Recently Betty and I journeyed to the Southwest to show our film and visit family members who live there. On the way back to Idaho, we visited a few places that we had not seen for many years as well as a few places that were on our wish list.
One of the destinations was Canyon de Chelly on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. I was born and raised in Arizona and yet had never ventured there. My father often talked about us visiting Canyon de Chelly. (He pronounced Chelly, as Shelly, instead of the Spanishized word “Chelly,” which has been incorporated into English so that it is pronounced “de shay.” The Navajo word for the canyon is “Tseyi” which was borrowed by the Spanish as “de Chelly” and incorporated into English from there.) But we never went and I suppose it was because my father did not like to go anywhere too far from his house, his job, his business, and I also think he didn’t really want to go much of anywhere with me. My saying as much isn’t to rebuke my father, because I was a handful when young, always getting into messes in places I had no business getting into. I talked incessantly and asked a lot of questions. I had opinions—strong ones—which when expressed, often made my father’s face turn the red color of the cliffs in northern Arizona.
In the summer of 1963, I worked on the Navajo Nation in a little slaughter house that killed dry ewes. The packing plant sat on a small piece of private land outside of Window Rock, not really that far from Canyon de Chelly. But I never ventured to the canyon, just hung out trying to see if I liked smoking cigarettes, getting trucks stuck in the snotty clay of a wet summer, dreaming about sex and being scared near to death about the sin of it all, the chilling thrill.
But two days before Christmas of 2011, Betty and I met Leon Skyhorse Thomas, a Navajo guide, musician, filmmaker and native ceremonial officiate, at the visitor’s center of the canyon. We climbed into his beat-up white Jeep with our camera gear and drove into the heart of Canyon de Chelly. The walls are the color of terra cotta when the light is right, and almost orange when the light is right a different way. They shoot right up like someone cut them with a cross-cut saw, then used an adze to shape them. It was early and cold and the breeze was like Kit Carson’s saber when he drove his U S Army troops into the canyon in the 1860s to destroy the native strongholds and their beloved peach tree orchards.
The ride in was rough along roads that seemed to change like the tracks of sidewinders in a wind- driven sand. The walls were narrow and Chinle Creek was mostly frozen. I asked about the notorious quicksand of the canyon and he laughed and told me he’d buried three vehicles in the canyon. After hearing that, I seemed to sit lighter in my seat as we jounced and bounced and battered our way down the track between the narrow walls. Several times Leon stopped, got out, and surveyed which route might be the best.
There are still farms in the bottom of the canyon, and people live there in the summer. The way the light lit up the warm, south-facing walls of the canyon played against the dark walls of the cold side and we were rocking and reeling back and forth between the dark and the light.
Leon spoke Navajo to us. A lot. He sang to us in Navajo, too, and he chanted a prayer. And he took us to First Ruin and White House Ruins and to natural alcoves, one where Navajos had scratched pictographs in charcoal that documented a Ute Indian raid into the canyon. We saw Anasazi petroglyphs and Hopi petroglyphs and both ancient and more modern native pictographs. Petroglyphs are art sculpted into rock. Pictographs are painted with pigment onto rock. And the wind knifed through the bare limbs of the cottonwood trees. And the cold pelts of the resident cattle and horses were fluffed up to deflect the cut of the morning.
Once, parked next to some rock art, Leon began to explain the Navojo sensibility vis a vis the canyon. As he spoke he changed from English to Navajo. We didn’t know what the words meant but we understood the emotion of them as they flew away from Leon and married the sculpted and concave walls of the towering cliffs. His words began to echo, around and around us, through the trees, along the fence lines, and back against the walls.
For visitors to Canyon de Chelly, there are motels with clean rooms and good food. The Navajo people are friendly and attentive. I suspect summertime is very busy and very hot. The fall might be the best time to go, because as Betty likes to say, the fall is always the best time to travel.