Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly
From Tusayan, we drove for about 4hrs, covering 250 miles East, deep into the deserts of Arizona. With the high plateau of the Black Mesa to our right, and nothing but scrub and desert all the way, with occasional small ranches and shacks and a few corralled horses. Hard to see how you could live out here, but apparently there is some meagre farming. The Navajo nation territory extends all the way from about 40 miles outside the Grand Canyon, all over the northeastern region of Arizona- Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle, all the way down to Window Rock in New Mexico. The largest of all the Native American tribes and the most widespread. During our stay here we have come across references to the Hopi, Havasupai, Sinagua, and the Cahuilla in Palm Springs. The Navajo are famous for their trading and commercial skills, the craftsmanship in weaving rugs and baskets, and their skills in jewellery making. Turquoise features in most of their beautiful silver bracelets and necklaces.
We pulled up at a hotel for the night, the Holiday Inn, known as the Garcia Trading Post, at Chinle, a very small town in the desert, very close to the Canyon de Chelly, pronounced "Shay". We'd arrived by lunchtime so had time to head straight for the Visitors Centre in this National Park, always a mine of helpful and welcoming information. Ian had done his usual thorough research and knew that the drawback of this visit would be the fact that this site is of great religious significance to the Navajo, so there was only one self-guided walk you could, but it was to be a very interesting one. We were excited to find out that, as part of the Native American Awareness Month, there was to be a final Saturday walk into an otherwise forbidden area of the park, guided by one of the Rangers who was Navajo and had grown up in the Canyon and played there as a child! It was to depart at 8am tomorrow and the limit was 20 people. We put our names down, but tried not to get too excited as we were told it was dependent on whether we could carpool, as we didn't have an SUV, or high clearance vehicle!
We drove along the South Rim, and then descended steeply down into the Canyon, on the White House Ruins trail, the only route allowed. Very different to Grand Canyon, much smaller, beautiful rock shapes and curves in a orange and red coloured sandstone. Very magical. Then we were on the valley floor, which used to be farmed by the Navajo, before the nearby dams were built and redirected the water. There used to be peach trees here and the Navajo would grow squash and beans, and farm sheep. About 1/2 mile along the valley you come to a dead end and the White House ruins, built and occupied centuries ago by the Anasazi, or "ancient ones", named after the White plaster which was used to cover the walls. You can also see ancient drawings on the walls in the distance, but it's fenced off to stop souvenir hunters getting too close. I bought a stone painting from an artist there, who explained to me that there is a growing desire for the Navajo to be known as Dine, "dinneh", because it captures the essence of the Navajo people. The Dine still live in and around the Canyon, their physical and spiritual home. It is where the Navajo returned after the Long Walk, when in the 1860s, they were driven out of their homes, which were then burnt to the ground by Kit Carson. They were forced to march over 300 miles, known as the Long Walk, to live a miserable existence on a Reservation in New Mexico, until eight years later the government allowed them to return to their homeland. So little wonder it has such a sacred place in their hearts.
That night we had a hearty meal with non-alcoholic beer, which tasted OK, and non-alcoholic wine, which didn't! No alcohol to be consumed or sold in Navajo territory. Had some Navajo fry bread, which was delicious, a bit like a doughnut mix, but much lighter and flatter and drenched in icing sugar. We were up at 6.30am, breakfasted and waiting at the Visitor Centre hoping to catch a lift. Fortunately for us, Marlene a Navajo woman from Shiprock, New Mexico and her friend, Alexis, an attorney from Aztec, New Mexico, had a very big SUV and we all drove in line over extremely rough terrain about five miles to the start of the walk. There was no obvious route and it would have been impossible with the Rangers car to follow. Once at the start of the walk, the ranger explained to us that this was a rare visit, maybe only once or twice a year that non-Navajo were allowed to do this walk. He warned that it would be strenuous. The route would take us 1000' down into Bat Canyon, rarely visited, and a bit trickier than the usual easy trails. Rough under foot with a bit of scrambling, but then we were on the Canyon floor, with views up to ancient dwellings carved into the rock, high up in the distance. Then the highlight of our walk, Spider Rock, which rises about 1000' straight up like a giant reddish brown finger, looking striking against the bright blue sky. Nearby is another iconic rocky finger known as Talking Rock. The story goes that Talking Rock would tell Spider Woman who lived on the top of Spider Rock, about children who had been naughty. Spider Woman would catch them in her woven web and take them to the top of the rock, eat them and grind their bones to white powder, and that is why the top of the rock is white! Petrifying! Other stories say that it was Spider Woman, who lived in a home at the base of the rock, whose ruins you can make out, taught the Navajo weaving skills.
Spider Rock has featured in several Westerns, and we remembered watching Mc.Kenna's Gold, made in the 1960s. There is an unforgettable scene when at a specific time of day, Spider Rock casts a long shadow and a gap in the rocks is highlighted, which is supposed to lead the Cowboys to a golden treasure. Or something like that!
We spent some time listening to the guide telling these stories, as we gazed up at this amazing site, brilliant blue sky and chilly temperatures. Then we returned to the jeeps, climbing quite steeply back up. There were about 14 of us on the walk. Good company. A marathon runner and his wife, who were teachers in New Mexico, who lived at 7000'. An ophthalmologist from Chinle Hospital. Alexis and Marlene worked for the same legal department that dealt with cases of discrimination against Native Americans. Our guide, William was accompanied by his brother, who was training to be a Park Ranger, and his girlfriend, who were all Navajo. They were very informative and attentive, and it was a great experience. We promised to come back here again in November on one of the other guided tours they do. Two great walks and we hadn't spent a dime! Which reinforces the fact that they're not trying to make money out of it but educate and share.
We made it back to the car by lunchtime and set off to Winslow on Route 66 and the historic La Posada Hotel, and the widely renowned Turquoise Room fine-dining restaurant! This requires a page to itself!!