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Road Trip: The Ballad of Route 89
From Canada to Mexico—past seven national parks and 1,700 miles (2,735 kilometers) of the promised land—on the West's most Western highway.
Text by Mark Sundeen    Photograph by Jeff Pflueger

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It took us across Montana's windswept prairie where a thin coat of snow clung to the threshers hulking in the hayfields, along the brick-lined Main Street of downtown Great Falls, where the town's copper smelter is long since gone and now the neon signs of the bars and the drugstore flicker on empty sidewalks, and then through the high antelope plains where opening day found trios of hunters carting their prey through the knee grass to big pickups parked on the shoulder. This road could get under a person's skin.


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Hear writer Mark Sundeen's stories from cruising the West's most Western highway, Route 89, in an interview with National Geographic's World Talk. 

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We were driving the length of U.S. Route 89, connecting strands of two-lane blacktop through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arizona, from Glacier National Park along the Canadian line all the way to the dusty Mexican border crossing of Nogales. The idea was to ride the crest of changing leaves southward, but as we set off, a cold snap bore down into Montana from the north, so instead of surfing autumn we were getting blown south by winter.

In Glacier National Park the aspen leaves had dropped and the lodges and gas stations were boarded shut for winter. We had missed tourist season, and as we cooked dinner on a campstove in the freezing darkness of an abandoned campground, I felt a little bleak. When we awoke before light, I heard photographer Jeff Pflueger, my longtime traveling companion, twitching in his summer-grade sleeping bag. "No reason to lie here getting cold," he said. We leaped up and, blowing clouds of warm breath into the beams of our headlamps, boiled some water for coffee, shoved down some Pop-Tarts, and headed up the trail to Iceberg Lake.

And that's when I realized that this was, in fact, the right time to be in Glacier. No one was there. We switchbacked up the valley while mist rose from its floor, and as the black distance turned gray, the jagged skyline revealed itself. We raced up through the alder brush, hopping over creeks as the snowflakes danced around us, charging forward with the adrenaline that comes from having a place all to yourself. Blobs of bear scat dotted the trails and dark clouds piled up against the sharp granite peaks. We reached the lake, a slab of green glass, and when we skipped rocks across it, the reflected hunks of glacier shimmied on the water. In ten miles (16 kilometers) we didn't see another person.

Of course, there are quicker ways to get from north to south, but Route 89 may be the best. It runs past seven of the West's most iconic national parks—Glacier, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, and Saguaro—as well as the Blackfeet and Navajo Nation Reservations and the heart of Mormondom.

An Arizona photographer named James Cowlin became so infatuated with its panoramas that he founded the U.S. Route 89 Appreciation Society and dubbed the road "the West's most western highway." Since the interstates have become generic strips of truck plazas and fast-food huts, Cowlin prefers the character of a two-lane highway with its diners and Main Streets and hay bales stacked on roadside farms. "You've heard of the Slow Food movement?" he asked me. "What we need is a Slow Road movement."

I understand Cowlin's love of the West. I moved here from my native California coast when I was 22, thinking I'd stay a summer guiding rivers. Fourteen years later I'm still here, having lived and worked in Utah, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Alaska. Between guiding, teaching, and writing, I've cobbled together a living without ever holding one job continuously for more than six months. Sometimes, stumbling into a grand landscape, I still catch the thrill that hooked me on the West, but really, I can no longer pretend this is some extended vacation. Something more profound than scenery is holding me here. And so soaring along Route 89 with the snowflakes flashing in the sunlight, I asked myself, What exactly am I doing in the West and why do I stay here?
 
Heading south on 89 alongside the Yellowstone River, just out of Livingston in southern Montana, the storm had dusted the mountains with snow and rattled the golden leaves off the cottonwoods. The sun was dropping and, between the pink alpenglow and the exploding storm clouds and the gentle river winding between hayfields, it was clear how Paradise Valley got its name.

