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Archive for the ‘U.S. Southwest’ Category

On our way to Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in northeast Arizona, I call ahead to the visitors’ center to ask about a Navajo guide who can accompany us into the canyon for several days. With a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle we can safely manage most of the roadless sand track, but leaving the rim and driving into the canyon requires the services of a guide from the Navajo nation. This is the best way to experience the park and more deeply understand its people and its past. Canyon de Chelly is the convergence of two ancient canyons, estimated to be perhaps thirty million years old. The walls of the canyons are dusky dark red and 1,000 or more feet high. The dwellings of the people who finally came to be known as the Dine’ or Navajo are tucked high into the rock formations, into the layers of geological time. The canyon is one of the most exquisite places in the whole of the American Southwest: dramatic, evocative and still alive with Navajo culture, even if it takes a little work to find it.

We realize that it will be a stroke of luck to find the right guide, someone who is knowledgeable and sensitive to the requirements of a large-format photographer like Patrick. There may be hours of sitting quietly in one place and watching the light change. Black & White photography using a view camera takes great patience. The Canyon de Chelly park ranger on the phone says simply, “You want my wife, Deborah. She is cleaning houses today, but she is the one you want.”

It turns out that Deborah is not a guide, but wants to be. What Deborah is, is better than a certified guide: She is a young Navajo woman born and raised in her hogan a few miles from the canyon, a woman who still visits her grandmother’s land on the canyon floor to help harvest corn, squash and watermelon. The guidebooks call a certain trail “tunnel trail.” Deborah says everybody knows it is “sheep trail.” The guidebooks talk about a high water table in the canyon. Deborah says she used to dig a hole a foot deep to get her own water when she was thirsty. She knows that the pictographs at Antelope House were made later by a man the Navajos call “Mr. Little Lamb.” She is the perfect guide for us.

Deborah has strong Indian features and a mane of black hair that falls down her back. She stands proudly and moves like a cat. In the days that follow, we learn that her real name is Esstaish, meaning soft lady, a name given to her by her father. All Navajos identify themselves by the clan they are born into and the clan they are born from. Deborah says she is from the Coyote Pass People to the Mexican Water People. There are about 130 different clans now, all derived from four original ones.

While Patrick is photographing, Deborah teaches me about the Navajo language and the old, almost-forgotten words. She tells me there is a single word for  those who travel in groups, another for they came again into being. There is a word for to where he has never been and one for because there are bodies of water there. One word, nizhi, means someone’s name, voice and body–I guess, in a way, nizhi is the totality of that person.

There is a particular rock face that Patrick loves, and now he stands studying it. He takes in the sky and the gathering clouds; there is not enough light to get the photograph he wants. Hawks ride thermals high above the canyon floor and the wind howls.  Deborah is sitting in the sand eating pumpkin seeds, her cascade of black hair lifted on the ends by the wind. Soon we hear heavy thunder and see the electric white jag of lightning. The clouds are moving in opposite directions; the top layer moves east to west, and the layer beneath it, heavy with black rain, moves west to east. Sometimes the clouds break apart for a few seconds and we see sun and a light sky behind them. In those moments, the rock face glows with an unearthly light.

Deborah says she will name this rock Patience Rock. Says the rock is a she.

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There is a rhythm to a road trip and we have found it. After ten days exploring, from Oregon into Idaho and Utah, the desert landscape is a new palette of red and burnt orange, dotted with pinyon and juniper. It is still early spring in the Four Corners Region of the American Southwest, and the cottonwoods along the riparian slopes are just beginning to be fringed in yellow. There is rabbit brush, yucca, sagebrush, wild petunia. From the open car window, I hear the calls of chickadees.  Passing through the Vermillion Cliffs, into Bryce Canyon, Utah, at an elevation of 9,000 feet, the quaking aspen are turning golden now. We see the occasional bristlecone pine, ancient and parched with roots exposed like veins on the hands of an old woman.

After the crowds in Bryce, Arches National Park, and even at Mesa Verde, Colorado, where the Anasazi–often called Ancient Puebloans–built cities high into the walls of the canyons in places accessible only by ladders and footholds carved into rock face a thousand feet above the valley floor, we are hungry for more stillness.

When you want more stillness than the wind and the raven, you know you are ready for Chaco Canyon.

Coming from the north into northwestern New Mexico, the road into the canyon includes about eight miles of paved road and more than 13 miles of washboard gravel so rough that no buses or RVs can travel it. There are Navajo hogans along the way; we are on tribal land. By 6:45 p.m., we find a campsite by good luck only–there are very few–and settle in on camp chairs to look at the sky.

Chaco Canyon’s night sky is well known. In May, 1998, the National Park Service dedicated the Chaco Observatory, helping to strengthen the connection of the modern world to the Chacoan people of centuries ago. The night sky, clear and brilliant, undefiled by any light pollution, helps explain how one of the world’s best known pictographs, the Supernova Pictograph, could be created by ancient peoples enthralled by the world they saw in the sky. Everything in Chaco, the great Kivas, the way the roads are designed, all take the heavens into account. No one knows for sure why the Chacoans died out, but one thing is known: they left ruins indicating that this was a significant crossroads of travel and commerce between the peoples of the region.

The next morning, we take the eight-mile hike, easy except for the river crossing, along Penasco Blanco and the Supernova Pictograph Trail. Along the trail we see petroglyphs, actual carvings into the rock walls, which are different from pictographs, basically paintings on the rock. It is a surprise to come to the actual pictograph, because it is about 20 feet up under a ledge, accented by pouch-shaped cliff swallow nests. How did the artist, or artists, do it?

The four symbols of the pictograph grouping are light red, made from an animal fat dye, something that wouldn’t fade over the centuries like plant dyes. There is a crescent moon, a star-like symbol, a concentric circle (the symbol for sun-watching), and a hand–a child-like, pure and remarkable hand with fingers spread wide. Scholars estimate that the paintings were created in 1054, concurrent with historical reports in China and India of a supernova explosion in Crab Nebula, in the constellation Taurus. For perspective, our own sun is too small to create a supernova. This would have been a monumental celestial event. I can only sit in awe of the minds of those who saw their sky transformed–maybe they thought the world was coming to an end–and created a picture on the rock as if to say: I was here and I saw this.

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