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This is the third episode of four in my serial article about searching for Indian ruins in the New Mexican high desert. In the first episode I discovered exciting old clues to the existence of precolumbian stone towers containing mummies and well-preserved artifacts! In the second, I began my first trip of exploration—but was I too late?
In this episode: After short visits to three "must see" western tourist sites I make my first hike and learn the truth about the New Mexican high desert.
If you missed Episode I or II, find them in our "Backissues" page, accessible from our "Library," or in an archived epub, available via email. Then continue with this episode.
New Mexico's Mysterious Stone Towers,
(Travel/Explore #4: June 27, 1999)
One of the bad things about traveling alone is the sense of detachment from your activities. For me it shows itself in a willingness to accept less from a task than I really want. And indecision: "Should I...," "What next?", "I'll do that next time I'm out here...," and so on. It was that way in Albuquerque. I was unable to concentrate; I couldn't relax, either. So on the next morning, rather than going back to the University for more research, I went west to The Grand Canyon.
|My first view of The Canyon||
The CanyonAlbuquerque had struck me as a "tall" city; Flagstaff seemed "flat," spread out. I turned north at U. S. 89, then west at Arizona 64. It was a peaceful drive through deep woods. Fairly late in the afternoon I turned into a small rest stop at the edge of the south canyon rim and walked through some junipers right to the edge.
The panorama of The Grand Canyon is too much to take in with
only one pair of eyes. I could see all the way across the canyon to
the other side, but as if through several distinct veils of haze,
which played subtle tricks with the colors.
Complementing the visual grandeur was incredible, total silence. Only occasionally was there the sound of a gentle breeze sighing in the trees or the cry of a bird...somewhere. I'm not sure I'd heard that sort of silence before. I'd have been content to climb around on the rocks there at that cul-de-sac, but it was getting later, and I needed a room for the night.
There were no rooms left at The Canyon Lodge. So I went back to the very plain little motel I'd passed outside the park. There were only two rooms left there. The desk clerk, a young Navajo man, seemed very pleased to tell me they were $125 or $140 a night! "I'll look some more."
"You can go back to Flagstaff. That's about all there is besides us." He was right. I returned to Flagstaff.
Next morning, at first light, I left for The Canyon again. I got there just in time to find the last parking space in the small headquarters lot. Very lucky. For the rest of the day a constant train of cars orbited the lots looking for slots.
This part of The Canyon, the "real" Grand Canyon, is incredibly...well...grand. Bigger than life. It was quiet here, too. The Canyon was a place of peace and introspection for me. I wasn't any nearer the mysterious stone towers, but I was nearer to God, to whom I'd begun to talk regularly.
As I walked the paved trail I found a place where I could walk right out to the edge and dangle my feet over the abyss—which I did. I even climbed down to a ledge and looked at a shallow cave.
|I could walk right to the edge!||
My purpose in coming had been met—to experience The Grand Canyon. I hadn't seen it all; I didn't take any of the tours or trail walks. The peace and quiet was enough. I could return for recreation at some future time.
As I left, cars, now fifty or more, were still circling the lots. There was a lesson in all this: call ahead. No rooms, no parking. What a surprise! Room reservations and plenty of pocket money were musts here; and a jock strap to protect you from the local red man's persistent squeeze.
Now I was headed for Chinle, and Canyon DeChelly, but south first, by way of the Petrified Forest. To be this close and not see it would have been unforgivable. The terrain near the Forest changed to rolling hills, but the land cuts alongside the highway showed a gravelly, gray base; ash, not solid rock. This was southern desert land.
Petrified Forest: southern desert
The Petrified Forest is exactly what the name says—a great
expanse of land covered with desert scrub and petrified wood. It's
everywhere; so much of it that the eye begins to yearn for something
else—mud, sand—anything. Signs everywhere warned against removing
petrified wood from the park. At occasional check points rock gestapo
in mirrored glasses, armed with stainless steel revolvers, eyed me
suspiciously, peered into the car or rummaged the trunk. I wouldn't
have been surprised at a strip search or xray exam. The logic at
every stop was the same: "If everyone took a piece, then pretty soon
there wouldn't be any left," which was right, I suppose. For all
their precautions, on all the trip, the best rocks I saw were the
ones I found in that wash my first day in New Mexico, and those for
sale in the rock shop outside the park fences.
|You guessed it—petrified wood!|
There were a few interesting things in the park: a
sheepherder's ruined hut made of petrified wood, some primitive
petroglyphs; and big bare mounds of gray volcanic ash. I spent an
hour climbing one of these ash heaps, hoping to see a fossil or two.
