Saturday, May 6, 2017

Canyon de Chelley

My first visit to Canyon de Chelley (pronounced "de shay") in Arizona was in 1986. It was a passing view, barely remembered, except I was impressed that this canyon was more beautiful than the Grand Canyon precisely because it's not so immense. It is intimate and inviting.

Looking down from an overlook.
Spring and fall are the best times to see this gouge through ancient deep red sandstone. But even late April didn't guarantee we would have great weather. It snowed lightly, rained, sleeted, and hailed those little snow balls that always remind me of Dippin Dots ice cream.

During the intervening years I had acquired more knowledge about geology, history, and archeology that enhanced my later experience. If you want to feel the power of the tragedies that permeate the walls of Canyon de Chelley, read Hampton Side's book - Blood and Thunder. It is a biography of the famous Kit Carson, frontiersman and army scout, who, in his later years led the round up of the Navajo people and forced them on a death march to Fort Sumner and a reservation called the Bosque Redondo: Navajo Trail of Tears

On Friday afternoon, in the rain and sleet, my friend Becky and I drove along the edges of the canyon to all the overlook points. We had planned to take a tour into the canyon, available only with Navajo guides in jeeps. But we cancelled it, hoping the weather reports would prove true and we'd have a better experience on Saturday. Unfortunately, in spite of great technological advances, weather reports aren't always accurate.

Saturday morning was bleak. My car was covered by pebbles of snow on top of a frozen skin of ice. We were the only tour participants and were given pink blankets and army rain slickers. Both of us wore every warm thing we'd brought on the trip, and still we were freezing. The 'jeep' was an Austrian army Pinzgaur, a six-wheeled all terrain vehicle designed for moving troops. Our Navajo driver, Harold, was excellent and we never got stuck, though we passed others who were. The river was running high, but not high enough to stop that machine from plowing through. We were peppered by rain in spite of the tarp overhead, and the pink blankets were caked with red mud by the end of the trip.

The tower in the middle of this photo has three
intact levels. Two skeletons were found in the
highest room, which gave the canyon it's name
Canyon del Muerto, Canyon of Death.
Ours was only the half day tour so we went into the north branch called Canyon del Muerto, as far as the Standing Cow ruin. It was named after a blue-faced cow painted by a Navajo artist on the canyon wall. Other ruins in that canyon included the Antelope ruins and the First Ruin, all buildings left behind by the Anasazi (a Navajo word for ancient ones) or as they are called by archeologists - the Ancestral Puebloans. The buildings were constructed of carefully fashioned sandstone blocks, fitted together so well that little clay was used to hold them together. Abandoned in the 1200s they still stand, some even have roofs supported by wooden beams. There are other ruins further up the canyon that can be seen on the full day tour, or from the overlooks. Canyon del Muerto (of Death) is so named because two women's skeletons were found in a tower-ruin and further upstream there is a cave where over 100 Navajo women and children were massacred by Spanish soldiers in 1805.

On the second half of our tour, the weather improved and the sun peeked out of the clouds on occasion. We drove upriver, sometimes in the river, to the White House, the most famous of Canyon de Chelley's ruins. It is accessible by foot from the rim of the canyon, and is the only one the public can visit without a Navajo guide. A huge ruin, it consists of a building on the ground and many in a cave above. At the height of life there, the lower building was three to four stories and reached up the wall to the cave buildings. The lowest walls are as thick as any castle wall in Europe, built specifically to support an enormous structure.

White House ruin

It was thrilling for me to come back to Canyon de Chelley after all those years, to experience it from the inside as well. The tours are a bit pricy, but worth every penny. The Navajo Nation also runs horseback and guided hiking tours and they allow backpacking and overnights in the canyon with a guide. During the summer months, many Navajos live in the canyon and farm. The sound of tractors and animals is all part of the experience.


The road into the canyon.


After rain and snow, little ponds form on the mesa tops.

Ancient red sandstone cliffs

The intimate canyon