July 4th Drive

The Mittens on a Winter Evening         ©Copyright Jonathan Slator

“So we’re all set then?”

“Right.” I say and we shake on the terrace of the Monument Valley visitor’s center, the charcoal face of the director of the Navajo Park grins as always, framed by the famous buttes of his domain. I walk to the car in the 106 heat. It’s 1.30 and I’ve got a solid six hour drive to Taos. So home for supper with the little darlin’, and who knows how the evening might pan out? Quick scan of the check list, permits, PAs, water trucks, tower lights, etc etc, all the crap that a big budget Western with a high-end cast will need to shoot in this gorgeous, boiling valley in August. Reckon I’ve covered all for the production company’s arrival, and set off. Pump gas in Kayenta and ready to roll when the phone jars.

“We’re adding a crew hotel.” Says the coordinator in Santa Fe.

“Bollocks.” I’ll have to add it to the call-sheet map, and my key assistant, on whom I try to off load all map work is off today, it being July 4th, and the rest of my crew, working on set in Santa Fe, couldn’t do a map if their lives depended…aargh.

Swing into the hotel lobby for the wifi and get to work. Almost done when a Harley pulls under the porte cochere and a portly gent enters. I expect a redneck drawl but am startled by a broad British accent. He checks in and asks for the bar; his head sinks when informed of the dryness of the Navajo rez. I cheer him with the info that he can get a beer half an hour to the North in Utah at the Swinging Grill in Mexican Hat. We smile at the irony of two Birmingham UK lads looking for a pint in the weird west.

Send the map at 3.15. Plug in the tunes and we’re off. The road string straight for spells through the arid land, a few dilapidated houses of the natives scattered about, some with hogans, little earth covered hovels, at the side. The Shark’s Teeth, a range of raked ridged outcrops, skirts the north. Getting up to cruising speed I’m whipping round a few locals pick ups; grey volcanic plugs rear out of the prairie, contrasting the rusty soil. A few head of slat-ribbed horses graze the tussocks. Dennehotso, Beclabito, Chinle, the odd named settlements flash by. An RV, towing a train of timidity, hoves into view. I keep the hammer down, Stones blazing thru Exile on Main St, and swing out, passing the line of cautious sheep, peering ahead to the low rise for something oncoming, but all’s clear and swerve sharply in front of the RV, with a little whoop; and roar into the ‘village’ of Teec Nos Pos, illusions of Dean Moriaty ‘balling that jack’ through the west, Kerouac hunched beside him, scribbling, and immediately spot the cop car on the off side. His lights light up before I’m past him so I brake hard, pull over, gather my documents.

“Any reason you were doing 81 in 55 zone sir?” The copper face is very serious.

“Just heading home officer”

“Where you coming from?”

“Monument Valley?” He studies the papers.

“What were you doing there?”

“Setting up a movie. With Stanley Crank, park director.”

“Stanley.” he muses, the stolid stare softening a shade. He hasn’t gone back to his unit yet. I sense a glimmer of hope. He asks the name of the movie and who’s in it. I give the names Seth McFarlane, Liam Neeson, Charlize Theron and throw in a few more, Mark Wahlberg, Tommy Lee Jones for good measure. My lies close the deal.

“Slow down sir, I want you to make it safe to Taos.” He hands me my papers with a faint grin.

“Yes officer!”

Off with only a minute lost, and round the RV convoy and its flock of following sheep within a couple of miles, holding a steady 85. I cross the AZ/NM line and clock Shiprock, the 1500-foot monolith appears through the haze of the massive Colorado forest fire and I recall an ill-fated attempt to climb it back in the early eighties. I slow for the hideous section between Shiprock and Bloomfield. A corridor of unrelenting ugliness, the highway bounded with oil field supply stores, sprawling wrecked car yards, sad fry bread stands, and the crowning jewel: a porno store along side which stares down a huge poster of the messiah with the caption “Jesus is watching you”!

Curb the twitch in the right toe until finally clear of Bloomfield, cross the San Juan river and out into the pinyon and ochre sandstone country. Back into the low eighties through the steady curves and come up on a jacked up Ford pick-up. Pull out to pass and the wanker guns his big V8 and shuts me out between him and a slow mover. Cut back and sit back, remembering the road ahead and planning. We wind out of a lovely craggy canyon and I let the twat get ahead knowing there’s a good chance; then gun it past him, the V-6 turbo six howling sweetly, middle finger up raised to the yokel. Spirits lifting with the road as it climbs into the ponderosas, a huge bull elk, well they all look huge don’t they, stands motionless on the verge, beautiful velvet rack. A pair of ravens, gnawing on a road kill, have to flail those luminescent wings to escape the onrushing Touareg, startled by such rare velocity.

