Wild, wild west, week 2

Sunday. March 29
After a trip to the visitor center to root our day in some history..natural, geological, and human…we branched out to hike through the a-mazing (pun intended) hoodoos. We learned that the first peoples who encountered these forests of stone imagined that Coyote had turned the Legend People, who had come before them, to stone because they were bad. Alternately there is a creation legend that imagines a young boy being given the bag containing the seeds of people, which were to be dropped in the east, but he accidentally spilled them here in the inhospitable land where they turned to stone. Some say first Europeans, evidently spooked by their alien appearance, gave these totem like sculptures the name hoodoo, which has become the geologic term for them too, because they feared their strange magic. No matter, descending that winding pathway into and amongst those oddly shaped, salmon, mustard and dove colored spires and columns, it was not hard to imagine this place was once revered as a sacred site, whether out of fear or honor, as a graveyard or a testament to the gods.

Don and I worked out a way to better tend to each other while hiking. He sets the pace for the downhills and flat sections when his ankles are most tenuous, I lead the uphills when this 8000 feet elevation leaves me panting. The camera provides a great excuse for a pause, and helps both of us to slow down and look closer when it can be tempting to push ahead to ‘try to see it all’ , which often translates to not really seeing anything at all.

The films, both at the visitor center here today and at Arches on Friday, focused on forces of constant evolution over time of these vast changing landscapes, and on appreciating the unique moment in time in which such wonders are ours to behold. The long give and take relationship between land and sky is the driving force for these endless cycles of creation. Here in this landscape it is easy to witness and honor this cooperative bond, where you can notice a gust of wind carrying the soil away in its breath, or be stunned by huge boulders or great scrapheaps of stone rubble that have tumbled from above, broken down by centuries of snow and rain. Back home, it seems the process, too familiar perhaps, is more subtle, hidden beneath so many layers of green.

I think perhaps the ever shifting shape of the relationship between a man and a woman is also a wonder to behold, subtly changing day by day, unnoticed except in a long view. As I lay in bed last night, wondering which one of us was sky, who was land, in this delicate give and take where occasonally one overtakes the other but where balance is eventually reached, I vowed again to honor the sacredness of our own intimate bond. So, as I entered the puzzling walls of hoodoos I suppose it is not surprising that I saw a cathedral and a circle of choristers , their arms posed in prayer.

Oh, photographs do much better justice in relaying this uncanny beauty, but even they fall utterly short!

Scrappy towers of pine, finding the scant water in occasional gulleys and washes in crevices between the hoodoos, rise to offer contrast in color and harmony in the life-death-life cycle. Deeper into our walk, we entered a dry wash that we were told roars through here when thunderstorms roll. Crossing that low valley, the pine needles, crushed beneath thousands of feet, offered up their fragrance, while birdsong drifted to ears that paused long enough to hear. A soft wind carried them both to our senses and our hearts followed to watch a songbird warble from its bowing pine perch.

Meandering our way back up the steeply switchbacked trail, we hiked in short sleeves past snow blanketed alcoves and north facing slopes. Alternately stepping into the shade, then the sun, the shade, then sun, we were cooled and then baked as we steadily ascended. Stopping for lunch in the eaves of an salmon colored rock alcove, we were refueled and refreshed.

Nearing the top of the climb the shadows of large birds crisscrossed our path, swooping and soaring. Ravens, at first, and then, at the canyons rim, a great osprey, the very tips of its wings pointing up, hunting, no doubt, for one of the chipmunks who thrive on the pine cones here. We’d seen them darting and scrambling over rocks and into crevices. We’d also spotted some prairie dogs near the parking area at the top. I imagine one of them would make a fine meal if you were an osprey feeding a family.

As we sat watching the osprey soar and dive, the skies began to darken and the wind picked up. Suddenly chilled, we accepted the invitation to return to our room for a shower and rest. Afterwards, as Don dressed, I walked back to the edge to check on the weather. As I did so, i had the distinct sense of traversing the dunes on the way to the ocean, except when cresting this dune the earth disappears not into the sea but into this great crevasse that once was a great sea of water. The dome above was ominous and gray, and the pine trees swayed, but only a drop here and there fell from the sky.

