There are roads, and then there are lonely roads. And then there are roads so lonely that tumbleweeds can’t be bothered to roll across the denuded landscape, roads so devoid of activity that even the yellow “Cows Xing” signs are rendered superfluous, roads in which the occasional passing phalanx of rumbling big rigs is attention-getting.
We’ve all traveled on these lonesome highways, going from one place to another.
Keep the foot on the accelerator; nothing see here.
But then there is a road so lonely — but in a stark, sublimely beautiful way — that, if it be your wont, you can lie prone smack dab in the middle and spend minutes trying to snap the perfect photograph of the string of broken yellow lines receding into the distance, then, that done, flip over supine and gaze at the barely perceptible drift of a wispy cirrostratus cloud lingering in the impossibly blue sky — all before an oncoming vehicle even appears as a dot on the horizon.
That, friends, is Arizona Highway 160.
This rolling stretch of asphalt, stretching 158.8 miles from its westerly start off Highway 89 in Cameron to its eastern terminus near at Teec Nos Pos, recently was selected in a survey by the GPS-tracking company Geotab as one of “America’s Quietest Routes,” a polite way of saying that this major thoroughfare has scant few cars annually traversing its path and, concurrently, has few of the modern amenities travelers demand.
Not only did Geotab tab Highway 160 as the state’s “quietest” drive, it also selected it as No. 4 in the nation when it comes to lonely sojourns. Only Alaska’s State Route 11, made famous by those ice-road truckers, Utah’s desolate U.S. Route 50, which proudly dubs itself “America’s Loneliest Road,” and Maine’s Route 201 rate ahead of Arizona 160 in the survey.
In describing Highway 160, Geotab uses phrases such as “isolated route” and “empty stretches,” but it does give a nod to the inherent beauty of the rock formations and dubbing it “an incredibly scenic drive.”
Some, however, might scoff at this designation and refute such rankings, stating that Highway 160 is hardly a “Road to Nowhere,” to quote the Talking Heads.
The road does, in fact, eventually lead to a turnoff for the Four Corners, a popular geographic tourist destination where one can stand on a marker in four states at once. Highway 160 is one route that leads to the geologic wonder that is Monument Valley. Less obvious, but no less important, 160 travels through the heart of the Navajo Nation, steeped with history and culture and more than a few Instagram-worthy images of its own.
Yet, even its stoutest proponents must concede that, along vast swathes of Highway 160, there is, well, a whole lot of nothing. Sure, there are two real towns, Tuba City and Kayenta, along the way to satisfy one’s need for gas and provisions, but ghost towns far exceed stop signs and wild horses outnumber bipeds working the open range and mesas.
Hence, its “quietest road” designation.
Sometimes, though, in places like this, you just have to look closer, and try harder, to appreciate the beauty amid the starkness, to ferret out hidden gems and poignant remnants of a grander past, to read meaning into the barren landscape and what it has left behind. Travel Highway 160 with a different mindset — to stop and take in its charms rather than “make good time” on the way to somewhere else — and you might gain a greater appreciation.
It’s a long haul, after all, with spotty radio reception, so what else do you have to do but look and linger along the way?
Mile Post 312: Just after the right turn off Highway 89, two admonitions from ADOT on the soft shoulder: “Watch for Animals: Next 44 Miles;” and “Begin Day Headlight Section.” Another ominous sign: A foot-high white cross sticking up from an exposed rock, flowers at its base. How many more such sorrowful highway memorials await?
Mile Post 316: The hand-painted red sign reads “DINOSAUR TRACKS,” with an arrow pointing to a dirt road on the left. Not 50 feet away, at a dusty pullout, three Native American women hover amid a bench absent of all vegetation, but replete with sandstone slabs fanning out on all sides.
“Wanna see the tracks?” asks Bertha Secondy, unofficial tour guide, dressed in an oversized fleece camouflage jacket to repel the morning chill.
She waves you over.
“The footprints start right here,” she says, pointing a bejeweled index finger at a series of divots in the rutilant rock. “See that three-toed thing right there? That’s a velociraptor foot. Over here’s a four-toed one, a triceratops. This white stuff? That’s their ‘droppings.’”
