Last Monday, I drove from Las Vegas to Chinle, Arizona to visit the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) in the remote northeastern area of Arizona.
Last summer, I read a great book about Kit Carson. He had many skills as a frontiersman, trapper, guide, Indian liason and military guide and leader. He made his home in Taos, NM. He roamed all over the southwest and California in his lifetime. He was instrumental in gaining the surrender of the Navajo Indians at the Canyon de Chelly. I’ve visited most of the landmarks that were discussed in the book, but I wanted to see this area since I’d never been way out here in the middle of nowhere.
The Navajos had made this their home and fortress, and very few people ever attempted to penetrate the canyon. If they did, they rarely returned. It offered great defense for the tribes, and gave them lots of places to ambush invaders.
The Navajos had huge flocks of goats and sheep, herds of horses, and spectacular peach groves of all things. They grew squash, nuts and vegetables which allowed them to live for long periods of time without leaving the canyon.
In 1863 Kit Carson was charged with bringing about the surrender of the last of the Navajos who had constant conflicts with the settlers throughout the region. To force their surrender, Kit Carson destroyed their food supplies, cutting down the peach trees, and killing anything else the Indians could use for food, starving them into submission.
Horrible as that era was, I wanted to see the canyon and the peach groves. I wanted to see if they had replanted them. I wanted to see the canyon and imagine the stronghold that it was. Imagine how a group of 300 – 400 Cavalry soldiers could trek across this barren land and stand in resistance to the Navajos. Pretty amazing feat.
The area surrounding the canyon is high ground and it’s a bit of a surprise. It’s heavily wooded and must receive enough rainfall to grow things. Horses run wild in the desert fields, and a few were eating grass by the side of the road in town, just like deer or elk might up in Minnesota.
Tuesday, I planned to explore the canyon and I needed to find a place to stay Monday night that was close enough to the canyon to get going early. I had my backpack and hiking gear in case I couldn’t find a cheap hotel . I had a nice surprise. The campground next to the visitor center has free campsites! Where in the world does that ever happen? Not many places. It’s usually at least a $10 fee. I set my tent up, and typed on battery power by the light of a full moon. I turned in early so I could get an early start in the morning.
I typically go to the visitors center and get a quick briefing from the park rangers. I watched the 20 minute video in the little theater viewing area and planned my schedule for the morning. I wanted to see and possibly hike the canyon, then move on to the Chaco Culture Monument in New Mexico later that afternoon.
The south rim trail offers many turn out points with nice observation areas. Plaques describe the scene below the rim, which highlights cliff dwellings, fertile farmland, sacred rock formations like Spider Rock ( legend says that this is where the Spirit taught the Navajos how to weave blankets) and caves.
I hiked part of one trail that descended into the canyon, a 600 foot drop down. Lots of birds circled the canyon walls, grabbing insects and flies. Only a few other people were touring the area, and I enjoyed the peaceful solitude.
The faces of many people in the area, including the park rangers, are the faces of the Navajo. Said to be descendants of the ancient Athabaskan tribes in Alaska, these people have more of a Asian or Mongolian look. They are definitely connected to the land, since every farm or home had horses and goats. Lots of homes had a hogan near the house too. I had to ask the rangers how they were used today. The ranger explaned that the hogan is a typical Navajo dwelling, used as a home, living room and place for ceremonies and to host visitors. Today, they are mainly used as a place for weddings or important family gatherings. They also may indicate that the family is holding onto Navajo religious beliefs instead of Christian religions that so many have changed over to in recent years.
I drove the north rim and stopped at a couple of the scenic overlooks, but I needed to move on by 1:00, so I didn’t explore them in depth.
As I finished my canyon study, I came away with a higher respect for the history of the canyon, the determination and persistence of both the Navajo as well as Kit Carson. I am still processing America’s attempt to solve these frontier problems and the brutality used in those times, but today, there is harmony in the area.
I drove on to the Chaco Culture NHP, but that’ll be another report.