¡Nada! But it was fun; and it gave me a lesson in thirst that would
be reinforced in a very few days.
||Petroglyphs in the park|
Alien LandscapeCanyon DeChelly, north on U. S. 191 near Chinle, was one of my "absolutely must do" sites. Chinle is a Navajo town, and the Canyon DeChelly Motel is about the only place to stay. It was steep, too; but the young woman at the check-in desk was determined to find a discount that she could apply to bring my rate down. Finally, the fact that I worked for Lockheed did it, and I got a little off the price. I appreciated her efforts. After I checked in there was still enough daylight left for a trip to the canyon.
One road makes a long winding tour of the canyon with many places to stop and walk to the edge and look down inside. I stopped first at the small visitors' center for some information. Two men on the steps outside were speaking Navajo. The visitor map showed only one place a round-eye like me could visit without joining a guided tour or hiring a personal guide—The White House Ruins!
The road up to the rim was a scenic route. In one deep s-curve a shady cove of beautiful cottonwoods whispered "stop for a few minutes of shade," but I pressed on.
|White House Ruins from the observation platform|
At the White House Ruin turnoff I could approach the edge on a
platform, protected by steel bannisters; or I could leave the walk
and step right to the edge of the canyon—a drop, the sign said, of
more than 600 feet. The rim was rounded from wind erosion and sloped
to the edge of the cliff. A sign warned to control pets and children,
but it should have included adults, too. The breeze was fresh, and it
would have been very easy to stumble or roll right off the edge and
down into the very deep canyon. Throughout the canyon rim drive the
cliff edges were unprotected, strangely tantalizing in a tingly, edgy
Canyon DeChelly (pronounced duh-shay, not French, but a corruption of a Navajo word) is a huge, deep, beautiful rust-red gully with fantastic surreal rock shapes. Erosion and impacts and upheavals of some kind have left cliffs and walls with incredible, almost organic forms. From atop the cliffs I could see the far walls and half of the canyon floor. Pale yellow stone dwellings were tucked into advantageous cracks, seams, and grottoes. A shallow river bounded by large trees wandered along the sandy canyon floor. Canyon DeChelly was still inhabited, and sheep and goats grazed everywhere. Looking down into this strange world I could understand why people had lived here so long. It was beautiful, almost magical, to look at, and it felt comforting, like a giant womb.
|A fantastic landscape. Almost alive!|
The east side was still in full sun as I took the trail down to the White House Ruin. It was a steep, modestly improved path that hugged the face of the western cliff. I started out well enough, but going down steep inclines always surprises me. It's exhausting. Near the bottom, kids scrambled around on the impossible rocky slopes. Surely they must fall, but their hooves never slipped or faltered on the red sandstone. After about a half-hour, with stretched boots, and shins and thighs crying out for relief, I stepped from the trail to the valley floor. It was another twenty minutes through deep, fine sand to the ruins.
I crossed the shallow river on some flat rocks and rested on a bench beneath two great old cottonwoods. What a place! What a trip down! I'd worry about going up later.
|The White House Ruins|
There were two ruins at White House—one complex block of
apartments on a ledge about seventy feet above the canyon floor, and
one on the ground, projecting from the cliff beneath the first. They
were surrounded by cyclone and barbed wire fence, which seemed
unfriendly; until I took a closer look at both ruins through my
binoculars. They were covered with carved, scratched, painted,
smudged graffiti. There was no stone surface untainted by initials
and slogans in Spanish and English. Some were very old, Civil War
era; others were more recent. The guidebooks had never shown this
detail of this exquisite multistory, multiple-dwelling ruin. I felt a
deep sense of loss—probably like what I might feel if I stepped on
the moon and into a pile of cigarette butts dumped by some careless
What is there in our collective psyche that seeks recognition so desperately, that drives us to leave our spoor on every unattended flat surface? In the case of these defaced ruins, I have always wondered if the graffiti weren't some sort of dark attempt to discredit or deny the remembrance of native people who had lived here. In the ancient world breaking the nose off a portrait statue was believed to rob the portrait subject of his identity and power. Was this the same? In any case, these insensitive markings always diminish the joy I feel when I see ancient buildings or remains of old, lost cultures. I feel robbed of the rightful thrill of discovery, and relegated to the status of tourist.
The trail down into the canyon had been more than a mile long. It had sloped downward at an angle of perhaps 15° to 20°. Another quarter of a mile, in soft sand, had brought me to the benches where I sat and now had lunch—a small can of vienna sausage, a package of crackers, a carton of fruit juice, and a half-canteen of water.
I walked over to another part of the cliff and pressed myself against the rough sandstone. Above me were spirals and snake shapes scratched into the rock. And above that, way up, overhung the great red cliff face. It was as I had imagined it would be: imposing beyond any experience I'd had. It reminded me of a time when I stood on the dock at Norfolk Navy Base alongside the USS John F. Kennedy. That huge carrier towered above me like a gray cliff. Its flight deck, high above me, hung over the dock. I felt very small. Here, too.