Approaching Dulce there’s a couple of milquetoasts tucked in behind two cattle trucks. I knock the two slow pokes off on a double lined left hander where I can see ahead and then trail the two semis, the stench of cow crap and impending death wafting back. I know the long descent into the Dulce valley is tortuous and without a chance to pass; I gotta pass these two big bastards before then. They’re rolling along about a fair 70, but a steady straight rise offers hope. Stomp down and the turbo kicks in beautifully screaming up to 5500 and I’m past the first when a car comes on and I have to squeeze between these two smelly buggers, who’ve been sticking tight as ticks, having their own all-out, hog-the-road run. The blast of the dude’s klaxon doesn’t surprise me and nor does the nose of his rig sniffing my bumper from six inches back, Kenworth’s fine American logo filling the frame of my rear view mirror. Shades of Spielberg’s first film Duel? We clear the pass and we’re all high balling down to Dulce at 75…. two fucking great semis jammed with cattle to the slaughter and pinned between them yours truly, scowling out from a dwarfed grey SUV, Willie Dixon graveling through Back Door Man, loud and lovely…. I sense a chance and pull out, catch the cowboy glare down at me from his wing mirror and I’m worrying a ton by the time I cut in front.

Ease up as I play the tighter curves of the descent, the iPod’s shuffled on to Neil Young’s Four Strong Winds, soothing the furrowed brow…but not enough and I have the worst moment of the run. I’m distracted by a flock of black egrets in a stock pond and jam into a bend way, way too fast. I’m fighting it all the way through, tires squealing, trying the cadence breaking a stunt driver had once shown me, stamp, ease off, stamp, ease off, but I’m straddling the line and I can feel the truck light on the off side when a black SUV rounds the bend. We flash past one another, mirrors missing by god knows how little, and to compound my misery I read Jicarilla Apache Police on the side. Ship steadied I check back, see his tail lights come on, as my ticker is pegged high and the late rush of terror crawls up the hamstrings. But he doesn’t come after me, and I’m soon passing the Apache casino and out again into the alf-alfa fields, through the half deserted wreckage of Lumberton and a clean run through another fine canyon to the junction with the road cutting in from Pagosa Springs. I come to a halt for the first time in many a mile to let a pick-up come in from the North. I’m soon up behind him and I’m about to go round when I see the plume of white smoke as he guns it…apparently these country boys don’t take kindly to a cheeky tailgater. I hug his tail through the lovely high meadows above Chama never below eighty, a hand out the window cooled now instead of the broiling received in the Arizona desert,

Back off the right pedal through Chama and cross the Brazos river knowing from bitter experience that the next stage is always crawling with state troopers, But a stroke of luck. At the Elkhorn Cafe, where I’ve had many a fine greasy brekky, three black and whites are pulled in. Copper’s supper time! Figuring the full cadre of local fuzz are stuffing their faces I belt along past the flash Unser spread and the Tierra Amarilla courthouse where in 67 Reyes Lopez Tijerina led the infamous raid and a deputy died and the National Guard was called in and up the hill to the turn off onto the last gorgeous stretch over the Brazos pass on 64.  Not sparing the motor I keep the revs high up through the aspens not too badly damaged by the plague of tent caterpillars that have devastated many of the aspen groves elsewhere in the rockies. At the pass I stop, finally, and step out, for the first time in over four hours of hard going, and stretch tortured back and arse muscles, crack a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, take a couple of puffs of arroyo seco sinsemilla and stare out at the huge cliffs and canyon, which I’ve climbed several times and failed to climb many times, one of the last great wild undeveloped rock faces in America.

With Miles purring Bye Bye Blackbird I thrash down towards TP wondering what this motor really holds. I ball out of the last curve before a long straightaway at just shy of a 100mph and keep the pedal to the metal. I’m a little over 135mph before my nerves start to jangle the truck feels light and the fence posts are flashing by like bad memories in a dream and I ease off and slalom through the chicane, knuckles tight and jaw clenched, by the old line cabins, at 110.


I flash pass the Gurule place where, from the high gate bar, a hanging dummy states ‘we do things the old way’; a warning from the sons whose father was shot in the back by a drifter to whom he gave work; the sons appalled at a justice system that gave this cold blooded killer a couple of years in a California prison. And there’s one last treat. A flash of movement on the steep bank to my left, I brake hard and see a coyote chase a bobcat into a tree. Ha!
Round a second pass and the Sangre de Cristos rise into view and down I speed passing the rocks of Tres Piedras where I’ve climbed a hundred routes and busted me knee once in a fall, a joint now replaced beautifully with titanium and plastic after thirty years of pain. At the junction of 285 there’s the lovely fifties diner, site of a couple of movie shoots I’ve set up, now abandoned, and on we go, keeping a hot pace along the straights, the mountain tops flecked crimson, the veils of virga, gorgeous summer rain that never reaches the parched earth, deep purple in the twilight and roar past the half buried homes of the earthship village, no pipes or utilities for these hundred or so sustainable homes. Slow for the high bridge, scene of many a suicide leap into the 700 foot drop to the Rio Grande and at least one hideous gang murder, and on into town and home. 8.09…342 miles in under five hours…on curving two lane black top through deserts, hills, canyons and gorges, towns and ghost towns….not bad for an old sod.

jonny ‘neal cassady’ slator