Breathtaking. Spectacular. Awe-inspiring. It’s no wonder the Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most visited spots. But another Arizona landmark, 235 miles to the east, had an equal yet different capacity to steal away my breath and inspire quiet reverence during a recent western road trip. It’s the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de-shay”) near Chinle in the Navajo Indian Reservation.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is actually a series of canyons tucked away in the dry and dusty eastern edge of Arizona. Driving there from Flagstaff, there is an easy parallel to draw between the bleak and treeless landscape and the apparent poverty of the Navajo people. But looking closer, the desert is teeming with life on an unexpected plane. Canyon de Chelly, with its prehistoric pictographs, Anasazi ruins and current-day Navajo residents, offers a glimpse back in time at an endangered culture. It’s also a vacation stop relatively uncluttered by cheap gift shops, oversized tour buses and hordes of tourists.
We arrived late in the day, and drove to the overlook for the largest and most accessible canyon, Canyon de Chelly. The canyon walls are sheer and sculpted from a subtle palette of sandstone, ranging from a dramatic red to a pale beige with a rosy tint. The scale of the canyon tricks the eye. A childlike figure is just visible, bent over a row of plants at the canyon floor. Far away on the northern wall of the canyon is a gap in the stone, gradually widening. Only with the help of binoculars do the ancient stone dwellings tucked inside the wall become apparent. They look like toys, or even painted false fronts, hardly likely to have sheltered up to 80 people.
There are only three other cars in the parking lot. A couple of young men, probably Navajo, shyly offer to show us their wares: modern versions of ancient petroglyphs, deftly painted on a chip of red sandstone.
The mesa surrounding the park is true to its name, table-flat. While the sky around and behind us is a sharp and biting cloudless blue, a violent summer storm is some ten miles away, painting the distant landscape with sheets of blue, hazy rain. The roiling purple storm clouds, piled high, move towards us at a stately and unstoppable pace.
We decide to stay at the Thunderbird Lodge instead of pitching our tent at the National Park Service’s Cottonwood campground. To avoid the scorching summer heat, we’ll begin our explorations as close to dawn the next day as we can manage, leaving the long hot afternoon open for a leisurely lunch and siesta.
Next morning, the dawn breaks over a perfectly clear sky, a little breeze kissing at our heels as we begin to descend into the canyon. The trail is wide and easy, a gentle grade switching back and forth as it lazily winds down some eight hundred feet to the canyon floor. The quiet remains unbroken, our sleepy family of four the only disturbance until a woman and a man of Native American descent jog past us, back up to the canyon rim and the beginning of another workday.
Only an hour after sunrise the sun begins to bear down unrelenting on the trail, and it is with relief that we reach the shady canyon floor.
The National Park Service manages the area in cooperation with the Navajo Nation. Because of the cultural and spiritual significance of the ruins and the fact that Navajo families live and make a living within the canyons, unescorted visitors are limited to a single moderately easy hike within the main canyon to the periphery of the White House ruins. To explore the park in more depth, visitors have to apply for a permit and hire a guide.
Now our path is level, cutting past an orchard of gnarled old trees, over rock outcroppings and even through a short tunnel cut through the rock. Watching my feet, I discover a perfect animal track captured in the sandstone, an oversized cat’s paw. After careful examination, we are relieved to pronounce the track a relic from long ago. It’s fun to place our own “paw” next to the imprint and marvel at what must have been a fearsome beast, a panther or a cougar who shared the canyon with its original inhabitants a thousand years ago or more.
In the United States, a landmark dating back some four hundred years is about as old a marker of European civilization as we can hope for. To walk through signs of a civilization with a thousand years or more of continuous inhabitation inspires a different kind of awe than that evoked by the sheer magnitude of the Grand Canyon, but it is no less memorable.
We come out through the trees to a level plain, dotted with trees and stretching a few thousand feet to the sheer rock face. Enclosed within a wire fence are a few crumbling walls, suggesting a sizable three-story building whose roof and floors are long collapsed. The dwellings were built about a thousand years ago, before the Navajo came, and abandoned inexplicably three hundred years later. The more recent Navajo residents call the original builders “Anasazi” or “ancient ones.”
Beyond these ruins, seventy five feet or more above the canyon floor, a cluster of adobe buildings is tucked into a deep crevice. Barely visible beyond the first row of dwellings is a nondescript rectangular whitewashed structure. It carries deep religious significance. A Navajo healing ceremony, nine days long, mentions the “white house” where the thunderbird god lives, a “place between.” The fence keeps vandals away and minimizes sacrilegious contact with the sacred spot.
These ruins, like others in the park, are facing south to take advantage of the sun in the long winter months. And today there are native people here by the ruins, too, to take advantage of any tourist dollars that may float to the bottom of the canyon. Flimsy card tables squat under the welcome shade of the cottonwood trees, spread with brightly colored cloth and holding displays of inexpensive jewelry that may or may not be turquoise and other semiprecious stones.
The park holds many other sights, including famed Spider Rock, the Canyon del Muerto (Canyon of Death), Antelope House ruins and Massacre Cave. But the Arizona sun promises to be pitiless, and we straggle back up the trail and retreat to air-conditioned comfort. When afternoon shadows stretch long across the canyon, we return on horseback with a native guide. Edwina is eighteen and not very talkative. She points out a handful of petroglyphs, graphic, evocative stick figures of people and animal scratched deep into the wall. Our six-year-old son gets more pleasure from seeing animal shapes in distant rock formations at the top of the canyon: a turtle, a rabbit.
The horses are swaybacked, pestered by flies. We ride for an hour and return to the stables. They are shabby, with a broken down couch shoved haphazardly onto the porch of an adjoining house. A band of small children peer around the corner and a baby wails inside. Outward signs speak of hardship.
But perhaps this is deceptive, like the view of the canyon floor seen from the rim. This is a culture that has inhabited this particular corner of the world for three hundred years, following the Anasazi who were here for thousands of years before. They are a people with a different rhythm, different values, a different perspective. While it is tempting to dismiss the experience with a flicker of pity and a dash of charity, we can’t. Instead we climb into our car and point ourselves east, back to our own civilization, wondering if relics of our own culture will hold as much meaning in a thousand years, or even survive at all.
If You Go: From Flagstaff to Chinle is 212 miles; from Albuquerque, NM to Chinle is 229 miles. Fill up your gas tank when you leave the interstate. There are lots of chain motels in Chinle, but the Thunderbird Lodge is actually in the park and a half a mile from the Canyon de Chelly Visitor Center. The motel was built in the 1950s and is clean and comfortable, but not plush. The restaurant is located in the original trading post built in 1896 and offers ordinary fare and and Navajo-style meals seven days a week. Go to http://www.tbirdlodge.com or call (520) 674-5841 or 674-5842 for reservations or information.
You can also arrange for jeep tours, camping trips or horseback rides from the motel. The locals call the jeep tours “shake and bake,” because few roads within the park are paved and the jeeps are open to the sunshine. Hats, umbrellas, sunscreen and water are a necessity.