A LEARNING JOURNEY (October 13, 2023)
September took Nancy and me on a 2,500-mile road trip around the Four Corners region of the American Southwest. It was a delight to explore this area’s diverse histories and cultures, archaeology and architecture, landscapes and literature.
Our 2+ weeks away also gave us the time and distance we needed to begin adjusting to our old age’s new phase.
EXPLORING THE PAST
Westside Lilo’s Café, Seligman, AZ
Uplifting travel surprises can be sparked by local folks and their stories as much as by places. We pulled off I-40 for lunch in both directions when passing through Seligman, Arizona. The first time was pure chance; we needed a rest and a meal. Seligman’s main drag was Old Highway 66, paralleling our Interstate. We had no clue which restaurant to try, but Nancy’s late father had always advised looking for a busy parking lot. Lilo’s full lot was beckoning. Good luck for us. The bustling café offered a distinctive menu, tasty food and a charming backstory.
Lilo was born and raised in Wiesbaden, Germany, where she met an American soldier on a blind date. They courted, married and emigrated to Seligman, her husband Patrick’s home town. After raising a family, Lilo opened a local café, offering German specialties as well as more familiar Southwestern fare. The prize-winning attractions were her home-baked desserts. (I enjoyed bratwurst with sautéed bell peppers and onions on our eastbound stop; schnitzel, potato salad and sour dills on our way home. The chocolate cream pie was a paragon.)
Twenty-seven years after opening her doors, Lilo is 82, still actively involved in café operations. Her daughter Brenda is now owner and manager. Two grandchildren are working their way up in the kitchen. Keeping a good thing going, through three generations.
La Posada Hotel, Winslow, AZ
La Posada is a high-desert landmark. Also an inspirational saga of invention, collapse and recovery. As the Santa Fe Railway stretched west, English immigrant Fred Harvey constructed a dozen handsome hotels and cafes along the tracks from Kansas to California. In 1903 he commissioned architect Mary Coulter to design culturally appropriate properties for his cross-country chain. In Winslow, Arizona she envisioned a grand Southwest hacienda, with adobe structures, exposed beams, tile floors, artisanal furnishings, and a perimeter wall enclosing fountained gardens. She considered it her masterpiece.
The concept was dramatic; the timing, terrible. La Posada opened in 1930, just as the Great Depression came crashing down. The hotel never made a profit. As passenger rail traffic was overtaken by highways, La Posada closed to the public in 1957. In 1959, its museum-quality furnishings were auctioned off. In 1961, the building was gutted and transformed into the Santa Fe’s divisional offices, with acoustic-tile ceilings and partitioned cubicles. When the Railway later shifted its headquarters to Los Angeles, La Posada was abandoned and nearly demolished. Only local volunteers kept the gardens from dying.
The property was given new life in 1997. Investor Allan Affeldt and his artist wife, Tina Mion, purchased the buildings and grounds, moved onto the premises and launched comprehensive restoration and renovation. Today the hotel has recovered its iconic grandeur – colors, materials, finishes and furnishings. Its expansive floorplan includes 34 period guest rooms, a restaurant, gift shop, owners’ residence, museum and group-meeting facilities.
Nancy and I enjoyed a stylish room with private patio. In our two-night layover, we strolled through multi-level public spaces, with period photos and Mion’s art. The on-site restaurant, owned by a different company, was our sole disappointment; unlike the hotel, it seemed to combine too complex dishes with excessive prices.
The surrounding town of Winslow has experienced parallel ups and downs. Through the 1950s, it hosted national chains like Sears, Penny’s and Wards. Its main street, doubling as Route 66, was anchored by 100 local business. Subsequent decline is currently being reversed, with recovery being driven by an informal partnership of local activists and La Posada investors. A corner statue and the Taking It Easy café salute the Eagles #1 hit still hummed by our graying generation.
Canyon of the Ancients Guest Ranch, Cortez, CO
We all savor life dreams. Garry and Ming Adams crafted theirs from the ground up. Garry owned a photo agency in Denver, representing 800 worldwide photographers. Ming was a Taiwanese immigrant working in the financial services industry. They met, married and contemplated how to retreat from crowded cities into the open spaces of his native Colorado.
