Tsé Bit'a'í, or, Shiprock, New Mexico

Shiprock Tsé Bitʼaʼí NM 1_feistyharriet_March 2016

I have made the drive from Salt Lake City to Phoenix and back more times than I can count. There are only a few ways you can go: the shortest distance, the shortest time, and the one with the least chance of bad weather in high mountain passes. On my drive back to Arizona a few weeks ago I decided I wanted to take a little different route because I really wanted to see the hardened and weathered insides of a volcano so ancient that it’s insides are now on the outside, the only remnants left of what was once an angry, molten-lava mountain.

Shiprock Tsé Bitʼaʼí NM 2_feistyharriet_March 2016

Called Tsé Bit’a’í by the Navajo, meaning “Rock with Wings” this formation is the giant bird that brought the Navajo safely to northwestern New Mexico. When white frontiersmen arrived they thought it looked like a clipper ship and renamed it (and everything else). Located on tribal lands and still held sacred by the Navajo you can walk around it, but you cannot climb it.

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Scientifically, this is the core of an ancient volcano with enormous fins of volcanic rock, up to 150 feet tall, radiating out in three directions. There are very few signs to lead you to the bumpy dirt road that will take you closer to the formation. Shiprock is quite literally in the middle of nowhere, the closest other landmark is Four Corners National Monument, which if you’ve ever visited is miles and miles from anything else. I did stop at Four Corners on my drive, it was a not-really-quick detour on my way to see this giant rock. Frankly, Tsé Bit’a’í is much more interesting without any tourist trap things to hijack your experience. Literally: no signs, no historical marker with the Navajo legend, nothing. There was one spray-painted sign half-propped up along main highway, but that was it.

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That big wall on the left is the most prominent fin stretching for several miles. I didn’t climb the wall itself (hello, respect), but I did walk up a little trail to the base to see what I could see. The drop off on the other side was considerably steeper than the slope on my side, I’m not afraid of heights, but it did make me gulp a bit. The scale of the wall is massive, I can only imagine what it would be like to stand at the base of Shiprock and try and see the top.

A note: I just found out there is a similar formation in north-eastern Arizona, the remains of an ancient volcano, complete with radiating walls of volcanic rock, about 1500 feet high. On my next trek through this part of the country I’ll probably have to stop and check it out too. I certainly have a thing for the leftovers of ancient volcanoes. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is another example of an eroded volcanic plug, totally loved that as well.

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I am still completely haunted and mesmerized by this formation, I don’t entirely know why. As a white girl from Utah I have ZERO claim on it, not culturally, or geographically, or anything else. But I love it, all the same. I suppose, in some ways this rocky monolith reminds me of the rocky mountains that hold my secrets, the scariest and sweetest secrets that you whisper to the wind knowing she will take your words up to the highest peaks, and carefully hide them among the shadows and the deep places, safe from prying eyes and people digging around for answers. I honestly think part of my heart is formed from the peaks and caves and cirque’s of the highest, rocky mountains, part of me always feels safer with them soaring above me.

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Harriet the Bookaholic: August 2015

I tackled a couple of enormous books this month, and their heft kind of slowed me down. Middlemarch is 900+ pages, and one about Joan of Arc is 600 pages of tiny text, if printed like a regular novel instead of a tiny-text-encyclopedia book it probably would have exceeded 1,000 pages. I’m glad I liked Middlemarch as much as I did, because some of my other selections weren’t that great. (Sad panda.)


The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano That Darkened The World and Changed History, by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman (2 stars). Meh. This book is not really about volcanoes, it is about the climate change caused by a massive explosion in Indonesia in 1815 and the subsequent world-wide cooling in 1816. There are reasons the only books written about weather minutiae for a single year are almanacs…it’s just not that engaging. Only the first two chapters actually talk about the volcano, everything else is day-by-day temperatures, rainfall, and drought/famine, but very poorly written. There are a few tidbits about paintings or literature or social movements that were inspired by the unusual weather (Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was, for me, the most interesting), but not enough to redeem the book.

Additional Recommended Reading: Krakatoa: The Day The World Exploded, by Simon Winchester (a far better book about volcanoes); One Summer: America, 1927, by Bill Bryson (a better-written book about a single year of history).

