GAP -- To test the viability of Navajo Route 20 as an alternative to the closed Highway 89, my wife and I decided to cruise down to the Gap from Page on Sunday, and back.
It was not your dad's Sunday drive.
Twenty-eight of the 44 miles are a blend of gravel, red sand and patches of paving that must have been abandoned decades ago. The speed limit, posted sparingly, is 25 mph.
About one-third of the road was rough. Another third was rougher, but those who keep going after 12 miles of southbound dusty trails are rewarded by a glimpse of the San Francisco Peaks. The last downhill stretch into the Gap felt like the Autobahn by comparison, over sand-topped old asphalt.
For most Navajos, N20 is just another way to get out to see your grandma. For a non-Native, it can seem like something to check off from a Bucket List.
N20 is posted as open only to local traffic. The official detour for Highway 89 takes southbound drivers eastward toward Shonto on Highway 98 and then in a southwesterly direction on Highway 160 to Tuba City. The detour adds 49 miles to a trip from Page to Flagstaff.
TRAFFIC LIGHT -- AND DUSTY
My intention was to determine whether travelers from, say, Flagstaff, would be able to use N20, which actually cuts a few miles off the parallel 89 route, closed Feb. 20 by a geologic slump. Geologists are testing a 150-foot-long section along Echo Cliffs near the Cut that buckled the road. The Arizona Department of Transportation has not identified a timeline for repairs.
Last week, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly directed the Navajo Department of Transportation to start maintaining N20. The road will be graded twice a month, and emergency funds may be used at some point for paving.
The northernmost 14 miles of N20 are paved. Page's Coppermine Road turns into N20 near the city's trash transfer station. The Navajo Nation-maintained N20 skirts LeChee and moves toward the Coppermine Chapter. The road continues to rise and offer views of the Vermilion Cliffs to the west and Navajo Mountain to the east. Then the pavement ends.
Four miles later, the terms "buckboard" and "washboard" entered the conversation and I considered aborting the mission. My wife Dana's handwriting became shaky: "Gets worse, 12 mph." We forged on, partly because we were nearing the point of no return -- in a few more miles, the nearest public restroom would be located at the Gap Express convenience store.
You could say that traffic was light -- and dusty. The most common form of transportation was a pickup truck. We did see a few passenger cars on the road, and on the way back, passed a truck pulling a boat trailer. Just one.
The road improved once we topped out at the highest spot. Plodding on, and racing to 30 mph, our persistence was redeemed when patches of old pavement began poking through sand that had blown over the road. Ahead, a gap between rock outcroppings emerged, and soon we were on full pavement and passing Tsinaabaas Habitin Elementary School. The Gap, and Highway 89, came along quickly.
The idea of paving N20 has a long history.
About 10 years ago, a Coppermine Chapter official publicly talked of the economic benefits that would accompany paving. Several years ago, Navajo Nation councilmembers discussed it, but six years ago an ADOT project manager told a Page audience that paving had been considered "cost-prohibitive." The idea was shelved, James Zumpf said at a March 5, 2007, meeting.
A Bureau of Indian Affairs road engineer said last week that he does not want BIA roads like N20 to be used as detours. Roland Becenti, who works for the BIA Western Agency, cited 2010 figures showing 3,100 vehicles a day traveling the Highway 89 corridor between Bitter Springs and Page.
"It has (had) 16 percent truck traffic and that amounts to about 500 trucks a day going there," he said at a Bodaway/Gap Chapter meeting conducted by Shelly. Becenti said N20 should be open only to local traffic because of safety concerns: "I know trucks will get stuck. I know RVs will get stuck."
Buses have been using N20 to transport about 165 students a day to schools in Page from Bitter Springs, Cedar Ridge and Marble Canyon. Other southbound school district personnel are instructed not to take N20, instead driving east to Kaibeto on Highway 98 and then Navajo Route 21 to Tonalea, before picking up 160 to Tuba City.
I may think twice about declaring myself as a "local" traveler and transporting myself down N20 again. Two things are for sure -- I will not drive it at night or after a storm.