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Friday, July 18, 2014

Canyon de Chelly and The Navajo Nation (Part II)

(This post is a continuation of the trip described here)

Canyon de Chelly National Monument might not be as spectacular as the Grand Canyon, and it probably doesn't have the extensive cliff dwellings of  Mesa Verde National Park. But it does have it's own charm; our friend Peter, who has lived in the area for years, described it as an "intimate" canyon. I think that's pretty accurate and in fact, a large part of it's attraction.
The river has carved a
curving path through the canyon.
Cattle grazing at the water's edge, Canyon de Chelly

The park is actually made up of multiple canyons, all converging near the entrance and Visitor's Center. It's unusual in that people still live within the monument, farming and raising livestock as they have done for centuries. Since it's privately owned land, there is very limited access to the canyon floor itself; there is only one trail you can take to the bottom without hiring an authorized guide. There is no entrance fee, but of course if you hire a guide there will be a charge.

Map courtesy of
The park is shaped in a rough "V" pattern and has two main roads flanking the sides: North Rim Drive overlooking the Canyon del Muerto and South Rim Drive that looks down on the Canyon de Chelly. The most popular is South Rim; it's the one with the famous Spider Rock formation featured on all the brochures and websites. Consequently, the North Rim Drive is much less crowded. That coupled with the fact that it has the best light for morning photography made it the perfect choice to start our tour.

There are four overlooks on the North Rim. We drove out to the farthest one and made our way back to the park entrance. As it turned out we ended up tailing a school bus full of kids out on a field trip from a local elementary school. Ordinarily it would have been annoying, but it was actually interesting to hang back and listen to the teachers explain what we were looking at, and why each area was important to their history as descendants of the canyon's inhabitants. Besides, watching a bunch of fidgety kids--some excited, some bored to tears--was pretty entertaining, especially since we weren't the ones in charge of keeping them from falling over the edge.

The Massacre Cave Overlook was a bit gruesome; it's situated in (possibly) the very spot Spanish soldiers stood shooting at Navajo people who were hiding in a cliffside cave. The Spanish claimed to have killed 90 warriors and 25 women and children, but according to Navajo accounts most of the men were away hunting at the time, so the actual victims were mostly women, children and old men.
A curve in Canyon del Muerto, Massacre Overlook
From Mummy Cave Overlook you can view the largest ancient Puebloan village preserved within the monument. Over 70 rooms are built into the cliffside on a rock shelf; when it was excavated in the 1920's two mummified bodies were found, well preserved by the dry climate and sheltered space.

Mummy Cave

Water running down the canyon walls leave a beautiful pattern

Antelope House Overlook has a great view of some ruins, but more impressively, pictographs and massive red cliff walls. The short hike out to the overlook was interesting as well, giving us a closer look at the surrounding vegetation and sandstone that make up the area.
Antelope House Ruins. If you look closely you can see pictographs above the ruins on the left.
The Ledge Ruin Overlook is not quite as impressive, but gave another perspective as it nears the confluence of the two canyons.

The canyons converge near the Ledge Ruin Overlook

A lone kiva sits in a small cave.

There are more stops along the South Rim and it's much more popular, thus more crowded. We decided to head all the way to the end of the road and work our way back, hoping to get a good photo of Spider Rock before the crowds arrived there.

Spider Rock: this red sandstone monolith is pretty impressive. It stands over 800 feet tall, towering over a bend in the river. Navajo legend has it that Spider Woman chose the top of this rock as home and one of her many functions in Navajo lore is to keep children in line; they are told if they don't behave she will carry them away to be eaten. The top of the formation is said to be colored white from the children's bones. Just goes to show there have been desperate parents in every culture, all through the ages.

Spider Rock, with a sprinkling of children's bones on top. Or possibly bird poop.
The short trail out to the Spider Rock overlook is lined with wildflowers

White House Ruins Overlook and Trail: this is the only trail leading into the canyon that doesn't require a guide. The trail follows switchbacks for a 600 foot elevation change down to the valley floor, where you can view the White House ruins nestled at the cliff bottom. It's called the White House not for it's governmental function, but for a white plastered room discovered in the upper tier of the collection. The hike is beautiful; it gives you a close up view of the many layers of rock that make up the canyon and even leads you through a couple of tunnels burrowed through the sandstone. At the bottom, you cross a bridge over the river, skirting a farmer's field (that was being planted the day we were there.) The ruins are behind a cyclone fence to keep people from doing what people tend to do; they are also guarded by a line of vendors hawking handmade jewelry, stone carvings and other offerings.

