Shortcut to Sagebrush

Navajo Route 20 is one of those roads you can only find if you’re looking for it. The epitome of rural, is stretches almost 40 miles from Gap, a town you won’t find on Google Maps, to Lechee, near Page. Only a few miles of either end are paved. The rest is a rough, washboard road that winds through the western desert of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. The only real marker of its existence is a flashing sign warning drivers that the road is closed — an attempt to keep curious tourists out.

The road cuts through the heart of the arid ancestral lands of the Diné. The desert between Tuba City and Page is perhaps one of the last true wildernesses in the southwest. The only signs of human habitation are the horses that munch on patches of sagebrush and grama grass, the cows standing under a windmill to escape the scorching sun and the road itself.

In places, the road is deep, loose sand. Gaping pits wait to devour unsuspecting vehicles. In others, the road is smooth sandstone that has been worn down by winter rains and truck tires. In some places, the road almost disappears entirely; swallowed up by the hungry desert.

Even in my SUV, the road was treacherous. The washboard texture rattles the frame and sharp rocks leap out to slash at tires. Smaller cars than mine would not be able to make the trip. The only reason to be here at all is to avoid the 3-hour detour around a section of US-89 that collapsed last month. Long forgotten Navajo Route 20, which runs parallel to the 89, is now the fastest way to Page. And the adventurous or foolhardy are trickling in.

Near Lechee, at the northern terminus of N20, construction crews are trying to level the dirt road in preparation for paving. Power lines loom on the horizon as they converge on the Navajo Generating Station to the north. The modern world is forcing its way in. There is pressure to make this road safe for travelers. The 89 is going to be out of commission for at least nine months to shore up the ground beneath the highway and Scottsdale elite want access to their houseboats on Lake Powell.

The desert, like everything else in Indian Country, is being tamed. But the desert has its own way of existing that puts it at odds with developers and governments that want to control it. Wind may bury the road in sand; a flash flood may wash it away.

Maybe they’ll succeed in transforming Navajo Route 20 into a corridor for commerce and tourism. Or maybe it will fight back.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and driver of dangerous roads. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ and in the Series of Tubes, where you can follow him on Twitter: @jonnyeberle. Thanks for reading!

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