Category Archives: Arizona

The Prescott-Skull Valley Loop

This 54 mile loop is a common ride for road bikers in Prescott. It is even an annual event. The official ride starts and ends in Prescott, which is called Arizona’s “Mile High City”. It’s official elevation is just over a mile at 5367 feet (1636 m). The official ride starts with a short climb and then a major descent into Skull Valley, whose elevation is closer to 4000 feet (1200 m). Then, the larger climb back towards Prescott is in the second half of the ride I, however, decided to start my ride at the ride’s low point, in a town even smaller, called Kirkland (not to be confused with the Costco brand).

From this side, the ride starts out with a relatively shallow grade up into Skull Valley.

Skull Valley is also quite tiny, feeling mostly like a randomly placed trading post along an old western trail. It is also where the climb starts to get intense.

There was a total of 20 miles of climbing along county highway 10. The road felt quite accommodating the entire time. There were not too many cars and with the exception of a couple of bridges, there is plenty of shoulder space.

Unsurprisingly, the other bicyclists I encountered were traveling in the opposite direction, the official direction of the ride.

The road reaches it’s summit at a place called Iron Springs Pass.

And then descends into the town of Prescott.

This was the other advantage I saw in parking in Kirkland and riding the loop in this direction. Not only does it feel better to do most of the climbing earlier, but it was great to stop in Prescott in the middle of the day and hang around the courthouse in the center of the city.

There were a lot of people out and about on a mid-April Friday and there seemed to be an interesting natural feature in the background in every direction I looked. As was the case in many other places I had explored in Arizona on this trip, there were definitely signs that a lot of ex-Chicagoans had settled there. I even had a true Chicago style hot dog.

The trip back into the valley follows state highway 89 through Prescott National Forest.

There was one last hill climb, of a little under 1,000 ft. (300 m). It was the last climb of the last ride of my weeklong trip down to Arizona.

There was still about 15 miles left in the ride, but it was all downhill. On rides like these, it is quite common for a feeling of accomplishment to set in around this point. The last true challenge was done. This rapid paced downhill part, with much of the same natural beauty of the climb earlier in the day, felt like a victory lap of sorts.

I could gaze out upon the mountains in all directions feeling like I was doing exactly what I had came out here to do.

Whenever taking on any kind of challenge, anything that requires doing things that are hard, that require effort and getting out of our comfort zone, a common question is why. This is a question we are asked by others but also ask ourselves.

On both the uphill and downhill portions of the Prescott-Skull Valley loop, my why once again became quite clear as this was the exact type of bike ride so many of us work towards. It is the feeling of using my own power to traverse beautiful mountainous terrain while feeling the air in my face and smelling what is around me. The immersion in these surroundings cannot be replicated inside an automobile. The experience also becomes far more special when one has the capacity to enjoy it rather than focus single-handedly on the pain they are enduring just to make it up these big hills. Rides like these are a reminder of how we “level up”.

And then, inevitably, we enjoy the rewards the come with it.

The Cycling Trails of Metro Phoenix

People tend to think of Phoenix as a sun-belt car centric city, and for the most part they are correct. While Arizona ranks fairly low in terms of miles driven per capita, biking and public transit are not widely used in the Phoenix area. As is the case in other sun belt places like Southern California and Texas, driving is the default way to get from point A to point B. However, this does not mean that the region has no bike trails, nor does it mean that the area cannot be explored by bicycle.

Maricopa County Bike Map

The bike trails are quite nice and not crowded at all. My visit to Phoenix came at probably the best time of year to bike around the city, in the middle of April, and I was commonly the only one on the trail.

There are also a good number of trails, all connecting most parts of Phoenix and the nearby suburbs.

The crown jewel of the trail system is the Arizona Canal Path, a trail nearly 70 miles in length connecting places as far apart as Glendale and Scottsdale.

The trail has a very unique feel. The canal is obviously not natural. Nothing about it feels free flowing like the rivers and creeks I am accustomed to seeing elsewhere. It was constructed in the late 19th century kind of as the towns around Phoenix were being settled and incorporated. They needed the water and the means to transport goods, which was then far more dependent on water then. Later, they built Arizona Falls to harness some power from the canal.

