Traveling & Hiking in the SW #2:  Getting the Lay of the Land  (Spring 2011)


Ancient Routes

During our 10 years of cyclo-touring around and through Europe, we were constantly amazed by the frequency with which we traversed ancient roads. Once at the top of a mountain pass, we often learned that Bill’s relatively bike-friendly choice had been favored by the Romans--they too preferred lower elevations and more modest grades.

The Romans were no fools and though they had a fondness for building perfectly straight roads, they didn’t hesitate to incorporate the wisdom of old salt and amber routes into their massive road network. Splugen Pass, on the border between Switzerland and Italy, was our first major pass to summit in 2001 and it was an old salt route that became a Roman road. Some of our mountain passes through the Alps had been trade routes for 5000 years before we arrived.

We criss-crossed and traveled on Route 66.

Given our overseas experience, it was naive of us to be surprised when we discovered that the iconic Route 66 in the US southwest had a similar, though not quite as ancient, history as our favorite Alp’s passes.  Route 66‘s origins in the SW were traced to prehistoric Native American trails. Those trails no doubt also evolved to take advantage of some combination of water or salt availability and terrain features.

Beginning in 1857, these Native American trails provided the starting point for a wagon route surveyed roughly along the 35th parallel. The road was to be an all weather track for heavy wagons used by immigrants drawn west by the gold rush. Kind of like Hannibal testing the suitability of elephants during his crossing of the Alps, Lt Beale had an experimental Camel Corps for his surveying expedition in Arizona.

In the early 1900’s the well-worn wagon route, the Beale Wagon Road, became a highway, the Old Trails Highway.  It wasn’t officially named Highway 66 until the mid 1920’s. The 2,200 mile road connected Chicago with the Los Angeles though the segment through Arizona where we first encountered it was initially dirt and gravel. Not until the mid 1930’s was the entire route paved.

The Interstate Highway System mandated in the 1950’s by Eisenhower overlapped Route 66 in some places and bypassed it in others. Most of the history of this route only spans a couple hundred years, instead of the more typical several thousand years of the historical routes we followed in Europe.

Re-Calibrating the Time Line

Like in Europe, ancient routes were evident in the US but when looking for artifacts in the US we generally had to settle for old, not ancient. Boulder Dam on the Colorado River, now called Hoover Dam, is a huge regional tourist attraction. National Park sign boards in the area show photos from its construction in the 1930’s and tell tales of life ‘way back then’.  A canyon hike near the dam had us photo’ing the chassis of a wrecked truck as it was about as old of an object we expected to see in the area. It was impossible for us to date the relic other than to note that parts of the steel body were wrapped around wood framing.

“Ancient” finds: remnants of a wood-framed auto in a ravine.

Tracing the public works projects of the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, that existed from 1933-1942 became an unexpected historical theme for our journey.  The wilderness trails and lodges they built were still evident in a number of National Parks and Monuments that we visited. One CCC camp no longer in existence near Roper Lake, Arizona even housed German POW’s during WWII. We were speechless as we tried to imagine what the Germans thought when they stepped on to the ground of the desolate southwest for the first time.

We chuckled at the sense of history when visiting El Morro in New Mexico, which is a stunning rock outcropping with an oasis-like pool at its base--a pool that drew generations of travelers to its refreshing waters. Petroglyphs, carvings in rocks, were one of the main attractions a visitor to El Morro pays to see but some of the “petroglyphs” were from 1906. Indeed, they did have some symbolic petroglyphs done by native people “several centuries ago” but the big play was given to those “I was here” etchings by the Spanish in the 1600’s and the westward-ho pioneers in the 1860’s.

We came to the southwest committed to delving into the history that was there, whatever it be, but not surprisingly, it was pretty thin. Human habitation in North America only goes back about 15,000 years and written history in some areas begins with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1600‘s. The primary artifacts from the indigenous peoples are dwelling ruins from 500-1000 years ago--just not a lot to wrap our minds around.

This gun shop was across the highway from the prison.


Given that the ancient, or even old, remnants of the region were sparse, we turned our attention to the modern culture to deepen our knowledge base. When overseas I generally study the billboards and signs to build my foreign language vocabulary and refine word usage but in the southwest the signage raised different questions:

...Why is it that the “Buy Jerky Here” billboards in Arizona only appeared where there were “Watch for Animals on the Road” signs?

...The Lost Dutchman State Park in the Phoenix area was a wonderful suggestion for a hiking venue by our friend Iva but it had us wondering why it was always lost Dutchmen in the US, never “Lost Frenchmen” or “Lost Poles”?

...Is it just in Arizona where the left turn off the highway is to the federal prison and the right turn is to a gun shop? In seemingly more progressive New Mexico, a road  sign advised against picking up hitchhikers near their prison.

...Why did being politically correct require us to switch to the phrase “Native Americans” years ago when they are still calling themselves “Indians” on their billboards?

“You’re Not From Around Here...”

Nobody actually uttered those words, “You’re not from around here, are you Missy?” words from my childhood TV viewing, but it would only have been a rhetorical question because they would have known the answer. There were many times while in Nevada and Arizona that I felt more like a stranger in a strange land than I did when traveling in Europe though in both places I was obviously a tourist.

A striking impression of myself as an outsider formed early in our trip when a good ol’ boy and I unexpectedly encountered each other in a market doorway, momentarily pausing, eyeball to eyeball. I think we were both taken aback with what we saw.

I felt like I was looking at a man that had just rolled into town after months (years?) on the prairie with just him and his horse. An old cowhand sort of guy that looked like 40 going on 80. His overly red face was creased and cracked more deeply than the local weathered rocks and his eyes looked like they permanently squinted from too much sun and wind. His cowboy hat and soiled denim jacket and jeans gave him a timeless look.

