It took two days to drive from Santa Fe to Las Vegas, and the thing I noticed most was how much Arizona differs from New Mexico. They were one territory in the late nineteenth century, and they are both largely desert punctuated by mountain ranges with pine, spruce, aspen, and cool air. But when you cross the border just west of Gallup, the mesquite and juniper disappear. Only chamisa and sage remain, resulting in a prairie-like vista. Signs of human habitation are rare. In New Mexico, Interstate 40 passes through half a dozen Indian reservations, each dotted with small villages, a scattering of isolated houses in the countryside, and – unfortunately – several casinos along the way.
The Navajo Nation starts in New Mexico, but most of it is in Arizona, and it is huge. The Navajos have no casinos and their major population areas are not along I40. At one point west of Winslow, we could see a hundred miles in every direction and there was not a single man-made structure in sight.
When you leave the high desert and climb to Flagstaff, you enter a distinctly western town with wide streets, cowboys, and lumberjacks. There are Hispanic residents of course, but the city lacks the Hispanic flavor so obvious in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Still, it has a charm all its own, and the historic downtown remains a thriving center.
As you continue west, the drop from Flagstaff is precipitous. Runaway truck ramps are frequent, and we understood why when we saw a truck with smoking brake using low gear to try and make it down the mountain in one piece. The drop continues until you reach the Colorado River, only three hundred feet above sea level. We chose to cross at Bullhead City. Having spent three hours crossing Hover dam last year, we didn’t want to risk it again while the construction of a new road there continues.
Across from Bullhead City on the Nevada side sits Laughlin, a miniature Las Vegas with gleaming high-rise casino/hotels, their air conditioning, glitter and gaming machines powered by the electricity generated by the river they face. Two hundred miles downstream, the river shrivels to a saline trickle, robbing Mexico of the drinking water and agriculture the river once provided them.