Rocks of ages
Originally published September 1994
It isn't until you get well into the bowels of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly that the size of the thing becomes apparent. On a hike from the rim to the floor of this stone labyrinth – a drop of more than 600 feet – the rock seems bigger, steeper and redder. The sun seems hotter, the cacti and other canyon plants hardier and the silence louder.
I stop to savour the panorama. The only sound I can hear is my breathing. It's no wonder so many people who come here to "find" themselves later call the experience cathartic. As it turns out, I found much more.
Before the birth of Christ, hunter-gatherers were calling this place home, lured by a permanent source of water. Anasazi Indians lived in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de shay) for more than 400 years, from 800 to 1200 A.D., carving out an existence among the up to 1,000 feet high sandstone cliffs and farming the fertile soil of its lap.
Traces of that civilization remain – mostly stone ruins and rock art sites. The canyon is still home for a few Najavo Indians; nomadic wanderers, coming and going between the top and bottom of the mystical, magical place which, loosely translated means "where the water comes out of the rock."
I met one that day, heading up the canyon, smiling and walking like the wind itself. "This is a good place to rest," he said, perching beside me in the shade of a stand of royal olive trees alongside the canyon creek.
A raven circled overhead. I found myself asking a dozen questions about the canyon and White House Ruin, perched in a cave above our heads. Carefree and content, he mostly just smiled and nodded and was soon on his way. I knew not where he was going but wanted to follow.
My own wanderings into the depths of this sacred place came during a week-long foray to the canyons, monuments and Indian country of northern Arizona. My route took me from the red rocks of Sedona, north to Flagstaff, northwest to the Grand Canyon, east to Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly, south to the Painted Desert and back to Flagstaff.
On the drive north from Phoenix, out of the mostly monochromatic blast furnace that is Sun Valley and the Sonoran Desert, the red rock country comes as a sort of Wizard of Oz Technicolor shock. The people who call it home seem to be practicing their versions of lifestyle jolt – new-agers, off-the-fast-trackers, back-to-the-earthers.
The Chapel of the Holy Cross and Shrine of the Red Rocks – one built of the rock and the other perched atop one of the biggest pieces of it – illustrate the reverence people here have for the natural wonder. A cluster of shops and motels and motor inns have sprung up along routes 179 and 89A, proffering discoveries of Indian crafts, pottery, striking and unusual jewelry design and restful places to spend a night or two.
The drive north towards Flagstaff up the Oak Creek Canyon, the road wending between the cliffs and cottonwoods along the creek and climbing to the headwall for an expansive view, is a winner. In its 1991 Road Atlas, Rand McNally called the route one of "America's great road trips." People stop by the hundreds for a refreshing splash in the creek at Slide Rock State Park.
Flagstaff, once a sleepy railroad town in the pine trees in the shadow of the San Francisco Mountains, has been transformed into an endless strip mall of motels, restaurants and taverns, servicing the annual exodus of thousands across Interstate 40 – paralleling the former Route 66. But don't let first appearances deceive. While the historic highway is gone, the town's centre, built after the coming of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in 1882, is being largely restored to its former glory and is again a great place to get your kicks. The Flagstaff Historic Walk map is an informative guide to the 40 venerable structures of the district.
On the advice from the owner of a local photography shop who said, "The best shots of the Grand Canyon are early in the day or late in the afternoon, when the shadows are longer and the images gain depth," I was on the road before sunrise for the 90 -minute drive north to the lip of one of the wonders of the world.
In the early morning light, the canyon – a kilometre and a half deep, 440 kilometres long and two billion years in the making – certainly is grand. But the sense of enormity gets lost somehow on a mind that, numbed by too many IMAX presentations perhaps, can't grasp what it is seeing. Only a few days wandering into its depths can possibly begin to convey the enormous size, raw power and elemental spirit.
By ten o'clock, the South Rim of the canyon is abuzz with people – seemingly thousands of them – and I flee east towards Monument Valley. Through the sprawling Navajo Reservation I go, pausing at roadside stands hawking Indian crafts including silver and turquoise jewellery, pottery, tapestries and Kachina wood carvings. Signs urging "Watch for Water on Road," tell me that I'm in flash flood country. Under a brilliant blue sky, sheep, mules and horses graze in the ditches.
At Kayenta, I take Route 163 north to Monument Valley National Monument, arguably one of the most dramatic places on the continent. Thousand foot high red sandstone formations tower above the desolate valley floor, casting all sorts of weird and wonderful shadows (some 12 kilometres long in the winter!) and evoking a sense of awe. The light here seems more intense, the air clearer, the location a well kept secret.
It isn't, of course, and hasn't been since John Ford filmed Stagecoach in 1938, the movie that catapulted John Wayne and the valley to celluloid stardom. Countless other film classics have used the valley as backdrop, including My Darling Clementine (1946) and Ford's The Searchers (1956). The Monument Valley Museum, in the original trading post adjacent to Goulding's Lodge, displays movie memorabilia from many of the flicks.
It's a two hour drive from Monument Valley to Canyon de Chelly, past Indian homesteads and grazing lands. There isn't much for services and the people seem to like it that way. Hogans – many sided Navajo homes, common in the late 1800's – can still be seen along the roadside.
But it is at Canyon de Chelly that the sense of the passage of time really becomes apparent. Two rim drives, North and South, provide a glimpse into the natural and human history of the canyon. There are also guided tours by four wheel drive into various canyon ruins includng Mummy Cave, Antelope House and Standing Cow. Without a guide or park ranger, the only way to visit the canyon bottom is the four kilometre (return) trail to White House Ruin.
One particularly impressive viewpoint from the South Rim overlooks the 830-foot spire of Spider Rock. A Navajo story told to naughty children says Spider Rock is home to Spider Woman, a no-nonsense sort of lady who descends from her lair to capture any who refuse to obey. As evidence of her powers, the white rocks at the top of Spider Rock are said to be the bleached bones of boys and girls who did not listen to their parents.
Listening to my stomach, I pause at the broad mouth of the canyon for dinner at the Thunderbird Lodge. The lodge is situated on the site of the Thunderbird Trading Post, built in 1902 by trader Samuel Day. In the 1960's, the trading post was converted into a cafeteria. A vault built in the 1940's to store the local Navajos' pawned jewellery, saddles and the like, now holds court at the centre of the dining room.
Route 191 South takes me to another trading post – this one still in active duty, nearly 120 years after it opened. The Hubbell Trading Post Historic Site, named for trader John Lorenzo Hubbell, is one of the oldest continuously operating shops of its type in America. Members of the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other tribes still sell and trade such crafts as handwoven rugs, jewellery, baskets and pottery.
Back on Interstate 40, I'm bound for Flagstaff and the end of the journey. In the Painted Desert, the sun falls below the horizon, splashing a dozen shades of crimson and orange onto the wispy oh-what-the-heck-let's-hang-around-at-the-end-of-the-day desert clouds. I think about the Navajo elder, meandering in Canyon de Chelly and wonder if he stops to admire the twilight sky. I suppose he does, at that.
© 2019 Lawrence Herzog. Article may be reproduced with permission of the author.