Still, this change in the sky from clear blue made for a beautiful sunset stroll along the rim later in the evening after a satisfying dinner in the historic lodge’s restaurant. The weekend crowd dispersed, we enjoyed the relative feeling of solitude, as the light reflected and refracted through those now low lying clouds. We hope to arise before dawn in the morning for a view of the stars in this ‘last grand sanctuary of natural darkness.’ The moon is to set @4:30 so we are hoping a 5:00 wake up will delight us with magnificence.

Monday, March 30

Today was a day of sharp contast and fluctuating extremes. We began the day two hours before dawn, just after moon set, to don winter layers and walk to the brim of the canyon to bask beneath that dark dome of sky and drink in a view of the stars, millions of them, broad milky brush strokes of them arching from the southeast, familar constellations lost in the multitudes. And there we were, tiny specks floating through the universe along with them clinging to this small dark planet for the ride. An hour and a half later we rose again, this time with the sun, to a sky completely transformed by its brilliance and power. That sun peeked quietly over the ridge some 100 miles away, as if it were an everyday occurence, as we stood shivering, beneath the baby blue dome.

Later, while attending an educational talk on that same brim, pondering how the dry rocky world in which we stood was once a tropical rain forest fed by amazons of rivers flowing down from the then majestic appalachian mountains, then a great inland sea teeming with lochness-sized marine creatures, then uplifted by fiery forces beneath our feet to become this great plateau, which is being eroded and sculpted by time, we learned that this is not truly a canyon at all but a high eroding plateau inching westward by the chiseling force of ice and thunderstorm.

Leaving the park after that, we drove the 20 mile winding parkway that was strung like a pearl necklace with scenic overlooks, some of which simply defied logic, while on the opposite side of the road, in places, the earth was scorched. Ironically, the lone picnic table we found was there, a red stone path winding its way from the parking lot through the crunchy earth to our lunch spot. As we ate in the midst of charred trees, a scrub jay, so deeply azure blue as to challenge the sky, fluttered by to perch on the tips of small twigs near the ground. Drawing our eye down, we noticed deep scarlet leaves dotting the earth, life pushing forth, being born again. Also delighting there on the charred earth was a young girl, who flew from her car to dance in the patches of snow, gathering baggies full to take along with her.

The drive to zion, an hour south, unfolded into a true valley, carved over millenia by a virgin river, where our car burrowed through a mile long tunnel carved by men almost a century ago. Again, the majesty stunned us, as we steered our way down the switchbacks into the heart of the park. Towering mountains of stone in yet a new color…terra cotta and mustard and steel grey …. we passed. Close to these walls it appeared they were frozen mid sweep, in waves of wind blown dunes. We saw big horned sheep maneuvering those craggy walls. At this point my camera was tired, overdosed on beauty and wonder, sleeping it off in the back seat.

Arriving at the visitor center circumferenced by magnificence, as if plunked into the center of a bowlful of awe, we alighted to 85 degree weather and scorching sun ( me still in my morning winter layers , though now stripped to the base) . This fatigued me more than 5am darkness, so we went inside for the film and to be breifed on the history of this place. We soon learned that this very site was once a mormon pioneer’s homestead…no wonder ( yes, pun intended again) he made his home here and named it Zion, which means a place of sanctuary, refuge and promise. Before his time, the Southern Paiute thrived here at the base of these mountains, hunting and gathering, and before them were the ancestral puebloans, accomplished at terraced irrigation agriculture, who believed they were placed here at the beginning of creation.

Tired after a long day, we found our room in the small town, sprung up at the entrance to this park, waited for a table for dinner and wine, walked to the grocery for resupplying the cooler, and fell into bed.

zion 5

Tuesday, March 31

Today, we visited the interior of zion canyon, or Mukuntuweap, the Paiute name for this ‘straight up land’ which the bubbling green waters of the of the tiny virgin river have carved. Of course, occasionally she rages in flash floods with nowhere to go but downstream, carrying boulders and uprooting trees and washing away millions of tons of sediment, but today she was sparkling and quiet.

