Good Ole Gallup & Hello Arizona

October 8, 2012 — Monday

We woke up in Gallup, NM, at the 66 classic El Rancho Hotel  & Motel where movie star photos line lobby and mezzanine walls, the Hollywood luminaries who stayed here while making movies in the area.  Turns out the hotel was built by the brother of movie director D.W. Griffith.  Thank goodness El Rey hasn’t changed much.  The hotel has wisely preserved its impressive lobby of leather and overstuffed everything, massive chandeliers, and movie memorabilia.  We stayed in the Lucille Ball room, where the only Lucy touch was one photo.  The staff let us see the Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite with a built-in closet large enough to sleep in.  Each room is named for the star who actually slept there, and each has at least one photo of its namesake.  The rooms aren’t fancy, but they’re pleasant, clean and maintained nicely.  Just off the lobby is the Ortega Trading Post gift shop, the same Ortega who restored El Rancho and continues five generations of trading and selling high quality native art.

Downtown Gallup has Rt. 66 parallel with the railroad, which brought trade to the area.  On weekends the town is full of natives buying or trading their pottery, baskets, rugs and jewelry for food and supplies.  The main drag is lined with shops, especially the grand-daddy Richardson’s Trading Post established 1913.  Other notable Gallup buildings are the former Rex Hotel, renovated El Morro Theater and McKinley County Courthouse with what is believed to be largest WPA mural still in existence.

The modest Gallup Chamber of Commerce holds the Navajo Code Talkers’ Room, which tells how Navajo recruits used their native language to devise a military code the Japanese never cracked.  The Code Talkers were initially 29 young Navajo men who could read and write and had the equivalent of a high school education, recruited into the Marines and trained intensively in May 1942.  The initial code was 211 words plus one word for every letter of the alphabet.  Those first Code Talkers were so successful that their numbers swelled to 200 by October, and by the end of WWII, there were over 300.  Their code was never broken and not even one misquote or translation mistake within our own military branches.  To commemorate their valor and distinctive service, President Reagan created Navajo Code Talkers Day on August 14, 1982.  In July 1971, 70 living Code Talkers reunited to share stories, documented on film with the aid of  a grant.  In the 1976 Bicentennial, 22 Code Talkers marched in the national Washington, D.C. parade.  Today in 2012, fewer than five Code Talkers remain.  The Navajo Nation plans to expand the one-room Gallup exhibit to a full-fledged museum in the Window Rock/Four Corners area once enough funds are raised.

We passed the Red Rock State Park where the venerated annual InterTribal Indian Ceremonial has been held each September since 1922, the same place I visited on my 1986 pueblo/reservation swing.  I remember that first visit because I bought an exquisite jade Corn Maiden fetish, the wonderful Pow-Wow competitive dancing with drums, flute and chanting, and the port-a-toilet door that blew open just as I started to pull up my jeans.  The park sits in the middle of huge and very red rock formations, impressive then and now.

Just out of Gallup we left New Mexico and entered Arizona, my home state.  Once again we left 66 to drive north to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay) on the Navajo Reservation, and yes, in Arizona you say reservation not pueblo.  This is a beautiful drive through big sky, chaparral grasses and hundreds of squatty but full junipers and pinon trees.

Midway we stopped at Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, established in the 1870’s and the oldest continuously operating trading post in the USA.  Today it is operated by the National Park Service and a small complex surrounds the original wood and rock main building.  The trading post itself has a general store on the left, with canned goods, cookware, hardware and home essentials.  On the right are several rooms:  one room has dozens of native baskets on the ceiling, kachinas on the walls, pottery on shelves and jewelry in cases.  Then there’s the rug room with ancient guns lining one wall and piles of the rightly famed Navajo rugs.  A small office with a massive desk has collector quality, turn-of-the-century kachinas, not for sale, just standing in clumps to be admired.  Indeed, Hubbell’s native art collection rivals any museum.  On my first trip west, I stopped at Hubbell and bought my first kachina, a small, flat wooden doll, the one given to babies for protection and a long, healthy life.  That kachina hangs on our tree each Christmas.  No kachinas this trip, but I did buy a pair of long, rectangular turquoise earrings with an inlaid mosaic of other native stones.  I love buying something special at someplace special, and each time I see it, use it or wear it, I think of that special place.

We tried hard to get to Natural Bridge near Shiprock.  We followed my Arizona map, AAA guide, Margaret’s GPS and watched for the brown national monument signs.  Zip.  Finally we stopped at a gas station (I still believe in gas station directions) and the clerk said it’s closed because this natural stone bridge has a crack and the Navajo Nation needs funds and expertise to prevent collapse and potential harm to visitors.

Onward and northward to Canyon de Chelly, one of American’s national parks and ancient native ruins on Navajo land.  We stayed the night in Chinle, just outside the park entrance, at the Thunderbird Lodge, operated by the National Park Service with a totally Navajo staff.  The motel room was Southwestern style, simple, ample, very clean, and the old-style motel where you pull up and park right in front of your unit.

We looked at local menus and decided the Best Western’s Junction Restaurant looked promising.  Oh yes.  I had a green chile posole stew, a large bowl piled with tender mutton chunks, hominy, corn and vegetables–not to mention a piece of fry bread that was bigger than the dinner plate.  If you’ve never had fry bread, try it when you get out West.  All tribes have a version.  It’s dough patted into balls, flattened by hand, dropped into hot lard oil where it bubbles into a flat, golden, puffy piece of goodness.  Natives eat it plain, dusted with white powdered sugar or honey, or piled with all the fixings of a taco.  Mine was plain, huge and absolutely delicious.

Feels good to return to Native country and my much-loved Arizona.

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