I'd heard about this place for years and thought of it as a last outpost of the Old West—that mythological land of ranchers and cowboys, miners and loggers. When my friend Wendy, the great-granddaughter of Montana homesteaders, grew up here in the sixties, she lived on a working ranch with an outhouse in back. She rode her horse to school.

Wendy told me stories about how her dad used to ride his mount to a cowboy bar in the town of Emigrant called the Old Saloon, established in 1902. One day, after he tied the animal to the bar's hitching post, something—probably the infernal wind—spooked the horse, and it bolted and broke the post. Wendy's father managed to retrieve the beast, but instead of raising a stink about the flimsy hitch, he returned a few days later with a truckful of tools and lumber, and built a sturdier one.

Wendy's dad was no dude or land speculator, and in 1972 he got fed up with the wind, and he sold the ranch and moved on. Like much of the West, Paradise Valley is no longer a cowboy hub. It's home to some of the most expensive real estate in Montana (Tom Brokaw and Jeff Bridges own ranches near here). Now it's a typical New West town, a haven for land sharks and telecommuters, as well as dropouts and back-to-the-landers and all types of seekers. The Church Universal and Triumphant, for instance, gobbled up thousands of acres here (including Wendy's family's ranch) in the eighties. However, the church's star descended somewhat after March 15, 1990, when its members hunkered down in their bomb shelter in anticipation of the apocalypse, which their leader had—perhaps prematurely—prophesied.

It turned out that the Old Saloon sits right on Highway 89. That constant wind I'd heard about was blowing bitterly, and when we pulled over, I didn't bother searching the parking lot for the legendary hitching post, but instead tucked my chin into my collar and bolted indoors where happy hour was underway. The place looked just like I'd imagined it: antique rifles mounted on the walls, stools of varnished hardwood rubbed smooth over the years, and the stuffed heads of every beast, from a bobcat to a jackalope, gazing out over us.

When we stepped through the door, three ragged fellows at the bar turned to watch us, then started buying us Budweisers at two bucks a glass. The most talkative of the bunch was a miner who called himself "Maui," and after a couple beers he told me he worked nearby digging for platinum-group metals. When I asked what those minerals were used for, he said mostly jewelry, but then lowered his voice and suggested the platinum's true purpose.

"Ingestion," he whispered. When I stared back stupidly, he asked if I remembered the Bible. I said I did. "You remember Moses? Remember when they melted down all the platinum-group metals—that'd be your gold and silver—and cast it into the golden calf? And then what did Moses do?"

Jeff and I didn't know.

"He ground up the golden calf into a fine powder."

"Did they snort it up their noses?" I asked.

"He fed it to the Israelites," he said, dismissing my suggestion with a wag of a finger. "It brought them enlightenment and made them closer to God." New West, indeed.

Maui offered us a third round of beers, but we decided to flee while we could. As the sun sank and the shadows crept across the grassy bottom of Paradise Valley, we were back on the road, winding south down the river, some 12 days of country between us and the Mexican border.
 
In Gardiner, Montana, a tiny town at the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Highway 89 crosses the Yellowstone River on a high bridge, meanders along the town's rickety storefronts, then ducks under the 50-foot-high (15-meter-high) Roosevelt Arch, a stone structure dedicated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903 on his visit to America's first national park. Back then Gardiner was the gateway to Yellowstone, with nearly all visitors arriving on the cross-country train to Livingston then catching a spur rail down Paradise Valley to the northern entrance.

I admit that I lacked enthusiasm upon entering what is still the country's flagship park. I hadn't been there since my parents took me as a kid, and instead of the natural wonderland that captivated Roosevelt, I remembered thousands of gawkers circled around Old Faithful, taking five-minute respites from their automobiles, and motor home captains stopping traffic to photograph animals from their Winnebagos. Jeff and I were determined to avoid the main attractions and instead find some secluded backcountry.