Still, none of this is what I typically envision when I think of riding a bicycle along a river and seeing a waterfall.

However, the ride is not without natural beauty. Mountains, cactus and palm tress emerge around every curve.

It’s such an interesting feeling. Little mini-mountains in the middle of a city with over 1.5 Million People. Natural beauty around every curve, but every curve was planned carefully by engineers. Some of us are so accustomed to thinking of natural experiences as being separate from human development. This is especially the case in places like New York and Chicago where our homes are surrounded by development but we travel a few hours to be away from that development in nature. However, here on all of the Phoenix area bike trails, there is both, right there in front of my eyes.

Along these trails, it is possible to visit a lot of the area attractions. From the kinds of places you’ll see in almost every major city.

To spring training facilities for baseball and softball alike.

To the college and professional sports stadiums.

While exploring, you also never know what kind of random attractions you’ll encounter. Right in the middle of town there is a castle, and just east of town there is this hole in a rock people like to hike into.

I even got to see Central Station under construction and the one light rail line downtown.

I also learned one other important lesson, the difference between cycling long distances in a semi-arid area like Denver and a full-blown desert like Phoenix.

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In this part of Arizona, it was hard to drink enough water without even doing anything that involves physical exertion. Spending the whole day riding my bicycle felt like a constant search for water. I guess I now understand why the bike trails are empty and why they follow a series of waterways built to bring water into the area. It even facilitates some agriculture surprisingly close to the city center.

Still, there is nothing like the feeling of visiting so many tourist attractions traveling by bicycle on a day with sunshine and temperatures in the 80s (26-32° C).

The Musical Instrument Museum

Unique places like the Musical Instrument Museum are the essence of travel. The reason it becomes worthwhile for anyone to leave the place they live and travel to places beyond where they typically find themselves is to see something different, something unique, something they can’t see in their hometown. Often times they are places of natural beauty or specific cultural experiences. However, this museum, on the Northeast side of Phoenix is something few people have in their metropolitan areas. It is a museum dedicated to musical instruments and the musical experience around the world.

Upon entry into the museum the motivation behind building it is apparent and obvious.

For reasons that are hard to impossible to explain, music is and has always been a major part of the human experience. It is hard to imagine a world without it, and music historians speculate that music has been around longer than language. Music is an experience that cannot be accurately explained in words. The reasons different people have different reactions to music cannot be programmed into an algorithm or explained using science, language or any left-brained tactics.

The museum itself has a lot of exhibits. The downstairs has exhibits demonstrating the importance of specific musical instruments.

While the upstairs contains exhibits showing the musical traditions of every country around the world.

Each county’s exhibit contains videos of popular songs, performances or dance rituals in their country, as well as artifacts of instruments past and present.

Coming out of a very isolating year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard not to get emotional at some of these exhibits. While the venues vary, especially from poorer countries to richer countries, music seems to be a means by which people gather together and have fun. Many of the videos show people doing ritualistic dances together or performing in front of a large audience. It is exactly everything the world has been missing as many have been forced to “social distance” for a year or more. Seeing people gathered together and enjoying music is seeing exactly what the world needs and exactly what the world is craving.

It was also interesting to note that even the poorest of countries have musical traditions. Pure logic would dictate that in places where people live in extreme poverty, where their basic needs for food, water and shelter are not secure, people should spend every last bit of their time and resources trying to fill these needs. Even in these places, people are willing to use natural resources to build drums rather than secure their fragile homes or build weapons to hunt food. They are willing to expend energy that could be used to build, hunt, and prepare food, water and shelter dancing and even making costumes for some rituals.

