In 1983, an incredibly drunk Ozzy Osborne made the mistake of deciding to relieve himself on the Alamo, a building of historical significance. He was arrested (Isn’t public urination usually just a ticket?), and scorned by many, primarily due to the fact that the Alamo is an important symbol of pride amongst Texans. However, to Ozzy, a British rock star, the building probably did not mean too terribly much. While a sober Ozzy (if that existed in 1983) would probably have realized the building is significant due to the presence of tourists, he probably would not have felt the same affinity or pride when standing in front of the Alamo.
With the exception of a few wide eyed hippies that believe that every place is significant, and a few hard core cynics, that fail to see the significance in any place (or anything), the significance of most places is dependent on the person and the culture. There is no better of an example of a place like this than Four Corners, U.S.A.
Four Corners is unique due to the fact that it is the only place in the United States where four states all border one another. If one wanted to stand in five different states at one time, it would not be possible. If one wanted to stand in four different states at once, there is only one place where it can be done; Four Corners Monument.
The primary reason people visit this particular monument is to take silly pictures like this one. Assuming the location of the four-state border is correctly marked (some question that is in the right place), in this picture I am in four states at once.
However, in the absence of state borders, this particular spot would really actually be quite insignificant. There is no natural demarcation point, or significant change in scenery. Even on the Colorado side, the wide open landscape, periodic mesas, and sagebrush screams Arizona much more than Colorado. This Arizona-like feel persists for over thirty miles into Colorado until the San Juan Mountains start to show up on the horizon somewhere east of Cortez.
The significance of this place is further muddled by the fact that this point is not the border of four different jurisdictions. The monument is actually on an Indian Reservation. Thus, you do not even get the standard differences in policies and sales tax that usually accompany state borders. An equal number of souvenir stands exists on all four sides of the monument. I am not sure whether or not marijuana is legal on this particular reservation, but the policy is the same on all sides. I did not observe all of the pot heads clustered in the Colorado quadrant of this monument.
In the absence of state borders (and people obsessed with exact points of latitude and longitude), the most significant site in this region is a rock formation a dozen or so miles away called Shiprock, which has cultural and religious significance to the Navajo people who have inhabited the region since well before the Spanish arrived.
From a completely neutral standpoint, the rock formation definitely seems to stand out way more than any other feature in the area, which is mainly small mesas and creeks. But that does not mean the wide open space where the monument should lack significance to all people.
For most likely a variety of neurological, sociological, and historical reasons, Western Culture associates wide open spaces like this one with freedom. It’s the wild. It’s the untamed. It’s the place where you can yell as loud as you want, shoot any kind of weapon you want, and start a fight without anyone to break it up. There is nobody to tell you where you can (and can’t) hike, climb, tie a rope to an arch or mesa to swing from it, or even try to catapult small rodents. It’s the last refuge of people seeking to escape every single one of society’s restrictions and limitations.
But the one set of regulations that one can really never escape is the ones that exist only inside their own heads. I often refer to these as the “invisible chain”. And by this, I am referring to all of the anxiety, fear, and self-consciousness that often stop us from doing what we feel we should be doing. It stops us from telling people what we really think. It stops us from talking to that interesting and attractive stranger on the train. It stops us from dancing when fun music comes on. In some ways, it stops us from living. And, millions of Americans are in the process of destroying their livers trying to reclaim it. In these pictures of the free, wild, and untamed west, there are typically very few people, or buildings to indicate the presence of people. There is nobody to judge you, and nobody to make you feel self-conscious about what you chose to wear, say, and do. The fact that this is where we go to seek freedom indicates where we, as a people, believe most of our restrictions come from.
Therefore, if one could overcome this “invisible chain”, the restrictions placed upon us would be limited only to those officially legislated by some kind of governing body and effectively enforced by law enforcement personnel. The few lucky individuals that manage this are able to find this greater level of freedom in places like London, Hong Kong, or New York City; places that provide the interaction with other human being that we all crave.
We often see the desire for community and human interaction as pulling us in one direction, while the desire for freedom and individuality pulling us in the opposite direction. As an extrovert, I often struggle with the fear that asserting my individuality and refusing to conform, will cost me in the social realm. Reflecting upon all of this in the wide open spaces of the desert southwest, I re-realized that being an individual and reducing that fear actually helps in the social realm. Negative responses from those that fear non-conformity are more than outweighed by positive responses by those that appreciate authenticity and variety in nearly all circumstances. The key is to understand that we all have freedom of choice, and not to allow any of the hate to translate into hatred towards others. This applies even the people that have ridiculed me and caused me hurt. They have the freedom say what they want. The only way to truly overcome that ridicule is not to ridicule them back, or “defeat” them in an argument. It is to not be affected by that ridicule and continue to be the way you are despite anything they say.
This is one of several lessons, I re-learned on this trip. These re-realizations make this place significant to me, even if the official reason for the significance of any of these places is questionable. Everyone has a different experience here, and it is completely understandable for someone to come to Four Corners, find out it is on a reservation, buy nothing at the souvenir stands, and leave seeing the place as pointless. For me, however, this is where I got my mind off some of life’s frustrations, and got back on the path to becoming a better person.