Saturday, January 13, 2018

Canyon de Chelly National Monument


Back when we were wintering in Arizona we did a fair amount of wandering around. End result was a stash of photos and impressions that never quite made it to the status of a blog post around the time those photos and impressions were acquired. Canyon de Chelly was one of those places.

I was reminded that I'd never mentioned Canyon de Chelly when I saw a video on Facebook describing an ultramarathon planned for the canyon. Seeing the video made me wish that I was a lot younger and actually insane enough to do long distance running: Canyon de Chelly would be an amazing place to race through.

That said, why I didn't do a timely blog post is a bit of a mystery. We were actually there twice, once in February and then again a month later. The first time we were traveling by car on our way up to Grand Junction, Colorado, to visit my mother. Canyon de Chelly falls about midway between Safford and Grand Junction on US-191 so it seemed like a logical place to stop for at least one night. (We did a slightly different route back to Safford so stopped in Gallup when southbound.)

The second time we were doing the same trip, Safford to Grand Junction, but had the Guppy. We decided to camp for two nights. We knew there was a campground right in the park because we'd spotted it on the February trip. On that trip we spent the night at the Thunderbird Lodge, which is in the park and operated by the Navajo nation, and is right next to the campground. The lodge, incidentally, was a bargain. Nice room, complete with stuff we didn't need like a mini fridge and microwave, and a good on-site restaurant that had great food, and all at much lower prices than I'd expected to pay.

The campground had gotten mixed reviews on Campendium, but we decided to stay there in March anyway. It looked okay to us when we'd given it a quick look from the Visitor Center (you can see down into the campground from the VC parking lot) and when we drove by to check in at the Lodge. It's basic (no hookups) but there is potable water available and a comfort station with flush toilets and sinks -- no showers, but that's a minor inconvenience. The most important thing when you're camping is access to good water.

Anyway, the reviews had some odd complaints, like being too close to where people live, worrying about stray dogs, and telling people to stock up on groceries in Holbrook because there was no place to shop in Chinle. Apparently they didn't do much looking around in town because Chinle is a decent-sized little city and has all the usual conveniences (multiple gas stations, a Family Dollar, a Denny's) including a fairly new Basha's supermarket.

Side note: the meat department in Basha's made me wish we were camping longer -- the dismembered sheep had me thinking it would be interesting to try cooking mutton that wasn't in the form of lamb chops the size of postage stamps. Not that I'd actually eat it -- that would be the S.O.'s job. To me, lamb and mutton always taste like wet woolen mittens. The restaurant at the lodge serves a mutton stew that the S.O. said was good -- and it did look edible to me, although I didn't sample it.

The campground struck me as being rather nice -- it has humongous cottonwoods so would have lots of natural shade when things leafed out -- but was laid out rather oddly. At the site we picked, for example, because of the way the traffic flow moved, it was obvious we should back into the site. However, the picnic table and grill then wound up on the side away from the door and awning. That wasn't an issue when we were planning a short stay and the weather was cool enough that we felt no desire to spend much time outside once we got back from playing tourist, but if we're ever there again (and I would like to do a return visit), we will factor stuff like picnic table location into where we park the Guppy.

Factoid digression: Chinle and de Chelly are both based on a Navajo phrase that translates (according to our tour guide) as "place where water runs between the rocks." For the uninitiated (which included me until I heard the names pronounced) Chinle is pronounced (more or less) "shin lay" and Chelly is "shay." The actual Navajo word for canyon ("tse") is softer. I'm not a linguist so have no clue how it would be described in technical terms, but Navajo seems like one of those quiet, sibilant languages that it would be difficult to do much shouting in. No doubt native speakers manage to raise their voices occasionally, but it feels like it would be a lot harder to do so than it would in something more guttural like German. German seems to lend itself really well to barking out orders.

Back to talking about the actual park.
White House ruin seen from overlook

Canyon de Chelly is an amazing place on multiple levels. It is visually spectacular, it has hundreds of ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings as well as rock art (petroglyphs and pictograms) spanning multiple centuries, and it is in the heart of the Navajo nation. Our tour guide said there are several thousand known archeological sites in the park; we spotted quite a few ruins tucked away in the canyon walls in addition to the ones the guide pointed out so several thousand seems quite believable. Unlike most sites managed by the National Park Service, it is still a living, breathing landscape being used the same way today that it was 200 years ago. Navajo families still have farms, they graze livestock and plant crops, they're in the same place now that their grandparents were before the Monument was created. I"m not sure how they managed to avoid getting booted out when the park was created, but maybe the fact it's "only" a monument spared them the NPS's usual misguided people removal policy.

Even more amazing, the Navajo are actively involved in park management. If a visitor wants to go into the Canyon, whether it's on foot, horseback, or in a motor vehicle, that visitor must do it with a guide or on a tour licensed by the Navajo nation. There is one small exception: you can walk down from one overlook on the south rim to see one of the more accessible cliff dwellings, the White House ruins. It's approximately 3 miles round trip and is reportedly a fairly easy hike. There were quite a few people doing it on the day we stopped at the overlook in late March. We weren't tempted to do it ourselves because we'd seen the ruin as part of the tour in the canyon we took in February. The ruin itself isn't exactly totally a cliff dwelling; it's more like it was built up against the cliff. It's not like some of the ruins built into openings in the cliff walls a couple hundred feet above the bottom of the canyon. You know, the ruins where your first thought is "How the heck did they get up there?!" followed quickly by the thought that the inhabitants were either insane or super paranoid.