It shows that no matter how much some people emphasize things like advancement, monetization and efficiency, there is an intrinsic value in things that don’t specifically correspond to money or material wealth. People in wealthy countries are willing to spend their money on concert tickets and streaming services. People in poorer countries are willing to use their resources to play music and dance in their communities. Both represent people using resources that could be used for personal advancement or obtaining something material on an experience that makes life joyous. The same could be said for all kinds of other experiences, from spiritual pursuits to sports and other activities with friends. Humanity shows, over and over again that joy, connection and fulfillment are valuable.

The United States and Canada section is quite diverse, honoring all of the musical traditions that graced this diverse continent, from the Native American traditions all the way up to rock and roll and hip hop.

It was great to see that all traditions were represented, seemingly without bias.

To view all of the videos and learn about all of the musical traditions around the world would probably warrant an entire day. However, it is possible to get a pretty in-depth experience in a couple of hours. By displaying the music traditions of all people all over the world, the Musical Instrument Museum gives the true respect music deserves for its role in shaping humanity.

Suburbia Continues to Expand

This recently built “active adult” community is an hour’s drive from downtown Phoenix and surrounded in all directions by sagebrush and cactus. This spot is one of many places all over North America where previously untouched land is being developed into homes and other facilities.

It is a trend that really began in earnest following World War 2. Despite the much talked about “urban renaissance” of the 1990s and 2000s, suburbia continued to grow. Houses continued to be built on previously untouched land.

Just ten miles to the East of this randomly placed community is the City of Surprise, an outer suburb that has recently grown from a population around 30,000 at the turn of the century to over 140,000 today! This rapid growth occurred right through the height of the “urban renaissance” and the housing market collapse of 2007-2009.

Demand for suburban homes is expected to expand once again as people continue to embrace remote work after the pandemic. The emerging consensus appears to be some kind of “hybrid” scenario where people have an office to come into for meetings and group work, but also have the flexibility to work at least half of their time from home. This is the perfect scenario for continued expansion of outer suburbs like Surprise, as an hour commute is far less painful one or two days a week than five. With this scenario, people will now desire homes large enough to be comfortable in their home offices.

As is the case with any trend, some will appreciate it while others will not. At any given point in time, nearly everyone will be able to point to at least one trend they are enjoying or encouraged by and at least one other trend they view far more negatively. When observing things like these, it is important to remember a few things.

First, no trends are permanent. A look back into history can show examples of countless trends that found a way of reversing themselves. The “hippies” of the 1960s and 1970s became the “yuppies” of the 1980s and 1990s. In an even a more recent example, most of the 2010s saw pop music get slower and more depressing. Over the past several years, this trend has reversed itself. It would be foolish to assume any trend will continue on its current course forever.

Second, it is quite difficult to try to reverse or impact any of these larger scale trends. They are often the result of something far more major. Right now, suburbia is becoming more attractive because of the need for space for home offices with increased remote work. Developments like the expansion of ride sharing companies like Uber and the promise of self-driving cars are also making larger suburban homes more attractive to some. Similar explanations can be made for other trends and observations. Much of what is going on right now, socially and politically, are the result of a combination of human nature/ psychology and recent technological advancements. The only people who are able to have any real impact on trends like these are the ones that are both influential and relentless.

Finally, for those that are not in a position to impact societal trends, the best thing to do is to anticipate and react accordingly. This is most effectively done by understanding the mechanisms behind a trend and observing when it feels like the underlying conditions are going to change. This is the part that has the potential to be really enjoyable for curious people who love to speculate about the future. On the flip side, it is possible for some to spend too much time lamenting the trends they do not view as positive developments. In many cases, it leads to people focusing too much on what they can’t control and can have unfortunate negative impacts on their ability to live their best lives. Those that can control this urge and anticipate shifts in trends, however, will be well positioned for the future.

Mingus Mountain: A 3500 foot climb in Arizona

A view of Mingus Mountain from the edge of Clarkdale, Arizona

My day did not start out well. It may have been poorly planned. To train for Ride The Rockies 2021, a very challenging organized bike ride in mid-June, I decided to travel to Arizona in April where the weather would be more hospitable for mountainous bike rides. I looked at lists of Arizona’s top bike rides and determined that Mingus Mountain should be on my itinerary. However, upon looking at the specifics of the Mingus Mountain loop, I decided to shy away from a ride that would involve cycling on the interstate.