The park, on the other and, was not. As diligent as the park service has been in trying to lessen the impact of tourists on a pristine wilderness ecosystem, funneling 3 million visitors between her towering walls wreaks its own kind of havoc on a sanctuary. And while shuttle busses eliminate traffic jams, motor sounds, and exhaust fumes, there is something about being dropped off at bus stops to take a hike that feels so terribly urban . Then there are the prescribed ‘hikes’ themselves, with rivers of humanity flowing in both directions creating logjams and overflows. Thankfully, this pushed don and me into some lesser tributaries where we were more able to flow at our own pace.

Yet, given all of the above, in the end, the grandeur of the park dwarfs this trickle of humanity. Again, the camera helps, forcing me to focus, reminding me to look up when my feet are being pushed to march on, and to look close at hand when the crowd simply and doggedly wants to get to the destination. Needless to say, we stepped aside often to give ourselves the time and the space to take in the elegance of this place…both small and large.

My imagination helped here too, with its ability to see beneath, before, behind, within, and thru. The paiute elder reminded me that this land contains stories and songs if I listen and look. Each rock has a story to tell, each flower, each tree, each bend in the river or the trail.

And so I paused at each bend to look back over my shoulder to witness what the river had done. I explored the variety in the shapes of leaves clinging to the dripping faces of rocks in great cascading gardens of maidenhair, columbine, and cliffrose. I sought out the source of the sweet fragrance filling my breath and found it was a bank of delicate yellow blossoms growing from holly shaped leaves (which I later learned were oregon grape blossoms). I marveled at reeds shooting upwards next to prickly pear cactus in a lowland swamp in the middle of a desert. I delighted in the spring green leaves of aspen shimmering against the painted backdrop of the canyon walls. I smiled at the bright reds of indian paintbrush and scarlet beardtongue and was tickled by the irridescent blue of the dragonflies who landed to sip on the dampness in the seeping nook that we’d chosen for lunch.

Later we followed the river to the place where the canyon walls narrow to slots. Though we didn’t wade into those icy waters, like some who were prepared with neoprene suits, we did climb out on a boulder for an afternoon rest, the song of the river there soothing my soul, and the story I heard of what it was like here in the before-times nourishing my spirit. What must it have been like to have quietness and awe living next door to one another. How must it have felt to descend and discover this breathtaking gorge, to know of these secret sanctuaries.

Of course, I realize I would never have seen this particular beauty had it not been for these road and trail builders, and I wonder, as the zen priest does about the proverbial tree falling with no one to hear, if beauty like this needs a witness at all. I like to think there are places like this unvisited and unknown, recluse refuges that hold the world’s mystery and wonder in peace. I like to think that is important somehow.

Boarding the standing-room only shuttle for our ride out of the park, my weariness returned. Many stops, one transfer, and about 45 miinutes later, we exited the shuttle to stand in line for 20 minutes to order a meal at a counter that cost $50.

We leave tomorrow for the grand canyon. We are hoping to find a less populous hike on the east side of zion on our way out.

Wednesday, April 1

As i write this morning from our ample room at the bed and breakfast in Williams, Arizona, the wind outside our porch door entrance is whistling and the temperature is in the upper 30’s. We had decided to rest this morning after a long, full day of travel yesterday anyway, to head north into the Grand Canyon later in the morning. I hope to spend a full day there and be in place to catch some photos of the sunset and moon rise over the canyon this evening. I have missed having lodging in the parks these last few stays, with the ability to take a walk and be that close to nature, especially during those thin, quiet times around dawn and dusk.

Travel days, like yesterday, can pass by in a blur, seeming impossible that so much could have been seen and experienced in one day.

We began our day in zion, traveling back out that eastward switchbacked zion-mt carmel road, which had filled our eyes with wonder on the drive in. We passed through that mile-long narrow tunnel, after which we parked immediately to hike the canyon overlook trail, which was a delight. The limited parking there (with no shuttle bus drop off) made the trail much less populated than the hikes from the previous day. The weather was cool, the views satisfying, and the terrain varied. We walked above narrow slot canyons, into house-sized coves in the face of rock walls, past massive rock falls, on narrow ledges and across a manmade wooden catwalk where no ledge could be carved in the sheer rock.

