November 23, 2012
If you’ve been to the Monday Night Meditation in Felton, CA, you have seen Antelope Canyon. Above the altar is a large framed photograph. It shows a peach colored slot canyon with a beam of sunshine ending in a pool of light on the sandy floor. A holy sight if ever there was one. That is Antelope Canyon.
Chris and I spent Thanksgiving with my cousin Sue and her family, at their home in Flagstaff, AZ. It was serendipitous that we were near enough to accept their invitation to share the holiday with them. I hadn’t seen Sue in a number of years and I had never met Steele, her husband.
They suggested that on Friday we make the long journey to Antelope Canyon. I was immediately excited. They had never been there and, as we all know, having guests is good way to get to the places you want to go but haven’t. November is not the time of year to see the famed shafts of light, the sun is too low in the sky to shine directly in. But we all trusted it would still be a special sight.
Slot canyons have held a certain fascination for me. (DEFINITION: “A slot canyon is a narrow canyon, formed by the wear of water rushing through rock. A slot canyon is significantly deeper than it is wide.”) Their otherworldly light and colors create an enchanting reality, a quiet pristine realm separated from the world. Beautifully sculpted passageways take you on a labyrinthine path as if guiding you to a secret destination. Truly the opposite of the magnitude and majesty of the Grand Canyon, slot canyons are touchable and intimate, sometimes only wide enough for one person to pass through. A few years ago Chris and I hiked alone through a slot canyon in Utah, one off the beaten track. It was great. But Antelope Canyon is in a class of its own.
Slot canyons also come with danger which, I suppose, adds to their lure and mystique. The thing that creates them is thing that is dangerous, the raging waters of flash floods. Winds and rains add the finishing touches. Antelope Canyon is the site where 11 people drowned in 1997, mostly Europeans, when a distant storm sent a racing torrent like a sudden below-ground tsunami. More precautions are in place now, both for predicting a flood and for helping people escape the canyon. This day was sunny and clear with no predictions of rain anywhere in the region. We were safe.
Antelope Canyon is on Navajo land and you can only enter it as part of a tour. There are two parts to the canyon, Upper and Lower, and they are separate tours. We chose the Lower since a friend of Sue’s had recommended it. Mid-day provides the best light and we arrived about noon. Many others had the same idea about how to spend Black Friday and both parking lots were full of cars, most with California plates. Eventually, our specific tour was gathered and our Navajo guide gave is an introduction.
You enter Antelope through an narrow slit on the surface, more like entering a cave than a canyon. Watching the people in front of me slip through this crack and disappear was uncanny. It was as if each person was being absorbed into the earth. People dropped out of sight down a flight of metal stairs into a large opening. As they first looked around, the oohs and aahs were immediate.
Although we were with a large group of excited, chattering, photo-snapping, international tourists, I was quickly able to take little notice of them and focus, awe-struck, on the beauty that enveloped us. This is one of the most beautiful place I have ever seen.
The Lower canyon is not long, about 1/2 mile; we took about 1 1/2 hours to slowly walk its length. If it were allowed, I would have loved to spend the entire day, mesmerized by the hues, changing light and undulating forms. With every few steps, new stunning combinations of colors and shapes emerged. Overhead were arches and openings, and glimpses of deep blue sky. Under foot, the pale sandy floor narrowed and widened, and was sometimes barely passable.
Early on, as our group trickled into a large luminous chamber, our guide paused and played a slow haunting melody on his v-shaped native flute. His music harmonized with the glowing warm tones and the soothing womblike shape of the room.
For much of the walk I was alone, behind the fastest group and ahead of the slowest. I savored this opportunity to be in this magical place, to be quiet, reverent.
The sandstone glowed in pastel variations of red, pink, rose, peach, ocher, yellow, orange, gold, lavender, tangerine; the shadows deepened into purple, mauve, magenta, eggplant, sienna and umber. Some formations resembled animals, one appeared to be a woman in profile with flowing hair. Most of canyon was remarkable for its simple abstract beauty.
Intricate forms sculpted in the walls mirrored the swirl and crest of waves. Currents, eddies and whirlpools seemed to be frozen motionless. The stone miraculously evoked the sensation of fluidity. It was as if this canyon was the original mold from which God created water. With its curving, bulging and rounded forms and its calming colors this place had a deeply feminine energy and beauty.
I would have missed the light beam, if Steele hadn’t pointed out that I had just walked through it. A thin light shaft cut across the corridor, hitting the side wall like a laser. As I stopped to enjoy it, it began to fade, the rotating sun moving out of range.
Sadly, the canyon came to an end and we ascended a long set of stairs to reach ground level and the ordinary world of sun and expanse.
On our ride home, after a visit to Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell, we stopped by the road to view the Colorado River. A half mile hike took us to an overlook of what is called Horseshoe Bend. You are able to walk to the edge (and beyond if you are not careful) of the precipice and peer down into the river’s dramatic journey toward the Grand Canyon.