Six days in the desert: a father-and-son odyssey

We are two road runners, three miles from Coyote, N.M., in a drop-top Camaro, heat-seeking Easterners under a southwestern sun. And we need Chapstick.

I stomp the brake for Coyote Crossing, a clapboard outpost that appears, unadvertised, after a rising turn. The car comes to rest in a moving cloud of dust.

A tacked-up list of locals who've passed bad checks flutters beside the screen door.

In the fridge, cattle medicine commands more space than bottled water, which we lug to the counter in two trips, touching off giggles from the mother-daughter team that runs the place.

We never see Agri-Cillin at the Stop & Shop back home. We seldom buy our water with a survivalist's fervor.

That's the point. This is Day 1 of a free-form, father-and-son road trip through America's Four Corners region - "Indian Country" as our road map labels it.

The aims: help a 13-year-old awash in peer and pop-culture influences rediscover what's real by sampling cultures other than his own, and wading into the Wild West landscape.

No hip-hop CDs, in other words. No stopover in Vegas.

Call it a V-6 vision quest.

Earlier this day, we were turned back by an unexplained "closed" sign at the Navajo-run Puyé cliff dwellings. But a bright blue morning back in Santa Fe had left us brimming with remembered imagery.

We saw chapels with cool-pastel murals, artists peddling silver and turquoise by the Governor's Palace. Some "dope" lowriders - modified Toyotas - had caught Andrew's eye.

We savored a spicy lunch at the Coyote Cafe, acting on a hot tip from an Albuquerque utility worker we'd met on the plane.

The day's serendipitous highlight: a private tour of a boot shop called Back at the Ranch. The cowboy footwear, a Western art form, had lined the walls. And proprietor Dennis Hogan offered a case study in Western hospitality, showing how stitch patterns make a bootmaker's identity known - and making a pitch for his pointy-toed product - when we skeptics raised the comfort question.

"I could run down the street in these right now," Mr. Hogan had said, pointing to his boots, "and feel like I was in sneakers."

We kicked back on a cowhide couch before heading out. The $4,000, stingray-skin specimens stayed on the shelf.

That night, we hit Farmington, N.M. We pick a hotel that is cheap and clean. I hide the TV remote.

Monumental vistas

Andrew and I wake to a cool, bright morning and light out for the Aztec pueblo ruins down the road. Unexpectedly, we're alone at the site except for a few park rangers, giving us a chance to creep silently through the cool stone chambers and peer down into the enormous, silo-shaped kiva, the central ceremonial room of this 900-year-old settlement.

At the visitor center, burial items have been removed out of respect, according to plaques in some empty display cases.

We discuss such cultural recognition and its crass cousin, political correctness, as we start the long haul West past the towns of Shiprock and Mexican Water, to the spot where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet.

We take the obligatory photo: one boy in four states. A photographers' platform has been built for this ritual.

At Kayenta, a wind-blown crossroads, we pump gas, load up on water - we buy by the gallon now - and watch a bedraggled dog lick a dropped ice cream cone in a parking lot.

Next, we're heading north into Monument Valley, a guidebook's cover-shot come to life, with its curious, sandbox-of-the-aliens feel. We wend among the red-stone skyscrapers all named for their shapes - the famous "Mittens," "Camel Rock," "Three Sisters," "Big Chair."

Much farther north lies Moab, Utah, epicenter of off-road recreation. It'll be a haul. But two guys in a fast car don't shrink from distance driving.

Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins play in heavy rotation on the CD player as we blow past another scene of rolling surrealism - an aging hippie in a sputtering blue Toyota, pulling an old sailboat through the desert - and jet up 191 into Jeep Nation: Moab.

Towns like Moab - think Aspen, Colo., and, more recently, Telluride, Colo. - have become meccas for the monied, and that tends to color these old frontier outposts. Here, residents appear laid back and helpful, but more than a few of the visitors wear an off-putting aura of entitlement.

Big-wheeled, combustion-engine machines line the street, ready to venture out and dominate tracts of earth.

We stroll the short strip, trying to bookmark a bike-rental shop that opens early. In the morning, we'll be rock-hopping ourselves, under our own power and on two wheels, an activity that's high on our list. The Top of the World Cyclery is calling our names.

'Stop at the 900-foot drop'

Outfitted with mountain bikes built to absorb a beating, we start the next day at the base of Klondike Bluff, a seven-mile ascent on a rock-strewn path that rises about 1,000 feet.

Here I have to work to keep pace with Andrew, a fact that doesn't escape him. It's good to watch him revel in his athleticism, to shed some of the nagging self-doubt that seems to come with his age.

I catch up at a tough spot where the trail drops into sand so soft that our wheels spin when we stand to pedal.

We finally reach a sea of "slickrock," smooth, petrified sandstone, and continue to climb.