I have been captivated by the trees here (of course smile emoticon ), the way they hang on to life at any extreme. Clinging impossibly to the sheer verticle face of a rock wall or leaning precariously at very edge of a drop, dwarf solitaries stand in soil so sandy one wonders what they can possibly hold onto. Far below tall communities gather together next to the river, where on any given day a torrent of water might wash their strongholds from beneath them.

Near the pinnacle overlook, the trail opened out into boulder strewn sand, where we could wander, exploring varying viewpoints. This perspectivr of the red stone cliff-sided mountaintop inside which we had recently driven our car, entering one end to be deposited here at the other, put into context the remarkable feat those men had accomplished. Here, as well, Don relished in scrambling to the top of a pile of boulders, while I stayed below to, ahem, snap the photograph.

A highlight of this walk for me was the conversation I engaged in with a round- bellied, bearded, iconically Austrian looking biology teacher from Denmark. We first encountered him when he charmed me by breaking into an enchanting edelweiss-like song beneath the cove’s overhang, singing to his daughter what he told us was a melody lovers sing to one another in the streets of Paris. Later, I came upon him studying the leaves and unopened blossoms of a shrub. That was how I learned he was a teacher of biology at a Danish Gymnasium. He was curious about the different varieties of flora here than in Europe. Together we tried to identify some early season plants and desert flowers and listened together to the bewitching cascading song of the canyon wren, while Don patiently, lovingly, waited below on his shaded rock perch.

We have noted often, on every trail and in every park, the variety of human languages being spoken amongst friends, almost as diverse as the flora and fauna and terre we encounter. It seems the whole of the human family is drawn to the beauties of the natural world from which we sprung and of which we are an integral part. Are we beauty then, too?

Back in the car, exiting the park, we paused to visit the checkerboard mesa, a seemingly natural pyramid of stacked blocks of varying colors, which Don scrambled up like a kid…human or goat…while I explored the cool sands below where the manzanita bloomed.

at last road trip 530Leaving the cliffs and pinnacles behind, the terrain almost instantly shifted to ranchlands. We passed browsing buffalo and corrals of horses. Soon the soil became even too dry for these and we were in the desert proper, my preconceived illusions of desert as endless barren windswept dunes shattered by the presence of life even here… juniper and sage.

Traversing the western edge of the of the Grand Staircase-Escalante and the Kaibab plateau , we passed the Vermillion cliffs and stopped at the Land Management office there for a bathroom break, where we were treated with an educational display on the paleontology that takes place in these exposed layers of history-in-stone. Mammoth prehistoric crocodile-like fossils have been found here, among others, from when this land was a sea. Of course, here were also large skulls of massive land creatures extracted from the rain forest layers. Again, we were reminded of the continual creative evolution of this planet we call home for but a brief moment in time. Will we become but a layer in the fossilized storybook, one day to be marveled about by creatures as yet unimaginable, as the earth continues her process of prolific transformation?


Soon we were at the Big Water overlook, a view of the 20 million acre Lake Powell reservoir, which flooded what was once the narrow Glen Canyon of the Colorado river, east of the Grand Canyon. Part of the great dam projects of the last mid century, these dams were designed to share the resource of water along the Colorado’s course.

big water

Utterly bizarre, here was a marina with houseboats and jet skies plunked in the middle of the desert. Here too, the waters looked eerily blue, too blue, though decidely beautiful next to the painted colors of the desert it had inundated. I learned that the waters’ colors are a result of the blockage of sediments by the dams, sediments that are vital to the ecology of a waterway, for both the deposition and the scouring functions they perform. Untestrained, the Colorado river would run bloodred with sediment here.

From the company town of Page, sprung up in the middle of the desert in the 1950’s when the dam was being constructed, driving west we entered the Navajo reservation lands, a flat expanse of sand dotted with the occasional hogan, but mostly with weathered trailer homes or abandoned hovels and ramshackle roadside stands where navajo persons set up impromptu marketplaces for their wares. This portion of the drive made me sad, to see a culture obliterated, like the glen canyon before us, stripped of its resources for surival.

