“Where the Streets Have No Name”

OK, I confess. I stole the title for this entry from the lead song off U2’s famed Joshua Tree album.

For those not familiar with the tune, the lyrics describe a place of refuge where “the streets” are unnamed.  As Bono, the song’s writer once explained, he was attempting to “sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling.”1 I would say he succeeded in a big way.

I frequently seek spiritual renewal in a place where there are also many streets without names -as well as many roads that have numerical designations on a map, but no signs anywhere along the actual road.  While these nameless, numberless highways often reveal scenic and peaceful surroundings they are often a source of frustration, especially when I wish I knew where I was or where I was going.

One road which epitomizes these qualities is the subject of my latest little adventure into Jimmy Country, in this case deep in the heart of Dinétah, the Navajo homeland.

A couple years ago, while on an outing to discover the site of a little known but lethal skirmish between Mexican nationals and the Navajo (Metaphorical or Literal), I was told of a street with no name that aroused my curiosity.   Vee Browne, our guide at the time, has lived on the reservation for most of her life. She told me of  “… a road out of Lucachukai which winds over the northern part of the Chuska Mountains, and then drops down to U.S. Highway 491, just south of Shiprock. It’s a great short cut if you’re going from Chinle to Farmington.”

“Paved?” I asked with a slightly raised eyebrow.

“Yes.”

“The entire way?”

“Yes, it’s paved the entire way.”

Canyon de Chelly from North Rim Drive
Canyon de Chelly looking southwest from the North Rim Drive, towards Chinle.  Although I did not take a photo, there was a sign nearby with the following request: “Please do not throw objects into the canyon. People farming below.” It offered concrete evidence that stupid tourists do no restrict their travels to Yosemite and Yellowstone.  The message was reminiscent of the “No Refunds Given for Obstructed View Days” sign, which I once saw at the Grand Canyon’s north rim entrance gate. It’s amazing how the painfully obvious must still be stated in writing at times.

 

I claimed I would give it a try during my next trip to Farmington. However I became a little skeptical after searches on several maps, both road and topo, failed to reveal a paved road which goes northwest from Lucachukai to Shiprock via the Chuska Mountains. I was able to locate a set of double broken lines designated BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Route 13.

But in my experience double broken lines on a map have always meant roads with hard packed dirt (or mud, sand, rocks and other obstacles which make traveling difficult if not impossible), not pavement.  Nonetheless my curiosity overrode my skepticism during my first attempt nearly nine months later.  Then, while traveling north out of Chinle, I made a left turn at Round Rock instead of a right.

I know. “Brilliant!”  This is what happens when one hurries, something a Type AA like myself does all too often. Instead of experiencing an inspirational trip on a road I had never traveled before, I found myself driving on Highway 160 through the communities of Red Mesa and Teec Nos Pos before turning left at Shiprock and heading to Farmington.

 

Antelope House Ruins Canyon de Chelly by Gary Fillmore
Antelope House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly.

It’s a nice drive. I find 160 especially beautiful where it skirts the northern side of the Carrizo Mountains.  But by then I was more frustrated than inspired. I had traveled that stretch of 160 more times than I could count. I was ready for a new adventure.

On the second attempt I finally made it to the town of Lukachakai.  But after driving around for ten minutes (once again I was in a hurry…and don’t ask why I didn’t stop for directions. It’s a Y chromosome thing) I still could not find BIA 13.  After pulling a “UE” I found myself once again headed back towards Round Rock, Red Mesa, the Carrizos and eventually Shiprock and Farmington.

Canyon de Chelly the Place Where Two Fell Off Interpretive by Gary Fillmore
For over 150 years Canyon de Chelly was the primary stronghold for the Navajo, a place of refuge against Spanish, Mexican and finally American forces. In 1864, when most of the tribe was rounded up and relocated to Bosque Redondo by Kit Carson’s expeditionary force, even Carson himself would not enter the canyon for fear of ambush.
Canyon de Chelly The Place Where Two Fell Off photo by Gary Fillmore
The alcove shown in the left center of the photo below is where the event described in the interpretive took place.

 

Two times I had attempted to find the elusive “Northeast Passage”, and twice I had failed. While I had met all of my business obligations on both occasions, I was left with a sense of frustration. The joy of life is in the journey, not the destination –especially when the destination is Bloomfield.

A few weeks ago an important appointment again prompted travel to the Farmington/Durango area.  This time I was determined not to turn back until BIA 13, paved or unpaved, was found.

I spent the first night in Chinle. Arriving shortly after dinner, I was able to take a nice “sunset” cruise on the north rim of Canyon de Chelly. Unfortunately the heavy intermittent rain and cloud cover didn’t provide for good photographic conditions.  But as these photos attest, the immensity and beauty of the canyon can be captured in just about any atmospheric conditions.

Navajo Fortress Rock Canyon de Chelly by Gary FillmoreCanyon del Muerto.

 

While making my way along the North Rim Drive, I noticed a road sign with the mileage to the town of Tsaile. “Ah…I thought to myself,” having recognized the little known town of Tsaile via study of several maps, “could this be the way to the Northeast Passage!?”

