in Midwest Airlines magazine
TIRES KICK up red dust from the dirt road as Arizona's
manicured world of golf courses and strip malls recedes in
the mirror and my memory. A flock of sheep, bells tinkling,
tiptoes into the road as a Navajo grandmother herds them across.
As I look left, the bottom of the landscape drops 1,000 feet
into a rust-orange chasm dotted with gold and green trees.
"You're entering another nation," my tour guide
turns to me and says, "Welcome to the rez."
We are entering the heart of the Navajo Nation, Canyon de
Chelly (pronounced "duh shay"). Though four hours
from Flagstaff, culturally, the 26-mile-long canyon is years
away, says Philip Mirkin, owner of Avant Garde Travel, as
we wind along the road hugging its rim. The canyon is a place
where ancient and modern worlds converge; where, time being
circular, no one need hurry. A place constantly changing yet
fiercely maintaining tradition.
De Chelly's first inhabitants, known as the Anasazi (Navajo
for "enemy people"; ancestral Puebloan people is
the preferred term), first inhabited the area as long as 4,500
years ago. Eventually they established villages and cultivated
corn, beans and squash in the canyon.
Now it's the Navajo who farm these crops, "the three
sisters," in Canyon de Chelly. Though designated a national
monument in 1931, the canyon is still home to 500 Navajo (aka
the Dineh, meaning "The People") who farm the canyon
floor, herd sheep and weave rugs, carrying on the old ways
of the elders.
To explore the canyon, we rent horses from Justin's Horse
Rental and ride a sandy trail into its northern branch, Canyon
del Muerto. I mount Dynamite, a middle-aged, caramel Mustang
with a rust-colored Navajo rug under her saddle as Mirkin
sweetens up to Peaches, a grey Mustang.
Gabriel, our 43-year-old guide, is a real Navajo cowboy, from
his Wrangler jeans and Stetson hat to the grace with which
he rides. His bronze skin even matches the canyon walls. Gabriel
lives on the rim over by Spider Rock, an 800-foot stone pillar
where it's said Grandma Spider taught the Dineh how to weave.
(It's opposite Face Rock, who reports the names of naughty
children to Spider Woman. Parents can invoke her powers to
control unruly children who want to play too close to the
Everywhere we turn, Gabriel points his tamarisk switch at
some small feature of the canyon I might otherwise miss --
a set of holes that once held posts for a shed, remnants of
toe holds cut into the cliffs, or a rock shaped like a sleeping
Pulling back on his reins, Gabriel points out a cave on a
high ledge that gives me vertigo. "The Navajo used to
hide there and defend themselves with arrows against the Spaniards,
back in the 1700s," he says.
Some of these battles are depicted on the canyon walls in
charcoal and paint. At Massacre Cave, you can still see marks
where bullets ricocheted off the walls after the Spanish military
killed as many as 115 Navajo. The Spanish were often merciless:
one general sent back a package containing 84 pairs of ears,
with a note apologizing for 6 missing pair.
We park our horses in front of "First Ruin," a sandstone-brick
building wedged into the cliff built nearly 1,000 years ago.
Though coming home meant climbing a cliff, by building on
high, the Anasazi protected their homes from floods.
Gabriel tells us that Kit Carson and his cavalrymen destroyed
some of these ruins in 1863, when the American colonel was
sent on a brutal campaign against the Navajo, whose raiders
were considered a threat to the government. Most Navajo were
killed or fled; Carson's soldiers destroyed their houses,
fields and orchards. The nearly 9,000 remaining were forced
to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner, a barren reservation in
what is now New Mexico.
Four years later, the U.S. government admitted the Long Walk
was a disaster. Its survivors returned to Canyon de Chelly
to try to reconstruct their lives, land and culture. "Most
Navajo didn't return from the Long Walk," says Gabriel.
"This is like a haunted canyon. Too much pain, too much
Gabriel hands me a wedge of pottery whose geometric pattern
reminds me of mesas. "Made by Hopi," Gabriel says.