But a funny thing happened: It snowed and nobody else showed up. On a clear and blue-skied windy morning, we puttered under the Roosevelt Arch and at the Wyoming state line found ourselves the only ones soaking in the Boiling River, looking out over the thin white blanket on the sagebrush. We were alone at the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs, steam rising off the sulphurous water as it trickled over rainbow ledges.

I was starting to get it. This is why people come here. And then we had the observation deck of Yellowstone Falls to ourselves. There in the deep-yellow gorge, I leaned over the restrainer bars into the deafening mist until my vision blurred and my legs became unpredictable, and I decided I should take a few steps back. By the time we reached Old Faithful's empty acres of parking spaces, we had abandoned our pose of backcountry snobs and went jogging along the boardwalks from one geyser to the next. Hot water shooting straight out of the Earth! How cool is that!

Still, there was one quintessential Yellowstone experience that beckoned. All day we'd seen deer and elk and coyotes frolicking roadside like we were on some sort of American safari. Now, as we headed south, I saw for the first time the park's legendary bison, one of the last reminders of the Eden that was once the frontier. With great satisfaction I brought the vehicle to a complete stop and there in the middle of Route 89 let a bison roam right up to my open window. And I'll be damned if I didn't snap a picture of him.
 
Maybe it's the landscape, but a simple drive across the West can feel like some sort of spiritual quest. You can trace it to the Mormons. Crossing the Rockies in 1847 looking for the promised land, they discovered one and christened it with biblical names like Moab and Zion. Now Highway 89 threads the heart of Utah's Mormon institutions: the Tabernacle and church headquarters, in downtown Salt Lake City, and Brigham Young University, in Provo. Farther south, the road took us through Sanpete Valley, a green, rolling sea of farms and ranches where in 1888 the Latter-day Saints completed their third temple west of the Rockies.

By the time we reached Manti, our numbers had increased. Jeff's girlfriend, Nettie Pardue, had flown in to Salt Lake City to join us for a few days. The Manti Utah Temple rose anachronistically from the sage flats, a gothic castle of white limestone towering over the cottages and double-wide trailers. It was Saturday, and the temple was churning out weddings. Gentiles such as ourselves are not allowed inside, but on just a short walk around its perimeter, we stumbled across three sets of newlyweds posing for photos in the crisp autumn sunlight. I felt myself floating in a sea of smiling blond faces, dark suits, and country dresses with white stockings.

Though many people associate Mormons with flag-waving and the GOP (George W. Bush's largest winning margin in both 2000 and 2004 was here), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is far more complicated than the bastion of conformity that's portrayed by its critics: It is one of American history's most radical examples of communitarianism, social experimentation, and religious dissent. Having lived ten years in Utah, I suppose I've developed an eye for such things, and indeed, just miles past the historic temple on the shoulder of Route 89, we came across a band of dissidents walking the length of the state of Utah—about 500 miles (805 kilometers)—to bring attention to the loss of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. We pulled over, introduced ourselves, and set off walking with them along the highway.

The leader of this march was not your typical protester: Sgt. Marshall Thompson, 28, is a clean-cut fifth-generation Mormon whose Scandinavian forebears settled the Sanpete Valley in the 1880s. He is a living bridge between the Old and New West. His father is a former two-term mayor of Logan, and
Marshall returned in July 2006 from a one-year tour in Iraq as a journalist in the Army, during which his wife, Kristen, gave birth to their daughter, Eliza. His time in Iraq convinced him that the war was a bad idea. "My personal religious beliefs lead me to abhor war," he told me, smiling softly from beneath his camo hat. When he returned from overseas, he felt as though Americans really had no idea of what was happening in Iraq. He told me that his home state had the lowest rate of war casualties, yet the highest rate of civilian support for the war.