Going on 60, I had my share of wrinkles and creases, but they were more genteel and against the more pale backdrop afforded by 20 years of SPF 50 sunscreen. My off-white, wide-brimmed Gore-tex sun hat looked like a city-slicker sissy item compared with his tattered cowboy rendition. My well-worn technical fabric shirt and pants looked fresh and new in comparison with his more rugged clothes. Next to him, I felt downright perky and pressed even at the end of a long, dusty day.  And many of the other local men looked as old as the hills even though they were clearly younger than I. We all hailed from the same country, but our looks shouted that our lives and life-experiences were worlds apart.

We quickly learned that the north-south ‘sun divide’ was one of the characteristics that marked us as outsiders. Even the non-cowboy staff at the Lake Mead, Nevada RV park had the sun damaged and weathered look that isn’t possible for those of us on the soggy side of the Cascade Mountains in Washington and Oregon. The phenomena was the same in Europe: the general population of the Mediterranean regions tended to look more worn than their northern counterparts because of the constant sun exposure.

”Drinken on a budget”: bad spelling & an oxymoron?

It didn’t take long to feel like an outsider in the grocery store either. Couscous and bulgur may not be everyday foods for most people in the US but being cheap and simple wheat products, they are far from exotic.  Nonetheless I stopped asking Arizona supermarket clerks down which aisle to look for our favorite no-cook/quick-cook carbohydrates as they looked blankly, not even recognizing the words. “Take a hint, Lady” was my thought as I reflected upon all of the sloppy, hand painted, anti-government sign boards we’d seen around on the roads. I guess if the populous hadn’t come to terms with the authority of the federal government, they probably hadn’t come to terms with food ingredients hailing from any farther away than Mexico.

Our frequent lack of hook-ups at night had us cleaning the shelves of camper-friendly couscous at the rare Trader Joe’s market because they were about our only reliable source of the product. We’d been lulled into shopper complacency in Las Vegas at the start of our trip after seeing that that city was peppered with Whole Foods stores where we undoubtedly could have bought both couscous and bulgur. As each week passed, the imaginary bin that Bill would fill with bulgur when we found it grew larger and larger. I hadn’t anticipated that we’d need to be hauling food across the borders between states to have what we wanted on this trip--something we frequently did when traveling between countries when overseas.

Polarizing To Understand

I often briefly polarize my observations to gain clarity about what I am experiencing. In the SW, I was first drawn to polarize my reactions along lines such as “northerner vs southerner,” then “liberal vs conservative,” and finally “richer vs poorer.”  None of these splits seemed quite right and I settled upon “rural vs urban” as being a better model to explain the contrasts I was experiencing when compared with home. The world over, there is always a significant difference between the demeanor of the people and the feel of the culture when comparing the rural and urban scenes and that was also the case in the SW.

The most startling contrast with home in the greater metropolitan area of Portland, Oregon and our destinations in the SW was the sight of big pick-up trucks everywhere we looked. In some parking lots they far out-numbered the cars. These weren’t mini-pick-ups but good ol’ American gas guzzlers (actually diesel guzzlers), often with crew cabs (4 doors), extended beds, and “4x4” emblazoned on the rear. Lane consuming ‘dually’--double rear wheeled--trucks were common place. Our sense of a normal-sized vehicle quickly grew like portion sizes at fast food restaurants in recent years. Many of these huge trucks seemed like status rigs as they were shiny and spotless. But a respectable number showed the dust and dings of being genuine, modern day work-horses.

The ”No Firearms” message was often repeated and repeated.

Less obvious than the trucks, the prevalence of “No guns allowed inside” signs on the entrance doors shot way up compared with home where being unarmed is a given. And among the signs was a ‘first’ as I’d never before seen a “Guns welcome inside” sign before, though I thought best not to photograph it.... One park ranger we chatted with carried a taser pistol on 1 hip, a regular pistol on the other, and a shotgun inside his cab and confirmed that they weren’t for fending-off the cougars.

The expression of support for the military was also far more visible in the SW than at home in the NW. New to us were seeing: special truck license plates for retired Marines; a campground that waived their fees for active military members; and a middle-aged woman with a yellow “Support our troops” tattoo on her ankle.

It must have been an effective marketing tool with the locals, but we weren’t drawn to suddenly pull in to businesses sporting American flag balloons on their sign posts or US flags painted as murals on their buildings. I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of those people we encountered knew we didn’t have American flags hanging from our porch back home, something that was common in some communities in the SW.

We sometimes felt self-conscious doing our floor exercises out in the open in some campgrounds, wondering if elements of our routines looked like unwelcome religious practices to the folks that don’t get out much.  More than once I modified what I was doing solely to avoid stigmatizing us.

It didn’t take long for us to determine that the weather and pick-up trucks, not politics, would be conversation starters for us in the campgrounds even though license plates indicated that our temporary neighbors were from all over the US and Canada. Like when overseas, we knew we were quickly tagged as outsiders but we did our best to be respectful of the local culture and congenial with the people we encountered. And despite obviously “not being from around here,” the folks we talked to were very welcoming.

Next Up:  More about the in’s and out’s of RV’ing from a newcomer’s perspective.

Hiking along the Rio Grande near Lake Meade, Nevada:

Hiking with our friend Iva in the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix:

Petroglyph.                                                                               Cholla cactus.

Casa Grande, ancient Native American ruins, near Phoenix:

El Moro, New Mexico: rock outcropping & petroglyphs (ancient and not so ancient).