Blue sky, white snow, red cliffs. A gorgeous day.
Our guide to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Che) was Timothy, whose family has lived here “forever” and who was raised by his grandparents, speaking only the Navajo language until he went to school at nine. He’s been guiding people through this canyon for almost thirty years.
He met us at our motel in a beat-up vehicle without shocks—for reasons that became obvious almost immediately. The drive took us—bounced us–about 12 miles into the 62-mile long canyon, along a heavily rutted trail, through groves of cottonwoods and dry stream beds, past small “summer houses” with fenced plots used for gardens and grazing in the summer.
According to Timothy, many older people still spend their entire summers in the canyon where they have ancestral lands passed from generation to generation, then move up to houses along the rim or in town for the winter. Although Timothy didn’t quite say so, from his answers to our many questions it’s obvious that this lifestyle of the grandparents is not being embraced by younger people.
today, but there were still some horses and a few cows grazing there. And during the three-hour tour we also saw quite a few mule deer and one coyote. Signs of the widespread drought here. This is the first snowfall in four years, and the vegetation here depends on snow runoff from the mountains. In some areas on the canyon floor, they’ve been cutting trees that are taking more than their share (however you measure that!) of moisture.
The canyon is 1000 feet deep (or high, depending on where you are) at its deepest. The morning tour didn’t take us to that spot, but we saw it from an overlook later in the day. Again, according to Timothy, the canyon is the result of volcanic eruption, leaving soft red shale-like stone along the walls and a layer of harder lava-based rock along the rim. At places, you can see a darker colour along the top.
Within the canyon, there’s evidence of human habitation beginning 5,000 years ago with the Anasazi people. These are the same people whose dwellings we explored at Bandalier in New Mexico two years ago. Here, you can’t climb up to the dwellings themselves, but you can see the remains of them nestled into crevices and along outcroppings on the canyon walls.
The Anastazi were followed by the Hopi, who were supplanted by the Navajo.
This is the canyon where the infamous Long Walk began. After a brutal slaughter in 1864, the remaining Navajo were trapped in this canyon and forced to walk 300 miles into New Mexico where those who survived the walk were interned for four years before being allowed to return home. (Revisionist history: Kit Carson was the man responsible for the Long Walk; when I was a kid, he was a cowboy hero.)
In the afternoon, we drove along the south rim, stopping at various lookouts and taking the only hike into the canyon that is permitted without a guide. We didn’t make it quite to the bottom. Jack says just over halfway, but I’m sure we were nearly there, and I’m sticking with that. I’m not the greatest climber, and I was worried about the trek back up, especially since we’re at an altitude of 6,000 feet and have spent most of the last week in the car. But it wasn’t bad at all, and now I wish we’d gone all the way to the floor–though I look pretty exhausted here, back at the top. And in the background, you can see the floor of the canyon below. Way below.
Tomorrow, we’re heading toward Monument Valley. This place has been pretty empty. We saw some people on the trail this afternoon, but not many, and the hotel isn’t at all full. But Monument Valley hotels are all booked solid, so we’ll probably stop before we get there and drive into the valley the next day.