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October 8, 2013

Four Corners desert tells story of the Southwest

The mesas loom above us on either side as our raft drifts down the San Juan River. Sheer cliffs of crumbly sandstone and shale rise hundreds of feet into the air, eating into the blue sky, of which only a sliver is visible. On the rocky shore to our left, a bighorn ram looks up from its grazing to calmly take us in.

We're in the middle of the Navajo Nation and in the heart of the Four Corners area — the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. For years I'd driven through this arid, haunting part of the country, wanting to explore it but overwhelmed by its vastness and rugged beauty and not knowing where or how to begin.

Then I found out about a working archaeological research facility in Cortez, Colo. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is a nonprofit organization that funds its research in part by guiding people like me on trips led by archaeologists who have spent their careers in the area, digging into the past. What could be a better way to see the country, I figured?

This is the last day of our five-day trip, and I'm amazed at how much I've seen and learned. My archaeological guides, Mark Varien and Ricky Lightfoot, are true experts on the region, and though not all their expertise has successfully made its journey from them to me, enough has to reveal this country to me in a new light.

Four days earlier, I'd walked into a meeting room at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Farmington, N.M., filled with the fight-or-flight response I always get whenever I meet new people. There were nine others in the room: Mark and Ricky, two drivers and five other intrepid explorers. We civilians had all taken the recommended packing list way too seriously and looked as if we were about to explore the jungles of Borneo.

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