I started to write this column from a hotel in Santa Fe, N.M. We’ve been on our second western vacation, this time circumnavigating the Grand Canyon as well as visiting many of the other famous sights the west has to offer: Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon (via mule), the Grand Canyon. Painted Desert, Monument Valley, Canyon De Chelley, and so on. We ventured along the High Road to Taos, a “scenic” byway that has to be one of the most beautiful roads in America.
Along the way, we stopped in a mission village called Chimayo. It was as close to going to old Mexico as I can imagine. Adobe churches, dusty street, a man selling homegrown chilis; dogs wandering around and, of course, tourists. The air was filled with the scent of spice, dust, and sage. Art galleries abounded. The man selling coffee in the only café was also the artist in residence responsible for the amazing paintings on the walls of the Church of El Nino, a memorial chapel for children. The sound of bells ringing, in a fairly random, no-particular-reason sort of way, only added to the sense that we were no longer in the U.S. The only thing missing was a goat, but I feel certain one was nearby.
But it was the language that caught my attention while in the West. In Kayenta, Arizona, which is smack in the middle of the Navajo Nation, we heard the language of the Navajo people being spoken in everyday conversation, and ate frybread with our Mexican food.
We live in a place where our town names are taken from the places where the English settlers came from, with maybe “New” appended to differentiate it from the original old English village. We are raised on the Pilgrims and the Tea Party (the original, not the recent political invention). In the Four Corners region, place names are flavored with indigenous language, Spanish, or physical description. We stayed in Kayenta, Arizona. We drove into the San Francisco mountain range. We took pictures of the eponymous Mexican Hat rock formation in the village of that name. I’m just not certain how Tuba City got its name.
We certainly hear foreign accents and languages where we live, especially in the summer, but in the West it is the norm to overhear a family speaking a cross-pollinated Spanish-English. It’s a polyglot world. I was in a little shop in Santa Fe when the owner’s young son asked her something in Spanish, with the clear English words “beef” or “chicken” in the question. I simply wonder why those two English words were used instead of their Spanish equivalents, but I guess when you’re ordering from Taco Bell you go with the menu. She wanted beef.
In the West, the language, like the food, is thick with the spice of the Spanish and Old Mexican flavors. Rio, Paseo, Calle, Verde, Mesa, and even Canyon (from Cañ;on). In Santa Fe, one half of a main thoroughfare is San Francisco, the other half St. Francis Street. We have a conceit in our part of the world that we invented the United States. In the left half of the continental United States, Spanish explorers and, in due time, settlers from Old Mexico, settled these mountains and valleys, after, of course, wresting the property out of the hands of the local indigenous peoples. The culture hasn’t changed, only moderated. But the Mexican culture is evident not only in place names, but in the objects germane to life on the range — lariat, bollo — and food— chili, chimichanga, sopapilla. And in the architecture, where in the vast nearly treeless spaces of this country the predominant architectural style is based on adobe.
From the preponderance of western hats, i.e. cowboy hats, instead of ball caps, to the, to be frank, size of the people, the West is a much larger place than what I’m used to. And size does matter. When you have to travel hours, not minutes to get to a town with a grocery store, your concept of time and distance are altered.
If you read Tony Hillerman, who was sort of the Phil Craig of his region, he has his characters driving all over the map to investigate crime one interview at a time. We were on that map, so to speak, and, even driving at the allowed 75 miles per hour, it still took a long time, from my perspective, to get from Kayenta to Bluff, Arizona. If you were trying to accomplish anything more than touring, you couldn’t possibly get much done in a day if it takes two hours to get from one place to another and then have to go back home. I really don’t understand why he has his characters doing so much driving when they have phones, but I guess that’s because his stories are as much travelogue as they are mysteries.
And this column is certainly a travelogue. Glad to be home.