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Red Rock Nation
Published in Midwest Airlines magazine

OUR 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 cliffs.)

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 duck.

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 war."

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 families.

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 or call the Visitor's Center at (928) 674-5500.


Canyon de Chelley Inn - Best Western

Chinle, AZ
(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 $.

Dine College
Tsaile, AZ
30 miles up North Rim Drive
(928) 724-6782
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.

Holiday Inn
Chinle, AZ
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 $89.

Many Farms Inn
Many Farms, AZ
1/2 miles from the Junction of Route 59 and Highway 191
(928) 781-6362
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 program.

Thunderbird Lodge
1/2 mile south of Visitor's Center off South Rim Drive
(800) 679-2473; (928) 674-5841
Southwestern-styled rooms in recently remodeled, Puebloan-styled 1930s hotel average $100 per night (summer rates).

Cottonwood Campground
1/2 mile south of Visitor's Center off South Rim Drive
(928) 674-5500
This free campground, maintained by the National Park Service, offers 96 sites for tents and RVs year round. Restrooms but no shower.

Spider Rock Campground
(877) 910-CAMP
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).


Junction Restaurant
Canyon de Chelley Inn
Chinle, AZ
(928) 674-8443
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.

Thunderbird Cafeteria
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 sale.

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
(928) 674-5500
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
Chinle, AZ
Half or all-day excursions in 6WDs depart daily from the Thunderbird Lodge gift shop.

Guides to the Region

Avant Garde Travel
(831) 648-3539
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 native-owned businesses.

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."


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