Big Sky Yiddishkeit


Believe me, Durango, in southwest Colorado, is one of the last places you’d expect to stumble upon Yiddishkeit.

You can wander the deserts and prairies of America’s sparsely populated West for hours, even days, and not stumble on much of anybody who might be a Member of the Tribe. But there are more Jews in the Southwest than you might expect.

The Jewish Federation of New Mexico found that out a couple of years ago, when a demographic study turned up about twice as many Jews as previously thought. Travelers to the so-called Four Corners — where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet — often find out the way I did, whizzing by a Star of David sign flanked by oversized candles on the highway out of Durango.

That highway regularly sees MOTs who schlep from all four states to Har Shalom, the rural region’s only temple. This is, after all, mostly Native American territory — home to sprawling Ute, Navajo and Hopi reservations, as well as parks and conservation land. But Har Shalom, which translates to “Mountain of Peace,” is a thriving beacon for Jewish community, from Shabbat minyan to movie night.

Jewish and otherwise most visit the Four Corners with intention, since it has no large cities and requires a detour off the Interstates. From the Grand Canyon, one classic detour involves heading north via Flagstaff and continuing on through Tuba City, the hub of Navajo Nation (which itself is larger than many European countries).

The Tuba City Trading Post, a 19th-century Navajo landmark, makes a nice stop for locally loomed rugs or handcrafted pottery on your way through the colorful rocks and spindly cacti of Arizona’s Painted Desert.

The road less traveled is probably 191 North through a wide, empty stretch of Arizona desert into Utah, where many enjoy the artsy, mountain vibe in Bluff. A tiny, frontier-era pioneer town, Bluff makes a great base for exploring the Monument Valley’s Martian-red landscape of towering rock formations. (You may recognize these plateau buttes from a less otherworldly source: They’ve starred in endless Westerns.)

Head east to the Four Corners and take a selfie at the monument itself; the classic is to pose with a limb in each state. Then drive into Colorado, where Mesa Verde National Park offers as striking a trove of native archaeology as you’ll find anywhere.

Thousands of ancient pueblo dwellings, carved into the ruddy bluffs of Rocky Mountain foothills, are evidence of both the duration and the weirdly light footprint of human civilization in this remote corner of America. Plan at least a day to explore Mesa Verde; camping and guided tours are popular ways to experience the park.

Southwestern Colorado is probably the most dramatic part of a Four Corners road trip. Without ever leaving the car, drivers will notice the scenery change as Arizona’s vast, flat expanses and arid, golden palette give way to greenery around Mesa Verde, then to the soaring aspens of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains — all in the space of an afternoon.

Durango, the region’s Jewish nexus, is the last town of any size before you hit the majestic San Juan National Forest. This is where the Rockies’ southernmost peaks rise from river gorges, where miner frontiersmen were lured more than 150 years ago by the prospect of gold and copper. Today, this accessible slice of the Rockies is popular with hikers, campers and Jewish wilderness adventurers (destination b’nai mitzvahs and weddings are surprisingly common here).

My first experience of the Rockies was a childhood ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, and I still recommend it. The historic locomotive runs seasonally along tracks built in the 1880s, offering a close-up look at staggeringly beautiful mountain and river scenery. Much of this territory is inaccessible by car; the train allows you to ogle and snap photos instead of worrying about your brakes.

You’ll need those brakes, however, for the San Juan Skyway, a designated scenic route where altitudes top 10,000 feet (don’t try this in winter). The Skyway starts in Durango and winds through Cortez, past snow-capped mountains in vivid shades of russet red and evergreen.

From there, you can head north into the Rockies, to the resort town of Telluride or the metropolis of Denver. You could also loop back down and plunge into New Mexico, where sandy adobe villages and huge skies offer a contrast to Colorado’s verdant peaks. If you drive past the Star of David on County Road 203, don’t forget to wave.