But soon we came to the Cameron trading post, built up from the original post of 1916, with its historic architecture and gallery of authentic navajo works of art. We had not planned to stop here, nor did we even know we’d be passing by, but here, I saw Don light up the way I do when I come upon an unexpected natural wonder and I encouraged him to turn back and pull in. The grand canyon would wait.

And was he in his glory, seeing firsthand some pieces he’d only imagined from his extensive reading…for instance, a late classic period bayeta blanket, @1865, which he explained to me was woven from the yarns of dismantled Spaniard’s cloth. Priced at a mere $59,000 , it was just a bit out of our price range, but he was allowed to touch. Later, we visited the shop next door where Elsa, a Navajo woman was weaving an intricate design. Stacks of hand woven rugs by her and others adorned the studio. Don was in tapestry heaven, as the Danish biology professor and I had been at the start of this wide reaching day, discussing patterns and weaves, sources of dyes and yarns, trading posts and regional differences.

As had he in the morning, I found my niche and waited while he lingered, reveling with the artist and shop keepers in details too tangled for me. Instead I sifted through displays of pottery and baskets, storytellers and totems, following my senses alone to what drew me.

Growing hungry and tired, we departed at last for our drive through the eastern entrance to the grand canyon for a quick first peek. The sun by this time was blaring on the late afternoon haze and visbility was low, but we tasted a morsel, before deciding to simply drive through on our way to our evening’s lodging, save the feast for tomorrow…. which is today!

A dinner of ribs (have they not even heard of poultry here??!!!) after a tiresome wait filled our bellies, though the conversation with Don as he overflowed with both exuberance and information on navajo history and weaving filled me much moreso. (I have been struck of late by this word in-form…being formed from within…but that is for another day) The grand canyon awaits.

Thursday, April 2

Color upon color upon color.
Layer upon layer upon layer.
Millenia upon millenia upon millenia.
Mile upon mile upon mile.
Cool air, blue sky, brisk breeze.
Long walk, trail of time, blocks of stone.
Mather point, Powell point, Hopi point.
Camera click, shutter stop, battery change.
Condor soar, sheer nook nest, back from the brink.
Winter hat, winter coat, winter gloves.
Moonrise, sunset, moonglow
Love upon beauty upon wonder
Color upon color upon color.

Friday, April 3

Change upon change upon change could’ve been the last line of yesterday’s reflections, each evolution depositing its layer atop the last. Today, I experienced this on a human scale, and realized perhaps how uneasy I am, not perhaps with change itself, but with the processes by which they often occur. These processes can make me feel vulnerable and uncertain about how I belong.

This human layer in which we stand right now, of course, is laying down as the world shifts and our institutions crumble, and what felt rock solid a few decades ago is already under water today. This happened a century ago too in the great shift from agrarian to industrial societies, as it did again from industrial to knowledge, layer by layer.

Sometimes that shift has been gradual, as a culture learns and adapts, like slowly encroaching seasons of rising sea levels laying down sand. Other times it has been cataclysmic as a culture is raided and destroyed, like those massive volcanic eruptions that buried the earth in lava or ash, or those layers that are completly obliterated leaving unexplained ‘unconformities’ in the record.

The dis-ease I feel standing in this place where such a cataclysm occured is disarming to me. I do not know how or what to feel. Do I feel grief or fear?. Do I feel shame or responsibilty? Do I feel hated or valued? Do I feel welcomed or scorned? Do I feel sorrow or empathy? Projection or compassion?

I do not understand the marketplace. When am I expressing value ? When am I exploiting? When does curiosity, as seeking to understand, cross over to something irreverent? Where is the line between history and present? Between sacred and profane?

We visited the historic Hubbell trading post this afternoon, one that Don has longed to see, now a National Historic site. Here, a white man, an entrepreneur, helped the navajo, after they were returned from their concentration camps to their devastated homelands, to build a new way of life. By all accounts he was beloved for this, was able to give dignity to a people demoralized, by recognizing both their great need and by valuing their gifts and creating a culture and place where both could be addressed.