Our water supply dwindles fast. At last the trail narrows for one final climb before opening into a small clearing ringed by boulders.

Two bikes lean against a wind-stripped pine. We begin the short hike to the bluffs and pass two Spandexed cyclists walking back. We ask if trail's end is worth the climb, and their smiles broaden.

"Just stop," one says with a laugh, "when you come to the 900-foot drop." Andrew and I reach the bluff. The hard wind pastes down our damp shirts. Massive rocks roll off into nothing, and the La Sal Mountains snowcaps stand off to the southeast like a shark's bottom jaw. I feel a tingling in my palms as we peer over the edge of the world.

During the bone-rattling trail descent, Andrew takes one hard fall - he will wear his scrape like a badge. When we leave the bikes, we're glad to recline the car's bucket seats a couple of notches for a late-afternoon roll through Arches National Park. We can't resist parking to take a walk - and even muster the energy to scramble up a 50-foot cliff for a look through an enormous rock-framed "window."

We're northbound again, but only as far as Route 70, for a fast westward run before hooking south. A sandstorm surprises us on ruler-straight Route 24 - where we're ready to duel should a Mustang appear in our rear view.

Then it's spring in the desert along Sulphur Creek and the Fremont River - fields of purple flowers, trees tinged with pale green. Roadside treasures include ancient petroglyphs: native American graffiti.

We jump on Route 12 and start over Boulder Mountain, bound for Escalante, N.M., on a stretch of highway called one of America's 10 Best Drives by Road & Track magazine.

We ride sweeping curves through forests of white birch - the spring snow is still piled high - and hang tough in the hairpins on the way down the other side, unable to suppress grins.

"Like living in a car commercial," says Andrew. Like living in a car, at least. Tomorrow looks like a 400-mile day.

Walking 'Wall Street'

We get our standard early start, parting the heavy motel curtains to let in a blinding beam of sunlight. Escalante's cowboys are the real deal, clad in Wrangler jeans, buying their coffee at the minimart where we tank up.

Saddled horses stand in the backs of long trailer trucks, ready for work. Andrew jokes about all the loose cows - free-range grazers - we've seen.

It's still cool at this altitude. Elk strut along the roadside. Before long, we're looking down from Bryce Canyon's wind-whipped Inspiration Point at the "hoodoos," sharp rock fingers stretched skyward.

For a closer view, we hike the canyon floor on the Navajo Loop. The switchback trail entices us to run as it falls steeply away, but we hold back, our legs - mine, at least - tight from biking.

At the bottom we enter the narrow chasm called Wall Street, bathed in an odd yellow light, thick-trunked trees extending toward the sun. It's still early, and we consider a drive that probably pushes the envelope - down Route 89 to the Grand Canyon by late afternoon.

Imagining a wall of RVs, I make a controversial bid to lop it off the itinerary. Andrew won't hear of it. "Got to go," he says simply, nodding at the map and solidly emerging as a co-planner.

We agree to go watch the sun sink into that big ditch.

Running on convenience-store burritos, we break west on Route 64 toward the canyon's South Rim. No rock formations up to now have prepared us for the first glimpse of this place, and, when we approach on foot, it hits us in our chests: the vast, mural-like stillness of a gap 7,000 feet deep and 10 miles across, the Colorado River a glimmering thread on the distant floor.

Here the explorer Hernando Cortés sent men down to find a way across - and the men returned, after nearly a day, reporting they had encountered nothing but sheer, unfathomable cliffs.

We perch on a ledge and stare, and when we make eye contact we can only shake our heads and smile. This expanse offers perspective in spades.

From Yaki point, we hike down less than a mile of the Kaibob Trail just to get a feel for the canyon's interior.

The switchbacks here trump those of Bryce and extend miles deeper. Stoic hikers pass us, headed up, well-outfitted and looking drained. We won't go deeper on this trip.

Completing the circle

Next day, in Flagstaff, we sit in front of Fred Lucas's painting "The Heart of the Canyon" at the Museum of Northern Arizona, amazed at the rendering.

This place provides a neat retrospective of all we've seen.

A glass case displays the "bone dolls" of Hopi children, entire families in the inch-long sectional bones of sheep's' legs - a sharp reminder of a time before the pressures of brand-name buys.

There's sculpture of a mounted brave reaching for a woman and child. It's called "The Last Farewell."

Outside, it's snowing big flakes. Leaving Flagstaff, we glide past Route 66 kitsch - "Sleep in a Wigwam" - add on the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. Maybe the light's not quite right, or perhaps by now we're just too accustomed to the palette.

We're closing in now on our own farewell.

At a Gallup, N.M., roadhouse with a family name - Don Diego's - over the door and a parking lot full of pickups, we find a feast that provides a kind of culinary symmetry with that first great meal up in Santa Fe.

The taste of this place will linger long after we've gone.

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