Canyons and cliff dwellings are a dime-a-dozen in the Four Corners Region. So what makes Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-shay) any different? Not only was the canyon a home to people 2000 years ago, it is still the home of their descendants today. The canyon has a record of 20 centuries of nearly continuous habitation.
Unlike many other canyon/cliff dwelling combos in the area, which take on a kind of museum-like quality, look to the bottom of de Chelly and you'll see the Dineh (Navajo) people carrying out their daily lives on the broad, flat areas down below: plowing corn fields, tending sheep and orchards, weaving baskets and rugs, and driving pickup trucks and listening to country music. The place is a fascinating mix of old and new, and therein lies its charm.
While there are opportunities to look over the canyon and explore some ruins on your own, any trip down below the rim requires accompaniment by a Navajo guide. You can do this on walks or four-wheel drive trips, but truly one of the most enjoyable travel experiences I've ever had was a 3/4-day horseback riding trip down to Spider Rock.
I hadn't been on a horse since I was a little boy, so I was a bit nervous about a full day on one. I guess the concessioner who runs the trips wasn't expecting anyone, even though we called to make reservations weeks earlier. The only one to greet us when we arrived was Alice, a friendly mutt who was being actively pursued by a male dog who didn't want to take no for an answer. We poked around the barn and a neighboring house and eventually found our guides, a young Navajo woman of about 25, and Joey, her 10- year old nephew and guide-in-training. Ever so slowly, we got three horses saddled up (we got to help). Our horses were Cash and Hagan, and soon we were off on a gorgeous, clear, cool May morning. Four people, three horses and Alice, who we discovered walks along with the horses every day for the entire trip.
Just as we were crossing the road onto the trail, we noticed a vehicle barreling down the road, leaving a trail of dust behind. "Oh, no," we thought. "More people and more delays." Indeed there were two guys who wanted to join in on the trip, so we went back to ready two more horses. As it turns out, the two guys were great, and we had a lot in common, so it made for a great day. They were driving cross country visiting family before they moved to the Netherlands. We hope someday to look them up there -- sounds like another IGOUGO journal!
Anyway, soon we were on our way again, and no more delays this time. We rode across flat, brushy areas for nearly an hour before we began our descent below the rim. The views out across the canyon were magnificent, and I don't think the sky could possibly have been any bluer. Starting down into the canyon was a bit nerve-wracking at first. It was steep and narrow with a sheer drop on the right. The trail was covered with loose stones, but our horses were used to this, and they were quite sure-footed.
We passed great views, bat caves and flat areas, past the hogan (octagonal house) where our guide's grandmother used to live. She pointed out a big tree by a creek where she used to swing as a little girl. We learned that the long, black staining called desert varnish on the canyon walls was, in Navajo tradition, "Mother Nature's hair."
Suddenly, Cash started to run inexplicably. Our guide didn't seem worried, but I was! I looked ahead of us and saw the object of our journey: Spider Rock. It was still off in the distance, but there was a stream much closer -- that's what Cash wanted: water. I couldn't blame him. We had been on the trail for over two hours. I expected Cash to step up to the bank and take a long, cool drink. Instead, he got into the stream and drank, splashing his belly - not to mention me - with his front legs. Nothing I could do would make him stop, so I just sat and enjoyed the scenery, and the laughter of my companions. Even Alice seemed to be enjoying the show.
When Cash was finished, we hopped off the horses and spent some time exploring the beautiful green area. Navajos say that Spider Rock is where Spider Woman lives. She was the one who taught the people how to weave, and is kind of the Navajo equivalent of white America's boogey man. Bad kids get sent to Spider Woman.
The rock itself actually splits about halfway up into two pinnacles. The tallest stands 800 feet above the canyon floor. It is a stunning centerpiece to the confluence of Monument Canyon and Canyon de Chelly.
Soon, it was time to make our return trip along the same route. That wasn't a bad thing though, because things looked different coming from the other direction, and the light was now very different as well.
About 45 minutes into the flat area up on the rim, the horses knew we were getting close to home, and they started to run. I thought Cash was running before, but this was really running! It was so unexpected, and I now trusted the horse so much, that all I could do was laugh. The experience was absolutely exhilarating, and I really can't remember a time when I've laughed quite so hard.
Three years later, I still keep a framed photograph of us with Alice in front of Spider Rock in my living room, and another one at my desk at work. Every time I look at them, a smile comes across my face as I remember that wonderful day.
Canyon de Chelly National Monument is located in far Northeastern Arizona, near the town of Chinle. Visit their website at www.nps.gov/cach.