Eccentric Monuments And Monumental Eccentricities

By Joseph Skibell

Published in The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler Magazine, Winter1999

My family never took vacations. The many car trips I recall from childhood were simply a means to cart our family from one city to another, generally for a wedding or a bar mitzvah.

We never went anywhere just to enjoy ourselves.

My family never took vacations. The many car trips I recall from childhood were simply a means to cart our family from one city to another, generally for a wedding or a bar mitzvah.

My father drove each trip from our home in Lubbock, Tex., concentrating fiercely, like a man preparing to face a tax audit. He simply wanted it over with. And no matter how many requests for stops we four kids sent up from the back seat to him through our mother, he never pulled off for anything less critical than gas.

I'd watched the Stuckey's signs in their staggered parade - "18 miles...15 miles...12 miles to Stuckey's...5 miles...turn off now!"

But my father was inured to their tantalizing call and other children purchased the pecan log rolls I felt were somehow meant for me.

"That's a very sad story," my wife, Basha, says, driving.

We have come west to camp in the Four Corners area where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. Basha and our 8-year-old daughter, Arianna, have consented to my request that we feel free to stop at roadside attractions along our way.

"I can't tell you how often I simply roared passed Billy the Kid's grave," I tell Arianna. In my 20's, when I lived in Taos, N.M., each time I drove to Texas to visit my parents, I sped past the signs announcing the outlaw's Fort Sumner grave, just as my father might have done. "I regret it now."

My daughter nods indulgently from her seat in the middle of the van.

The Bolack Museum of Fish and Wildlife is down a small road, off the Bloomfield Highway in Farmington, N.M., a little city nestled inside blond sandstone cliffs. Although museum tours are offered throughout the day, a reservation is necessary, and we've made ours for 11 A.M.

White picket fences line the road on either side. The fields behind them are alive with pine trees and peacocks and workers tending the land. By the time we arrive, it's raining slightly, and the three of us run from the dirt parking lot toward a compound of buildings.

The friends who recommended we stop here have never visited the place. They'd heard that Tom Bolack had been an environmentalist and the museum commemorated his work.

On either side of the foyer are big black-and-white photographs of a young Tom standing among elephants and African villagers. Over the interior door is a plaque: "If you had seen what I have seen, you would know what a gift nature is" - Tom Bolack.

"Here's what's called 'the big five.' " Our guide, Dave Walraven, has already begun the tour. We hurry in to join the others - a man and two women - as Dave points to five animal heads displayed in the entryway: an elephant, a leopard, a rhino, a cape buffalo and a lion.

"These are your five most difficult kills." His low voice emanates from the tightly held polygon of his mouth. "And all great hunters, like Mr. Bolack was, that's what five animals they want to get."

He gestures toward the rhino. "This is a black rhino. Notice how narrow his nose is and how small his horn is, and his head is smaller than a white rhino's. White rhino's nose is wider, his horn is bigger around, and his whole head is a lot bigger."

"Brain bigger, too, the white rhino's?" one woman asks.

"I don't know anything about that," Dave says. "He's just bigger. He's great big."

I make sure that my tape recorder is running.

Also in the foyer are a baby camel, which, Dave explains, was stillborn, a baby elephant, whose mother was killed by a poacher.

"After the game warden took care of the poacher," Dave says, "they discovered this little fellow still inside the womb."

The baby elephant smiles playfully now, stationed in midrun on a flat rectangle of simulated dirt and grass.

The first room is filled with hundreds of animals, stationed on artificial hills and cliffs. The gathering looks like an animal cocktail party, with deer and gazelles and giraffes mingling in tight formations. Near each animal's hoof is a rock with a shaky identification hand-painted on it. Across the back wall is a panoramic photograph of a desert valley, with an eight-foot-tall image of an elderly Tom Bolack in one corner. Wheelchair-bound, on his final hunting trip, he scowls at the plains, a high-power rifle at his side.

According to Dave, of the roughly four to five thousand animals exhibited here, about 85 percent were killed by Tom Bolack himself.

"There's a beautiful kitty," Dave says, pointing out a bobcat in the Siberian installation.

The museum continues, room after room, each gleaming with highly polished blond wood. We see displays from the South Pacific, the Indian subcontinent, Russia, Europe and Eurasia. There are anteaters, wild pigs, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, chamois, ibexes, boars, leopards, cobra snakes, bears of all sorts, zebras, hares, baboons, birds, reptiles and, according to Dave, "45 different kinds of barbarous sheep."

A small stuffed squirrels peers out from a knothole in one of the artificial trees.

"He just killed and killed and killed and killed," one of the women says.

I ask her why she stopped here and whether she and her companions are enjoying themselves.

She and her husband are local, the women explains. Their friend is visiting.

"There's another museum in town," she says, "but it's just Navajo rugs and a lot of art. I mean: who cares?"

We stroll past ostrich-foot ashtrays and elephant-foot trash cans. Near an elephant-ear coffee table is a rug sewn from five baboon skins.

