Off to Four Corners today, which was Zoe's choice spot to visit for the trip. Given that the boundaries making the corners were conceived by humans, you'd think that they could have made this spot a little closer to civilization, but we humans must like something about keeping those boundary lines straight, so it's way out in the middle of friggin' nowhere, not to mention that it's over 100 degrees and under zero humidity (except for those sno-cones.) The only other notable thing out this way is Ship Rock, a strange monolithic and kinda ugly rock that juts up from the earth, spiking some 2000 feet above the 5000 foot plateau on which it's mysteriously lost, plowing through the desert heat. From the drivers seat, if you can get into the right frame of mind, it can be a rather meditative experience, with the road rolling endlessly out across the high desert, trenched with little canyons here and there, under an impressively blue sky and cottony white clouds that look so good they almost seem fake. This is truly Indian country, the Navajo Nation, which is obvious from the road signs--'Buckle Up--It's the Navajo Law'--as well as the roadside stalls selling jewelry and pottery, and the bleak home sites scattered across the plateau, clustered in small groups of run-down mobile homes, surrounded by an assortment of new and aging cars and trucks amongst the sagebrush.
Long hills dominated the day, but we've been traveling on back roads in some parts to avoid the shock of looking in the review mirror and discovering that we're leading an odd parade across the desert, with a long line of cars and trucks behind. I pull over occasionally, but there are usually long stretches on which they can pass and it's more fun to watch them go by, one by one to see the different expressions on their faces. A few days ago, I dearly wanted a turbo, but now I see that this is merely a device that allows us to keep up with the frantic pace of the rest of the world. Once on the deserted back roads of the Southwest, on which another car may not appear for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, it doesn't seem to bother me as much that we're only able to go 25 miles an hour in second gear up some of these grades. Aside from the speed itself, there's the constant attention to the engine and gears, listening to the tone, watching the tachometer, and sometimes going through 3 or 4 gears, including tenuous rear axle shifts that lag several seconds too long, allowing the bus to slow too much for the intended gear, inducing a frantic last-second shift to another, even lower gear. Frustrating in traffic, but out here, you get time to slow down, listen, think and develop your technique. Just you and the hill out here. Then there are times when things look deceptively flat, but the bus is groaning, pleading for a lower gear and I finally figure that we must be going up despite what my eyes are telling me.
When talking to locals and other travellers about various routes, hither and yon, I often ask them how hilly it is or how steep... funny thing is, they don't have a clue. And since they don't know, they feel compelled to provide some kind of answer, like 'there are a lot of curves' as if curves are the same as hills, and it must be as hard to turn the bus as it is to go up. The bus actually a good indicator of hills, steepness and terrain and when there's no other traffic around to distract and drain my attention, I realize that it gives me a very real sense of the geography and I think about the incredible effort it must have taken to build roads in these parts. Large engines and turbo chargers flatten everything in sight and their drivers and passengers unwittingly lose the feel of the land. We call it the zen of bus driving... to help keep our sanity until we get a turbo.posted by mark at July 6, 2004 03:46 PM