2000s Archive

Written in Stone

Originally Published June 2003
The overwhelmingly beautiful Canyon de Chelly is filled with history, much of it sad. But it’s also alive with Navajo humor, and magic seems to lurk around every corner.

The RedRock soars 600 feet above me, swirls etched into it like eddying sand in a windstorm. I know the cliff isn’t moving, but as each cloud crosses the stripe of blue sky above and beyond the sunlit rim, it seems to lurch toward me. Vertigo? An optical illusion? Magic, certainly. Even higher up, four ravens are playing their swoop-and-soar game along the north rim…or is it two ravens and their shadows? Across the way, past the dazzling water, the shadowed cliff on the south side rises up, a vast flat surface streaked with perfectly vertical black stripes, some wide, some narrow—like a cosmic bar code.

I have heard people confidently assert that this is the most beautiful canyon on the planet, and for all I know, they are right. When I was a little boy I used to spend a lot of time looking for what my friends and I called “neat places,” usually rock outcrops in the woods, little overhangs, or surprising springs or streams. In this Y-shaped gash in the earth, everywhere I look there’s another neat place. Canyon de Chelly, located in northeastern Arizona approximately in the middle of the Navajo Reservation (which is bigger than West Virginia), has got to be the neatest place on earth.

Chelly (pronounced “shay”) is a Spanish spelling—and mispronunciation—of the Navajo word tseyi, which means “in the rocks.” What the Anasazi people called it when they began living here a couple of thousand years ago isn’t known. Probably their word for “in the rocks.” The canyon, which is about 60 miles long, is fed by two main streams and numerous smaller ones. Navajo families, whose ancestors arrived in these parts about 500 years ago, still farm its bottomlands in summer, planting corn, squash, and melons to ripen in sandy fields, and harvesting fruit—peaches, cherries, apples, and apricots—from orchards planted long ago.

There’s plenty of history here, much of it sad. One arm of the Y is called Canyon del Muerto, the “Canyon of the Dead.” The entire length of the two main canyons is punctuated by prehistory, small villages and family residences, some quite elaborate, built from local stone and mud, usually up off the canyon floor in overhangs scoured out by wind and water during the 50 million years it took to carve this place. These dwellings of the Anasazi (Navajo for “Ancient Ones”) were abandoned about 700 years ago; no one knows exactly why. They are called ruins, which strikes me as too negative a word for structures that have endured, at least partially, for that long.

On September 20, 1884, a certain W. Ellison stood in one of the larger dwellings, a place called White House Ruins because one of the structures is covered with white plaster. Ellison achieved a tawdry immortality by scratching his name and the date into the plaster in huge letters. Fortunately, such vandalism is no longer possible. Declared a national monument in 1931, the canyon is cooperatively run by the Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Except on the mile-long trail from the south rim down to White House, you have to be accompanied by an approved Navajo guide. With your guide, you can hike, ride horses, drive your own 4x4, camp overnight, or take a motorized tour. Purists hike in, and fairly accomplished riders ride in (on Navajo horses or their own if they are so equipped), but they won’t get as far as a four-wheel-drive truck, which is the best way to see the most of the canyon in a relatively short time—four hours or eight, your choice.

Our driver introduced himself as Dave. He had grown up at the far end of Canyon del Muerto and confessed that as a boy he had snuck into every ruin in the two canyons. (Neat places—I knew it.) Just before we were to leave from Thunderbird Lodge, at the mouth of the canyon, two women approached with their $39.50 blue tickets, and Dave explained that the benchlike seats in the back of the open truck were all taken, and they would have to wait for the afternoon tour. The women, both British, said they couldn’t do that. Dave shrugged. “We’re full,” he said. The women demanded their money back and Dave explained that he didn’t have their money. “That’s not good enough,” one of the women said, Thatcher-like and heading for the boiling point, when Dave smiled and said another truck was on its way.

This was Navajo humor, but the Brits were not amused. Indeed, Navajo ways can easily be misunderstood. Navajo do not look people in the eye, for example, not out of shyness but out of courtesy: To look directly at someone’s face is considered a threatening gesture. A Navajo man enters a room ahead of a woman not out of macho superiority but to protect a more valued member of society from possible danger. But they love to laugh, usually at their own or someone else’s expense, and they may be the most patriotic people in America. Just after September 11, American flags were fluttering from the aerials of virtually every pickup we saw.

From the back of the truck we could see in all directions, including up, as we slithered through sandy ruts, sometimes six inches deep, past the brilliant foliage of cottonwoods and the swaying tamarisks. Here and there, often obscured in part by trees, were Navajo camps consisting of a hexagonal house called a hogan, a sheep corral, and a shade house made of branches. At summer’s end, the Navajo move to homes on the rim, since the canyon grows extremely cold by November (and the local schools are easier to get to from the top).

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