Ready for a little trivia quiz? Where in the U.S. can you stand in four states at the same time? Give up? The answer is way up in the northeastern corner of Arizona, where this state meets New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. This novelty of the United State's westward expansion has long captured the imagination of vacationing families looking for some way of entertaining the kids in the middle of the desert. "Hey, kids, wanna have your picture taken in four states at the same time?"
Known as Four Corners, this spot is the site of a Navajo Tribal Park. Pay your admission, and you, too, can experience the Four Corners state of mind. However, Four Corners is much more than a surveyor's gimmick. The term also refers to this entire region, most of which is Navajo and Hopi reservation land. The Four Corners region happens to have some of the most spectacular landscapes in the state, with majestic mesas, rainbow-hued deserts, towering buttes, multicolored cliffs, deep canyons, a huge cliff-rimmed reservoir, and even a meteorite crater. Among the most dramatic landscape features are the 1,000-foot buttes of Monument Valley, which for years have symbolized the Wild West of John Wayne movies and car commercials.
The Four Corners region is also home to Arizona's most scenic reservoir, Lake Powell, a flooded version of the Grand Canyon. With its miles of blue water mirroring red-rock canyon walls hundreds of feet high, Lake Powell is one of northern Arizona's curious contrasts -- a vast artificial reservoir in the middle of barren desert canyons. Although a half-century ago there was a bitter fight over damming Glen Canyon to form Lake Powell, today the lake is among the most popular attractions in the Southwest.
Be forewarned, however: The Four Corners region also claims some of the most desolate, wind-swept, and monotonous landscapes in the state, so be sure to fill up on both gas and coffee before heading out on the highway for another 100-mile drive to the next destination.
While this region certainly offers plenty of scenery, it also provides one of the nation's most fascinating cultural experiences. This is American Indian country, the homeland of both the Navajo and the Hopi, tribes that have lived on these lands for hundreds of years and have adapted different means of surviving in this arid region. The Navajo, with their traditional log homes (called hogans) scattered across the countryside, were herders of sheep, goats, and cattle. The Hopi, on the other hand, congregated in villages atop mesas and built houses of stone. Today, the Hopi still grow corn and other crops at the foot of their mesas in much the same way the indigenous peoples of the Southwest have done for centuries.
These two tribes are only the most recent Native Americans to inhabit what to the casual observer seems to be a desolate, barren wilderness. The Ancestral Puebloans (formerly called Anasazis) left their mark in countless canyons throughout the Four Corners region. Their cliff dwellings date back 700 years or more, and here in Arizona, the most spectacular ruins are in Canyon de Chelly and Navajo national monuments. No one is sure why the Ancestral Puebloans moved up into the cliff walls, but there is speculation that unfavorable growing conditions brought on by drought may have forced them to use every possible inch of arable land. Likewise, no one is certain why the Ancestral Puebloans abandoned their cliff dwellings in the 13th century. With no written record, their disappearance may forever remain a mystery.
The Hopi, who claim the Ancestral Puebloans as their ancestors, have for centuries lived atop mesas in northeastern Arizona, and Oraibi, on Third Mesa, may be the oldest continuously inhabited community in the U.S. Most of the villages are built on three mesas, known simply as First Mesa, Second Mesa, and Third Mesa, which are numbered from east to west and are completely surrounded by the Navajo Nation. These villages have always maintained a great deal of autonomy, which over the years has sometimes led to disputes between villages. The activities of missionaries and the policies of the Bureau of Indian Affairs have also created conflicts among and within villages.
The Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., is home to nearly 200,000 Navajos and covers an area of 26,000 square miles in northeastern Arizona and parts of New Mexico and Utah. Although the reservation today has modern towns with supermarkets, shopping centers, and hotels, many Navajos still follow a pastoral lifestyle as herders. As you travel the roads of the reservation, you'll frequently encounter flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and horses. These animals have free range of the reservation and often graze beside the highway.
Compared to such pueblo tribes as the Hopi and Zuni, the Navajo are relative newcomers to the Southwest. Their Athabaskan language is most closely related to the languages spoken by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, and Alaska. It's believed that the Navajo migrated southward from northern Canada beginning around 1000, arriving in the Southwest sometime after 1400. At this time, they were still hunters and gatherers, but contact with the pueblo tribes, which had long before adopted an agricultural lifestyle, began to change the Navajo into farmers. When the Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the early 17th century, the Navajo began raiding Spanish settlements for horses, sheep, and goats and adopted a pastoral way of life, grazing their herds on the high plains and the canyon bottoms.
The continued raids, made even more successful with the acquisition of horses, put the Navajo in conflict with the Spanish settlers who were beginning to encroach on Navajo land. In 1805, the Spanish sent a military expedition into the Navajo's chief stronghold, Canyon de Chelly, and killed 115 people, who, by some accounts, may have been all women, children, and old men. This massacre, however, did not stop the conflicts between the Navajo and Spanish settlers.
In 1846, when this region became part of the United States, American settlers encountered the same problems that the Spanish had. Military outposts were established to protect the new settlers, and numerous unsuccessful attempts were made to establish peace. In 1863, after continued attacks, a military expedition led by Col. Kit Carson burned crops and homes late in the summer, effectively obliterating the Navajo's winter food supplies. Thus defeated, the Navajo were rounded up and herded 400 miles to an inhospitable region of New Mexico near Fort Sumner. This trek became known as the Long Walk. Living conditions at Fort Sumner were deplorable, and the land was unsuitable for farming. Because they were unable to survive at Fort Sumner, the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland in 1868.
Upon returning home, and after continued clashes with white settlers, the Navajo settled into a lifestyle of herding. Today, however, the Navajo have had to turn to many different livelihoods. Although weaving and silver work have become lucrative businesses for some craftspeople, the amount of money these trades garner for the tribe as a whole is not significant. Many Navajos now take jobs as migrant workers. Gas and oil leases and coal mining on the reservation provide additional income.
Although the reservation covers an immense area, much of it is of little value other than as scenery. Fortunately, the Navajo have recognized the income potential of their spectacular land. Monument Valley is operated as a tribal park, as is the Four Corners monument.
Navajo-owned tour companies also operate on the reservation.
As you travel the reservation, you may notice small hexagonal buildings with rounded roofs. These are hogans, the traditional homes of the Navajo, and are usually made of wood and earth with the doorway facing east to greet the new day. At the Canyon de Chelly and Navajo national monument visitor centers, you can look inside hogans that are part of the parks' exhibits. If you take a tour at Canyon de Chelly or Monument Valley, you may have an opportunity to visit a privately owned hogan. Although most Navajos now live in modest houses or manufactured homes, a family usually has a hogan for religious ceremonies.
The Navajo and Hopi reservations cover a vast area and are laced with a network of well-paved roads, as well as many unpaved roads that are not always passable to cars without four-wheel-drive. Because distances are great, keep your gas tank filled, and keep an eye out for livestock on the road, especially at night.
Driving on to Colorado or New Mexico: The Four Corners Meet
It’s an offbeat treat to visit the Four Corners Monument (tel. 928/871-6647), where you can stand in four states—Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico—at once. Located north of Teec Nos Pos in the very northeast corner of the state, this park is the only place in the United States where the corners of four states come together. The scenery is a little nondescript, considering the majesty of the surrounding countryside, and the exact point is just a cement pad surrounded by flags and vendor stalls. The park also has a few picnic tables and a snack bar serving, among other things, Navajo fry bread. The park is open daily from 8am to 7pm, and admission is $3. The Teec Nos Pos Trading Post, by the way, sells ice, groceries, and well-priced art and craft goods. It’s definitely worth a visit.