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words, by Jeanne d’Arc (4 stars) Without the English mis-trial (and it’s volumes of documents) this book could not exist, the bulk of her words and statements were taken from her trial records, either being stated by her, or from the deposition of witnesses at her trial testifying to her character. This is a quick read, a few hours max, but it was so delightfully simple and clean. Joan was not an overly complicated person, she was devout and determined and patriotic. I’m not saying her character is one-sided, I’m saying that it is easy to grasp the fullness of her mission and her chutzpah in a hundred and fifty pages of her words. Recommended. (Also, if you aren’t overly familiar with Joan of Arc, there is a really great synopsis of her life and campaigns at the end which can help fill in some of the gaps.)

An Army of Angels: A Novel of Joan of Arc, by Pamela Marcantel (2 stars). Holy Tediousness!! This book should have been hundreds of pages shorter and would have been far superior for the edits; get this lady an editor, stat! Additionally, hundreds of pages of hero-worship for Joan of Arc (who I admire in many, many ways) gets pretty old when she is constantly waging war and calling for massive violence in the name of God. Catholic French fighting Catholic English because both claim their divine king should be the supreme ruler of the French provinces is not all that inspiring, and the trial of heresy and blasphemy because the English cardinal didn’t believe Joan was even worse. Does Joan herself do some freaking amazing things in the face of the historical times in which she lived, her being a woman in a man’s world (both medieval world and world of war), and her actions and accomplishments for anyone so young and uneducated? Yes. She does. Add to that her claims of divine leadership, visions, and voices and you have a legend. It’s not every day a 19-year old village girl leads a decrepit army to victory against the largest occupying force on the continent and actually crowns her king during the coronation ceremony. Pretty awesome stuff, really. But the chapter after chapter of justification (by the author, it seemed) for Holy War was soul-sucking. With ISIS and the Westboro Baptists and all the other violence in the name of religion going on right now it is disheartening to realize that this kind of battle has been fought for thousands of years, and will probably continue for another thousand years. But does fighting really please god? Any god? Is murder and violence and cold-blooded killing truly pleasing to a father of humanity? I think no, and that was the point that–for me–was really driven home throughout this book. Not that Joan, or the English, or author Marcantel ever come to that conclusion. (They don’t. It’s all glorious, blessed holy war for them; pages of violence and torture and battles as evidence of honor and faith in God…you know, with a few token Hail Mary’s, or forgive the sinners, or repent and be saved, ye godless, heathen English soldiers/French witch. Blech!)

Additional Recommended Reading: Joan of Arc, by Mark Twain (one of my favorites); Henry VI, Part 1, by William Shakespeare (reading Henry V to set up why the English are in France in the first place wouldn’t hurt either).

Classic Literature

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (4 stars). I love, love, love Garcia Marquez’s writing! I want him to write the narrative of his life. So, the book itself is primarily about love/lust deferred, and what happens when you suddenly have the opportunity to pursue a relationship you’ve been dreaming about for decades. This book has been described as a novel-length response to the question “What is love?” I think there is a lot of truth to that, actually. Florentino and Fermina both have to re-evaluate themselves, their individual history, their relationship history, and the rest of their lives before they can truly be together. This is a love story, but it’s not all butterflies and roses. It’s a lot like, you know, real life. Cholera and death and arguments and floating away on a quarantined boat to spend the remainder of your lives together.

Additional Recommended Reading: 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Middlemarch, by George Eliot (5 stars). I have tried and tried to like Jane Austen, but I just cannot get into her writing and assumed I just disliked all Regency romance books. That being said, I absolutely loved Portrait of a Lady and so decided to try George Eliot. People, I’ve found my new spirit animal. Eliot’s characters are delightfully sarcastic and her narration above and around them gives them self-awareness and depth that I have personally not found in Austen’s writing. I don’t know if I can say enough good things about Middlemarch, Eliot is brilliant, her story line is complex and detailed and the characters are involved in everyone’s lives and family (like in any proper English manor town), it was like watching three seasons of Downton Abbey without having quite so much dRAmAz! with the servants and Lady Mary (oh, Lady Mary). Recommended.

Additional Recommended Reading: Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

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