Mar 18 Canyon de Chelly

We arrived at the Cottonwood Campground outside of Canyon de Chelly – it was seriously windy when we left Farmington – gusts up to 55 miles per hour and then came the dust storms.  This we endured for about two hours and when we turned south in Arizona the winds died down and we entered a landscape much like Monument Valley meets the Canyonlands.  We stopped in Rock Point, still in Navajo territory, to get something to drink. As we drove through we were amazed at the formations in this otherwise nondescript area.  I suppose because it was still the Navajo Nation and they respectfully and quietly walk in beauty in their surroundings not wanting invaders to disrupt the balance.  Many of the homes are built in the traditional hogan shape – octagonal, some with modern doors on them – in honor of their traditions while flexing to modernization. There are no McMansions here, mostly converted double wides, some with corrals and livestock. 

We entered Chinle as the wind picked up again and stopped at Basha Dine’ – the Navajo version of Safeway – there are no grocery chain stores here – just the usual fast food joints.  

We arrived at the nearly deserted campground and found a sunny site.  After so many days of getting up early and hiking to catch the sunrises it was nice that we were going to be stationary for a few days.  

It’s still considered winter here and the trees are bare and I’m sure it’s prettier in the spring and summer as we are surrounded by cottonwoods.  The campground has flush toilets and sinks which is very convenient for a campground.   

As the day went on the campground started to fill up – another Leisure Travel Unity arrived and we had a nice chat!  The first one we’ve encountered at a site.  

The next day we had a leisurely day walking up to the Visitor Center and talking to the local ranger who gave us tour of the hogan they have on site.  It was great to be in one that was made out of traditional materials with its east facing entrance.  

Traditional Navajo Hogan

We booked a Jeep tour of the canyon (tsegi in Navajo) with Bobbie VanWinkle who was born in Spider Rock since you can only go into the canyon proper with a guide.  

Despite the Dutch name, Bobbie is Navajo and explained there are many mixed race families who live there, but you have to be married within a clan to reside in the valley. The ride was definitely four wheel drive terrain; through washes and up muddy inclines.  The towering rock faces did not disappoint – they looked as though they had been cut out by a carving knife; they were so sheer and flat with reds and maroon veins washing down the sides.  The floor is peppered with cottonwoods though they are not indigenous and the canyon should be populated by pinion and juniper much like the canyonlands.  

We quickly came across the petroglyph and paintings that were done in some cases a thousand years ago by the Pueblo tribes.  They are now Hopi and what the Navajo refer to as the Anasazi – the Ancient Ones.  

Kiva recessed in the cliffs

We stood witness to these ancient impressions that had survived the elements for centuries.  Then the ruins surfaced on the cliff sides – the kivas and food storage with more rock paintings protected by the sheer mesa cliffs. These dwellings are scattered throughout the canyon, most inaccessible except for the archeologists who frequent the area.  The canyon itself has worn away leaving the dwellings out of climbing distance.  The most accessible are the White House and Antelope ruins that are closer to the valley floor and fenced off to keep the usual miscreants from vandalizing the sites.  The White House ruins are named due to the white plaster that reflects the sun.  We noticed graffiti carved into the face of the ruins and upon closer inspection, one of the carvings was dated 1873!  So it was the earlier settlers defacing the ruins….

As we meandered our way through the mesa, I pondered the generations of seedlings now germinating, the shifting landscape providing glimpses into lifestyles still farmed by the Navajo in the same manner they have been doing for hundreds of years; wool still spun from weathered hands that tend the sheep.  The tribes could exist now as they had a millennia ago – clinging to the lost art of the land.  

The canyon remains a pristine outback not easily disabused by modernization – the vendor at the Antelope Ruins has no cell service and works on faith that you will Venmo her the money for the pottery you just bought. 

Stubborn to evolve or worried they could lose the thread of culture and place they have fought so hard to preserve?

A perfect day mingling with the ancients – under the same blue skies and mesas they embraced so long ago.