Their chance arrived when a 2,000-acre property came on the market in the McElmo Canyon south of Cortez. Its only surviving structures were decrepit ranch houses, barns and corrals. But the land was watered by a reliable creek. They made the purchase, moved into an on-site trailer and began two demanding years of renovation.
Today they operate a modest livestock ranch with 150 head of sheep and 40 of cattle. They sell organic meat to regional restaurants and donate wool to Navajo weavers. To make their enterprise viable, they decided to develop a guest ranch on the same property. They repaired and upgraded the deteriorating buildings, furnishing them with antiques and reproductions of Southwest pieces collected from regional consignment stores. Adopting a name from the nearby National Monument, the Adams labeled their hospitality brand “Canyon of the Ancients.” When fully booked, they can accommodate 26 overnight guests. Most clients come from Colorado. Prior to COVID, European travelers were also much in evidence. Hosting weddings and musical performances bolsters regular inn revenues.
As a further labor of love, Garry and Ming trekked through miles of local canyons, photographing ancient petroglyphs and pictographs. Their self-published Spirits of the Stone makes a major contribution to anthropological preservation and education.
Nancy and I stayed at the ranch for six restorative nights. Wandering sheep flocks awoke us each morning, escorted by gentle-giant canines. Free-ranging chickens and cats were always on patrol. Ancient cottonwood and locust trees formed allees along the stream banks. Soaring above, seeming close enough to touch, were sheer ridges of crumbling cliffs. Our gracious innkeepers were well-suited to this welcoming oasis.
The ranch’s remote location 30 minutes each way from supplies-replenishing Cortez was not so convenient. But it was a terrific departure point for exploring ancient pueblo sites.
One of the most memorable features of Hovenweep is its invisibility. As you approach across miles of high-desert terrain, the flat, scrub-dotted surface is unrelieved. Even the modest turn-in sign is easy to miss. And the National Parks Service Visitor Center is deliberately low-key. Only gift-shop T-shirts herald the Monument’s 100-year anniversary.
A short walk to the yawning canyon reveals dramatic ruins of ancient occupation. The cliff walls are sheer, with pueblo dwellings hugging geological recesses and shelves. Hovenweep’s signature structures are round and square mesa-top towers of refined masonry construction.
Archaeologists have determined that Ancestral Puebloans peopled this site in increasing numbers from 700 to 1300 AD, topping out at about 2,500 residents. The biggest expansion commenced around 1230, yet the site was almost totally abandoned by the end of that century. The site’s appeal to residents was precious water sources, supporting a linked series of six cliff-side villages and their terraced vegetable crops. The towers may have been watch-towers to detect water challengers. Causes of the sudden desertion are hotly contested among scholars but may have been driven by prolonged draught.
(These travel notes don’t mention all the historical sites we visited. For example, on the northern loop from Hovenweep back to Cortez, the Lowry Pueblo and the Anasazi Heritage Center were first-rate educational attractions.)
Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, Utah/Arizona Border
Some tourism icons don’t live up to their photo previews. Monument Valley surpassed its environmental-calendar fame. The wide mesas, square buttes and narrow spires soar as much as 1,500 feet straight up from the Valley floor, evoking fantasies of alien steles.
When it retreated 500 million years ago, the Gulf of Mexico covering the entire Colorado Plateau left deposits of sedimentary rocks sluiced from the Rocky Mountains. Then, 65 million years ago, a collision between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates off the coast of California pushed these layered Valley formations above the surface. Eons of subsequent wind blasts and rain storms have buffed soft-shale surfaces from underlying sandstones.
Today the sun’s daily advance changes the monoliths’ appearance. Back-lit black silhouettes at dawn, sliding panels of light and dark in the daytime, rich reds and pinks at sunset.
The best way to appreciate this spectacle is up close, on the 15-mile gravel-and-dirt Scenic Drive. Only high-clearance private cars are admitted. Alternative transport at $90/passenger is encouraged in competing vendors’ canopied tour buses. We opted for the drive-your-own-car option; dusty and sometimes slippery up and down the unpaved hills, but letting us proceed at our own (two-hour) pace, without the distraction of tour-guide spiels.
