visited as possible spring/fall locations for HFV programs we run in collaboration with the Pat Tillman Center and Arizona State University.

Arizona has a big population of veterans that we hope to serve at one of these camps during our shoulder seasons. There will be no partisan divide in our ranks because ours is a mission that gains nothing by divisions. Instead, we aspire to a sense of unity that transcends today’s political hostilities.

Camp Geronimo, a Boy Scout facility, took top honors as a place with quiet and beauty tucked into 200 acres of a rugged alcove beneath the Mogollon Rim. Vast stands of ponderosa pine demark a high desert/low mountain climate, perfect for seasons when we can’t run hiking trips in our high Colorado mountains.

Driving home through Flag and back into Navajo land, everything was shut down by curfew except for self-serve gas stations. Tuba City and Kayenta were ghostly empty. So was the highway. Apocalypse weighed heavy on the Navajo nation.

The same emptiness has vacated Bluff, Blanding and Monticello. Businesses were shuttered. Streets and sidewalks were empty. It felt as if everyone had packed up and gone. The scene was weird and foreboding — a Southwest Twilight Zone.

From my last camp, hiking the slickrock escarpment to the top of Comb Ridge, I gazed out across the sere and silent desert where the eternal forces of nature bear unimpassioned witness to human frailty.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at andersen@rof.net.


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