And yet, their ability to be self-sufficient, self-governing, self-agentic, self-identifying had been destroyed.

Are any of us self-sufficient anymore? Were we ever?

Why do I not feel this way when I visit Williamsburg, Virginia? That culture also no longer exists. Conversely, how would I feel if someone wanted to take a photograph of the way that I have adapted to survive?

Just this morning, my husband toted his wares from the car to show to the owners of the bed and breakfast, who possess a wealth of furniture, art, sculpture and pottery from around the world, a collection so vast they literally had to build another house on the rear to display it all. I felt uncomfortable there too…so uncomfortable I had to excuse myself . And yet, did not their purchase of these support the artists who created them? Does Don not feel valued when someone admires his work enough to pay him for it?

Consumer cultures are a layer of humanity I have difficulty feeling at home in. The value/devalue of money confounds me. Am I a dinosaur then?

We are sleeping this evening in a lodge at canyon de chelley owned and operated by the navajo people. We ate dinner in their old trading-post-turned-cafeteria. Walking in to a place where guests of the lodge and locals from the nearby delapidated trailers sat down together to eat, I felt a strange mixture of welcome and intrusion. There are bars on our room’s windows and reminders to remove valuables from our vehicles before we lock them.

After dinner, we drove to the rim for a glimpse of the cliff dwelling ruins tucked into these walls. The anasazi’s mass exodus from this place remains a mystery, an ‘unconformity’ in the historical layer. The navajo culture was not the first to inhabit this land. Those ancient puebloans once had a unique way of life that sustained them for a time.

All things must pass.

I suspect I believe there are right ways and wrong ways for deaths to occur, ones that honor the life that is passing and ones that are callous, immune, or even exploitive of it. Seeing those layers of time etched in stone, I do not know that it matters at all to the earth how we die. Massive trees are felled, covered in sediment, inundated with silicone, petrified into stone…only resembling what they once were. Compassion, it seems, is the gift … and the curse… that only we humans can bring.

I did not take a lot of photographs here, so as not to be exploitive. Here are some of the trading posts and countryside.

Saturday-Sunday, April 4-5

It has been an interesting two days. I don’t know where to begin. I expect I will be sorting and integrating what I have seen and experienced here for some time.

There is such abject poverty here. I have just been reading the sobering statistics on reservation poverty. Google ‘Navajo poverty’ and perhaps you too will be stunned. Of course, somewhere I knew this, but when I was planning this trip, I simply chose Chinle because it was centrally located in the area of the old trading posts that Don had so wanted to revisit and share with me and because there was a lodge at the national monument , Canyon de Chelly, here in the center of Navajo lands. What we have experienced here has impacted me more profoundly than stepping up to that edge and seeing a gaping hole of millions of years open up before me ever could.

Yesterday, we drove off with map and guidebook in hand, following dusty roads in search of two old trading posts. Up over the ridge between here and new mexico, the landscape changed into something that almost felt like home as trees began to fill in and up, and I felt my heart release some of its grief and anxiety into that mountain air. As we drove, I wondered out loud with Don if the people had gotten stuck somehow, like an individual who is traumatized at a developmental stage. Though they grow up physically, they can remain psycholgically unable to move beyond the stage of their original wounding. I don’t know if that’s fair at all and i know i risk both wild speculation and insolence here, but it does seem that the ability to evolve naturally into whatever a post-agrarian culture would have looked like for these people was stunted by the trauma inflicted upon them. (and perhaps the subsequent codependence that was set up such that they were not given the opportunity to know the healing that self empowerment and self definition can bring)

And yet, there is a paradoxical pride here too. Pride in tradition (which I imagine can uplift as much as it can stifle the new…betraying old ways and all). Pride in having survived (which I know from experience can also lead to living as a victim if one doesn’t move from surviving-in-spite-of, to thriving-because-of). Pride in family and culture and homeland. And they have their stories, and I know how stories, told and retold, can heal and make sense out of life, but we can also get stuck in them.

