You’ve seen the movies about road trips but reality is never as wild and to tell the truth you wouldn’t want it to be. My brother Don was heading to Arizona to do his masters in international Aboriginal law and he needed someone to go along with him to keep him company. It’s kind of hard to go from Mistissini to Tucson, Arizona, doing a one-man road trip. Luckily I had some time off, so we headed out on a six-day journey through North America. We traveled through Wisconsin and Nebraska, where everyone is nice. Going out one night in Wausau, Wisconsin, I had a very interesting conversation on which states had the best jails. It was agreed by all those at the table with experience that Alaska and Boulder, Colorado, had the best jails. Snow crab legs served in one and co-ed jails in the other, but enough beer talk.
On the trip I learnt that Tampico, Illinois, is the hometown of former actor and 40th US President Ronald Reagan. We could have even visited his house. We passed…
And who can forget the cornfields of Nebraska? I could, they weren’t all that memorable. To be fair, North Platte, Nebraska, is the home of Buffalo Bill’s Ranch. It wasn’t just the many country radio stations that were letting us know we had started to enter cowboy country. I must admit that they put on one heck of a 4lh of July show. The fireworks spread out all over the place.
After Nebraska we entered Colorado. It was time to see where the late John Denver got his rocky Mountain highs from. It was beautiful but we rolled on through. Don’s Pathfinder was acting up at the high altitudes but we seemed to do fine going down and down and down. It was a seven per cent grade that went on forever.
A personal thanks goes out to Johnny Dixon who suggested we go route 128 in Utah. I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the beauty of mesa country. Don told me that he was almost scenic-ed out, but the best was yet to come.
The Paiutes call it Kaibab, or “Mountain Lying down.” John Wesley Powell dubbed it the “Grand Canyon” in 1872. No matter what name it is known by, the Grand Canyon is as awe-inspiring today as it must have been to the first people to stumble upon it. We’re talking 466 kilometers (5- 29 kilometers wide) of canyon. I would have to say it is one of the most spectacular examples of erosion anywhere. The Grand Canyon was unmatched in the incomparable vistas we saw.
There are a number of different theories that attempt to describe how the Grand Canyon came to be. The most popular theory at present claims that the Colorado River was in it’s present bed, or one very close to it, long before the Canyon existed. When the Colorado Plateau began to uplift, the river simply cut it’s way through it as it rose. It did not rise very fast, so the river had plenty of time. Since the upper layers of the Colorado Plateau are composed primarily of sedimentary rock, which erodes easily, the river did not have to work that hard.
The first human visitors were paleo-hunters who wandered the Southwest over 11,000 years ago chasing big game. They left few signs of their passage. In time, these mysterious travelers were followed by hunter-gatherers of the Desert Archaic culture. They lived there until about 1000 B.C. Evidence of their presence at the Canyon is seen in the small animal hunting fetishes made from willow twigs that were discovered secreted away in hard-to-reach crannies. We were told the figurines were approximately 4,000 years old.
Hunting and gathering survived until the introduction of agriculture allowed family groups to settle in one place, supplementing game and native plants with cultivated com. By a.d. 500, a new culture, known as the ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) could be found at Grand Canyon. They inhabited dark, smoky, semi subterranean pithouses, hunted deer, rabbits, and bighorn sheep, and made fine baskets, leading archaeologists to name them ancestral Puebloan Basketmakers. The Basketmakers lived peacefully alongside the Cohonina people, who shared many similar cultural traits. Don and me took the plug and descended into an ancient kiva. You could see where the fire pit was and the shelving. It was cool inside despite the blistering heat outside. I wasn’t used to being in 110 degrees Fahrenheit weather.
About 2,000 ancestral Puebloan sites have been found within park boundaries. The Spanish word pueblo, meaning “town,” referred to the apartment-style masonry compounds the ancestral Puebloans excelled in building. Communal living had led to many new breakthroughs, such as irrigation farming of com, squash, and bean crops, elaborate ceremonial rituals in underground chambers called kivas, beautiful black-on-white and corrugated utilitarian pottery, and extensive trade with other cultures.
The ancestral Puebloans moved to more reliable water sources beside the Rio Grande and the Little Colorado drainages, where their descendants – the Hopi and the 19 Pueblos of New Mexico -continue many of the traditions of their ancestors.
About 150 years later, a new hunter-gatherer tribe, the Cerbat, moved into Grand Canyon in the 1300s. Descendants of these people make up the Hualapai and Havasupai tribes, who occupy reservations in the western Canyon. At the same time, small bands of hunter-gatherer Southern Paiutes began venturing to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The Southern Paiutes worked closely with the Mormons, who colonized southern Utah and the Arizona Strip in the 1850s.
The last Native Americans to arrive at the Grand Canyon were the Navajo, or the Dine, Athabascan people related to the Apache, who moved here from the northwest around a.d. 1400. The Navajo were hunter-gatherers who learned agriculture from the Pueblos and later obtained horses and sheep from Spanish settlers. Their adaptability allowed them to dominate this region. After centuries of sporadic inter-tribal conflict, as well as clashes with new Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo arrivals, the Navajo are today the largest, strongest Native American tribe in the United States.
Their huge reservation touches the eastern section of the Canyon.
It was through this large reservation that Don and I traveled through. A dry land and one that showed the adaptability of the Navajo people. Every few miles would come the wooden signs by the roadside. Chief Yellow Horses Native Crafts coming up. The next would usually read “Best Beef Jerky”, then “Just a few miles more” and finally the place would be there. A final reminder would read, “You can still turn around for the best deals of your life.” We learnt the chief wasn’t the only one doing this through our journey. The Navajo land was beautiful. Our most interesting experience was my first desert dust storm. Off in the distance I thought it was rain but as we got closer I could see the dust in the air with crows frantically trying to fly to safety. It was awesome to watch but I was glad we were in a car. I swear I can still feel the dust in my hair to this day.
By this time we were in Arizona and on the final leg of our journey. After arriving in Tucson we met up with James Hopkins, the director of the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program at the University of Arizona. After listening to me talk about Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express trail he took me to a special spot. We had to climb the side of a mountain to get to the place where Geronimo had sniped more US Cavalrymen than anywhere else. Looking back at the climb I couldn’t help but appreciate the fact we had arrived by air-conditioned car. By the time the Calvary got anywhere near Geronimo they must have been dropping like flies from the heat alone. Looking out and feeling my eyeballs roasting in the sun I knew it was getting close to the time to return to cooler climes.
The way home was by plane and even though I returned to Montreal via Cleveland I was there long enough to see if it rocks.
I know the airport sucked though.
This is a road trip I would willingly take again. The rugged beauty of the wild west captured this northern heart. I plan to return to see all that I missed.