Road Trip Day 3: To Kayenta, Arizona and a museum in a Burger King

I've never been a history buff. But all day long, I look forward to Kayenta, Arizona and the Navajo Code Talker exhibit. It's not so much the fact that I want to learn some history. It's the fact that the exhibit is housed in a Burger King on a Navajo Indian reservation. We can't not see that.

Will we be able to find the Burger King in Kayenta, Arizona? I wonder. What if there is more than one - will we know which one has the exhibit? These questions remain to be answered.

As we pull out of St. George towards Kayenta, I-15 is surrounded at times by salmon-colored rock walls. After only a few miles, we leave the Interstate system for the day and turn onto Utah Highway 9. We gas up in the small town of Hurricane. Was there ever a hurricane in southern Utah? It doesn't seem likely. 

From there, we approach Kayenta by the most remote, circuitous means possible. The highway that goes by Colorado City, Arizona is winding and mountainous. It's no wonder those fundamentalist Mormon polygamists decided to build their town up here. We want to drive through the city, but there's no obvious turnoff for a main street, nor a sign with a depiction of a rising sun and a caption saying, "Colorado City: Come for a Visit, Stay for a Lifetime." Drat.

We finally make a left turn off Arizona Highway 389, but the street just seems to lead to rows of houses. The houses are enormous, and new construction is everywhere. We get back on 389 and exit to the right this time. On one side street (they're all side streets), we see an older woman dressed in a traditional gray dress, her hair in a neat gray bun, standing serenely in a garden. She looks like a statue.

ROAD TRIP TIP: Don't be shy. Pull off the main road. That's why you drove, rather than flying. Take a five-minute detour on some side streets. The images you capture there - whether by camera or just in your head - are what will make your road trip unforgettable. And before you know it, you'll be back on the road to Kayenta, Arizona.

Farther down into Arizona on 389, Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area is worth another stop. There are ample opportunities to take pictures of quintessential desert landscape. We leave the Mazda idling as I get out and snap a few. Then Michelle takes a few. Mary stays in her air-conditioned pod.

The road winds back up into Utah, and specifically, Kanab. A large white K appears on a red outcropping above the town. Kanab's main drag is a good pit stop, with gas and food and an eatery with free wi-fi. Standing at the gas station and looking up and down the street, I really feel like I'm on a road trip.

In less than two hours, we spot Lake Powell. I expected a crowded, washed-out tourist trap, for some reason. But Lake Powell is nothing like that. The water is a shocking blue, and the lake crams its irregular shape wherever it will fit in the rocky landscape.

The town of Page, Arizona offers some options for a late lunch. We settle on the Dam Bar and Grill, oblivious to the fact that the World Cup Final is in progress and everyone inside is watching on TV.

We're seated during the waning seconds of overtime. Nobody scores, so the game comes down to penalty kicks. People roar each time Italy scores. The sudden noise shocks Mary, and she cries furiously. Michelle takes her outside until France loses.

The whole restaurant is decorated with a dam theme, with "Men Working Above" signs, painted-on columns, and black-and-white photos of the building of the dam at Lake Powell.

Going in and out of Utah all day strips away any sense of time. You're constantly one hour up or one hour down. We struggle to remember what the deal is with Arizona and Daylight Savings Time. It seems they're on Pacific Time for half the year, and we think this is the half. But just to be safe, we decide to forget all about time.

The roads to Kayenta - Arizona Highway 98 and US Route 160 - move more quickly than the online maps had led us to believe. For most of the way, one side of the road is red rock and the other has more shades of gray and black. Much of the land is covered with scrub brush, with few of what we would call trees.

At the hotel in Kayenta, Arizona, a Navajo lady checks me in. She runs through a list of details, clearly but without inflection as if reading from a script. (No mention of the Navajo Code Talker exhibit, though.) "Local time is 4:45 p.m.," she adds.

I stare at my watch, quite sure I hadn't accidentally set it back two hours at Page. It says 3:45. Then I remember: Navajo Nation changes with the rest of the Mountain Time Zone. It's a time zone within a time zone within a time zone.

At dinner in the hotel restaurant, I look forward to the advertised Navajo delicacies, but most of the dishes seem to be mere Tex-Mex with a Navajo element thrown in. I order a Navajo Taco, which is a taco salad served in Navajo fry bread. The bread is delicious, with faint honey-like flavor. It's a bit oily, but pleasant enough that my food-ambivalent daughter takes a few nibbles.

All the servers in the restaurant are young Navajos wearing different shades of crushed velvet - dresses for the ladies, slacks and long sleeves for the men. They are prompt and courteous, asking no superfluous questions and never lingering too long at the table.

As it turns out, the Burger King next door to the hotel houses the Navajo Code Talkers exhibit. Actual World War II relics are kept behind glass. Several newspaper articles tell the story of how young Indians helped develop a code the Japanese couldn't break, and became the Navajo Code Talkers.

There's a guest book - actually three binders of comments - from years of travelers. One comment says, “Thank you for the history lesson on Navajo Code Talkers. We stop in Kayenta, Arizona every year on our way from Mexico to Colorado. My 10-year-old son reads the articles and has learned so much.” Another comment reads, "KICK JAP'S A--!"

I become obsessed with the Sonic Drive-In on the west end of Kayenta and stare at it from our hotel window. It is crisp and new against the weathered rock backdrop. A neighborhood of reservation houses with green and red roofs backs up to the Sonic. I can see some Indian kids jumping on a trampoline in a front yard.

As the daylight finally fades, I ponder this nation within a nation and time zone within a time zone. How do things end up where they are? A Navajo Code Talkers exhibit in the Kayenta, Arizona Burger King? Americanized Mexican food wrapped in Navajo fry bread? On our road trip, we will end up far from here. But after just two full days, I am already starting to realize that every vivid, unexpected stopover is in some way a final destination.

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