This is a place where the earth splits open and two worlds collide, where hardship traces a path to harmony. The red and sepia walls of this vast crack in the Arizona desert plummet so suddenly that surely a few pioneers must have been walking along one second and stepped off a cliff the next. Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de-Shay, from the Navajo Tséyi’) is home to both the vanished Native Americans known as Anasazi and the modern Navajo people who call themselves Diné.
According to a Diné legend, long ago a great horned beast argued with the holy people. The enraged beast dug his horns into the earth and threw a tantrum, creating a double rift: Canyon de Chelly and its massive tributary, Canyon del Muerto.
Legend has it a horned beast created Canyon de Chelly.
Nobody’s allowed to explore the canyon, except with a Diné guide. So Dale and I spend four nights with Jon and Lupita McClanahan of Footpath Journeys, camping on their canyon farm. The pair is 50-ish and slightly round, with soft but firm voices. They’re struggling to hold onto this land, which has been in Lupita’s family for seven generations. This year the farm is nothing but weeds, thanks to drought and invasive Russian olive trees.
The National Park Service planted the Russian olives in the 1930s, to control erosion. But the thirsty trees have run rampant, guzzling water until there’s little left for the few dozen Diné farmers who remain—there used to be hundreds. Jon says, “For hundreds of years Mother Earth took care of this canyon. But people think they know better.”
Russian Olive trees plague struggling Diné farmers.
Lupita’s one-room log hogan is surrounded by reminders that nothing lasts forever: high up the 300 to 1000-foot canyon walls sit hundreds of cliff dwellings left by the Anasazi. Anasazi is a Diné word meaning “The Ancient Ones.” The prehistoric tribes first came here about 2000 years ago, and disappeared 700 years ago. Archaeologists speculate they were driven south by invaders or drought—sound familiar?
Jon guides us in the footsteps of The Ancient Ones, quite literally: we climb a nearly vertical canyon wall, sans gear, using hand- and footholds chiseled by the Anasazi. Along the steepest section we hold onto a thin metal rail, sunk into the rock by modern Diné.
John guides is in the footsteps of The Ancient Ones.
But mostly we walk on the sandy canyon floor, touring Anasazi ruins: from a rarely-visited hut made of sandstone slabs, to multi-story settlements made with stacked rocks and mud mortar—such as White House Ruin. White House sits on two levels: one group of apartments sits at ground level, gathered around the remains of a round ceremonial kiva; another group of rooms sits in the cave above. White House gets its name from a dwelling on the upper level that’s covered with white plaster. This village once had about 60 rooms, housing about 100 people. Those people farmed the canyon floor, raising crops of corn, beans and squash.
White House, once home to some 100 Anasazi.
The Ancient Ones left half-told tales behind in their rock art: they painted pictographs and chiseled petroglyphs on walls throughout the canyon. Their artwork includes humans and handprints, turkeys and deer, circles and zigzags. Jon is reluctant to interpret the pictures, saying, “That’s like putting a period at the end of a sentence, like saying that’s the last word on the subject.” However, archaeologists believe the pictograph of the man wearing bunny ears might be a holy man wearing feathers, and the duck flying over his head might be his spirit taking a journey.
The Diné, too, have left their marks. They settled the canyon in the 1700s and their art often portrays historic events. In one image: two men ride horseback, wearing helmets or hats; one wields a spear against a stick person, who holds his hands up like someone being robbed. This drawing surely represents Spaniards subduing a Native American.
Diné rock art tells an unmistakable story.
In the evenings, Lupita cooks and tells us old Diné stories. She teaches Dale and me to shape and fry our own Navajo fry bread—a cross between a tortilla and a sugarless donut. We top it with chili beans, cheese and lettuce, for a fattening treat called Navajo tacos—a recent Southwest tradition. After dinner, she tells us about the five worlds of the Diné…
Lupita makes fry bread & shares Diné stories.
First World: the natural world is formed, including the four elements—earth, air, fire, water—and the non-animals—rocks, mountains, trees, plants.
Second World: animals are created, such as horses, deer, bears, coyotes and birds.
Third World: the holy people come, including Talking God (the sun), White Shell Bead Woman (the ocean) and Spider Woman (who taught the Diné to weave and to be creative).
Fourth World: Diné people are created and live in the ways passed down by the holy people.
Fifth World: In fifth world, also called Glittering World, the Diné will change or disappear, as the world they know ceases to exist. Some people believe the Fifth World is already here, that Diné culture is dying after centuries of pressure from invading cultures.
The Diné don’t put much stock in tears. Lupita says, “When someone dies we can cry for four days. Then we’re not supposed to cry, because that person will come back as a tree, a plant or a flower.”
That’s why Jon listens to plants when he walks, “because they’re our brothers and they are talking to us all the time.” Not only do the Diné believe it’s important to live in harmony with nature, but also to live in balance with the good and bad in their lives. “Too much good in your life is bad,” Jon says, “and too much bad is bad.”
As if to prove his point, on our third night, a family emergency prompts Jon and Lupita to abandon us, with little warning. Lupita’s sister will be our new hostess, but only after she gives them a ride out. For the next hour, Dale and I wait alone in the canyon, with no campfire and no lantern. “It’s so dark,” Dale mutters. We fall silent, and I imagine the tranquil, wild beauty that must have prevailed in The West until just a century ago.
Later that night, a ferocious wind roars through the canyon at about 50 mph, making us wonder if our tent will roll down the canyon like a tumbleweed.
On our fourth night, we’re jolted awake by blinding lightning, instantly pursued by deafening thunder. At the next flash, I try to calculate the distance: “One-thousand…BOOM!” The storm is on top of us. We discuss the odds of lightning striking us. Torrents of rain slam the tent until I wonder if a flash flood will sweep us away. But we laugh as thunder rolls down the canyon, as if that old horned beast is bowling with boulders.
Come morning, we pack up and drive out in heavy mud.
Up top, in the town of Chinle, we hit a diner for eggs, biscuits and gravy. Just what we need to feel at home again, after four days as strangers in a strange land—though so close to home. We enjoyed most of our visit to the canyon. As for the rest, we found balance. Remember: too much good is bad.
Read an excerpt from Cara’s memoir: They Only Eat Their Husbands, coming in 2010 from Ghost Road Press.