The Navajo apparently arrived at Canyon de Chelly after the ancient Puebloans left (ancient Pueblo people is now the preferred term; Anasazi has become passe). From having hundreds of villages and cities scattered across the southwest, the population shrank into a much smaller number of pueblos in about the 13th century. About the same time, Athabascan peoples moved into the region. The Athabascans were semi-nomadic, a hunting and gathering culture, while the Puebloans were farmers. It's unclear what role the movement of the Athabascans into Pueblo territory played on the shifting population, but Anasazi is reportedly based on the Navajo word for "ancient enemy." The Navajo are an Apache tribe; there are minor differences in the language spoken by the Navajo and, for example, the San Carlos Apache, but it's the type of differences you notice when people from different regions of the same country speak, kind of like the differences between speaking Yooper and speaking redneck.

Most of the Apache tribes remained hunter-gatherers, built no permanent houses, and moved around their respective territories seasonally. The Navajo were the exception, possibly because despite its barren appearance the Navajo nation actually has some areas that are naturally good for farming. Nonetheless, the Navajo shared a number of characteristics with the other Apache tribes, including a fiercely independent streak and a lack of interest in cooperating with first their Pueblo dwelling neighbors, then the Spanish, the Mexicans, and eventually the U.S. government.

Canyon de Chelly has a year-round source of good water. A river with various side branches runs through the canyon, and the water table lies very close to the surface. Even in periods of drought when it can look like the river has gone totally dry, all you have to do is dig a few feet down through the sand and, voila, instant waterhole. Although the Navajo today are thought of a a primarily pastoral people relying on herd animals like sheep and goats, in the 19th century they farmed in the canyons. Besides traditional field crops like corn and squash, Canyon de Chelly was renowned for its peach orchards. You don't see many fruit trees there now. The American government destroyed them when the U.S. Army and Kit Carson moved as many of the Navajo as they could round up to a desolate reservation in New Mexico. It wasn't as long a trek as the Trail of Tears but on the other hand the Long Walk was across desert with not enough food and water. Hundreds of people died, and hundreds more starved to death on the reservation. (Between active genocide in the 19th century and passive genocide through contamination from uranium in the 20th, the U.S. government has done a pretty thorough job of fucking over the Navajo.)
White House ruin viewed at ground level

But as usual I digress. Entrance to the canyon is up the river bed. The roads, all dirt (or, more accurately, sand), weave in and out of the river. At some points the road goes right up the middle, sometimes it's off to one side but still in the water, and at places where the canyon widens out it can be quite a distance from it. Visitors have a choice of ways to see the canyon from the inside: several tour operators offer trips in motorized vehicles, there are horseback tours, and you can hire a guide and hike in down several different trails. We were told one of those trails is quite vertical: you come down cliffs that involve climbing down wooden ladders similar to the notched logs used centuries ago. I think the horseback tour would be the way to do it if a person had the time. We had only half a day so opted for a tour that uses 6-wheel drive military surplus vehicles.

We were lucky with the weather the day we did the tour. It started off as a rainy morning but turned sunny. Got to see lots of interesting stuff, learned some Navajo history, and had an overall good experience. I'd definitely do it again if we had the chance to do the all-day tour.

On our second stop at Canyon de Chelly in March, we did the drives along the north and south rims. There are a fair number of overlooks with a different view from each. Seeing the canyon from above after having seen it from below was interesting, too. I will admit my fear of heights did interfere a bit with enjoying the views. The S.O. wasn't fazed, though, and got some great photos that I was too nervous to try for. We had decent but cold weather for our stops at the various overlooks, and then woke up to snow. . . big, sloppy flakes. When we'd been there a month earlier, it felt like Spring. In late March when according to the calendar it was actually Spring, it looked like Winter.

The big sloppy flakes kind of worried me, and they did create a minor problem as we were leaving Chinle. A semi hauling a load of hay jackknifed on the highway (only two lanes at that point) so traffic had to be re-routed. The detour went into a field, drove along a two-track through a mudhole or two, and ran parallel to the fence line until it got to the next gate, and then we got back on to the highway. I was a little concerned about doing it in my Focus but noticed all the locals in ordinary cars didn't seem daunted by it. Then again, most of the roads away from the main highway barely qualify as two-tracks so it was more or less business as usual for anyone who lived on the Navajo nation. I wouldn't have wanted to be the first one in line doing the detour but as part of a parade? No worries.

So what are my recommendations for Canyon de Chelly? Definitely see it if you ever have the chance, and stay at the lodge in the park if you can. It's a nice, clean, quiet place to stay. Just be warned that cell service is spotty. We could text but didn't have strong enough service for voice calls.  And pay attention to the warning signs at the overlook. It's not as dramatic a drop as at the Grand Canyon (hundreds of feet instead of several thousand) but you'll still bounce pretty good if you go over the edge.

1 comment:

My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.