(Tony Hillerman, who died in 2008, was the author of 29 books, including 17 mysteries that feature two Navajo police officers tracking down criminals in the Four Corners region. Writer Melanie Martin traveled in an RV to see the locations that Hillerman brilliantly describes in his novels.)
Dr. Eleanor Freidman-Bernal drove away from Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico in the dead of night. She told her fellow anthropologists that she was going into Farmington to smell exhaust fumes and maybe eat in a real restaurant. Dr. Bernal, expert in Chacoan pottery, smiled as she’d bumped over the washboard gravel road leading out of Chaco, took the 64 west and blew past Farmington. Yes, she’d been clever to hide her real destination: No one suspected a thing.
Hours later she realized the enormity of her mistake.
In his 1988 mystery novel, A Thief of Time, Tony Hillerman continues the adventures of the legendary Lt. Joe Leaphorn, and Officer Jim Chee, both of the Navajo Tribal Police Department, as they track criminals over mesas, through washes and into the canyons of the Navajo Indian reservation. In Thief of Time, Dr. Bernal disappears while searching for an ancient pot that will validate her life’s work; two illegal pothunters, or thieves of time, are murdered, and the body of an affluent pot collector is found with a vital clue hurriedly stuffed down his underwear. Leaphorn and Chee get to work.
It’s a bumpy, nasty and sometimes dangerous ride. Want to come along?
Our journey, driving our 23-foot Chinook, began in Window Rock, or Tseghoodzani, Arizona. It’s the administrative capital and center of the Navajo Nation and the home and workplace of the fictional Lt. Leaphorn. From his office at the Navajo Tribal Police Department, Leaphorn could see a 200-foot sandstone hill with a graceful arch. We visited the police department, probably attracting attention by bobbing between the parked cars for a good photo, and then went to the sandstone formation that gives the town of Window Rock its name.
At the Window Rock formation, we were immediately drawn into the setting: impossibly blue skies, multi-shades of green foliage at the base of the hill and the Navajo Code Talker statue in the foreground. Several people had tables set up in the area and sold us pottery whose colors exactly matched the setting before us.
Driving to Utah
One morning Hillerman has Leaphorn leave his comfortable home nestled in the pines around Window Rock for a long scenic drive starting west on Highway 264 and then north on Highway 191. He’s going to Bluff, Utah, to interview the affluent pot collector Harrison Houk and see what he knows about Bernal’s disappearance.
We followed his route. The drive took us through Leaphorn’s pine country near Window Rock, through Ganado, a favorite Hillerman location that was named after a Navajo chief, Ganado Mucho. We stopped at Hubbell Trading Post to get a soda and snap a photo. At one time this was a main trade and social center on the western Navajo Reservation.
If you, like us, plan to stop at Many Farms and eat where Leaphorn breakfasted the day of his drive, you’ll leave town hungry. Hillerman had some fun here. According to a river guide who grew up around here, Many Farms has never ever had a café! All was not lost, though, because we were heading to Bluff, Utah, where they have great food!
Bluff sits along the San Juan River, with the Navajo Nation across the river to the south. Huge bluffs rise up to the south and north of the town, so when the Mormon founders needed a name for their new town, they just called it Bluff. Hillerman places Harrison Houk’s sprawling ranch house on the top of the bluffs just outside of town, so after lunch we took a ride to the bluffs and snapped photos of the area. The land and views are gorgeous; Harrison Houk had it made.
Be sure to dawdle in the town of Bluff. It’s full of friendly characters. Tony Hillerman and his brother, Barney, a photographer, visited many times to research books, talk to the locals, and give readings in the public library.
We parked our rig at the Cadillac Ranch RV Park. If you go, say, “Hi,” to owner/ operator Rayna (Charlie) Percell and feed apples to her baby donkey. Charlie worked at Wild River Expeditions when the Hillermans came through and remembers the time Tony took off his shoes, put his feet on the coffee table and chatted for a while.