So Marshall came up with a plan that would both raise awareness of the costs of the war and allow him to see up close the place he'd been fighting to protect. When word of his march reached the national media, people came to meet him. That day in Manti there were three Vietnam vets who'd driven from the West Coast to walk with him, as well as his wife, his dad, and another dozen supporters. For most of the journey he'd been on Highway 89, and after a mile (two kilometers) walking beside him, we left Sergeant Thompson 150 miles (241 kilometers) from his destination. 
 
I like rocks more than trees. So I was relieved when Highway 89 delivered us south to Utah's canyon country, where the Earth's geometry emerges and you can see where you're going. Down here the Old West and New West seem piled on top of one another. In the Sevier River Valley we ate at Big Rock Café, the kind of place where ranchers squeeze into their crispest Wrangler jeans for Saturday dinner, serenaded by a duo of weathered old-timers wearing DeWalt ball caps and picking instrumental renditions of show tunes and jazz standards on vintage hollow-body electric guitars. Just miles away we stopped for a soak in Mystic Hot Springs, in Monroe, where Deadhead proprietor "Mystic Mike" has fashioned a sort of low-rent hippie paradise, including a concert theater, converted school buses for nightly accommodations, and natural springs that drip into travertine-scaled claw-foot bathtubs.

But peculiar as southern Utah culture may be, let's face it: Travelers come here for the rocks. We pulled into Bryce Canyon National Park on a glorious sunny morning, free from the chilly northern clouds, and charged down the Peak-A-Boo Loop Trail, weaving between the famous red spires. The sun was invigorating, and we drove over to Zion National Park, stopped on the side of the road, and walked up some slot canyon, wading through cold narrows that opened into a flat-bottomed cathedral with yellow cottonwoods and red scrub oak and a trickle of clear water through the quicksand. After that we still weren't tired, and we abandoned the car and hopped a shuttle into Zion Canyon proper.

Some 40 years ago, in Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey proposed that we shut off national parks to cars, and the forward-looking people at Zion have done something very close. The six miles (ten kilometers) of highway that pass through towering Zion Canyon are closed to traffic most of the year, and the results are stunning. When I'd driven through a decade earlier, there'd been a two-way traffic jam with a gnarled turnaround at the end where the Zion Narrows begin. Now, as Jeff, Nettie, and I hiked up the steep switchbacks toward Angels Landing, the valley was serene and majestic. Every five minutes or so a shuttle bus chugged up the highway, but other than that, the only sounds were the rippling of the Virgin River, the rushing of the wind, and the occasional caw of a raven.

Zion's shuttle system not only forces us out of our cars and into the wilds, it also herds us onto buses where we have to interact with the rest of humanity. Pried from their sealed steel capsules of interpersonal dysfunction, the American family emerges as kinda fun. We descended the trail after dark and sprinted the final stretch to catch a waiting bus. It was full, and the people were in high spirits. They struck up conversations with strangers. They laughed. Two teenage girls were talking about choir camp.

"Some people think my school is stuck-up," said one, "But I don't."

"There's stuck-ups everywhere," said the other. "But that doesn't make a place snobby."

The shuttle eased to a stop and the driver's voice came over the speaker. He wanted us to look out the window, up into the tops of the cottonwoods, where wild turkeys were at roost. We craned our necks. We could stop to look for as long as we wanted: After all, we were the only rig on the road. By now it was dark and what I could see were vague blobs on the branches, the silhouettes of wild birds, and up above them, the desert stars beginning to shine.
 
From Zion, 89 took us through the thick pines of the Grand Canyon's North Rim, where we picked a route along dirt roads and camped on the gorge's edge, waking in the morning under a sheet of snow. At Navajo Bridge the highway crossed the Colorado River, and we backtracked up to Lake Powell. We parked on the side of the road and followed a shallow wash that dropped into sandstone narrows that eventually spit us out at the sluggish waters of the reservoir. From there we drove south through the Navajo Nation in the clean yellow light of evening, the plywood jewelry shacks shuttered for winter on the side of the highway. In Flagstaff, Route 89 intersects its more celebrated cousin, Route 66, and the downtown is a nostalgic cluster of diners and saloons. In the morning Jeff walked Nettie to the Amtrak depot and she boarded a train for home. With a fresh tank of gas Jeff and I were back on the highway.