"It's not still legal to shoot monkeys?" Basha asks.

"Depends on where you are," Dave says, "and how much money you got."

Upstairs is another floor-to-ceiling photograph of Bolack, lying in the snow, squinting through his rifle's sight.

An oil man, Tom Bolack served in the early 1960's as New Mexico's first Republican Lieutenant Governor in some 30 years. He was Governor for a month in 1962.

The Governor was also something of a fisherman.

"Whenever a fish died in captivity," Dave says, leading us into the Aquatic Center, "Governor Bolack would receive a fax from the organization, asking if he'd purchase the corpse."

Some 700 plasticized fish, turtles and sea animals are included here, many dangling above our heads, suspended on wires.

Dave points out two large mammals from Sea World and one of the whales that beached itself in Washington State.

"He built the museum for school kids," Dave says. "That's why he's never charged."

We trudge up another staircase for a quick tour through the America's Corridor room. A mural spanning the walls depicts the North American landscape from Shiprock, N.M., to Alaska, with animals stationed accordingly.

Among them is a row of penguins - "He shot penguins?!" Arianna asks - and a 12-foot 5-inch polar bear, in full stance.

Dave opens a door in the portion of the wall representing Montana. We find ourselves in fresh air, on a balcony overlooking one of the ranch's man-made lakes.

Live farm animals mill about, and it's slightly strange to see them moving.

When asked, Dave says that Tommy Jr. runs the ranch now as an organic farm, experimenting with new crops.

And no, Dave says, he doesn't hunt.


An electronic sign at the McDonald's spells out: "Welcome to the Navajo Nation City of Kayenta." It's not much of a city, though, more a loose confederation of businesses and fast-food joints lining Highway 160 in northeastern Arizona.

There's a museum here, inside the Burger King, dedicated to the World War II Navajo code talkers - I'd seen it mentioned on a couple of billboards - and I ask Basha to pull off.

Although the day is baking, Arianna chooses to remain in the car. Inside, diners sit at tight tables, hunched over trays beneath the frizzing neon.

An exhibit case between two seating sections contains gas masks, ammunition, playing cards, uniforms, helmets, knives, a Japanese phrasebook and picture postcards sent home from the war. There are letters and proclamations from politicians, as well as a note of commendation from President Ronald Reagan.

Articles from magazines describe the code talkers as young men from the reservation, some of them school age, who were recruited by the Marines after Pearl Harbor. (The Japanese had already broken the codes of the Army and Navy.) Using their native tongue, the code talkers created "the only unbreakable code in the history of warfare."

The exhibit seems to highlight a talker named King Paul Mike. When I ask a server why the museum is in the Burger King, she stops refilling the tea dispenser and explains that King Mike's son, Richard Paul Mike, owns the place and established the exhibit in honor of his father.

"Isn't it weird?" I say to Basha. "Everywhere we've stopped involves a father and son."

"So?" she says, driving.

"So the only reason I'm stopping at these places is because my father never would. Don't you think it's a little weird?"

Neither she nor Arianna is convinced and yet, about five miles north of Kanab heading up to Zion National Park in Utah, we pull over at the Moqui Cave ("You're here! 140 Million Years of Natural History!"), where we find Lex Chamberlain, a soft-spoken man in a felt cowboy hat and denim shirt. He is the son of Garth Chamberlain, the original proprietor. Garth bought the cave in 1951 and operated it as an subterrestrial saloon and dance hall.

Lex runs it now as a tourist attraction, a monument to his late father's "40 years as a collector." Garth was a man of varied accomplishments. According to Lex he was the first graduate of Brigham Young University to join the National Football League, playing guard for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also acted in several Hollywood films made in the Kanab area.

The cave's white-washed foyer is filled with Garth's county-fair-prize-winning sculptures, and with dinosaur prints and bones he found. Inside what once was the tavern is a long bar Garth made, its surface inlaid with petrified rock. The stools are ponderosa pine stumps covered in red leather. Near an exhibit of Anasazi mauls are Garth's wood carvings of Ronald Reagan, Crazy Horse, Jesus and John Wayne.

Two Indian mannequins sit, like guards, at the teepee-covered entrance to the dance hall. The large cavern is lighted now by black light, and the collection of nearly 200 fluorescent rocks is glowing.

"You speak Hebrew, I take it," Lex says, as I exit the dance hall, apropos (apparently) of nothing.

"A bit,'' I say, uneasily.

"You're in my benai dodim." He puts a gentle hand on my shoulder. "We view the Jewish people as our cousins. I don't know if you know that."

"I didn't know it."

Neither do I remember telling him that I am Jewish.

Picking up one of the copies of the Book of Mormon that he displays, Lex explains that its chronicles begin 600 years before Jesus, when a group of Jews, setting sail from Jerusalem, land in Chile and Peru.

"I'm telling you this,'' Lex says, "so that when you leave the cave, you'll have a better understanding."