Instead, I came up with a plan that turned out to be unrealistic. I would park in Prescott and bike from Prescott to Sedona (and then back). I figured I wanted to push myself, and this long ride would enable me to see all of Central Arizona’s top spots in one day! I would start the day at beautiful Watson Lake.

Almost immediately I encountered problems. Highway 89-A is busy, and in parts of Prescott it is a limited access road much like an interstate highway. The alternate road I planned to bike on turned out to be closed.

Determined to find a way to continue with my original plan, I spent about an hour pedaling through neighborhoods under construction only to continuously be re-routed by dead ends and roads that were either closed or still in the process of being built. I ended up in a spot where the only reasonable course of action would be to follow an unpaved trail back to my vehicle.

First, i figured I would just drive around 15 miles down the highway, find a place to park and continue on my path. However, the road continued to be heavily trafficked without a shoulder to accommodate bicycles.

Also, this parking spot that I had just imagined to exist never actually materialized. Before I knew it, I was driving over Mingus Mountain.

So, I figured I would drive to Sedona and pedal up the mountain from the East side. Then, I encountered Clarkdale and Cottonwood. Riding through these towns, would have involved five or six miles, both ways, of riding on suburban feeling sidewalks.

My “plan” was never a good one. It involved too many assumptions about things I failed to fully research, including parking, bicycle accommodations, etc. Doing this due diligence is a lesson I had learned but somehow forgotten during the pandemic. How frequently lessons have to be re-learned can be one of the most frustrating occurrences in life. A “re-lapse” is not just a drug addict that starts using again. Unfortunately, it’s all too common for people who had improved things like their habits and mindset to slip back into their old patterns that were not serving them well.

I was fortunate enough to find a tourist information center.

Where I was told I could park at the gas station on the far West end of town to ride my bike up Mingus Mountain.

The ride itself is beautiful right from the start, and, although I had a delay I was doing exactly what I had come to Arizona to do, ride my bike up big hills in nice weather.

Clarkdale sits at only 3545 feet (1080 m) in elevation. So, it is already a significant climb just to get to the ghost town of Jerome.

Jerome is a unique spot! Like many ghost towns of the West, it boomed in the late 19th Century due to mining (copper) and then went bust.

However, unlike other ghost towns, it is now a popular tourist destination with a lot of visitors.

Evidence of its past, as a lawless “old west” town can be seen everywhere.

Sitting on the side of a cliff, it also takes on the feel of a Mediterranean town.

Pedaling uphill through Jerome ended up being one of the hardest parts of the entire climb!

A scenic overlook a half a mile up the road from Jerome

Above Jerome the climb continued to be intense, but the amount of cars drops off significantly making for a quieter ride.

One thing I would grow to love about Arizona’s highway system throughout the week was their elevation signs. Their highways commonly have signs denoting the 1000 foot increments in elevation, providing a fantastic reference point!

The highest 1000 feet (300 m) of the climb was stunning. The panoramic views provided an almost instant reward for level of muscle exhaustion I was experiencing.

This is perhaps why I love cycling so much. When it comes to physical exercise, it is quite rare to be so immersed in the core motivating factor for the hard work, exhaustion and pain. Typically during workouts people remind themselves they are building endurance, improving their health, losing weight, etc. to keep their motivation. Here in the mountains on my bicycle, all I needed to do was continue to look all around me, feel and smell the fresh air and I knew exactly why I was willing to endure so much.

It is always exciting to reach the top of a climb. Seeing the signs and the road turn downwards for the first time in over an hour is a sweet feeling that one must experience to truly understand.

It is a great place to rest and enjoy the beauty of the place I had worked so hard to get to.

As is the case with all other components of our lives, it is crucial to savor moments like these, enjoy them while they are happening. It would have been a huge disservice to myself, as well as the natural environment around me to dwell on my prior setbacks. After all, the world is in a constant state of flux. We never know what experiences will no longer be available to return to.