The White House Ruins
Sign on the gate protecting the White House ruins.
Faint petroglyphs carved into the cliff face above the ruins

The White House trail zig zags down into the canyon
Mark makes his way through one of the tunnels on the trail.
The trail follows crevices along the cliff face.

Flowers stand out against the red sandstone cliff base.

The bridge
A farmer plows his field in the shadow of the canyon wall.
Although I was a bit annoyed at first by the constant presence of vendors in the park, I must say they were not as bad as in some other areas of the world we've traveled (Jamaica comes to mind, where I was under a constant barrage from women grabbing my hair offering to braid it.) They might call out to you, but for the most part the vendors wait for a show of interest before trying to sell their wares. With unemployment being so high on the reservation, the sale of these items is often the only income available to some of the people.

A thunderstorm was gathering as we made our way back up the trail.

The wave patterns in this sandstone monolith stand out against the darkening sky.

We stopped at most of the overlooks along the canyon, but after a while they all start to look the same. We had tried to line up a guided canyon tour before we left for our trip, but when that fell through--coupled with the windy weather and a brewing thunderstorm--we decided we were satisfied with what we were able to see from the road and trail. If we pass through again we will definitely hire a guide to get a more personal perspective of the canyon. (Note: There is an office in the Cottonwood campground that can arrange for a guide; it's my understanding that you can hire a guide with a vehicle, or have them accompany you in your own vehicle.)

Overall, I liked the park very much. It was nothing like any of the National Parks or Monuments we have visited before, but once we adjusted our expectations it was an enjoyable experience. I admire what the Navajo Nation has undertaken; trying to share a beautiful natural feature and preserve a way of life while maintaining a bit of privacy is a tricky undertaking.

"The Road Home" Canyon de Chelly

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Man's Best Friend?

It's been a trying day.

Got up this morning, like every morning, leashed up the dogs and went out for our daily walk. We
got about five blocks before we saw our first cat of the day.

We see cats every day. You'd think by now they would know the drill.

The only thing different was this cat didn't run away, it just sat on the curb looking at us. The dogs weren't quite sure what to do; they're programmed to chase, but when the script doesn't go as planned they get a little confused. This cat didn't seem to want to give up it's spot on the sidewalk, but as we walked by it suddenly lost it's nerve. Off it bolted into the street and the dogs both lurched after it, catching me off guard. I made a three point landing--knees and one hand--while still holding the leashes in my other hand as they tried to pull me into the street. Here's the result:

I made Mark take this picture before he doctored me up.
Take-down tally: two scraped and bruised knees, scraped hand, sprained ankle.

This afternoon our dog Twitch had an appointment scheduled to check out a sore on his back leg. A few hundred dollars later we have a powder to apply, a surgery to schedule, and he has a lovely Elizabethan collar to wear until he stops bothering the sore. He hates the collar. I hate the collar too, because what does he do? Wander around the house forlornly following me at every turn, smashing the edge of his collar into my bandaged, oozing knees.

Twitch in his "Cone of Shame"

They might be "man's best friend," but they're sure not mine today.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Canyon de Chelly and the Navajo Nation (Part I)

For years we've been circling Canyon de Chelly, visiting virtually every other park and wilderness area surrounding it in the Four Corners region. This year we finally made the trip and I'm glad we did.

Canyon de Chelly* National Monument is in northeastern Arizona just outside the town of Chinle. The park is fully within the Navajo Nation; they run the park, campground and concessions. In fact, Navajo descendants still live in the canyon planting corn, squash, beans and other crops as their ancestors have been doing for 5,000 years. (Well, except for the timespan after they were run out of the canyon in 1863 by Kit Carson, driven off their own land and banished to live on a reservation in New Mexico: an old and shameful story that has been repeated too many times in history.)

*pronounced "deh shay," it's a Spanish word borrowed from the Navajo "tseyi" (meaning canyon) using a bastardized French spelling, which makes the park name, when translated to English, "Canyon Canyon." Don't ask...

The road to Canyon de Chelly is paved with dust.