Visit Recapture Lodge, the social center of the town, and say, “Hi,” to proprietor Jim Hook. Jim says that not only can I quote him, but I can make things up. He’ll tell you about the time Tony visited and the river was so low Jim had to drive Tony down to the float trip’s terminus at Mexican Hat. The Recapture Lodge is where Tony and Barney stayed when they came to town. Jim pointed to a framed quotation, taken from A Thief of Time, that he keeps on his wall, “The Recapture Lodge has been Bluff’s center of hospitality for as long as Leaphorn could remember…”
The Comb Ridge Coffee House offers an organic breakfast burrito big enough to share, and the San Juan Kitchen provides decent roast beef and cheddar sandwiches and chocolate cayenne strawberry cake. Yummy!
Going Down River
Hillerman spent a lot of time in Bluff, hiring Wild River Expeditions to take him down the San Juan River to figure out how Leaphorn might search for the missing Dr. Bernal. Just like Hillerman, we hired Wild River Expeditions to take us down the river. We told our guide, Nathan, that we wanted to see where Leaphorn struggled all night paddling down the river in a kayak and where his search finally ended: Many Ruins Canyon.
We met Nathan at the Sand Island boat site early in the morning. It was a perfect rafting day, and Nathan gracefully guided us through the currents and described the geology and history of the canyon. We stopped periodically and tied up on shore to view petroglyphs carved into the bluffs by people who lived centuries ago.
Just before lunch. Nathan pointed to an opening on our left and said, “That’s Chinle Wash, er… Many Ruins Canyon.” The mouth of the wash is wide and framed by Russian olive trees and tamarisks. It leads off the San Juan and winds out of view, hiding centuries-old ruins and treasure troves of pottery. It’s here that Hillerman came and caused his characters, Bernal and Leaphorn, to come and fall on the sand, exhausted and alone.
We didn’t want to leave Bluff, and stayed about two days longer than we planned, but we finally pulled out of Cadillac Ranch and resumed our tracking of Hillerman. We drove to Shiprock, Arizona, and Farmington, New Mexico, both towns that are often mentioned in Hillerman’s novels: Shiprock because it has a Navajo Tribal Police Sub-Agency, and Farmington because it’s a larger town with services for rural people.
After a full day on the road, Desert Rose Resort, an RV park in Bloomfield, New Mexico, was a nice stop. We stayed for a few days, waiting out the rattling good thunderstorms that had turned the only accessible Chaco Canyon road, made of dirt and gravel, into 12 miles of slick, gooey caliche mud.
We phoned the Chaco Visitor Center several times from Bloomfield and when they finally gave the “all clear,” we took off for Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This was Bernal’s workplace and home that she left under cover of darkness on the night she disappeared.
As you head down County Road 7950 toward Chaco Canyon, look to your right. This is the sage-covered Betonnie Tsosie Wash area where, after an all night search around Chaco, Hillerman guided Chee to the crumpled bodies of the two murdered pothunters.
We dry camped at Gallo Campground ($10 a day) next to a wall covered in petroglyphs. At our campsite we set up lawn chairs and watched ravens as big as medium sized dogs and later gazed at the most glorious night sky we’re likely to see in this lifetime; the heavens were so thick with stars that it was hard to spot the constellations.
At the Chaco Visitor Center, you can watch films that tell about the Chacoans, ancestors of the Hopi and Pueblo Indians, who built Chaco’s Great Houses and marvel at their pottery in the museum. You can also book a tour of Pueblo Bonito, one of the largest and most excavated ruins at the site, and get the schedule for Chaco’s popular Night Sky Program.
This is where our journey ended. We covered some of the same ground as Lt. Leaphorn, but we couldn’t match the drama of his experience in Many Ruins Canyon.
In the Thief of Time, Leaphorn rises from the sand, still looking for Bernal. He walks through thousand-foot cliffs that frame the night sky. He hears coyotes wailing and a saw-whet owl crying high in the cliffs, “a cry as shrill as metal rubbing metal.” To his horror, he stumbles upon a circle of dying leopard frogs, tethered just feet away from life-saving water; Leaphorn feels a growing sense of urgency. He squats and searches for footprints, and finds two sets; one set belonging to Bernal and another set belonging to a stranger.
Leaphorn rises and begins to track a killer.
Melanie Martin is a travel planner and writer who lives in Palm Springs, California. Her website is melaniesmagicaltravelsandtales.com and she can be reached at email@example.com.
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