MEXICAN HAT, Utah — I just wanted to write that dateline. “What a racist name for a town,” I thought, before looking up. “Well…I guess it really does look like a Mexican hat.”
The founders could have gone with “sombrero,” but why muddle the details? After traveling all day through the Navajo Nation, with intermingled signs of “Indian, Native American and Indigenous” gift shops and museums, I’m not sure anyone in this region knows what to call anything. Mexican Hat would have to do.
The miniature town on the Utah/Arizona border would be home for the night. I parked the car and settled into a cliffside campsite over the muddy San Juan River, glad to be high over the flooding washes and valleys that can be deadly in the southwestern monsoon season.
A grey evening gave only the faintest, dying ray of red before darkness settled in. With only a struggling 3G signal coming from my phone and a Macbook on its last legs, this was the first real night I’ve had in weeks to simply sit in silence.
I grabbed a headlamp, crawled into the back of the Escape (opting not to pitch a tent in the rain) and opened a book. “A Journey in the Dark,” the chapter title read. This is the darkest part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring. If you’ve seen the movies, this is the part where our intrepid companions enter the black mines of Moria, ultimately anger an ancient demon that lurks under the mountain, and send Gandalf (the wizard, not the crow) to a presumed doom.
In other words, this was great reading for a black, stormy night perched on a barren cliff in the American southwest.
But that chapter, I think, was appropriate. The end of my voyage through Arizona, through the broken bones of Route 66 and the abandoned hills of mining country, was coming. I had only to make it through the night and wake up to the literal light at the end of this dark, figurative tunnel.
And what a light it was.
As dawn broke over the campsite, I crawled once again out of the back of the Escape and loaded up for the road. The route to southern Colorado was smooth, bright and breathtaking—the opposite of the previous day spent mired in a rain-soaked Monument Valley that hardly lived up to its reputation.
This new route, on a new day, went by another valley. It is lesser known and more aptly named: The Valley of the Gods. Perhaps it was a fitting bookend to a stretch of journey so filled with darkness.
I think, in this state, bright times lie ahead. Either way, the road goes ever on…and as Tolkien said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”