travelog 40

Canyon de Chelly

Red, yellow, orange, beige-colored rock faces tower up vertically into the sky on both sides. Rain water has left its grey and black patterns on the rock. Yellow ruins crouch into an overhang. Some paintings are visible. With the first rays which creep over the canyon wall, the sun makes the light green leaves of the Cottonwood trees even lighter. The White House Ruins are the only ruins in this canyon which can be visited without an Indian guide. It is only during the summer heat that the hike from the canyon rim is strenuous, but you are rewarded with incredibly beautiful views into the canyon. This time though, we're on our way with a guided tour. For all of you who now think we have abandoned our principles, we want to tell you the whole story from the beginning.

Our friends in Prescott had invited us for a special trip into Canyon de Chelly. For a long time they have been in contact with native Navajo Indians who organize a "Sundance" every year. They rely on donations to organize this very important event for at least 1000 people. The plan is to guide a number of tours during the year. The proceeds from the tours will help the Navajo family hold the Sundance. Together with a small, carefully selected group of friends, we are the guinea-pigs participating in the very first tour.

The week before the big event is hectic. Nobody knows exactly what is going on, who is bringing what, or how everything will go. Thilo's anticipation is increasing because of his cars which are all well serviced and prepared. Margaret is relieved after Lavina and Danny, our hosts, call two days in advance to let her know that they will be there when we come. Time is relative in Navajo country, and since our hosts have no telephone, fax or the like, communication is a little bit difficult.

At 7:00 in the morning we meet the group at Thilo's shop and load the cars. A small Pinzgauer is transported on a trailer, and will be used in the canyon. The cars fill up quickly with the many bags, chairs, water containers, and coolers. In the meantime we get to know each other a little bit. It's a multi-cultural group with Americans, Japanese, and Europeans. We are a very mixed group and all of us are here for different reasons. Finally we start our trip and travel in convoy - there's a long way to go! It's about 300 miles from Prescott to the Canyon de Chelly. Besides, we can't go very fast with the fully loaded cars.

In Holbrook, at about midway, we experience our first surprise. "Talula", the Ford, which has to tow the trailer with the Pinzgauer, gives up the ghost. We all look sheepish as we peer under the hood. In the restroom of the gas station Thilo thinks our situation over (here, at least, there is nobody to bother him...). Finally we decide to leave the Ford and the trailer here and transfer everything to the other cars. At a motel near the freeway we can safely park Talula for the weekend. Now our trip can continue but we stop again at the next exit. Here we admire bisons, petrified wood, and Yucca baileyi (of course, this is only interesting for us). Since we are the guinea-pigs, not everything can go according to plan: we miss the correct turn-off and take a detour through beautiful Navajo land with colorful chain of hills, junipers, and many flowering yucca trees.

Towards evening we finally reach the property of Lavina and Danny, where we are already expected. We can put up our tents between pine trees and junipers next to the holy place for the Sundance and the scaffolding for the sweat lodge. As Unimog-traveling globetrotters, it's our first night in a tent in a very long time - it's a new adventure! The kitchen and the campfire are set up centrally. Soon, it's very busy here. Randy, the heart of our camp, sets up a gas stove, gas lamps, and the water containers. Somebody brews up coffee and everybody nibbles on the salsas. Jennifer brought a huge pot of delicious chili which only has to be reheated. Together with Gina and Keiko, I roast different vegetables on the fire which are later wrapped in tortillas. Our dinner tastes delicious with spicy salsas and chips. The food runs short only just when the entire Navajo family joins us for dinner and our ravenous group has already eaten up practically everything.

Later we sit around the campfire and tell stories. Dion and Danny (the third), the grandchildren, roast marshmallows on the fire, a very typical American peculiarity. Lavina scares us when she chases away a strange animal which can be very aggressive and even dangerous if it bites. It looks like a cross between a spider and a scorpion. Everybody searches for it with the flashlight, but no one is able to find it. Later, when everyone has long since forgotten about it, a very strange animal runs out of a bundle of dead wood and plunges directly into the hot flames of our fire. It dies instantly and we can all examine it comfortably. Indeed, it's the spider-scorpion-animal which Lavina had warned us about. Now we're a little more cautious as we make our way into the tent. We brush our teeth in the moonlight under an incredible starry sky. Only one person at a time can get changed or move around in our little tent. The inflatable mattresses are exactly as long and wide as the tent, but we are glad to have such limited space because at about 6000 feet it's still very chilly at night.

Danny insists that we leave as early as possible once everyone has eaten something for breakfast. He can't give us an exact time, but he wants to leave when the sun creeps over the highest tops of the fir trees. Of course this is quite impossible because everybody is sleeping so soundly in this wonderful silence - except for the ones who never sleep in a tent and prefer a soft mattress to the ground - they meet earlier at the campfire for a warming cup of coffee. Before we set off for the day, Danny passes around a rolled cigarette which creates a feeling of closeness. One half of the group travels in the open Pinzgauer with Danny as a guide, the other half in "Victor", the Chevrolet Suburban.

