CANYON DE CHELLY, AZ – AUGUST 2016
From Crestone, we wound our way through western Colorado, dodging storms over the mountain passes. By late afternoon we drove by Four Corners. The gates were closed; we had missed our opportunity to stand in four states at once. I have a photo of my mother, sister and I doing just that in 1969. In the distance, Shiprock beckoned to us just as it had to other travelers over centuries.
It was dark by the time we reach the campground at Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “de shay”). I feared it might be full but there were only a few people there.
This National Monument is a partnership between the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. All the employees are Navajo and you can only enter the Canyon accompanied by an authorized Navajo guide. Many individuals and small companies offer their guide services. Four wheel drive is required and the vehicles range from small jeeps to large transports that carry eight people in the back bed. After exploring the Visitors Center we wandered outside unsure about how to go about arranging a trip into the canyon. Then we saw a man parked in a rickety old jeep and figured he was looking for customers. We approached him, bargained the price, and made arrangements to follow him to the entrance of the Canyon where we would leave our camper truck.
The weather was cool and the dark sky threatened showers. The red dirt roads were wet, muddy and deeply rutted. We fishtailed in spots and occasionally the tires bogged down in the muck. The ride was rough, bouncing and tossing us in all directions, making it seem like more of a wild adventure than it was. If this jeep had ever had shocks, they were long gone. Some of the other guides had fancy SUVs, new and shiny, large and well outfitted. I liked the intimacy of traveling in our small decrepit, patched together jalopy. When rain started, our guide John stopped to attached the ill-fitting cloth roof, like a hand-me-down from some other vehicle.
John told us stories of growing up in the area. As a child he spent the school year above the Canyon but during the summer he lived with his aunt at her small homestead within the red canyon walls. His recollections of summers in the Canyon where not particularly happy. His aunt was stern and he was lonely with few peers to play with. Pointing down one of the side canyons, he showed us where he had spent so many summer many years ago. Today no one lives in the canyon full time. Some farming is still done on small plots and cattle and horses are grazed throughout. The big industry are the tours.
We stopped for petroglyphs and cliff dwellings, for striking views and short walks. John said that normally it would be busy this time of year. But we saw only a few other visitors in the canyon. He did not know why tourism was light.
The most intriguing story John shared was about an encounter his grandfather had in the canyon. He claimed to have seen and spoken to a mysterious ancient tribe of diminutive people who lived hidden in caves. They are supposedly still there today, unseen and untouched by modernity. I imagined them there, peaking out at us from dark openings in the walls as we drove by, waiting for moments to emerge and live freely in the embrace of this beautiful red earth valley.
Later, after dinner, we drove the rim road to see the Canyon from above. The sun was disappearing quickly, it’s last rays illuminating the clouds and painting them orange, pink and purple. The clouds also shone from within by the occasional bolt of lightning. As it became still darker, I resorted to long exposure shots to capture any last bit of light. We barely caught a glimpse of the famous Spider Rock before it disappeared into complete darkness.
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