This time I put my typical reluctance to ask for directions aside. When I arrived back at the hotel I immediately went to the front desk and asked the clerk, who I assumed was a “local”, if North Rim Drive would eventually take me to Lucachukai.

“Yes,” she answered assuredly, “when you get to Tsaile, take a left.”

“Then when I get to Lucachukai, is there a road that will take me to Shiprock.”

“Yes.”

“Paved?”

“Yes”

“The entire way?” I asked, suddenly feeling a strange sense of Déjà vu.

“Yes, it’s paved the entire way.  But it goes over the mountains,” she explained. A look of concern crossed her face combined with a bit of intrigue. Why would anyone risk such a venture given the current weather conditions?

No need for explanations. She would perhaps decide I was too psychologically unhinged to stay in the hotel. So I gave her a one word answer. “Perfect!”, then thanked her and left.

Sunseet over Black Mesa from North Rim of Canyon de Chelly by Gary Fillmore
“Sunset” over Black Mesa, viewed from North Rim of Canyon de Chelly.

 

I woke early the following morning hoping to catch the sun rise­­ as it colored the canyon walls. Instead the rain had intensified. No worries, I told myself.  As long as I stayed on the paved roads I would be fine. I was determined there would not be a repeat of the time my vehicle sunk so deep in the mud I couldn’t open the door on the driver’s side and AAA couldn’t come to the rescue because the call center couldn’t find my location on their map…but that’s an entry for another time.

At first all went according to plan. I took the North Rim Road all the way to Tsaile and turned left.  Despite the driving rain and the ominous numerical designation of BIA 13 (hey, who’s superstitious anyway?) I was feeling good.

Raven on Rim of Canyon de Chelly by Gary Fillmore
Raven on the north rim of Canyon de Chelly -the only wildlife I saw during two days of heavy rain.

 

However my smug satisfaction turned to major annoyance when I found myself once again entering the town of Round Rock. “How did this happen,” I said aloud to myself (understatement alert). This time I had not only missed the paved road that headed north out of Lukachukai, I had missed the entire town.

But I was not deterred.  I was determined not to “strike out”, metaphorically or literally.

I had the time! I had the vehicle! I had the gas! I was going to find the road –named or unnamed- that would carry me over the Chuskas and into Farmington more quickly than any I had traveled before.

It’s always easy finding a place when you’ve been there before. When I finally found a paved road heading north out of Luckachukai, which if you haven’t figured out by now is a very small town, I could see why I missed it earlier that morning.

In addition to the weather making vision more difficult there was construction equipment  and barricades in the convenience mart parking lot on the corner where BIA 13 intersects BIA 12.  These objects completely blocked any view of BIA 13 when approaching from the east.

But finally there it was, an unmarked but paved highway heading north out of Lucachukai. It was as easy to see as the large red rock formations I soon found myself driving between.

As I ascended amongst the heavy pine forests of the Chuska’s south slope, I felt a sense of exhilaration combined with disappointment over the obstructed views created by the rain and fog. But now that the passage had finally been located I knew I would return, and I could tell on a clearer day the scenery would be nothing short of spectacular.

 

Northeast side of Luchachukai
Lukachukai Pass, looking east. Red Rock Valley can be seen in the distance.

 

When I crested the ridge the rain lightened and the clouds lifted a little. There in the distance was Shiprock,   Tsé Bitʼaʼí , the winged rock.

Yes! I had found the Northeast Passage.

It was all downhill from there.  As I continued on I was surprised to find how closely BIA 13 comes to the Shiprock Peak.  I stopped to snap a few photos (including some with my cell phone which I immediately sent to my stock broker back east as an “extremely remote location” explanation for why at least eight of his calls to me had been dropped that morning.  I just hate margin calls…)  Moments later I found myself at the end of BIA 13.  After a quick left turn onto U.S. 491 I was on my way to Farmington.

Vee Browne was correct. The road saves at least two hours driving time when traveling from Chinle to Shiprock.

The following evening when I got home I told my wife, Barbara,  of a new road I had discovered which among other features offers the closest viewpoint to Shiprock Peak I have ever seen.

 

Shiprock obscured by Clouds by Gary Fillmore
Shiprock Peak. Navajo mothers used to tell their children of a giant winged monster who would come late at night and snatch all the children who had misbehaved that day…or so it is said. Not far from this spot BIA highway 13 intersects what used to be U.S. Route 666, “the Devil’s highway”, so named because of the road number and the high number of fatal auto accidents which occurred on the route. A winged monster by the Devil’s highway near a road numbered 13…this spot is perhaps best avoided by superstitious people.

 

“Yes,” she replied, “I remember seeing that road once before when we were traveling towards Farmington.  But I could never see a road sign or a marker, so I thought it was private property.”

In other words, the street had no name…ah, yes.

1-Bono’s full statement on the song’s lyrics, quoted in Propaganda 5, 1987:

Where the Streets Have No Name is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch – I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don’t hold you down. An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making – literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name.”

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