Secondy, who says her mother started tours of the dinosaur tracks shortly after the Bureau of Indian Affairs and ADOT teamed to build the highway in 1956, sounds convincing. She has her presentation down, cold.
“That line there, that’s a dinosaur vertebra,” she says. “A lot of them probably didn’t make it out, like this one. They died right here.”
Vertebrae outlines are faint. It could just be a scratch in rock made by a stick -- or it could be the real thing. Paleontologists confirm that the tracks are, indeed, believed to be from the Jurassic Period, but not all of the “trace fossils” can be authenticated. Still, fascinating. As the travel website flagstaff.com states, “Not all of the information will be 100% scientifically correct, but it’s absolutely worth taking the tour if you have somewhere between $5-$20 to spare.”
You hand her a Hamilton and thank her for the tour.
Mile Post 323: First billboard: “Burger King: 68 Miles. Clean restrooms, free Wi-Fi, RV parking, Navajo Code Talkers Exhibit.”
Mile Post 324: First animal sighting: A roadkill skunk.
Mile Post 327: Beyond Tuba City, proper, into open-range country, you see a large, black-tarped square low-lying industrial building, cordoned off by a cyclone fence. It’s the Uranium Mill Tailings Disposal Site, run since the mid-1950s by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Legacy Management.
It’s a stark reminder that this land once was mined for that precious heavy metal with a radioactive half-life of between 25,000 to 4.5 billion years.
Across the road, to the north, unmarked and unlined, is an unofficial dumping site in which uranium and other contaminates leached into the aquifer. By 2011, the Office of Environmental Management reported that cleanup of the harmful “Highway 160 Disposal Site” had been completed. All you can see today from the road are a few scarred remains of the cleanup amid the range’s regrown scrub brush.
Mile Post 342: Roadside memorial next to the Sinclair gas station, in Tonalea. It’s an elaborate display, featuring a three-foot cross held up by a motorcycle tire, surrounded with flowers, a Ford hood ornament, a white metal lock box and a headstone bearing the names of Sam and Linda McClintock, date of death: 2011.
Later research will reveal that, on the morning of Aug. 5, 2011, the Tucson couple was riding together on a motorcycle on Highway 160 when a Ford pickup truck made an abrupt left-hand turn and crashed into them. They died at the scene.
Mile Post 346: They stand like sentinels, visible for miles, but when you get closer, loom not 10 feet off the road. They are two mountain pillars, dubbed the Elephant’s Feet due to the likeness. They are massive, to be sure, though not more so than any other outcroppings from the mesas that line the highway.
The thing is, they are just so close, so accessible. A couple driving a red Toyota 4-Runner do the selfie thing, ask you to take their photo. You oblige. Then you circumnavigate the “feet,” just to stretch your legs. Graffiti mar the backside and you see evidence of minor vandalism and litter. Somebody had quite a party: You see, in a pile, an empty bottle of peach whiskey, an empty Lagunitas IPA bottle, a plastic bottle of Listerine and a a discarded pair of boxer underwear.
Mile Post 353: Cow Springs abandoned gas station. The sign, weathered and peeling, reads: “Standard Oil Products.” All that remains is crumbled brick and mortar, a few walls and a standing smoke stack.
But, gloriously, Navajo artists seemingly have adopted this ghost gas station as a gallery, both for murals and graffiti. A message spray-painted in black cursive greets you: “Remember who you are … Native America.”
Mile Post 373: The landscape changes now, heading toward Kayenta. Piñon and junipers join the scrub along the roadside and, in the distance to the south, the Black Mesa Forest adds some much-needed verticality.
Green road signs warning of school-bus stops seem incongruous — there is not a house visible for miles. Just near Tsegi, Mile Post 382, an Amazon big rig is stalled on the soft shoulder. When the road curves north, suddenly the palette changes and, to the north, you enter red mesa country. Framed around the red rocks is the remains of the Anasazi Inn, a motel that looks decades-closed. Everything seems dated here. A billboard for a July 4 celebration in Window Rock still stands months after the event has passed.