Here is where I felt in these people a poignant richness, which is a great poverty to many of us who come from a culture that has ‘evolved’ and changed. I do not know the stories of my people, the stories of my homeland.. I do not know where my people came from, how my ancestors lived. I do not know their climate nor their customs, what they ate, how they prayed, how they found meaning. I do not recall a homeland from which to feel stripped. Even if I did know the ways of my grandmothers, that culture has also been obliterated. I do not live in the same ways or the same places as my ancestors of 150 years ago did. And so the grief they bear at their loss evokes a deep longing in me, as one who experiences instead a dearth of belonging and connection.
There is a rootedness in these people, a knowing who they are and whose they are, that those of us who feel adrift only sense longingly as different. It is as if i am that solitary tree clinging tenaciously to the edge, seeking nourishment in the rock of the canyon rim, while they are the community of trees below, whose sandy soil was washed out from under them in that great inundation.

We visited two trading posts, relics now with the advent of convenience stores, grocery chains, and walmart. One has adapted by becoming a museum in the locked back rooms for a collector and wholesaler, though the front and center bullpen retains its yesteryear feel, with shelves behind the tall counter stocked with a few staples and one old timer hanging out, curious about us white visitors. There, the middle aged clerk told us stories of washing and carding the wool , which her mother would weave into rugs from a loom erected between two close-enough trees in the hills. She’d wished that she would’ve received the weaving gene, but her sisters and brother seemed to have caught it. He would weave throughout the whole summer so that he could sell his rug to purchase football cleats when school started up in the fall. She took us to the locked rug room, where there were exceptionally finely woven tapestries and rugs, crafted by local navajo artisans, friends and relatives of the clerk, but I wondered who could afford these prices. As we browsed, on the other side of the door, i heard her explain to the old timer what RID was used for. It seemed such a disconnect.

At the second post, which evidently had converted to more of a convenience store before its eventual demise, the cashier knew immediately that we were the ones who must’ve called to see if they were open. She called the owner right away to tell him we were there. Besides us, there were several dogs who wandered in and out of the propped open door, 2 or 3 toothless old women, seated on a bench speaking in navajo to one another, and a lot of empty deli cases and grocery shelves.The cashier was seated at a loom behind the counter, where she was weaving a remarkable pattern.

The owner, who seemed cautious about us at first, warmed up to don’s eagerness and patiently watched as don sorted one by one through a stack of folded rugs. He said he’d been to pennsylvania once (‘its very green there’) and that he’d acquired the post some thirty years ago when he moved from california and needed a job. He’d since married a native woman, whom we met as we left when he introduced us to her in the dusty parking lot (she’d just come in from tending the sheep) telling her ‘ these folks just bought two rugs’ , and I had the feeling they’d be able to pay the bills, or the cashier, for the week. He also introduced us to Spot, a gray striped pit bull, who’d shown up starved a few weeks back and had decided to stay when they fed him. Dogs….sheep and goats…and horses …. roam unleashed and unfenced here.

Returning to the lodge, I needed a dose of nature, so after dinner we drove out to spider rock overlook. Spider woman is the one who gave weaving to the navajo people. She stands sentinel at the end of the canyon in great bowl. On the high mesa overlooking her, we had a view of the sun setting and the full moon rising almost simultaneously, like some cosmic warp and weft with the earth in between, spinning.


This morning (Sunday) we met with a young adult navajo guide, who sherpad us into the canyon basin for a close up tour of the ruins. Only persons with authorized licenses are allowed into the canyon itself. At one time, the park service allowed persons to go down but they were disrespectful of property owners, who still farm there, and so the navajo put a halt to it. The awkward young man, quite shy and seemingly out of his element, drove us in his dusty and rusty old car …. one window could still open …. to the private trail, and gradually eased as we walked. With him, we saw how this canyon has been home to peoples for centuries. First came the hunters and gatherers, of course, passing through seasonally, but soon came the Basket weavers, whose petroglyphs we saw, who had been given the gift of growing corn. He led us to petroglyphs of succeeding cultures– the ancient puebloans, who settled in communities , raised turkeys and grew squash, beans, and cotton along with the corn; the hopi, who are believed to be descendents of these anasazi people but who evolved their own culture, and would return to this sacred canyon of their ancestors for their ceremonies, leaving petroglyphs and offerings behind; and finally the navajo, who found this canyon to be a good land, offering them protection from enemies, the lifeblood of water, and soil to grow crops and raise sheep. He explained to us that the navajo did not bother to explore the villages of cave dwellings high on the canyon walls above them. To do so would have been to disturb the ancestors. Only when the archeologists came were they disturbed, and then they found mummified remains in stone covered cave tombs, pottery shards, etc amongst the complex house ruins.

