Three days in the Four Corners

  • The San Juan Mission Cemetery on the edge of Farmington, N.M.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Agathla Peak near the south end of Comb Ridge in Arizona.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A Virgin Mary statue in a cemetery near Bloomfield, N.M., that is nestled up against a natural gas processing plant.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A pumpjack in the Aneth Oil Field on the Navajo Nation in Utah. The oil field has been producing, and creating tension, for more than 50 years.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A natural spiral in the sandstone of Comb Ridge, near Bluff, Utah.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • The Ismay Trading Post in McElmo Canyon next to the border of Colorado and Utah.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • Shiprock, a massive volcanic formation in northern New Mexico.

    Jonathan Thompson
  • A sandstone formation juts out from Comb Ridge, a huge sandstone wave that stretches from the Abajo Mountains in Utah to Kayenta, Ariz.

    Jonathan Thompson

The Four Corners country -- the point where sage plains, mesas and desert canyons radiate out from the intersection of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah -- is a land of friction. The cultures of the Ute, Apache and Navajo tribes rub up against the Hispanic and Anglo cultures. The ancient rudely bumps into the new; wilderness abuts power plants. One minute, you're wandering among supernatural hoodoos in the 70-million-year-old remains of a coastal swamp, the next you're poking around in some industrial zone where you really shouldn't be, for all kinds of reasons.

It's that very friction that makes it special, a place where beauty is often tarnished and a certain darkness underlies everything. The three-day travel loop described here dives headlong into that tension.

Start in Durango, Colo. Once a regional industrial hub with sawmills and smoke-belching smelters and, later, a radioactive uranium tailings pile, Durango is now a place where folks come for sushi and shopping, immersing themselves in quasi-urban amenities in a quasi-rural setting. There's enough here to distract a mountain biker or kayaker for months. But you're just passing through, so grab a quick bite and some coffee at what may be the best bakery in the West, bread, and hit the road. If you're nursing a hangover from the classic watering hole, the El Rancho, (it's been known to happen), try the greasy green chile at the local's fave, the Durango Diner.

The massive pumping plant for the Animas-La Plata, "the last big water project in the West," sits just south of downtown, sending water uphill from there, in a pipeline that roughly follows CR 210, to Nighthorse Reservoir. The reservoir will open to swimmers and boaters in 2013, if the West has any water. For now, you can catch a glimpse of it from the county road, and also see the storage cell for the aforementioned uranium tailings pile. Afterwards, head south to Aztec, N.M., either via CR 213, through the old Hispanic village of La Posta, or along some other circuitous back route. (Avoid Highway 550, because why take the main drag when you don't have to?)

For a brief time, Aztec tried to become another Roswell, banking on an alleged space alien crash nearby in the '50s. That didn't work, which is probably OK, as the town has a much stronger genuine draw: Aztec Ruins National Monument. Despite its current humble location in a sort of trailer park suburb, it's good example of the Chacoan style of ancestral Puebloan architecture. Aztec's main street is an oasis of quaintness in a strip mall mess; there's at least one decent coffee joint, the Atomic Bistro. In town during an event at the Aztec Speedway? Let's just say it's a great way to plunge into local culture.

San Juan County once boasted more than 50,000 apple trees. Now it's got more than 12,000 natural gas wells, and a huge industry to serve them, which becomes apparent on the road between Aztec and Bloomfield. Several miles south of Aztec, on the left, a Catholic cemetery is nestled surreally against a huge natural gas processing plant. About 14 miles south of Bloomfield, little signs indicate Envirotech's "Land Farm." Don't look for fresh produce: This is where contaminated soils from the energy industry are plowed back into the earth and treated, or, as they say, "farmed."

Several miles beyond is the turnoff to De-Na-Zin/Bisti, surely one of the nation's weirdest wilderness areas, a place where sci-fi movie rock formations are plentiful and non-petrified vegetation is scarce. A photographer could simply vanish here, his shutter clicking wildly as he wanders among burnt-looking dunes of gray, black, green and red. Plan to hike at least a couple miles in to see the best formations. Bring plenty of water, and probably a compass; it's easy to get disoriented.