I had been suppressing a concern that I now had to face: returning back up that long, steep trail to the top. Could I make it? Of course, but it would be hard. I delayed a few minutes more, then I turned and trudged back through the sand. The canyon floor was now completely in shadow.
It took more than an hour to climb out of the canyon on that trail. Apparently I was one of the last to leave, because I encountered nobody on my way up except Indians on their way down. Occasionally someone, usually an Indian, would pass me going toward the top, but it was a lonely hike out.
At first I had to stop about every hundred yards to catch my breath. I felt no chest pains; but there were a lot of side splints. Toward the top I was resting every thirty yards or so. I knew I'd make it, but what if I didn't? With no companions, how long would my corpse lie on the trail before it was discovered? And then there was the top, and I left that semi-depressed state of twilight and saw people and sunlight again. A perfect Hell would be an eternal hike out of Canyon De Chelly.
Back at the motel I was too tired to even consider supper. I had a small can of tomato juice and wondered if I'd recover from this overexertion.
I had now confirmed a weakness in my approach to exploration, a
flaw in my self-discipline: I had an almost invariable tendency to
begin a hike poorly prepared, unrested, and late in the day. This
caused me real concern as the day progressed; and I became depressed
and disoriented as the stress of heat, thirst, and fatigue built.
These flaws, poor pacing and low stamina, would show up again on this
On to La ReinaThe next morning I decided to go north along the canyon rim to take photos. Then I'd head toward the towers.
Arizona Highway 64 rims the north canyon with a good road and many turn-ins where tourists can walk to the cliff edge and gaze down in fresh wonder. Each turn-in had a small cleared or paved parking lot; an approach directly to the canyon edge, sometimes a trail down a short way; a view of the canyon floor with ruins visible somewhere; and a group of Navajos selling weaving or jewelry.
In one cul-de-sac I walked to the edge and peered over. A young man with long, dirty hair, unshaven, wearing a dirty green army field parka sidled up quietly. "Hi."
"Hi," I said.
"If I can show you anything, let me know."
I thought I knew what was going on. I'd make sure. "OK. What is this place?"
He walked to the edge of the cliff and stamped on the rock with his green canvas boot. The lace came untied. "This is Canyon De Chelly."
I stabbed my finger down toward the rock. "This place?"
"Oh!" —(pause)— "I'm not really sure."
I pointed to the thin road along the canyon floor. It passed ruins on the cliffs. "How about that road?"
He thought for a few moments. One of the flatbed tour trucks I'd seen yesterday rumbled into view, loaded with tourists. His face brightened. "That's the road for the canyon tour!"
"It goes along all the ruins in the canyon?"
"Right. See, there on the cliff..." he pointed. "Those are ruins. They're along the road down there."
"Which ruins are those?"
—(pause)—"I don't know for sure."
"Are you sort of, like, a canyon guide?"
"Right, a guide! I come from here. My mother still lives here."
"And you don't know those ruins?"
"I'm home on leave. A lot's changed since I was here."
A small gust of wind from his direction tickled my nose with the sweet scent of blended whisky. Everywhere I walked he followed, playing tour guide with a lot of half facts that were completely at odds with anything I'd read about the canyon. I think he even made a comment something like: "This is one of our important days."
"Really! Which one?"
"Wednesday, I think!"
I moved back toward the parking lot. He followed. "Well, say, Mister. I could use a little help..." He held out his hand. I took it and gripped it firmly.
"Well, sure! Hey—stick with me. We'll make it to the lot together." I put an arm around his shoulder, as if to steady him.
"I mean, maybe a little money."
"Oh! For the tour?"
I gave him a dollar and thanked him. He'd hoped for more. "Enjoy your visit with your family."
It wasn't the same at every turn-in, but at a couple the vendors were selling fragments of ordinary rock, maybe some petrified wood. A few had velvet paintings. I felt a great shame for the young man and for all the young vendors who were reduced to playing "salesman" to hide "beggar." I'm still not sure how I feel about it; but at every settlement I saw Navajos living a very meager existence. It was as if they were artifacts separated from the busy world that passed around them, unable to join in.
Much of the West seems to have been terribly slow to develop. Without gold, government contracts, enough people for a significant tax base, or significant indigenous entrepreneurship, even things we take for granted, like city water and garbage pickup, haven't been forthcoming away from towns. At their best they can't be American Mainstream. But out West, who is? Many people out here seem to love being out of the mainstream. They call it "individualism," but it looks to me like "trapped."
I bypassed Four Corners for Farmington for the night. I'd go down to find the towers tomorrow.
The road south, through reservation territory in northwest New Mexico, is long and straight and dusty and unmemorable. The Navajo names, though, were wonderful, unpronounceable ones. Even the FM stations were using Navajo language.
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