We wound down 89's steep switchbacks to Oak Creek Canyon, where in the thick ponderosas a clear creek poured off red walls, and finally we reached Sedona, a resort town as famous for its staggering red cliffs as for the New Age seekers who come to bask in the local phenomena they've dubbed "energy vortexes."

The red rock has always attracted pilgrims. It's no surprise, then, that so many of canyon country's rock formations have religious names: the Three Patriarchs and the Great White Throne, in Zion; Isis Temple and the Tower of Ra, in the Grand Canyon. The Hopi believed that the birthplace of humankind was in the heart of the Grand Canyon. 

At a coffee shop on the strip of tourist traps and crystal shops, Jeff and I bought a handy guidebook called What Is a Vortex? But even after reading a few definitions that alternate fuzzily between "a place in nature where the Earth is exceptionally alive and healthy" and "a place on the planet of increased energy," I still wasn't clear on what the thing was. I did learn, however, that once I found a vortex, I should try to perform something called a "visualization," and that, if I got tired, "it is possible to do the visualization from the car, as you park at the start of any of the trails."

We drove to nearby Bell Rock, a red sandstone dome beside the byway, and headed up the trail. Soon we came across a man arranging little rocks in stacks. He wore Wranglers and a Caterpillar cap and told us he was a construction worker from Seattle visiting Sedona for the first time. We asked if he knew what a vortex was, and without hesitation he said it was a portal between heaven and earth. We asked if he would lead us to the vortex, and as we scrambled higher, the man introduced himself as Andrew and told us that there were two paths in life: the red way, which is enlightenment and compassion, and the dark way, which is "cell phones and other things." Then he offered me some advice: When troubled, I should place my fingers around a clear glass of lukewarm water and try to make my mind as clear as that water. Let all my negativity drain into the cup.

"Do I drink it?" I asked.

"Oh, no," he scolded. "It's got all that bad emotion in it. But once, I left it out on the table while I was out mowing my lawn. When I came back in, I was thirsty and I drank it by accident."

We reached a bench on the sandstone where a piñon tree sprouted from the rock.

"I can feel it," Andrew said. "My ears are buzzing."

We were at the vortex. I cocked my head to see if I could detect the energy. Yes, something was buzzing! I stood perfectly still. I listened. But wait: The buzzing in my ears was the whup-whup-whup of a helicopter darting low behind Bell Rock on a scenic flyover.

Jeff and I left Andrew at the vortex and climbed higher to get a view. When we descended a few minutes later, I was alarmed to see that Andrew had succumbed to the temptation of the dark way. There he was, perched alone in the sacred place, smoking a cigarette and talking on his cell phone.
 
For every lost soul who wandered the American desert looking for spiritual salvation, a hundred more came for something much more worldly: treasure. South of Sedona, Highway 89 passes through the once great gold- and copper-mining towns of Jerome, Prescott, and Wickenburg. In Jerome the highway's switchbacks are so steep that you can walk a flight of stairs from one to the next.

On the 14th day of the trip, we were having breakfast at a roadside café called the Ranchhouse in the Weaver Mountains between Prescott and Wickenburg, when a pair of old-timers saw Jeff's cameras and asked what we were up to. The woman, Lois Hight, appeared to be in her 70s, and her companion, Ben Evans, looked like an ancient prospector, with a bolo tie and grubby clothes and thick-rimmed glasses. Lois and Ben insisted that if we wanted to know what the desert was all about, we needed to follow them to the old gold-mining ghost town where they lived. So we set out down a winding dirt road and in 15 minutes arrived at Stanton, an encampment dotted with a ramshackle old general store, an opera house, and a sign that read "Lost Dutchman's Mining Association." But Stanton also hosted about 50 motor homes, which were lined up in a long phalanx and shimmering white in the October sun. We'd been tricked: Ben and
Lois had brought us to an RV park.

