Sunday, October 5, 2008

My Rural Travelogue (Part VI): The Arizona strip

I’m on vacation in the Southwest, driving from National Park to National Monument to State Park to National Park . . . You get the picture. We’re seeing a lot of rural places, many of which are of the sort associated with the West and Southwest, where there is so much public land that one sees much less residential development than in other regions that are also fairly characterized as rural. Driving from Zion National Park to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, for example, one sees very few homes outside the small cities and towns of Carmel Junction and Kanab in Utah, and Freedonia just over the state line in Arizona. Ditto until one gets to Jacob Lake, at the cusp of the Kaibab National Forest, which merges into Grand Canyon National Park.

Jacob Lake is an interesting little place. Our GPS unit didn’t pick it up as a place at all, but there’s a government-issue road sign as you enter “town” to let you know you’ve arrived. There’s not much to Jacob Lake, a store-restaurant-inn-gift shop (photo top), along with a campground that appears to be owned by the same folks. The gas station and bike rental place next door may be, too. At the edge of the same parking lot is the Kaibab National Forest office/visitor center, and across the road an associated campground and picnic area. Just a bit down the road is a riding stable.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone passes this way without stopping in at Jacob Lake. Indeed, to ensure that people don’t just rush by en route to the North Rim, still 40 miles to the south, signs to the north of Jacob Lake entice travelers in with questions like, “tired of driving?” followed by, “How about a warm, fresh cookie?” and then, “or a milkshake?” You can imagine how many folks are stopping in at the Jacob Lake store, elevation about 7,900, and ordering milkshakes. We stocked up on the cookies, including interesting varieties like pumpkin with chocolate chips and lemon zucchini, along with the more standard chocolate chip. I highly recommend the ginger snaps.

From the Grand Canyon, we traveled into the so-called Arizona strip, that little slice of land across the top of the state, effectively cut off from the rest of it by the sprawling Grand Canyon and the few opportunities for crossing the Colorado River. We crossed at Lee’s Ferry/Marble Canyon, a tiny community on Hwy 89. This was after driving 30 miles or so along the remarkable Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and passing through similar wide-spots-in-the-road called Cliff Dweller and Vermillion Cliffs. Each of these places featured remarkably similar-looking restaurants and lodges, brown buildings with brown and white signs. They must survive on those coming to raft the nearby Colorado because people driving from the N. Rim to points south (like the S. Rim or Flagstaff) or east (Page, the Navajo Nation) after crossing the river were few and far between as we buzzed through. Plus, pretty as the Vermillion Cliffs are, this area has some seriously stiff competition for tourist dollars – namely the Grand Canyon.

We spent a night in Page, the largest population center in the AZ strip, with just under 7,000 residents. There's something that seems artificial about it, which isn’t surprising given that it was founded in 1957 as Glen Canyon Dam began to be built. With its proximity to Lake Powell, it has all the standard fast food and fast lodging. Page's Wal-Mart SuperCenter looks fairly new.

Traversing the AZ strip, one is very much aware of being in or near the Navajo Nation. Much of the AZ strip, along with bits of Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico comprise the Navajo Nation’s land and are home to its 250,000 residents. The Navajo own a couple of very popular tourist destinations in the area. One is Antelope Canyon, a marvelously accessible slot canyon just outside Page. Rising up next to it and visible for miles around are the three smoke stacks of the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired monstrosity that takes advantage of the massive coal deposits in Black Mesa, about 80 miles east.

As we drove east from Page, we saw the electric rail line that transports Black Mesa’s coal to the plant. The site of the huge strip mine there not visible from the road, but so-called White Mesa and other marvelous rock formations are. Again, little residential development was evident from the highway. A sign at Kaibito, population 1607, indicated the presence of a clinic. We didn’t have time to stop at the Navajo National Monument, but proceeded on past Mesa View, Black Mesa, and Tsegi before reaching Kayenta, population 4,922, and turning north on Hwy 163 to see the marvelous Monument Valley, the heart of which hugs the AZ-UT state line.

En route from Mesa View to Kayenta on Hwy 160, we met four school buses in quick succession. They’d already traveled perhaps 45 minutes from Kayenta and would presumably be turning down different roads to deliver their students to far flung residences. About 10 minutes later, we saw the local bus – the one making the stops along Hwy. 160. Two dark-headed boys bounded down a driveway to one of the more salubrious-looking homes we had seen since leaviing Page.

Seeing these buses reminded me of the challenges posed by living so far from population centers and the services and amenties available there -- services such as schools and health care. (Photo of Kayenta Dialysis Center). Local government, too, is difficult to access for rural Arizonans. The state has only 15 counties, and Coconino County stretches from the center to the Utah state line, covering the greatest land area of any of them. With 18,661 square miles and encompassing the entirety of the Grand Canyon, its population density is just 5 persons/square miles. That density is skewed by the presence of Flagstaff, where more than half of the county’s 116,000 residents live.

In any event, our 125-mile drive from Page to the Utah state line at Monument Valley (ultimately passing into and through Navajo County, too) was exhausting. When I've written about the inconvenience physical distance causes rural residents, I've typically had in mind my own experiences in rural Arkansas, a state with 75 counties and a drive of no more than perhaps 40 miles for anyone to reach a county seat. Being out West and experiencing the much greater distances here lends a whole new perspective -- and emphasis-- to my arguments about the relvance of spatility to rural living.

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