He shows us a picture of his wife ("my ishti") before bidding us "l'hitraot."

"Todah rabbah," I say.

"Shalom, shalom," he calls back, waving.

"It's the landscape," Basha says, later. "These gigantic buttes make men feel so insignificant they have to create monuments to their own eccentricities."

"All tended by their sons," I point out.

We're back in Farmington, N.M., heading toward the evening's hotel.

"We're spending the night in a cave," Basha tells her sister over the cell phone. "But I mean a really nice one."

Kokopelli's Cave, our bed and breakfast, is under 70 feet of rock, its entrance on the side of a sheer cliff overlooking the La Plata valley outside of town.

A consulting geologist, Bruce Black intended to make the cave his office, but realized that most of his clients wouldn't be able to find it or walk down the steep trail to its door.

Linde Poole, the cave's manager, tells us this, over a walkie-talkie, as our car follows hers. She gives us a detailed tour of the landscape, but because she periodically takes her finger off the talk button, we hear only a third of what she's saying.

"Isn't that interesting?' " she asks after a long buzzing silence.

Our van is without four-wheel drive, so we park on the mesa and transfer our luggage into Linde's Jeep. She drives the bumpiest sections, and then we wait in her Jeep for the rain to let up.

"Well, Mr. Sun," she chirps, "just come and stop the rain."

When the sun obeys, we carry our heavy bags down a sandstone trail, holding on to guardrails made of steel pipe.

We enter the cave through a sliding glass door. Inside rough rock walls is a well-furnished apartment, with beds, sofas, lamps, a VCR, a telephone and a CD player. The kitchen has a microwave and dishwasher, and a washer and dryer. The refrigerator is stocked. In the bathroom is a rock Jacuzzi with a waterfall shower. It all looks and inviting, if slightly incongruous.

Linde says Bruce and his son, also Bruce, worked through their residual father-son conflicts by blowing out and designing the cave together.

"Now I want to hear a 'wow' from Joseph before I leave," she says, ending her long tour.

I offer her an exhausted "wow."

"Guys just love caves," she says, pleased, although I admit to a creeping claustrophobia, the uneasy feeling that 70 feet of rock might come crashing down upon our heads. She assures me that Bruce Black selected the safest portion of the rock for his cave.

Arianna spends the evening watching videos. Basha and I read comments left by past residents. Several testify to a regeneration experienced from their time underground. One letter begins, "After Thad was shot, we thought we could never trust people again, but after our days and nights here..."

I sit outside, on the bedroom's railed patio, watching a lightning storm over Arizona, a New Age Indian flute CD playing softly behind me.

In bed, the rock ceiling, lighted by the blue clock-radio light, seems perilously near, but I'm surprised to find, upon awakening, that I feel a new and startling sense of inner peace.

On our way home, driving through Groom, Tex., we pass a sign with a rainbow on it: "A Spiritual Experience!" it says. "The Largest Cross in the Western Hemisphere!"

I suggest stopping. Arianna groans.

Although the cross is visible from the highway for at least eight miles, we turn off too early and have to drive the back roads past corn fields and corrugated metal houses to get to it.

We are greeted at the parking lot by a woman named Bobby Thomas.

"Hello,'' she says. "Welcome to the Cross."

When I ask her who built the cross, she will say only that it is the work of "a man from this area," part of his personal testimony. "This highway is one of the country's most traveled and he wanted to build it as a billboard for Jesus."

There's a tape in the gift shop, she says, narrated by the builder, in which his identity is revealed.

Basha and I get out. Arianna barely looks up. She remains in the hot car, like her grandfather might have, impatiently waiting through another useless detour.

I have no idea what cross in the Eastern hemisphere is larger, but this one is enormous. Constructed out of 16-inch tubular steel beams and covered with heavy metal sheets, it rises 190 feet into the air.

An army of smaller crosses surrounds it, each with a 15,000-watt halide light positioned on its top to light the cross by night. By day, it reflects the changing colors of the sky.

"Bright golden when the sun goes down," Bobby says. "Sometimes purple, sometimes gray. It's like a huge sun dial, no pun intended."

Around the base is an as-yet-uncompleted bronze representation of the Stations of the Cross. Jesus and the two thieves hang at the top of a staircase to the east. To the west are stone benches facing a monument with the inscription: "Dedicated to the sanctity of life in loving memory of the innocent victims of abortion."

A man, pushing a dolly, enters a small door on the cross's side. I approach him and he invites me in. One of three men who help out with ground maintenance, he says they use the inside of the cross currently for storage. Standing inside it, he shows me the beams and describes its construction.

Heading over to the gift shop for a copy of the tape, I notice a flyer on a bulletin board advertising the "Event Schedule for 1999 of Jesus the Hot Air Balloon," a hot air balloon in the shape of Jesus.

"Now that,'' I tell Arianna, rejoining her at the car, "would really be something to see."