A sizeable majority of tourists seemed to confine themselves to the overlook. We wondered whether the Navajo stewards might not deliberately be leaving the road surface so rough and the bus tariff so steep in order to keep loop traffic down, preserving the fragile, revered site.
With hindsight, we wished we had known about the Tribe-owned View Hotel, with its superior location and restrained design. Instead, we stayed at Goulding’s Lodge, attracted by its 100-year, trading-post heritage. Today it’s a bit of a monopoly enclave. The still-family-owned complex includes motel and cabins, restaurant, gift shop, museum, video theater, laundromat, gas station and airport. Our clean but plain cabin was labelled a villa. And the restaurant (read “coffee shop”) served inferior food. Speaking of museums, the View Hotel and the Park Visitor Center featured two historical tribal exhibits, one disheartening, the other uplifting. The 1865 Long Walk, following the 1864 scorched-earth destruction of Navajo resistance led by the U.S. Army’s Kit Carson, was a forced march to the Rio Grande Valley causing thousands of civilian deaths. Grotesquely, the U.S. Government reversed this expulsion policy within four years, but far fewer survivors made the return journey. By contrast, the upbeat exhibit showcased Code Talkers, Navajo men recruited into the U.S. military in 1942, to transmit battlefront messages. The combination of the complex Navajo language and ingenious codes resulted in their messages never being deciphered by the enemy. By official accounts, these courageous communicators made an invaluable contribution to the Allies’ victory on the Pacific Front.
It’s always a dilemma deciding which books to select for a vacation satchel. Guides grow quickly dated and are often biased. Novels may not deliver the stellar entertainment promised in back-cover accolades. This time, we were singularly rewarded with a variety of selections that enriched our Southwest sight-seeing.
Jim Turner and Larry Lindahl, FOUR CORNERS USA: Wonders of the American Southwest (2018)
This stunning 9×12-inch paperback was the perfect companion for our regional visit. Jim Turner is an Arizona historian; Larry Lindahl, a travel and nature photographer. The book introduces Southwestern history and inhabitants by profiling the resident Native American tribes: their origins and migrations, principal locations and demographics, cultural markers and languages. Then, for each of the Four Corners States – Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – he highlights the main National, State and Tribal Parks and Monuments, places of tourist interest and distinctive trading posts. Turner’s narrative scope is ambitious and widely researched but his style remains informal and accessible. Lindahl’s evocative photos are a good match. This will be our go-to memento when savoring this holiday.
Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1926)
When friend and blog reader Jennifer Seely learned we were planning a trip to Four Corners, she encouraged me to read Death Comes for the Archbishop. Truth to tell, I knew almost nothing about this novel of the Southwest, or even its author. (My embarrassed recollection was that our English Lit professors at Yale in the early 1960s seemed to rank most European works as superior to “American Studies.”)
A quick dip into Wikipedia gave me a glimpse of Ms. Cather. Born in 1873, she worked as a journalist and high-school English teacher before slowly but steadily building a national reputation as a writer. The focus of her fiction became the Western frontier and pioneer experience. In that era, the frontier still included Cather’s resident Nebraska and the Great Plains.
By the 1920s when she wrote Death, Cather was beginning to earn commercial success and critical acclaim for her novels. One of Ours was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Her conservative views pushed her out of favor with increasingly leftist literary critics during the Great Depression. But by the time she died in 1947, she was again enjoying huge commercial success and critical acclaim. The Modern Library has judged Death Comes for the Archbishop one of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century.
I enjoyed this Southwest novel for two main reasons:
- The timing of its plot: from 1848 to 1888. This was a dramatically transitional period for the region. Mexico had just earned its independence from Spain in 1821. The U.S. didn’t acquire Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico until the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. Colorado’s transformative Silver Rush began in 1879. Everything was in flux.