The Hopis lived here too, planting the first peach trees in
the 1600s, which were later cut down by Carson's men. When
the Navajo returned from the Long Walk, they reconstructed
the peach orchards, adding apple and apricot trees.
We steer our horses behind a grove of feathery orange tamarisks,
lacy-leaved Russian olives and native cottonwoods, whose tear-shaped
leaves are dressed in bright yellow for fall. Gabriel takes
us to a panel of more than 1,000 petroglyphs, of snakes, wheels,
turkeys and horses -- an ancient newspaper, he jokes. "You
can see bears, hands, moon. And there's Kokopelli playing
the flute," Gabriel says, pointing to the figure that
has come to signify the Southwest. (The tourist version usually
omits Kokopelli's other flute, symbolizing fertility.)
As we return to the main path and head back, two turquoise
and white 4WDs zoom by, their passengers waving. I smile and
wave back, a bit smugly. They aren't just missing hidden gems
like this petroglyph panel, but the chance to sample the leisurely
pace of life on the rez. And the quiet. Not a sound save the
rustle of cottonwood leaves and the lone note of a crow.
Suddenly, following Peaches' lead, Dynamite takes off at a
fast gallop, sending my bones and organs into seemingly opposite
directions. "Slow down, Dyno!" I yell. I guess Dynamite
only speaks Navajo, though, because he makes a beeline for
the ranch and doesn't stop until he gets there.
STRETCHING OUR LEGS back to life, we walk
the trail to White House ruins. Though the trail, a 550-foot
drop from rim to floor, can be blistering in summer, it's
a cool October day. An elderly Navajo woman in a flowered
headscarf passes us, making her way with a pine walking stick.
The path dips down stairs and through tunnels cut from mauve
sandstone, the unofficial color of the Southwest. Water, ice,
and wind all labored together to cut the canyon, whose walls
are ancient sand dunes, frozen in time. My eye flickers from
pink rock splashed green and orange with lichen to rippled
red sandstone swirling underfoot like waves. I crane my neck
up to the canyon's high walls, striped with "desert varnish,"
black streaks left by mineral-laden rain water; bushy green
snakeweed and bright yellow rabbitbrush draw my eye back down.
A family's hogan, a eight-sided pine log home mortared with
mud, pulls our attention to the canyon floor. Beside it, bright
green lines of corn stretching toward the cloudless blue sky.
We pass the hogan and walk along a green and gold stream of
cottonwoods to reach White House ruins. Like an ancient apartment
building, the cliff house was thought to have housed a dozen
We can only get but so close to the White House ruins, but
that's not such a bad thing, according to my guide, Mirkin.
"A friend of mine has worked here 30 years and never
gone in a ruin," he says. "Many traditional Navajo
believe that you can die from walking around in these ruins,
that death is contagious."
Instead we admire from afar the Anasazi's crumbling handiwork,
made from sandstone bricks the size and shape of bread loaves.
On the back wall we can still see the mustard and white plaster
that gave the ruin its name. (Everything from blood and urine
to boiled plants and ground-up minerals went into the Anasazi's
housepaint.) Unfortunately, we can also see some petroglyphs
that Carson's crowd used for target practice.
I try to imagine the ancient Pueblo people here, plodding
the canyon's soft sandy floor in turkey-feather robes and
Yucca sandals, gathering cactus fruit and pinon nuts, and
hunting wild game. By 1300 the Anasazi had vanished. Theories
about their disappearance abound -- drought, attacks, disease,
climate change -- but no one knows for sure why, how or where
they disappeared, any more than we really understand the petroglyphs
and other artifacts the ancient peoples left behind.
We head back up the trail. Rain starts to fall, gently at
first, which the Dineh call female rain, then harder, driving,
male. It collects in small indented pools and washes off the
walls in cascading falls, watering the dwarfed pinon and juniper
sprouting from the cliffs.
The rain reveals the life of the canyon, reminding me it's
always changing: one minute the bed is a dry road for the
Dineh to cross with their sheep, the next, a flash flood barrels
down the stream bed. One month the people are harvesting corn,
another they are vacating the canyon for their winter homes
on the rim. One century fosters peace and agriculture, another
is marred by genocide.