At Don’s prompting, the young man practiced his storytelling with us as we walked right through the river. When asked about historical events, of which we had read, like the Long Walk, or the massacre in the canyon, he would break into storytelling, often beginning ‘Well my father told me this story, as told to him by his grandmother, like this’, or ‘To tell that story, I have to begin with fortress rock’ and then would proceed to tell us a story of how his people survived…a young boy, who hid beneath his massacred family to trick the spaniards into thinking he was dead, who then survived to grow old and paint the story on the walls; or a clan who resisted being captured for the brutal internment by fashioning rope ladders and climbimg to the top of a sheerfaced pinnacle, then pulling their ropes. He told us his favorite legend, which his father would tell him as a young boy, about how the streaks on the walls of the canyon were dragons blood, which ran when two young warriors killed him. This dragon had created the canyon and his head was still visible in the black stone near his home. He told us how his grandmother taught him to rise and go to bed with the sun..she still lived in a hogan without electricty or running water….but that most of his friends were not taught this, nor did they know the old stories. He told us that most of the Navajo do not talk of the Long Walk, because it was such a bad thing.

On the drive back to the lodge, we learned he’d never been off of the reservation. Apologizing for his car’s one window , Don said, ‘Well , as long as it’s reliable, that’s all that matters’

”I guess so’, was his doubtful reply, spoken through missing teeth.

As we pulled into the parking space and the engine noise subsided, the sound of heavy metal rose to the forefront, which he embarrassedly turned down the rest of the way. Don paid him and I once again had the sense that his family would get by.

More Canyon photos here

After, we decided to do some much needed laundry. We’d spotted a seedy looking place nearby and another next to the grocery chain store in town. We decided on the second, but were accosted, as soon as we opened the door, for spare change. There were multiple signs posted asking us to help their community by not giving money to panhandlers. The beggars followed us into the laundrymat, sat next to us, finally gave up, went back outside or were escorted.. I then sat back and closed my eyes, listening to the laughter filled conversation between an old and a middle aged woman, in navajo. On the way out, the beggars again followed us. Most were visibly drunk. A drunk woman caught my attention and my eye and saying that she ‘wanted me to know that her grandmother told her the winds had changed around here, that it wasn’t always like this.’ She’ just wanted me to know that’. We pulled out of our parking space with persons literally clinging to the car windows.

On the drive back, we passed the high school where our guide had attended. I’m not certain he graduated, only 30-50% do. Not far from the school is the juvenile detention center. Across the street is the drug and alcohol treatment center’. Here, unemployment is over 40% , as is the number of households living below the poverty level. One quarter of the homes do not have complete plumbing or kitchen facilities. One third of the houses are abandoned, and those that aren’t look like they should be. I do not believe this is a cultural preference on their part- a navajo takes pride in his home; nor a cultural bias on my own – conditions are abysmal.

We drove back out to the canyon for some air, this time visiting the canyon del muerto side… the canyon of death, where massacres occurred and people were rounded up like cattle. It is a beautiful, pastoral valley. We sat in the stiff breeze of the mesa overlooks, watched the ravens glide over those abandoned cliff dwellings. The peoples have come and gone in this sacred land , but these ones can’t seem to move on. Their memories bind them somehow.

We found a burger king open (the cafeteria here at the lodge was closed for easter). It was by far, by very far, the nicest place in town, and we, shamefully, relaxed in the middle class familiarity.

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