- The fictional narrative’s focus and perspective. This is the story of Jean Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant, French-born Jesuit missionaries carrying their faith and conversion campaign to the vast open areas of what is now the Four Corners. To me, the book felt neo-colonial and imperialistic (with the Vatican as metropole.). But the protagonists were devout, dedicated and compassionate. A different take on the familiar Wild West.
One dimension in which these two characteristics overlapped was transportation. The two priests walked for thousands of miles all over the Southwest, sometimes transported by sturdy mules. When Father Latour was summoned to a Vatican conference in Baltimore, he walked from Albuquerque to St. Louis, rode Ohio River ferries to Pittsburgh, then climbed aboard the new railway to the East Coast. At the end of this brief conclave, he reversed his itinerary.
Cather devoted many pages and much creative art to landscapes, seasons and weather. To my surprise for a 1926 publication, she also emphasized her respect for Native Americans’ environmental sensitivities, in marked contrast to European settlers’ acquisitive perspectives. Here’s a representative illustration:
Their ride back to Santa Fe was something under four hundred miles. The weather alternated between blinding sand-storms and brilliant sunlight. The sky was as full of motion and change as the desert beneath it was monotonous and still, — and there was so much sky, more than at sea, more than anywhere else in the world. The plain was there, under one’s feet, but what one saw when one looked about was that brilliant blue world of stinging air and moving cloud. Even the mountains were mere ant-hills under it. Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world; but here the earth was the floor of the sky. The landscape one longed for when one was far away, the thing all about one, the world one actually lived in, was the sky, the sky!
Traveling with Eusabio [the Archbishop’s trail mate, a Navajo elder] was like traveling with the landscape made human. He accepted chance and weather as the country did, with a sort of grave enjoyment. He talked little, ate little, slept anywhere, preserved a countenance open and warm….When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, to make it over a little (or at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water or birds through the air.
Tony Hillerman, The Navajo Tribal Police Mysteries (1970-2006)
Tony Hillerman published 18 titles over 35 years in this Southwestern mystery series. As he quickly built a reputation for invention and quality, soon all of them were national bestsellers. (A recent TV dramatization of one tale has been attracting a large viewership and enthusiastic reviews.) Nancy and I were faithful fans during our decades abroad. We forgot plot details over time but retained fond memories of the collection.
For this Four Corners trip, we hoped that revisiting the earliest volumes could enrich our appreciation for the Southwest region and its inhabitants. It turned out to be a fortuitous choice. We worked our way through the inaugural quartet as we moved along: The Blessing Way (1970), Dance Hall of the Dead (1973), Listening Woman (1978), and People of Darkness (1980).
We found these literary traveling companions delivered multiple pleasures:
- Background details on territory we were rapidly traversing: the Four Corners states, towns and natural landmarks — Tuba City and Shiprock, Monument Valley.
- Animation of contemporary characters within local populations: shamans, teens and traders. Real people, not exotic aborigines captured on sepia postcards.
- Presentation of and respect for Native American values and traditions from the inside out: tribal distinctions and rivalries (Navajo, Hopi and Zuni); deep-seated customs, religious practices and ceremonies, extended-family linkages.
- Evocative sketches of the natural environment and human habitations: landscapes, flora and fauna, seasons and weather; canyon floors, pueblo escape hatches, hogan interiors and archaeological digs. Hillerman’s settings became interactive characters as much as scenery.
Tony Hillerman attended an Oklahoma public high school with a majority of Native American classmates. He served with distinction and was grievously wounded in WWII’s European front. A long-term resident of the Southwest, he worked for 20+ years as a local and regional journalist. He won prestigious regional and national genre awards and served as President of the Mystery Writers of America. Significantly for a White author focusing on Navajo characters and customs, he was honored with the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friends of the Dineh Award.
Hillerman’s narration wasn’t flawless. In particular, his early female characters were mostly weepy and dependent. And the elaboration of gunshot-wound details in every volume became formulaic. But we could see his technique steadily mature, even in these initial installments. A pleasure to digest.
EXPERIENCING THE FUTURE.
Nancy and I started planning our Southwestern road trip a year in advance. We preferred spontaneous rambling but accepted that post-COVID mass travel required locking in reservations. On this occasion, however, twin medical challenges intervened to throw these and other family plans into doubt.