We drove in from the North Rim area of the Grand Canyon and quickly realized why we hadn't done it before; Canyon de Chelly is a long way from most anywhere. It's 135 miles from Flagstaff AZ, 179 miles from Albuquerque NM, 351 miles from Denver, and 342 miles from Salt Lake City UT; in other words pretty remote. The day we drove in happened to be one of the windiest days of the year; according to our friend Peter (who has lived in the area for years) the wind really kicks up like that about once a year.

A huge rock monolith is surrounded by swirling dust along the road to Canyon de Chelly

Peter said the winds usually come in spring, huge gusty windstorms blow in just to disappear as quickly as they came. Our impeccable timing had us on the road during the worst of it, buffeted by flying tumbleweeds and dust--huge clouds of dust--blowing into every crevice of the truck and obscuring visibility to just a couple feet in places. It was white knuckle driving, increased by a weird shimmy the truck seemed to have when taking a corner. We wrote it off to the wind, but when we finally arrived in Chinle we discovered we had a seriously low tire.

The screw was in there GOOD.
Pit Crew Mark
Mark had the tire replaced in no time and found the culprit: a hefty screw buried up to it's head in the thick tread. We laughed (nervously) and couldn't believe we had driven 130 miles of rough gravel road in the last few days only to be caught by a screw that had probably fallen off the back of a truck on the highway. Just one of the many reasons we carry two spare tires on these long trips.

There are two choices for camping in Canyon de Chelly: Cottonwood Campground just inside the entrance to the park and Spider Rock, a privately owned campground on South Rim drive. We chose to stay at Cottonwood, a nice campground located under a canopy of cottonwood trees convenient to both the Visitor's Center and the Thunderbird Lodge and store.

Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly National Monument
After changing the tire, we met Peter and walked over to the Thunderbird Lodge Cafe for some dinner. The cafe serves up traditional Navajo dishes, like mutton stew and posole (hominy stew), cafeteria style. I had the posole, which was delicious, but even better was the Indian fry bread. We've had it before and it was good, but this was great: the traditional flat bread dough is fried until it puffs up and when done right, it's dense and chewy but not dripping with grease. Perfect for sopping up the last of the posole stew, which was just spicy enough to make my nose run but not so hot that my lips burned. Perfect.

It takes a little getting used to being on tribal land. The first thing that tripped us up was the time: the state of Arizona, in it's rebel independence, does not observe daylight savings time like the rest of it's neighboring states. But the Navajo Nation does, meaning every time you cross the nation's border the time leaps forward an hour even though you are still within Arizona state lines. Trying to determine the actual time to meet up with our friend was a bit of a challenge; my phone must have been alternately picking up Arizona towers, then Navajo (or possibly New Mexico) ones, bouncing back and forth between five and six o'clock.

The Navajo Nation is huge--27,000 square miles--and covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Most of it is open range land, grazed mostly by sheep. Fences are an afterthought, so if you can avoid it at all, don't drive at night. We saw horses, cattle, dogs, goats and even chickens running around on the roads during our few days there. Nothing like a head-on collision with a horse to ruin your vacation.

We saw this guy browsing right on the side of the road. Looked like he wasn't enjoying the wind much more than we were.
Don't expect things to be like home when you go; the Nation is not Phoenix. There is a 50% unemployment rate there, thus lots of poverty. There aren't sparkling malls and spiffy restaurants, but there are lots of vendors selling handcrafted jewelry and rock art. Interactions with the people might be a little tense at first; the first time I visited I thought I was being treated like "one of those stupid white people whose ancestors were responsible" for so much of their grief. But then I actually read the handout we received at the Visitor's Center at the park. Turns out there are some basic cultural differences that account for my European/American-centric misunderstanding, and it was a real "ah ha!" moment when I found this out:

  • Eye contact is considered impolite. If you are speaking to a traditional Navajo person, they will look down or away even though you may have their full attention. The first time it happened I'll admit to feeling kind of pissed. "How rude!" I thought, "She won't even look at me!"
  • The Navajo are taught from childhood to not talk too much, be loud, or be forward with strangers. Trying to strike up a conversation was a little frustrating; we were lucky to get more than one word answers at times. It reminded me of a comedy skit about the world's worst radio interview.
  • Physical contact is reserved for close family members. The only contact that's usually made with a stranger might be a handshake, and a firm grip is considered overbearing. Mark noticed this in our interactions with the vendors at the overlooks. He really wished he had this information before he played the "overbearing American" by using his usual grip.
  • Photography: it's important to ask permission to photograph anyone, or their house and land. I think this should carry through no matter where you go, but it's especially important here.