Lois showed me around, pointing out a slumped mountain called Rich Hill, where more than a century ago Charles Stanton himself is said to have found gold nuggets the size of potatoes. She told me that before the recent death of her husband, the couple had spent 30 winters in Stanton. I assumed they were just snowbirds. But when I asked what they did all winter, Lois scrunched up her face and looked at me like I was an idiot. She jerked her thumb up at Rich Hill and said, "We were mining for gold." And then it hit me: All these retired land yachters—yes, they were snowbirds—were also out here chasing one of the oldest dreams in the West. Each winter they raise a little town here in the shadow of Rich Hill and dig for treasure. I found husbands huddled under awnings checking out the latest metal detectors. Wives were gathered in the mess hall, baking cookies and assembling a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Elvis.
Ben had been the town's chief caretaker for 30 years. He pointed to a towering pine tree that had been a mere Christmas tree when he planted it decades earlier. He also knew plenty about the place's history.

"Stanton was a wicked man," Ben said. He told us that Stanton would start rumors of stealing between two prospectors, so the two would eventually kill one another, and then he could move in on their territory. "I used to have my trailer parked out by Stanton's grave," Ben said. "I lost three weeks' sleep. That ghost wouldn't let me be."

I thought about Ben and the gold miners as we drove on to where U.S. Route 89 officially ends at Wickenburg. South of there, the road has been decommissioned, so we picked a string of state highways and interstates through the sprawl of Phoenix and Tucson. We reached the luminous cactuses of Saguaro National Park just at dusk, and finally, the next morning, after 15 days and 1,700 miles (2,736 kilometers), sputtered up to Mexico. We walked across the border and spent a couple of sunny hours poking around Nogales, sipping strawberry licuados, and eating tacos from pushcarts. Even with heightened security, getting over the border is easy, and thousands of people cross back and forth each day. The division between countries seemed like mere abstraction, until we passed by the south side of the wall. Wired to the menacing 15 feet (5 meters) of concrete, steel, and chain-link were dozens of white crosses, each inscribed with a name of a Mexican who died—usually due to heat exposure—crossing into the United States. I stood there staring. It's easy to say that the U.S.'s magnet is purely economic. But the millions who risk their lives sneaking across the desert are motivated by something deeper than a wage. The draw is the opportunity to exert some power over your own destiny, or put another way, it's the thing that theoretically defines the West: freedom.

And maybe that's what binds the New West and the Old. There in the foreground of these postcard landscapes, as often as not, stands some hard-headed character like Ben Evans exercising a freedom that many don't consider worth having. Restless, itinerant, and contrary, I could appreciate this desert hermit's version of liberty. I left the West Coast because I wanted to define myself in a place where nobody knew me. I left the East Coast because it costs too much, and I knew I'd always be longing for things I couldn't have. I've never lived in the South or the Midwest because, without family or church, I thought I'd always be an outsider. But the West—with its endless roads, where judgment and pity seem to evaporate in the sun—has always felt like home.

On that day at the Lost Dutchman's encampment, Ben eventually led us to what seemed like a small alter of painted rocks arranged in concentric circles. Upon one of the larger rocks the words "Astral Gateway" were painted. Ben said he'd written it himself.

"What does it mean?" Jeff asked.

 Ben thought it over, looking up at the sky.

"Well, I been all across the cosmos," he said finally. "I been up to the moon and I looked back down on the Earth."

I looked at Ben, and then up at Rich Hill with its subterranean nuggets screaming for daylight, and then at the Arizona sun humming with a rapturous clarity that could induce both hallucination and wisdom. Across the cosmos? Up to the moon? This is a land of great opportunity, and I was pretty sure Ben was telling the truth.


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