Last spring, Nancy’s routine mammogram revealed abnormal tissue. More mammograms, a sonogram, a biopsy and an MRI later, she had surgery in August, the pathology report revealing a very small cancerous tumor. She’s now in consultation with her Stanford medical team – surgeon, medical oncologist and radiation oncologist – to develop and implement a treatment plan going forward.
Simultaneously, I experienced two visual impairments: severe reduction of my peripheral vision and blurring of visual acuity in my left eye. The probable cause appears to be thinning of the optic nerves. The good news is that both these conditions appear to be stabilizing; and I can continue to read and use a computer. The bad news is that the impairments are permanent and irreversible.
One topic we discussed with our respective specialists was whether we should cancel or postpone our planned Four Corners trip. To our surprise, their unanimous recommendation was for us to plunge ahead. Their consistent clinical experience confirmed that having something to look forward to and enjoy boosted their patients’ positive response to treatment.
As we started assessing practical implications of our twin medical challenges, we realized that these new conditions were going to complicate not only this immediate trip but also our future travel in general and our lives together more broadly. We were entering a new phase of elderhood.
We soon realized that our Four Corners trip was going to be as much practice as preview. Since I couldn’t safely see to the sides, Nancy would have to do all the driving. With my blurred vision, at high freeway speeds I couldn’t read road signs in time to alert her. GPS took care of most route planning, but if the robot got occasionally confused, I would be of little help promptly reading a map or screen to get us back on track. Since the lower hemisphere of my peripheral vision was most impaired, objects and hazards below me would be a continuing threat. Once underway, I was constantly vulnerable to missteps on cracked payments and ill-marked stairways. Unfamiliar coffee tables in hotel rooms were a nighttime hazard. I also found myself repeatedly blinded by dark restaurant interiors when stepping in from the glare. I had to poke my nose up against museum display captions. None of these disabilities was fatal; some, merely trivial. But Nancy and I both had to start being attentive to my new limitations. And as she candidly confided, she had to figure out how to help me without my feeling dependent or diminished.
We also thought and talked about possible future travels. As soon as we returned from Four Corners, Nancy would be commencing a complex treatment regimen. We had good reason to believe that possible side effects would be short-term and that the cancer wouldn’t metastasize. But what if, later on, she could no longer continue her new role as our family’s sole designated driver? Could trains and planes become alternative modes of transport? How about cruise ships, even though we abhorred floating carnivals? These reflections were not hypothetical. We’ve already started planning a major transcontinental safari next spring, en route to and from my 60th college-class reunion in New Haven. Were marathon expeditions like this no longer realistic? Closer to home, we faced the fact we were no longer a two-car family, and Nancy decided to sell her beloved little red Fiat.
As the third component of our continuing next-steps conversations, we considered the possible impacts of our new health challenges on living issues other than travel. In terms of my permanent visual disabilities, simple movements and activities within our retirement community are already affected. I grope around the bathroom floor in pursuit of an elusive toothpaste cap. Or lose my place reading ever-smaller typeface in the New York Times. Using kitchen knives demands two firm hands and total attention. Over time, might my fumbles and stumbles become cumulatively demoralizing?
So far we feel these transitions need not be defeats. We’re attentively adapting and adjusting. But the constant alertness can be fatiguing. During this learning process, avoiding stress and negativity become self-preservation strategies.
For the two of us, these medical developments are life-changing. But within our age group, they are not exceptional. With aging comes ailing. Nearly all of our octogenarian friends and neighbors are confronting comparable challenges: some physical, some mental, some emotional. When these friends are in couples, both partners almost never decline in the same way as each other, or at the same pace. Growing older is an organic inevitability; not an option, not a curse. How we deal with that inevitability is what Agile Aging is all about.
This end-of-September post’s intended publication date has been postponed by the complications just described. I anticipate a flexible publication schedule going forward. As always, I will warmly welcome your experiences and opinions on these issues.
Sincere thanks to Garry Adams and Nancy Swing for the use of their photographs.
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