Yes, that day I actually saw the forest rangers update the fire risk to high on the grounds that the humidity was 8%.

Northern Arizona 1000 Years Ago

When we think about remnants of ancient civilizations, we often think of places like Egypt, Greece or Italy. Athens, Cairo and Rome are certainly places people visit for the primary purpose of observing and learning about history. However, one thing I learned about travel, generally speaking, is that history is all around us. Evidence of historical events, both the human and natural kind, can be found almost everywhere, and sometimes in some unexpected places.

Wupatki National Monument sits about 30 miles north of Flagstaff and is easily accessible via U.S. highway 89. Those traveling through the area can visit the remnants of several abandoned pueblos, as well as sunset crater, the site of a volcanic eruption, on a convenient 36 mile scenic drive.

In the 11th, 12th and early 13th centuries, the region around the present day four corners was home to one of the most advanced civilizations in North America north of the Aztec Empire.

They had houses large and small.

They even had buildings that would serve the equivalent function to the larger buildings we have in urban areas today.

Recent evidence indicates that the population of the continent before Columbus’s arrival was likely much higher than we had originally thought. Before the pueblos were abandoned and subject to 700 years of weathering, these building were certainly more densely packed together than they appear today. Archeologists and historians are still debating why the settlements here and in other nearby places were just abandoned. It is likely that a combination of drought and over-hunting made the region no longer ideal for civilization at the time. Looking out upon them and imagining this past, it becomes possible to speculate about people’s lives at the time.

Some things were certainly different from our lives today. For example, they did not have the means to travel long distances, as horses would be introduced by the Spanish centuries later. So, there were few journeys or adventures. However, based on human nature, there was certainly the friendships, conflicts, drama, power struggles, rivalries, parties, shared experiences and accomplishments that go along with life in towns and cities.

There were definitely events, one of which is evidenced by Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument on the same scenic drive

Evidence points to this volcano erupting in the later half of the 11th century. The eruption was seen by Anasazi and Sinagua inhabitants of the region. They probably talked about it for years, possibly even the entire two-ish centuries between the eruption and their mysterious departure from the region.

The volcanic eruptions changed the landscape of the area in ways that can still be seen today. Slopes in the area still appear black from the ash that followed the eruption.

Scientists can identify the minerals deposited on the rocks in the area.

These minerals likely altered the manner in which the Anasazi and Sinagua people farmed the area when they lived in these pueblos.

I began to wonder what other records, knowledge and traditions were lost when these civilizations collapsed. Could they have had scientific knowledge that we will never benefit from? Did they have philosophical ideas worthy of our consideration? Is there a history we could be learning from?

Sometimes it feels like we fail to consider the history of a place before “our” involvement- before we arrived. What event constitutes “our” arrival is open to debate. Regardless, “our” involvement in the North American continent spans between 150 and just over 500 years out of a history that goes back at least 13,000. What happened on this continent before Columbus arrived certainly impacts our lives today.

Even if we talk about the course of events on the scale of our individual lives, the same bias often surfaces. We’ll move to a city and learn what highways jam up at what hours of the day, what restaurants to go to, etc. But, what about the city a few decades ago? There is often a reason, based on the migration of people, why the best Italian restaurants are in one neighborhood and the best Chinese ones are in another.

As I took a deep breath and gazed out into the open sky I thought about a phenomenon I had first thought of nearly 20 years ago. Right now, there is something happening, in another town, involving people I do not know yet, that will have a significant impact on my life. The same can be said for anyone else, including anyone reading this entry.

48th State

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Arizona is the third most recent state to join the Union.  The only two states admitted more recently are Alaska and Hawaii.  This means that, when it comes to mainland U.S.A., this very much was the “final frontier”, an area that remained wild and unsettled for over a century while areas were being converted from frontier, to small villages, and eventually into powerhouses connected by networks of trails, ports, and railroads.