Light peeks from beneath the clouds, lending a silver sheen
to the rain-slicked walls. The air smells sweet and new, like
earth and sage. An old Navajo prayer comes to mind. "In
beauty I walk. May it be beautiful before me. May it be beautiful
behind me. May it be beautiful above me. May it be beautiful
all around me. It has become beauty again.
Being a bit off the beaten
track, the Canyon de Chelley region is somewhat limited in
tourist facilities, but its remoteness is part of its draw.
Here's the scoop on where to eat, sleep, ride and more. For
more information, go to www.nps.gov/cach
or call the Visitor's Center at (928) 674-5500.
Canyon de Chelley Inn - Best Western
(800) 327-0354 or (928) 674-5875
Three miles from the visitor's center near the junction of
Highway 191 and Route 7. Indoor heated pool, restaurant, gift
shop and rooms starting at $.
30 miles up North Rim Drive
For just $25 a night, a traveler can have a spare room with
private bath in this community college's dormitory brick hogans.
Standard cafeteria fare ($5 a meal) available.
1/4 miles west of the Visitor's Center on Route 7
(928) 674-5000 or (800) HOLIDAY
Outdoor pool, restaurant and standard motel rooms averaging
Many Farms Inn
Many Farms, AZ
1/2 miles from the Junction of Route 59 and Highway 191
Single rooms in this converted dorm, featuring TV lounge,
game room, and weight room, are $30 a night. Many Farms is
staffed by Navajo students participating in the inn's School-to-Work
1/2 mile south of Visitor's Center off South Rim
(800) 679-2473; (928) 674-5841
Southwestern-styled rooms in recently remodeled, Puebloan-styled
1930s hotel average $100 per night (summer rates).
1/2 mile south of Visitor's
Center off South Rim Drive
This free campground, maintained by the National Park Service,
offers 96 sites for tents and RVs year round. Restrooms but
Spider Rock Campground
Tents sites cost $10 a night at this private Navajo-owned
campground; $2 for a solar-water shower. A small hogan available
for $25 per night; a large hogan sleeps 12 (price depends
on number of guests).
Canyon de Chelley Inn
This bustling restaurant has great atmosphere and food (including
Navajo dishes like mutton stew) at a great price. Navajo rugs
representing different clans grace the walls; some nights
traditional musicians serenade diners.
Located in a 1896-built trading post, this restaurant
offers standard cafeteria fare, as well as the almighty Navajo
taco (frybread loaded with meat, beans, cheese and fixins).
All the finely woven Navajo rugs trimming the walls are for
Into the Canyon
Visitors are free to drive to the stunning overlooks along
the 26-mile canyon or take the 2.5-mile-round trip hiking
trail to White House ruins, on their own. Otherwise you must
hire an official guide to escort you into the canyon by horse,
truck or foot.
Tsegi Guide Association
If you have 4WD, you can hire a guide at the Visitor's Center
to take you on a tour in your own vehicle. Three-hour minimum;
$15 per hour for one vehicle.
Tours of Canyon de Chelley
(928) 674-5841 or (800) 679-2473
Half or all-day excursions in 6WDs depart daily from the Thunderbird
Lodge gift shop.
Guides to the Region
Avant Garde Travel
Private customized trips throughout the Four Corners region
focus on the cultural and spiritual traditions of native peoples
as well as canyon hiking. Trips start at $100 per person per
day (maximum four adventurers).
Rules of the Rez
• Possession of alcohol
is forbidden on the Navajo reservation.
• Don't take photos or
make sketches without asking permission first.
• Keep your voice and
handshake soft and do not stare or peek into windows. Direct
eye contact is often considered impolite.
• As casinos are banned
from the Navajo reservation, tourism is one of the tribe's
main enterprises. Be sure to support local artisans and other
• The Navajo people will
appreciate your respect for their language and culture. Be
sure to say, "Yeh eh teh," Dineh for "Hello,"
and "A hyeh heh," which means "Thank you."