Canyon de Chelly is a complex of deep canyons carved out of the plateau that our college was situated on. Starting in the Chuska Mountains and running east to west, shallow drainages and feeder streams converge into rocky drainages that converge into shallow canyons, and converge again and again, until the great canyons Monument Canyon, Canyon del Muerto, and Canyon de Chelly combine. The entire canyon system drains an area roughly 30 by 50 miles, the water flow emerging near Chinle and eventually joining the San Juan River, 80 miles north, in southeastern Utah. The canyon is a geologic wonderland of sandstone cliffs and precipices that fall hundreds of feet to the canyon floor; vertical sandstone spires and vertical shafts of red sandstone rise hundreds of feet straight off the canyon bottom.
The entire canyon complex is a national monument administered by the National Park Service; a series of scenic overlooks are maintained, at spectacular locations, on the north and south side of the park. It is easy to drive close to the canyon edge, park, walk a short distance, and look straight down into the living community of Canyon de Chelly. Many overlooks provide clear views of well-preserved Anasazi ruins, cliff structures, and other ancient constructs. Navajo continue to live in the canyon, on small farms and sheep camps. The interior of the canyon is reserved for Navajo residents only, except at the White House trail, or by guided tour.
Nearby, Chinle offers several motels catering to the motorized tourist; there is an RV park, always full from April through September, and a lodge at the mouth of the canyon, from which guided tours in open trucks can be arranged. Visitors to Canyon de Chelly also come for the native arts and crafts, sold in several shops in town, but most especially from the many vendors of jewelry and crafts who set up small tables, or sell out of the back of their trucks, at the park overlooks.
The Navajo sense of Canyon de Chelly is that it is a very special place, the heart of Navajo culture and theology, the home of their gods, and that the community life of the Dine’ who were fortunate enough to have been born to it is the best that Navajo life can be. The canyon floor is harsh, sandy, wet and rocky in many places, but large areas of the canyon bottom are excellent grazing and farming land, irrigated with perennial water in streams and wide sandy washes, where beans, corn, hay, and fruit trees can thrive. Along the shallow waterways, stands of big cottonwood trees grow, their upper reaches spreading out great canopies, noisy with birds, and the Navajo build hogons in the shade beneath them. There’s grass for horses, and forage for goats and sheep. Roads in the canyons are rugged, impassable in bad weather, requiring 4 wheel drive and high clearance; the Dine’ who inhabit these canyon-bottom ranches and farms are self-reliant, durable people.
I like to hike, to find real wilderness, and upon arriving in Tsaile, I set out to explore Canyon de Chelly and the surrounding areas. Early on, I drove around to the overlooks and park areas, and did the usual motorized tourist things, but as I got to know the area, I made the effort to get off the usual beaten tourist path, in order to know the canyon better, and experience it more deeply. I found and followed dirt roads to remote canyon branches, and would day hike around and into the canyon in a way few whites ever do. I found that if I was mellow, not trespassing egregiously, and careful about how I handled myself, I had no problem with anyone objecting. Thus, I had some memorable visits to Canyon de Chelly, and was never chased off, or hassled too badly, or shot at. Besides, I always wore my Navajo Community College tee-shirt, which seemed to work as talisman, cooling the ardor of Navajos whom I met in remote places.
One late fall day, when the cottonwoods at the canyon bottom were dropping yellow leaves, I hiked down into a side canyon of Canyon del Muerto, boulder scrambling as much as walking. I let myself down red sandstone ledges and followed water drainages, occasionally getting rimmed out, or blocked by an impassable cliff. I would find a way around, bypass the obstacle, and keep going down, and in this way, I reached the canyon floor, and rested by the brook at the canyon bottom. On my way back up, by another route, I discovered several cliff structures, granaries, and petroglyphs, ancient anasazi symbols inscribed on the overhanging cliff walls. I carried my camera gear, and took some of the best photos I’ve ever shot that day.
I did this type of impromptu exploration in many places around Canyon de Chelly. On the south side, near Monument Canyon, I drove into Navajo ranch country, following the ranch roads, past hogons, herds of sheep and goats, by several small subsistence farms, and turned onto some woodcutters trails that eventually brought me to the canyon edge. Classic ponderosa forest suddenly gave way to huge precipitous drops 800 feet deep; the canyon walls, streaked with ‘desert varnish’, were abuzz with birds wheeling and diving, feeding on unseen insects in the shadows above the creek far below. I was always amazed by the acoustics of these stone canyons: one could hear the water running in the small creek at the canyon bottom, the sound being amplified and funneled to my ears many hundreds of feet above the dark canyon bottom.
In winter, we often had enough snow to cross-country ski, and I enjoyed skiing to work and back during particularly snowy periods. After big storms, we enjoyed excellent ski days, and one of my faculty friends showed me that it was possible to ski to the eastern reaches of Canyon del Muerto, which was really not very far from the college campus.
On one occasion, I skied, solo, the day after a storm, following the tried and true route. About mid-morning, it clouded over and began to snow lightly. The sun was obscured, I was enveloped in perfect even light, and I lost my bearings, not knowing which way was east or west. I was in some confusion in that juniper forest near the canyon’s upper limit, and ended up skiing in a complete circle. I was already tired, winded, and cold when I stumbled on my own tracks. I found the upper canyon edge, which re-established my sense of direction, and eventually skied back home, a little shaken.
One fine sunny southwestern day, a colleague and I packed our gear, jumped into my truck and set off into the center of Canyon de Chelly, following the Navajo road west, to the junction of Del Muerto and Canyon de Chelly. After passing through rolling terrain, through stands of pinon and juniper trees, the road, such as it was, eventually became only the faintest of tracks in sand, until we were driving on bare slickrock, navigating by eye and compass, and could go no further without risking axle and tires.
On foot, we set off down a smooth, pot-holed watercourse that traced broad serpentine meanders across the rock landscape, carved in sandstone. The stone, deposited as sandy layers at the bottom of a great ocean, now was eroded like sheets of paper, the jagged pages of some giant book, which overhung our narrow aisle in the rock, sometimes blocking out the sun. Abruptly, we emerged from the passage, and found ourselves halfway down the canyon face. Below, a slope of cream-colored rock stretched down all the way to the bottom of Canyon de Chelly.
We discovered a path down this smooth field of rock; it consisted of footholds and handholds that were clearly ancient in origin, and had been worn into existence by countless native feet, and their animals. Mindful that we were trespassing in the canyon, we walked only a little way down this trail when we saw two Navajo coming up from below, an elderly couple, each carrying a lamb on their shoulders. I’d seen no ranch or hogons near the top of that trail, and couldn’t imagine where they were headed. As they passed us by, they greeted us cheerfully, in Navajo, never stopping on their steep, slow plod up hill, bent to their own purposes, and disappeared into the rock.
Looking back over the years of my life, these days of exploration and journey in the Canyon stand out as highlights, the best of times, when I had few cares, the future seemed bright and inviting, and I thought I would always find new trails and routes to follow. In retrospect, it went by much too fast, and I wished I’d spent even more time exploring the holy canyons of the Navajo, had taken many more photos, and pushed further into the cultural heart of The People. Perhaps it’s always this way with the best days of our lives.