I beat the sun to the canyon and stood on a ledge sipping remnants of the chilled midnight air. Orion pulled one last arrow from his quiver and shot an icy meteor at the horizon. A low, hoarse croak of a distant raven challenged the silence of the red cliff cathedral. Then, emerging through a labyrinth of stone monoliths, sheer walls, talus slopes and arches, the beautiful wail of a coyote and his dancing echo pierced my eardrums. Then silence . and more silence.
Behind a pinyon silhouette, a faint orange glow found a cloud in the east. Soon fiery fingers of light draped golden necklaces around the purple puffs of dawn. A rising tide of powder blue sky found a black-billed magpie. His iridescent feathers reflected the lustrous colors of first light as he took flight and drifted overhead. The rippling air currents popping across his plumage was the only sound in the canyon. Then silence, and more beautiful silence.
Perched on the precipice of a 500 foot drop, I watched the inky black shadows on the canyon floor peel away with every passing minute. A small stream appeared. It snaked through a sandy bed of bleached debris embroidered with tamarisk and cottonwoods. Small plowed fields and orchards appeared around the dirt-capped roof of a hogan. The bleating cry of a sheep broke the silence, and I turned to notice a railed fence corral and three lonely horses wandering down the stream bed at the far end of the canyon. Flocks of chickadees started to sing and dance from tree to tree.
The carrot-red crown of dawn showered the sandstone cliffs with its orange dye revealing a canyon alcove and within it, an unmistakable ancient dwelling of the Puebloan people. I tossed a small stone into the canyon and watched it fall. The canyon swallowed it without a sound.
It’s nothing new in this canyon. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) has been swallowing generations of people for nearly 5000 years. Longer than anywhere else on the Colorado Plateau.
On a short hike back to my wagon, I met one of the current inhabitants of the canyon, a Navajo indian named Clarence. Clarence was dressed all in black, with black pants, black leather gloves, a black hooded sweatshirt and a black hat that said, “No Fear.” He walked straight up to me and asked, “What did you see?” He smiled a toothy smile, a smile that you could trust. So I hired him to be my guide.
He took me to his uncle Carl’s hogan, and we stood around the woodstove warming our fingers and discussing the options. A large hole in the roof allowed the smoke to escape and the sunlight to enter.
I asked Carl if he’d built his hogan, a nine-sided circular log structure about 25 feet across. With his back to the woodstove, he said “Yes” and described the layout in broken English. In a clockwise rotation he motioned, “Here’s the kitchen, here’s the bedroom, here’s the living room, and here’s the office.” The kitchen was a metal table, a stool and a crate full of canned food, the bedroom was a couch and a shelf, the living room was a sofa, and the office was an old wooden table and two even older wooden chairs. There was no electricity and the bathroom was outside. “You can rent for 20 dollars,” he said.
As we huddled around the stovepipe trying to get warm and exchanging small talk, Carl explained that tourism has really fallen off since 9/11. “We used to get Germans and Swiss, but no more.” A sadness crept across his face until we heard a coyote howl. He lifted his head and his eyes twinkled, “They’re part of my clan.” I didn’t know what that meant, but I think I understood.
Clarence and I soon left on a five-hour tour of Canyon de Chelly. We explored ruins, and granaries, and ancient cliff walkways. He showed me pottery and petroglyphs and pictographs and Kokopellis and a six-fingered man. We followed coyote tracks through a maze of tamarisk and bushwhacked through muddy-icy twists and turns of the Chinle Wash. We explored hogans and orchards and cliffs and ravines. We picked fresh apples still clinging to the tree and walked through empty corn fields.
The whole time, Clarence was chanting in Navajo. It was barely perceptible as we walked, but it became amplified as we strolled through the sandstone tunnels. It’s a common practice among medicine men, I would learn, but for a white guy from Silt, it was just a little bit creepy at first. I have no idea what he was saying.
Clarence knew most all of the residents of the canyon and was related to many of them. He told me that only two people in his family could speak English and that he was a translator. We stopped to rest in a makeshift shack and sat on some old bus seats. He tore off the corner of a newspaper and rolled a cigarette.
The journey culminated at Spider Rock, an 800-foot sandstone spire that rises from the canyon floor. As we stood on a cliff overlooking the scene, Clarence described the plants and trees around us.
“And what kind of tree is that?” I asked.
“Fencepost,” was all he said. The canyon swallowed it without a sound.
For more information, call Carl Begay – Navajo guide, (520) 674-5623.
Silt resident Bernie Boettcher’s column runs every other Thursday.
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