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Will State Come to Shiprock's Rescue?

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
      SHIPROCK — Tourists spot the volcanic plug known to Navajos as Tse' bit'a'i and to the rest of the world as Shiprock miles before they get close to the actual tower of rock.
    It is a magical and mesmerizing experience to watch the rock as you approach it. From afar, it floats on the desert floor like the clipper ship it is named for. And it grows larger and its crags and crannies sharper as the miles creep by.

Associated Press

Horses run free at the base of Shiprock, the arresting rock pinnacle in the Four Corners that state officials are considering turning into a state park to protect it and to give tourists better access.

    Just south of the town of Shiprock on the far eastern edge of the Navajo reservation, the paved highway edges up near the rock and visitors start to pull over on the side of the road to aim their cameras at the iconic rock.
    There are no signs announcing the site or giving a clue which of the maze of dirt roads might lead closer to it. So most of those visitors get right back in their cars and drive on.
    That is Shiprock. So close, but so forbidding.
    While it seems to an outsider that the rock is unapproachable, a number of dirt roads lead past hogans and trailers and sheep and dogs right up to the rock. If you know the route and you make the bumpy, dusty trip, you can get out of your car and look straight up at the craggy peak that rises nearly 2,000 feet above you. And you can run your hands across the rock, the result of an explosive eruption 30 million years ago.
    Or, if you choose, you can dump your garbage there. Or shoot at the rock or paint graffiti on it. Or find a handhold and begin to illegally climb it. Or drive your ATV up and over the low sheets of lava rock that fan out from the pinnacle.
    Ray Begaye is a native of Shiprock and a Democrat who represents the Four Corners in the New Mexico Legislature.
    "There's really no protection of any type. There is no control," Begaye says to explain one of his reasons for bringing up the prospect of turning the Shiprock into a state or tribal park.
    Another of his reasons is to help the people who love Shiprock and who come from oceans away to visit it to get closer to the pinnacle and to understand it better.
    "People are kind of hesitant to drive to see the rock up close," Begaye says. "They're afraid to get close to the rock or don't know how to."
    Begaye is looking at the rock as we're talking. Like other Navajos from Shiprock or surrounding chapters, Begaye grew up with the rock and accounts of its place in the stories of Navajos' survival.
    Beset by enemies in enemy territory, the story goes, Navajos retreated to the top of the rock. As they performed ceremonies asking for help, the rock turned into a giant bird and carried them away to the safety of their homeland.
    That is why its Navajo name is Tse'bit'a'i or "Rock With Wings."
    Last year, legislators asked the New Mexico State Parks Division to look at the possibility of Shiprock becoming a state park. The agency's 40-page study concludes that Shiprock is a dramatic and beautiful rock formation that tells an important geological story — and that it needs some protection.
    "Shiprock is a nationally significant site that deserves our respect and attention and, yes, something should be done to improve its protection and improve a public understand and access for learning," State Parks Director David Simon says.
    How can that happen? The parks division offers a few possible alternatives: Shiprock could become a full-fledged New Mexico state park. It could become a Navajo tribal park developed with the help of the state or a Navajo tribal park developed and managed with the help of the state. Or the state and tribe could decide not to pursue park status but design highway pull-offs with interpretive signs.
    "No matter what happens," Simon says. "The public would really benefit from better and easier ways to access and view the pinnacle."
    Any decision would involve approval by the elected leaders of the state and the tribe. As they consider Shiprock's future, they might think about the kid with the spray paint can who wants to tag the rock and the travelers whose enchantment grows as the highway takes them closer to the craggy spire.
    The only mistake would be to continue to allow the people who would hurt Shiprock to get close while leaving those who love the rock to admire it from afar.
    You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or llinthicum@abqjournal.com. Read all of her columns at www.abqjournal.com/upfront.