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The primary cultural image of Arizona is the “Old West”.  Cowboys roaming around wide open spaces.  Small isolated towns where outlaws and town sheriffs fight a continuous battle that resembles the internal conflict we all have between the innate desire for freedom and the desire for justice and order.  Crazy games of poker in whiskey salons that often end in guns being drawn.

Historically, it is correct that Arizona, like much of the west, is the site of many epic battles that often lead to gunfire.  This lead to places such as Tombstone, and Rawhide, being depicted in numerous Western themed movies and TV shows.  Tourists today can relive the experience of the wide open, unsettled, west by visiting these places.

However, movies and TV shows can frequently lead people to inaccurate perceptions.  Films and shows are designed for entertainment purposes, and therefore must focus on the interesting aspects of life in a specific place, like a shoot-out between two gangs.  Anyone that compares their lives to those of characters from TV and movies will often come out feeling that their life is uninteresting.  After all, no movie will show someone sitting at a cubicle for six hours, or doing laundry and ironing shirts.  They focus on the parts that will, well, entertain the people that watch them.

Recent studies have indicated that, while these high profile gunfights did occur in the old west, they were the exception rather than the rule.  Some studies (although not all) have even suggested that the western frontier of the later 19th century was actually a safer place than America today.  There is speculation as to why the “Old West” is depicted and thought of in the manner in which it is, leading some to entertain conspiracy theories.  Regardless of what the reality of what life in this time and place know as the “Old West” was truly like, it is encouraging to see people look at it statistically, as opposed to based on anecdotes and catch phrases.

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Arizona may have grown up late, but it grew up fast.  Based on the 2010 census, Arizona is now the fourth most populous state west of the Mississippi River.

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Growing up in the middle to late 20th century, Arizona grew up in a manner that is very car-centric.  Depictions of present day Arizona life, in movies like Bad Santa, commonly show life in car-centic suburbs, with winding subdivisions, malls and such.

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There is also no forgetting Arizona’s position along the famed Route 66, which took countless motorists between Chicago and Los Angeles during the middle part of the 20th century.  In popular culture, the Arizona stretch of this major historic thoroughfare is amongst the most celebrated, providing the inspiration for the setting of the Route 66 based movie Cars.

The most high profile destination in Arizona is the Grand Canyon.  After all, the state’s nickname, which is labelled on all Arizona license plates is “The Grand Canyon State”.  However, by taking a road trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, one will traverse the landscapes that cover a much larger portion of the State.

Passing through the Sonoran Desert, which includes Phoenix and much of the surrounding  area, one will encounter hills covered in sagebrush and cactus plants.

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Periodically, one will also encountered Joshua Trees, mountain ranges, and mesas.

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Closer to Vegas, the landscape transitions to the Mojave Desert, which is sometimes even hotter, drier, and more baren than the Sonoran.

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Two developments made Arizona’s rapid expansion in population possible.  First, is the much discussed invention of, and subsequent proliferation of air conditioning.  This, of course, made living in places prone to hot weather more desirable.  The second is the creation of dams, canals, irrigation systems, and water pipelines, which facilitated supplying these dry regions with the water resources needed to sustain life.

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The Hoover Dam, located at the border of Arizona and Nevada, is one of many places throughout the west that diverts water resources from a major river (the Colorado River) to major metropolitan areas.

 

As is the case with the idealized image of the rugged individual of the “Old West”, present day life in Arizona, when discussed, elicits some divided responses, as well as some different interpretations.

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This is very much the image of standard life in Arizona.  A house in suburban looking neighborhood, a pool in the backyard, mountains, and, in many cases, golf.  Some love it.  Some see it as the natural culmination of the “American Dream”.  Some can’t wait to get away from the frigid winters many experienced in other parts of the country, move down here and enjoy the life.  Others, and particularly those concerned with the environment, feel it is irresponsible for so many people to be living comfortable lifestyles, with swimming pools, irrigated lawns, and golf courses in a climate this dry.  People here seem to adhere to the “haters gonna hate” mentality.  The knowledge that people in some distant land are disapproving of their living, eating, hiking, and golfing in the desert does not seem to phase them.

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Places of Questionable Significance

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.