When I traveled to San Juan County back in September I came away feeling that the job was not finished, I would have to go back. I had been plagued by rain to the point of flash flooding and did not get to visit or photograph many of the locations I had in mind. Yet, over time, I have realized that neither time nor budget will allow for a return trip and within the spirit and scope of the project I had been successful, I had come away with many good images. Perhaps not as many as were possible but that could be said of any of the counties I have visited. So, in the interest of moving forward, here is my belated report on San Juan County.
The northwest corner of San Juan County is one of the famous Four Corners of the American Southwest; the only point in the United States where four states meet. At 5516 square miles San Juan County is the sixth largest in New Mexico and falls only 27 square miles short of equaling the state of Connecticut in size. Yet, only 6% of that land area is privately owned. The Navajo nation takes up a large chunk of real estate with the remainder divided between the federal and state governments.
With a 2010 population of 130,044 San Juan is also the 4th most populous county in New Mexico. Over 1/3 of that population is Native American. The largest city is Farmington with a population of 45,877. Farmington serves as a retail center for the entire Four Corners region and is also a service center for the oil and gas industry which provides a strong economic base for the area. Though oil and gas were first discovered in the Aztec area in the 1920s, it was not until the construction of the San Juan Basin Natural Gas Pipeline in the 1950s that the industry really began to boom. Although production has begun to taper off, new extraction techniques such as fracking could bring renewed life to the industry.
The depth of culture and history in this area is marked by a number of sites preserving the ruins of the Ancient Puebloan culture. Due to time limitations I did not stop at Chaco Canyon National Monument on this trip but I think it is only right to include some photos from previous visits to this awesome site. Here is a picture of a window in one of the pueblos and a black and white rendition of one of the many kivas in the area.
My first stop on this trip was at Angel Peak. I cannot count the number of times I have driven by the sign pointing to this geologic feature and its associated recreation site but they have been many. I am glad I finally stopped because the view was well worth it and the colors were enhanced by the recent rainfall and yes I enhanced them even more in Photoshop to celebrate the varied color layers of the landscape. You would never guess from driving by on the highway that this scenery exists just over the hill. Unfortunately, the experience is dampened somewhat by the constant hum of engines driving the pumps busily extracting natural gas from the ground nearby.
My next stop was in Aztec, the county seat, which takes its name from the misnamed Aztec Ruins which were once thought to be connected to the Aztec culture of Mexico which is unrelated to the Ancient Puebloan culture which built the ruins. There I found an intriguing history museum with many buildings full of artifacts and displays from earlier times. Here are just a few of the images that came from that visit.
I am still sad that rain kept me from doing a walking tour of this small town which boasts many 19th and early 20th century buildings.
The next day I set out to explore the Navajo Nation in New Mexico. I started withShiprock, a volcanic formation known as a monadnock which rises over 1500 feet abovethe surrounding desert and dominates the landscape for miles around.
I took a side trip to the Navajo village of Toadlena where an old trading post features the rugs for which the Navajos are famous, along with a museum which at the time of my visit was exhibiting examples of early Hispanic dress and a variety of weaving styles. Alas, my budget allowed only the purchase of a t-shirt featuring a Navajo weaving pattern but not the real thing
Though I drove all around the main roads I concluded that the stark beauty of the landscape needed something to set it off; a sunset or sunrise or perhaps a thunderstorm. And while I made it as far as the parking lot of the Bisti wilderness, the mud from the previous day’s rains kept me from venturing down the path to visit the hoodoo formations for which it is known.
On my way back to Farmington I passed by the coal mines that feed the two large power plants located along the San Juan River between Farmington and Shiprock. Tony Hillerman fans may recall that Officer Jim Chee parked his trailer home along the San Juan just outside of Shiprock. The river itself is fed by the Animas and La Plata Rivers which join the San Juan near Farmington then flow on into Utah to empty into the Colorado. This relative abundance of water (for New Mexico) supports the numerous small farms from which Farmington takes its name. Another regret of mine from this trip was that I did not have enough time or good weather to explore the river walk along the Animas River in Farmington which provides an idyllic retreat for the urban area with nearly five miles of walking trails graced by riparian woodlands.
I ended my journey back in Aztec at the Aztec Ruins National Monument. Though much smaller in scale than the ruins at Chaco Canyon, it is also much more accessible, the pueblos are in relatively good shape and visitors can experience a restored kiva at the end of the walking tour.