"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Friday, April 10, 2015

Canyon de Chelly: Beauty in the Navajo Nation

Beauty before me, with it I wander.
Beauty behind me, with it I wander.
Beauty below me, with it I wander.
Beauty above me, with it I wander.
Beauty all around me, with it I wander.
On the beautiful trail I am.
- 1906 translation of Navajo song by Washington Matthews

We are surrounded by beauty all the time, but sometimes it seems out of reach. Sometimes the ugliness that we make blinds us to what lies before, behind, below, above and beyond. Sometimes the ugliness is just so big we can't seem to find our way around it. Sometimes it's only a distracting dot on the camera lens or a bug on the windshield.  I keep trying my best to see the beauty.

The Navajo Nation embraces hundreds of miles of beauty and it's share of ugliness too. The juxtaposition is sometimes puzzling, but not so different from everywhere else. Do we somehow expect the Native Peoples of this country to always demonstrate the values that their songs and poems espouse?  Do we want them to embody something that the rest of us somehow can't manage? Is this an idealization of a people just as human and diverse as we all are?

Yesterday we drove the backroads of northeastern Arizona to get to Canyon de Chelly. The journey took us through some beautiful backcountry and the Navajo communities of Oak Springs, St. Michaels, Ganado, Navajo, Tsaile, Window Rock and Fort Defiance. These aren't tourist destinations, and so we had the chance to see living communities that support their own people, not the visitors.  We were impressed with the new large schools and hospitals throughout the area. We also saw hundreds of typical homesteads and small farms with small prefabricated houses often paired with traditional hogans on the same property.  

Our first stop of the day was at the Hubbell Trading Post, a National Historic Site.  It has been a working mercantile, selling groceries, supplies and Native arts since 1878 and is maintained in its functional yet historic state. 

Hubbell Trading Post
Our destination was Canyon de Chelly (say "deshay") just east of Chinle. It's a somewhat remote and less visited canyon with about ten ancestral Pueblo ruins.  It can be viewed from its North and South Rim Drives, but the canyon floor can only be accessed with a Navajo guide. (The single exception to this is the White House Trail which does lead down into a limited section of the canyon floor.) No dogs are allowed anywhere below the rim, so because of Honey, we chose to view the canyon from the series of overlooks along the two drives.

View from the Tunnel Overlook

The Canyon is a beautiful place, with a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, even from the overlooks. It made me just want to hang out.

The White House Ruins

I could definitely see why people would want to live here. It's protected, green year round, fertile, and again, so peaceful. This is early spring, so the leaves and grass are not yet at their fullest.

View from the Spider Rock Overlook
The peace was occasionally broken by tour jeeps and the pick-up trucks of locals driving along the bottom.  Yes, people still live and farm in the canyon, raising livestock and crops. They don't live in anything like the communal Pueblo structures of the ancestral residents.

Farm with hogan on canyon floor

View from Mummy Cave Overlook

An intact mult-storied Mummy Cave Ruin

Because we had Honey in the car and it wasn't always appropriate to let her out to walk with us due to 700 ft. drop offs, we sometimes just took turns walking out to the view points from the parking lots.  On one of those occasions I was lucky to see a pair of peregrine falcons flying below the rim.  My first! It's rare to see any birds of prey from above!

Peregrin falcon at Mummy Cave Overlook
I'd say that viewing Canyon de Chelly from the rims is very reasonable in one day, depending on how far you have to drive to get there. Overnighting in Chinle is possible as well, making it a more relaxed day. We drove home on Rt. 12 from Tsaile to Rt. 40, and that was a beautiful drive to top off a beautiful day. I'll just leave you with some beautiful drive-by photos to enjoy.

 May we all be on the beautiful path, every day.


  1. We have not visited Canyon de Chelly yet so I am loving your beautiful photos. Very nice capture of the peregrine! The ruins are amazingly intact.

    1. Glad you're enjoying the pictures. It's a place I'd like to visit again, from down below next time. You guys would like the White House Trail. It's the only hike in the Canyon I think.

  2. Love the photos! What a gorgeous area to visit.


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