Mile Post 393: At last, a real town, Kayenta, pop. 5,189. This being the turnoff to Monument Valley, tourists are common, and this stretch of Highway 160 reflects that. The town has all the fine dining establishments: McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Sonic, Burger King.
And, yes, as the billboard in Tuba City promises, there is a Navajo Code Talkers Exhibit inside the BK. It consists of a series of glass panels with memorabilia from a World War II Navajo serviceman King Mike, a code talker. The display was built and curated by his son, Richard Mike, owner of the Burger King.
It’s a fascinating display, featuring flags and photos and documents chronicling the code talkers, who used their native Navajo language to relay messages on the battlefield. You want to linger, but feel uncomfortable loitering without buying a Whopper with cheese or something.
If Highway 160 is, indeed, a lonely road, you cannot tell by the action at the Kayenta Monument Valley Inn. The front parking area is lined with cars. Inside, a private birthday party rages in the hotel restaurant. Front-desk worker Belinda Big, tilts her head back and laughs at the notion of Kayenta being “lonely.”
She points west.
“Grand Canyon over there.”
She points north.
“Monument Valley over there.”
She points west.
“Four Corners over there.”
“Starting in March,” she says, “we get tons of people. “There are three motels in town, and we’re all sold out in summer. People make reservations a year in advance.”
Mile Post 401: A pack of wild horses, numbering about a dozen, trot toward Church Rock Wash, still dry though it’s late fall. Two colts (or, perhaps, fillies) peel off and gallop back from whence they came. The pack stops and waits.
Sigh: Youth today!
Mile Post 405: A state trooper, the first seen the entire trip, has pulled over a black Ford F-250. Your radio pulls in an NPR station from Colorado, playing a Celtic music show, a strange soundtrack while traveling through the reservation.
Mile Post 407: Baby Rocks. Sorry, Elephant’s Feet, but the most dazzling sedimentary rock formation along the road is Baby Rocks, ocher sandstone walls fragmented in such a way that it looks (to some, at least) as if scores of “babies” are clinging to the sides. Navajo legend has it that a girl who refused to share bread with her sister was transformed into one of the spires in Baby Rock.
Mile Post 420: Because people keep stealing the mile post sign — 420, the marijuana reference — ADOT has put up a blank green sign. Someone has painted in “420” to guide travelers.
Mile Post 448: A really desolate stretch of road finally is broken up by what looks like a Phoenix suburb plopped in the High County. It’s the town of Red Mesa, pop. 480, with two subdivisions in clumps surrounded by a high school and medical center. Just that quickly, this mirage of a town is in your rear-view mirror.
Mile Post 456: Hand-painted sign: “Fresh Hot Fry Bread.” Cars encircle the small trailer cooking up fry bread — and Navajo tacos, and Mutton, and Spam sandwiches — with license plates from Ohio, Utah, New York, Colorado and California. You walk up to order, pay in cash ($2 for fry bread, such a deal) and retreat to your call. They deliver.
Alonzo Curley, tending the barbecue behind the trailer, runs the place. Says he’s been in business three years and gets by just fine. Most people order wither fry bread of Navajo tacos, he says. You ask why there aren’t more — or, really, any other — roadside businesses along Highway 160 and he smiles slyly, “Maybe the Navajo got lazy. Just kidding.”
Mile Post 460: The end of the line, where 160 turns into Highway 64. At last, a trading post that’s in business, the Teec Nos Pos Trading Post. It’s been open since 1905, and John McCulloch has owned it since 1994. They sell food and sundry items but also lovely Navajo rugs ($500 to $2,000) and Kachina dolls.
“Years ago,” he said, “adjusting his cowboy hat, “I had a fella come in and his gig was to ‘analyze’ your business, tell you your strengths and weaknesses. He said, ‘Forget about the arts and crafts stuff.’ We didn’t get rid of it, but you can’t make it here just with arts and crafts, like the (abandoned) place on the corner.
“You know, we don’t get traffic like you folks do on the Grand-Canyon-Page corridor on 89. So any way you can figure out how to make it here is a good thing.”
You thank him, buy a water bottle, turn the car west and head on back, lonely no more.
Sam McManis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (928) 556-2248.
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