Mark and Richard, the artist who made the rock art piece we purchased.
(Yes, we got his permission for the photo--he actually volunteered.)
So let's see: Navajo are traditionally quiet, reserved, non-physical-contact people. Americans are stereotypically loud, look-you-square-in-the-eye-and-tell-you-what-I-think, slap you on the back, "how're ya doin'?" people. Not always a good mix.

It helped that we had our friend Peter prep us a bit for our visit. He has worked in the Nation for years in social services and had a lot of helpful information that explained some of what we were seeing.  It really is like crossing into another country; once you let go of your biases and try to see things from their cultural perspective, it really starts to make sense. It also helps that their land, while sparse and dry, is hauntingly beautiful.

Sunset after a thunderstorm, Cottonwood Campground, Canyon de Chelly

(Part II will continue with our tour of the canyon and the hike down to the White House Ruins.)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Good Neighbor Gone (But Not Forgotten)

A good man died today.

By today's internet standards he wasn't famous--hell, if you googled his name you might not come up with anything but maybe a listing in the White Pages--but he was well known in our neighborhood. He lived most of his adult life here in Santa Rosa, watching it grow from a sleepy little town into the complicated city it's become. He worked as an estimator in the construction industry and in his off time refurbished an old Victorian house, making it a beautiful true-to-the-era home with modern luxuries hidden inside. He and his wife hosted marvelous Christmas parties every year, welcoming all the neighbors with open arms and an overflowing table of wine and food.

I know this because he lived right across the street.

When Mark and I were first married we moved from our tiny duplex to a three bedroom rental house on a nice tree-lined street. George was one of the first to greet us and soon we were regaled with stories of past renters, each tale more wild than the last: the woman who had mysterious visitors at all hours; the "psychologist" who counseled his patients in the nude in a backyard hot tub. I'm not sure if he was testing us or warning us, but ultimately we became good friends.

He spent a lot of time in his garage, tinkering with a classic race car and hanging out with the stray cats he would trap, take to the vet to get altered, then release back into the alley behind his house. He had a soft spot for animals and they loved him for it; cats that would hiss and run from everyone else would walk right up to George and demand to be petted.

There was a widow who lived next door to George for years. When she got so old she could no longer live alone and was moved into a care facility, it was George who watched over the place; taking care of the yard, keeping an eye on the house, fixing the damage after a storm blew down tree limbs. When she eventually passed away and the family wanted to sell, we expressed interest in purchasing the place but didn't have enough saved. It was George who came over and offered to help with the down payment so we could stay in the neighborhood.

What kind of neighbor does that?

We didn't end up taking his offer, but our deep respect and admiration for him tripled. All of our neighbors were wonderful; when we eventually moved (a whole four blocks away) we were a bit depressed. Our new neighbors were nice, but it wasn't the same. It was a lot like moving away from family.

When we told him of our plans to drive to Alaska in 2004, George had stories from his trip as a young man, when he rode a bus all the way up the Alaskan Highway when it was still a gravel road (paying his way working as a "pit crew" for the driver.)

He was a great resource for almost everything: where to find old hardware that matched our 1920's era house, how much wood we needed to complete a stretch of fence, how to get a dual carburetor motor tuned and running again. If we had a problem, George had most likely encountered the same at some point and come up with a solution.

George the Race Car Driver, Halloween 2001

When I got the call today, it wasn't a surprise. George had been fighting cancer for several years and had recently taken a turn for the worse. I've been flipping through some old photos and found several from our annual Halloween parties: the Race Car Driver, the Mobster, the Game Warden; there he was with a beer in his hand (always a Bud) telling a story and making everyone around him laugh. It made me smile to remember, even through the blur of tears.

So here's to our neighbor George: a skilled carpenter, a witty storyteller, a great friend and a wonderful neighbor. We're going to miss you, but how can you be forgotten? Every time we see a stray cat in the alley, one of the many neighborhood picket fences you helped build, or an old race car out for a spin, we'll be thinking about you.

You were one of a kind, and the best neighbor anyone could ever hope for.