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Wednesday, December 19, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Westward Ho, Day 45 & 46:  Cortez, CO, to Chambers, AZ, to Gallup, NM

With winter storm Draco threatening to dump a load of snow on the area, we left Cortez Tuesday morning, heading south on US-491 (the renamed US-666) toward New Mexico.  Today was our day for slipping into Arizona for a quick visit so we could check it off our list, but our visit had to include finding and planting letterboxes there.

As we crossed the Colorado-New Mexico border, we entered Navajo Nation territory, the largest semi-autonomous area governed by Native Americans in the U.S.  Covering parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, the Navajo reservation is slightly smaller than South Carolina, larger than the ten smallest states.

Navajo Code Talker Memorial, Window Rock, AZ
Crossing into Arizona (still in the Navajo Nation), we visited Window Rock, the Navajo capital, and the monument to the Navajo Code Talkers.  These natives were United States soldiers who used their knowledge of the Navajo language to transmit top secret coded messages during World War II.  Their work was especially important in the South Pacific theater because of the Japanese proficiency at intercepting military radio communications.

Continuing south, we left Navajo territory as we reached I-40.  Since we already driven into New Mexico, Arizona was officially the last state to check off on our ambition to visit all of the 'Great 48' contiguous states this year.  It seemed only fitting that we pause at the state welcome center for a commemorative photo.

#48—We did it!
Following the photo op, we headed west on I-40 to Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert.  Just as with Mesa Verde, we had tried unsuccessfully to visit this park in 1995 during the government shutdown so we were especially glad to find the gates wide open today.  Unlike Mesa Verde, this time we were in luck.  There was no snow covering all the colorful layers in the park, so we were able to see the Painted Desert in all its glory.

Painted Desert
In addition to the colors of the painted desert, we came across some remnants of the evergreen trees that fell in this area 225 million years ago and were washed into floodplains.  The trees were subsequently covered with mud and volcanic ash, cutting off oxygen and decay.  When groundwater laden with silica seeped in, the silica deposited into the logs, crystallized into quartz and turned the trees into petrified wood.

Petrified log
The national park has very strict prohibitions against collecting even the smallest particles of petrified wood from the park (minimum fine, $325).  Of course, many visitors ignore the rule, thinking it won't hurt if they take just one little piece.  Unfortunately, when hundreds of thousands of visitors have that same idea, the small pieces removed from the park can quickly amount to tons of loss. To combat this pernicious problem,  the park service has developed a little snitch sheet, which they distribute to visitors along with your map of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park snitch sheet
We didn't learn how much success they've had with this whistle blower approach, but we did hear that there seems to be a built-in inhibitor that may well be much more effective.  According to legend, a curse will follow anyone who steals bits of petrified wood from the park.  Stories abound of people who have mailed their stolen pieces of rock back to the park citing job losses, house fires, and all manner of bad luck that has befallen them after leaving the park with their own little piece of Triassic history.  When the rocks are returned, rangers add them to the 'Conscience Rock' pile.  Because they have no way of knowing where the pieces originated, rangers can't just place them anywhere in the park without disturbing geological authenticity.  So a spot is designated for just such items.

Conscience Rocks (photo by Cronkite News)
We drove about half of the 28-mile park road before departing to drive to Gallup, NM (pop. 22,329), our destination for Tuesday night.  When we left, we took no pieces of the park with us.  However, just outside the park, we did leave a little treasure of our own—our Arizona letterbox.  Since we had located a box in Window Rock, we had completed our Arizona assignment.

Entering our 48th state for this year completes part 1 of our goal.  We have visited all the 48 states.  Two parts remain:  finding a letterbox in each state and planting a letterbox in each state.  Our state find count stands at 47, with a New Mexico find not yet complete.  On the plant count, we have six remaining:  New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.  Twelve days remain.  Can we get the job done?

As promised by the weather forecasters, snow began to fall overnight on Tuesday, enough to inhibit travel and close schools on Wednesday.  Since we planned two nights in Gallup, this gave us just the opportunity we needed to take a time out and deal with some long delayed matters.  With snow falling outside our window, it was a great day to launder our clothes and prepare holiday cards for mailing.

By afternoon, the sun had arrived on the scene to work with the brisk winds in clearing streets.  We are optimistic about conditions as we move on to Santa Fe tomorrow.

More Photos from Tuesday and Wednesday

Painted Desert
Variety of soil types give layers different colors.
So reminiscent of the Badlands
Searching for a letterbox
New Mexico Welcome Center on I-40:  clean, friendly, nice smell, and beautiful Indian music—the best!

How Window Rock, AZ got its name