How to Kill a Rental Car #7: Day 7, Chasing the Wild Goose: Pursuing Your Inner Artist – Flagstaff and Roden Crater, Arizona

Day 7, Chasing the Wild Goose: Pursuing Your Inner Artist

Bob: Never underestimate the power of a cigarette.

“The Artist in his work ought to be like God in creation, invisible and all powerful: everywhere felt but nowhere visible.”
– Gustave Flaubert

Mr. Moody-broody-solitudey wanted to find Roden Crater. As a student of modern art, the works of James Turrell were of particular interest to Josh. He had studied Turrell’s work and he had seen a piece of the artist’s sculpture when he had visited the Guggenheim Museum in New York the year before. Roden Crater was supposed to be a work of environmental art so grandiose as to astound the senses. Josh was on a quest.

We again rose early and headed to downtown Flagstaff to see what information we could squeeze out of the visitor information office. The office is in the Amtrak station if the heart of old Flagstaff. The woman was stumped at first when we asked about Roden Crater. Josh attempted to explain the history of the project and the general theory of environmental art and its effect of the modern psyche. After a while she recognized some reference he made, and with this new epiphany she disappeared into the back and came back a few moments later with a badly photocopied sheet of paper:

Summer 2000 2001

The Roden Crater Project will be closed to the public until the completion of the First Phase of construction of the Masterwork sometime in 2001 2004. You may visit our website for information about James Turrell and Roden Crater as well as scheduling and reservation information that will be posted as the project advances.

Please feel free to phone the Skystone Foundation in Flagstaff if you have further questions (520) 226-0937. [We did.] Safety issues and James Turrell’s sensitivity to viewing the Masterwork in an incomplete state do not allow us to accommodate requests to visit the site. [Yeah, whatever!]

Roden Crater?: “But is it art?”

Because of the early hour, our relative lack of solid information, and the fact that Josh needed his java-jump, we went in search of an Internet caf�. We found a cool caf� called Macy’s around the corner, where we were able to calm our caffeine cravings but not our need for the net. I was a little confused upon ordering. Learning the local latte lingo required a leap of logic that I was less than prepared to make. Our pink-haired barista looked down her nose-ring at me as I stumbled over their witty literary names for the espresso drinks on their menu. Clearly we were not locals. Their coffee, however, was top-notch and worth the humiliation. When Josh asked about the possibilities of connectivity in the area, she enthusiastically directed us down the street to their competition.

After about an hour of surfing, Josh managed to come up with a few hints on the website that gave us enough to go on. Josh had found the location of the Skystone Foundation office, which was mentioned in the flyer, and decided he wanted to try his luck with them to finagle his way into a tour. I asked why we didn’t just take what we had learned already and attempt to find the crater on our own. If we turned up “by accident” we could just play dumb. He replied that he wanted to be as informed as possible so he could ACT dumb. When we found the foundation’s headquarters Josh asked me to wait in the car. I was beginning to feel like a couple of bungling bank robbers, and I was the stupid one tasked with driving the getaway car. He was gone for about twenty minutes but came back empty handed. Apparently there was no one at work that day.

We hit the road again, this time north in the direction of Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments. The area north of Flagstaff is dotted with dormant volcanoes called cinder cones. Cinder cones are formed during the early stages of an eruption. As the magma rises upward from underground and the pressure is released from the earth’s crust, gasses are expelled from the magma causing explosions from the central vent. The molten rock solidifies into smallish pieces called cinders, which form around the central vent creating the cone. Sunset Crater is one such cone, which is open to the public to explore. Roden Crater is a nearby sibling. We stopped briefly at the visitor’s center to see if there were any maps available that actually named Roden Crater. None of the maps of the area revealed Roden’s exact location. Josh had brought several, and had circled the cones that he thought was most likely to be it. We were able to determine longitude and latitude coordinates on each of the cones and program them into the GPS. About 10 miles past Sunset Crater we were brought to a dead stop in the middle of nowhere. A very stoic-looking Navajo man wearing a yellow hard hat, bright orange safety vest, and holding a stop sign was blocking the road. The National Park Service was taking the opportunity in high season to repave the park road. Josh reached across to the glove compartment and retrieved a pack of cigarettes. He rolled down the window and lit one for himself. Our imposing friend looked on dispassionately. We were going to be here a while, we could just tell. Josh retrieved another cigarette and held it out the window in offering. Our friend sauntered over and accepted Josh’s gift.

“How’s it going?” Asked Josh.

“Damn hot,” came the reply.

Today’s lesson: “Never underestimate the power of a cigarette.” Our friend’s name was Bob and he grew up nearby on the Navajo Reservation. He had heard of Roden Crater, but didn’t know exactly where it was. He was an artist himself and made silver jewelry; played the guitar too. Don’t bother trying to get to the visitor’s center by the pueblos, the next 30 miles of road was stop and start, just like this. About a mile ahead there was a turnoff by a cattle gate. It was onto private land, but out here nobody really cared, just so long as you don’t mess with their cattle. Bob was a treasure trove of local information. He knew everything but the one thing we really needed to know: Which one was Roden?

Wrecked car: This could be us.

Thirty minutes and two cigarettes later, Bob got the call on his radio that the way ahead was clear. “About a mile down on your right,” Bob said as he waved us on. It was just as he said. I hopped out and opened the gate, and Josh eased our little Mitsubishi over the cattle grate. We were off-roading once again. Soon we were lost in a complicated network of cattle tracks and tractor paths. I kept an eye on the GPS to ensure that we maintained what we believed to be the proper orientation. Luck, however, was not on our side. For six hours we pursued the phantom of Roden Crater. We had to check off at least two of Josh’s potential marks as “not it.” Into and out of washes and gullies, it’s a wonder we didn’t break an axle. We crossed on and off of Navajo land no less than eight times. The third cone we were zeroing in on Josh was sure was it. I had my doubts. If Turrell was excavating the inside of a volcano, wouldn’t he need loads of earth-moving equipment? Wouldn’t we see evidence of that? Josh chafed at my skepticism.

As the afternoon wore on we ran into one dead end after another. The tracks would simply run out. Whether into a canyon wall or off of one, our little car could go no further. Rusted wrecks of old cars and farm equipment were beginning to make me nervous. And then there was the bull. This was ranch land after all. We rounded one hill and found ourselves in the middle of a small herd of cattle. Cows mostly, but there was one very large and aggressive bull, which apparently believed we were trying to muscle in on his harem. He stomped and snorted and made moves to charge. A calculated retreat was in order.

I told Josh I wasn’t up for any more swashbuckling today. He himself was very conflicted about going on, and besides, we needed gas. I told him that I would be perfectly happy to spend another night in Flagstaff and he could go out again by himself the next day. Back in Flagstaff, the lure of a burger and a beer at Charley’s in the old town was enough to make Josh relent. Roden would have to wait for another day.