Take Highway 371 north to Farmington, which has been a gas/oil/coal/uranium-patch town for more than a half-century. It's also a "border town," on the edge of the Navajo Nation. The combination has brought an interesting and sometimes contentious cultural mix to this city of about 45,000. There are plenty of chain hotels here, grocery stores to stock up in before heading to less well-provisioned places, and a few decent eateries. The downtown has preserved a touch of retro charm from earlier booms.

Most folks speed through the stretch of the San Juan River Valley between Farmington and Shiprock. Slow down and look. County roads alongside the main highway pass lush riverside farms as well as a refinery. Along the highway are stands that sell piñon nuts or cheesy Mexican rugs; big junkyards; Morgan Lake, the cooling pond for the 2,000 megawatt Four Corners Power Plant and a favorite for windsurfers; and Original Sweetmeat Inc., a meat-processing establishment that specializes in mutton and caters mostly to Navajos.

If you're in Shiprock during the flea market, stop for a Navajo Taco or mutton stew, then continue West. Teec Nos Pos trading post is worth a stop, but not, in my opinion, Four Corners Monument. It seems weird to consecrate a place because four arbitrarily drawn lines meet there. But that's just me. Tourists contort themselves for photos showing them somehow touching all four states; do not try this if you already have a bad back.

Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border not only boasts some of the region's best archaeology, with far fewer visitors than Mesa Verde, but it also has a great campground. The campsites are so close to the main group of pueblos and trademark stone towers that it's easy to imagine what it was like to live here 700 years ago. Its various outliers are all well worth visiting, too; my favorite is the precariously perched Boulder House at Holly Ruins, a nice hike or short drive from the campground.

Bluff, Utah, is a classic Mormon colony that was mostly wiped out in a giant 1911 flood. Today, it's a small community of river rats, desert rats, artists, telecommuters and folks who just love the place where desert and water meet. The Comb Ridge Cafe makes a mean cappuccino and has wi-fi. Wild Rivers Expeditions offers one-to-10-day archaeology-filled raft trips on the San Juan River. Cow Canyon Trading Post has a gallery with topnotch Navajo art. And the San Juan River Kitchen offers tasty and fresh nouvelle Mexican food. And beer! In Utah!

Just up the road is Comb Ridge, a huge sandstone wave that extends from Utah's Abajo Mountains all the way to Kayenta, Ariz. Its gentle eastern slope is sliced by dozens of miniature canyons that empty into Butler Wash, creating an intricate landscape that would take a lifetime to properly explore. Its nooks and crannies hide rock art and ancestral Puebloan ruins, and it proved a tough-to-pass barrier for Mormon pioneers and everyone else until massive road cuts were blasted through for the highways in the early 1970s.

Drilling began in the expansive Aneth Oilfield east of Bluff in the 1950s, and high oil prices keep oil companies interested. The Utah Navajos haven't always appreciated what the industry has done to their land and culture, and major protests were mounted in 1978, 1992 and 1997. Now, there's an ongoing fight about who should manage the royalties. Drive south out of Montezuma Creek on the Red Mesa Road, then take any oilfield road, and cruise around among free-roaming horses and pumpjacks. It's a haunting landscape. But be careful, it's easy to get lost; and be respectful, you're on the Navajo Nation.

The road from Aneth to Cortez passes through McElmo Canyon, providing relief from the drilled, dry oilfield. Pink sandstone surrounds lush irrigated farmland in the shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain. Traditionally, melons were grown here, and now wine grapes have joined them in many a field. McElmo is also the prime gateway to the Canyon of the Ancients National Monument and its 6,000 or more archaeological sites, many within a few miles walk of the road. The spectacular Sutcliffe vineyard has no tasting room, but you might coerce someone into giving you a tour. Farther up the road, the tasting room at Guy Drew Vineyard is open most days.

Cortez, Colo., is where this particular journey ends -- if you can get this far without wandering off and disappearing in the desert, a la Everett Ruess. Once a culinary wasteland, this old farm-town-cum-tourist-town boasts good eats at The Farm Bistro, Stonefish Sushi and tasty caffeine in the funky-friendly atmosphere of the Spruce Tree coffeehouse and the Silver Bean. Consider it fuel for the rest of your journey, for surely you can't stop now: Too many back roads, nameless canyons and strange horizons are still beckoning.

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