The entrance into the canyon is unspectacular, practically hidden under tamarisk trees. Two signs indicate that we are only allowed to drive into the canyon with an Indian guide. The Pinzgauer struggles very bravely through relatively deep sand, closely followed by Victor who seems to manage the sand with ease. At the first stop, Anasazi ruins far above in a vertical cliff (we wonder how the Indians managed to reach their homes), it turns out that Victor is totally overheated because an ignorant mechanic installed the wrong fan. The ruins come just in time to allow Victor a break.

Dion and Danny (the third) have red painted faces. The paste is made from extremely fine red clay sand and protects the boys against sunburn. They pose for the cameras with their red faces, each pushing the other out of the way. In the meantime, Danny (the first) tells us stories about the ruins and today's life in the canyon. He grew up at the rim of the canyon but he had to climb down into the canyon practically every day to carry up fruits, vegetables or other food which was stored and protected in special rock niches. There are still some Indians living in the canyon. From time to time we pass abandoned hogans, cornfields, or fruit tree plantations. However, with the increasing tourism, it is now possible to earn money as a tourist guide. That's why most of the Indians reject the tough but independent life down in the canyon. Danny who, of course, has an Indian name which is impossible to pronounce, let alone to write, for the American authorities (we have our problems too, but Danny's name translated means "He who walks between the chiefs" - together with his wife he belongs to the well-known medicine men of the Navajo), tries to make the old stories and the original way of life more accessible to his children and grandchildren. However, his two grandchildren are not nearly as interested in grandfather's stories as our group is, preferring to play in the woods or near the water with some tadpoles.

We drive approximately 13 miles into the canyon. Through thick tamarisk bushes, under huge Cottonwood trees, past a flock of sheep which looks for some relief in the shade of the cliffs. Now and again one of us bursts into enthusiastic cries when a new view into the canyon opens up before us, a natural bridge attracts our attention, or hidden ruins appear in the cliffs. From time to time we take a short break and Danny shows us holy places, ruins, abandoned cornfields, and old pantries. The destination of our trip into the canyon is "Spider Rock", two 800-foot-tall spires in the middle of the canyon. Here we camp for a picnic in the shade of some bushes while Danny tells us the story of Spider Woman. She lives on these rock spires and taught the Navajo long ago how to weave. Nowadays Navajo parents tell their naughty children that Spider Women will come and carry them to her rocks if they do not listen to mother and father. Time flies, and we would love to spend more time down here. A group picture under the two rock spires is a must! On our way back we discover two water snakes which are not at all disturbed by us. A raven circles far above us while the afternoon sun reddens the rock faces.

Back at our camp we all wash the dust off our faces and shake out our clothes. Later some of the women meet in Lavina's kitchen where we are all busy with cooking. This evening we are all invited to Danny and Lavina's house and Lavina treats us to Navajo tacos (unleavened bread from fried dough, covered with lettuce, ground beef, onions, beans, tomatos, and optionally hot salsa). Lavina prepares the dough for the tacos like Mexican tortillas. With her hands she kneads it and forms it into flat breads which she fries in oil. When some food falls to the ground, Lavina quickly tells us not to pick it up. Grandmother will be very thankful for this unexpected meal. Besides, what grandmother does not catch the dogs and cats will surely snatch up!

Our last day is a new experience for many of us. The family invites us for a sweat lodge. One son, Danny (the Second), starts a huge fire at 4 in the morning so that we have enough hot coals for the sauna. Two igloo-like tents are covered with many blankets so that no heat can escape. We stand around the fire in a circle in the cold of the morning, the men in shorts and t-shirts, the women in long skirts and t-shirts. The rocks which will later heat our sauna glow red in the fire. In the first rays of sunshine, Danny and Lavina greet us. They will each lead one sweat lodge. Clockwise we (the women) crawl into the tent and sit in a circle around a pit. Rebecca has the honor of helping Lavina and brings the hot rocks and the water bucket into the tent. As the leader of our sweat lodge, Lavina is a very kind to us wanting to please everybody and spare us from too much heat and steam. We greet each rock which is brought into the tent. Lavina spatters the rocks with the resin of the saguaro cactus and pine trees and a wonderful smell fills the air. An Indian singsong gets us in the right mood for the prayers. Before every round Lavina explains to us in English what we are praying for. After that she lapses into her Navajo dialect. One after the other we pray for close friends, for the old and sick, for children and babies, for prisoners and addicts, for mammals, and at the end even for all the crawling and flying creatures on earth. With every new round Rebecca brings new red glowing rocks from the fire which are spattered with resin. Again and again Lavina pours water with a big ladle over the hot rocks and our tent is filled with wonderful steam. After 4 rounds we crawl out of the tent clockwise. In the sunlight we bow to the four points of the compass.

After the sweat lodge Lavina prepares us a nourishing breakfast which fortifies us for the long way home. She says a long prayer in her Navajo dialect and invites us all to the Sundance. For two weeks this peaceful oasis will be crowded with about 1000 people who dance, sing, make music, talk, meditate, sweat, pray, and heal. Many sick people come every day to be healed from their illness.

In the afternoon we have finally packed and stowed everything and we can start our long way home. Talula, the Ford, is waiting paitently in Holbrook and with a little bit of persuasion and some mechanical genius, the car suddenly works again and makes its way home to Prescott. Exhausted from the long drive and happy because of all the new friends and the many wonderful impressions from the tour, we sleep in Prescott again in our little PocoLoco, this time on a comfortable mattress.

June 2001

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen