Sunday, March 16, 2008


Were it not for the many other geological spectacles around Four Corners, Shiprock might be as famous as Devil’s Tower. Indeed, they are both remnants of ancient volcanos. Composed of breccia and other igneous rocks, Shiprock originally formed the volcano’s throat, several thousand feet underground, but in the 27 million years since inception, erosion has exposed the remnant.

Shiprock rises nearly 2,000 feet above the plain, and it is visible for scores of miles. Early Anglo pioneers thought it resembled a Yankee clipper ship. Last week, my old friend Sam Sweet and I approached from the north, first glimpsing it just after passing into New Mexico from Colorado. None but the hardiest grasses survive the arid conditions of the surrounding plains. Shiprock sits in the middle of a vast Navajo reservation that, to quote Robert Spurlock, is basically a third-world country sitting in the middle of the southwest. A town named for Shiprock lies fifteen or so miles from the formation; there was no sign of employment beyond service and government jobs. Power lines, apparently routing electricity from the turbines along the Colorado River to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, crisscross the vast expanse of the reservation. I never once caught a glimpse of cattle, which are ubiquitous elsewhere in the arid southwestern landscape.

Navajo legend tells that a village once occupied the top of Shiprock (Tse Bit’a’i to the Navajo), whose inhabitants cultivated the fields below. Lightning sheered off the trail leading to the bottom, leaving only a cliff and forcing the village to starve. The Navajo now forbid the rock’s ascent. Oddly, David Brower, later of Sierra Club fame, led the first recorded climb of Shiprock.

Highway 491 provides a constant vista of the peak, however, so we did not offend any resting spirits. Our Rough Guide, which contained a priceless section on “Traveling in Indian Country,” urges travelers to avoid making eye contact or being overtly friendly, as the natives apparently do not understand such paleface behavior.

Briefly disembarking to absorb Shiprock’s grandeur in the open air, I was struck by the trail of broken bottles along the road’s shoulder. Highway 491, nicknamed the Devil’s Highway, actually used to be 666 (the sixth spur of old Highway 66), until Bill Richardson and the New Mexican Congress changed it in 2003 to avoid “the mark of the beast.” Within the Navajo section of the road, a succession of fatal accidents led some to believe the road curse. Alcoholism is responsible for most of these deaths, however. Highway 491 is a road I would hesitate to drive at night—Shiprock is a massive, unearthly presence, and the image of headlights swerving head-on into my lane persists.

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