Early June, 2012 -- Leaving the Petrified Forest, we decided to head north by
Indian Route 12 which, to our surprise, was noted on our tourist map as a
scenic route. As one-time Arizona residents we had no idea there was a
scenic road through the Navajo Nation way over in the northeastern corner of
the state. We also wanted to see Window Rock, which lies on that road. This
town is the Navajo tribal headquarters, and it always turns up in the Phoenix
TV weather forecasts with very cool temps.
We arrived on a warm day, however, and
were immediately drawn to the city park in
front of the big window in the rock.
The tribal band was practicing in
the park, and we watched and
listened for a while. Chatting with
the band leader during a break,
we found out the band was
headed to Oklahoma City in a
few days for the big Red Earth
arts festival there. Apparently
this is one of the largest
gatherings of Indian artists and
performers in the country, and
the group was very excited.
The park also features a large
sculpture of a WWII "code talker" in action on his radio. A nearby plaque
explains how the US Military was struggling to find a way to keep the
Japanese from deciphering their communications in the South Pacific
Theater, and that 29 Navajo marines were recruited to devise a new
code using their native language. By war's end there were over 400
Navajo Marines serving as code talkers, and the Marine Corps
commanders credited them with saving countless American lives.
Maj. Howard Conner, Signal Officer on Iwo Jima, is quoted as saying,
"Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would not have taken Iwo Jima."
This impressive history is also the subject of a fictional 2002 movie,
Back on Route 12 we saw more patriotism in a cemetery festively filled
with American flags.
The scenery on our route became very dramatic as we drove north of
Window Rock. Huge red rock cliffs lined the sides of the road.
Suddenly it seemed that God switched paints on his easel, and large
rock formations began to cover the landscape in shades of green as
well as red.
Someone with an artistic eye painted their house a vivid blue,
making a wonderful contrast to the green and red rocks in their
In one place the
sandstone even had a
pink hue. It was a
Our destination was
Canyon de Chelly
This park is at the confluence of three
snaking canyons that are like three fingers of
a hand spreading eastward from where they
all join in the town of Chinle ("pronounced
The stunning thing about Canyon de Chelly
is the immensity of the canyons. Standing on
cliffs that are 1,000' above the canyon floor,
the walls are very sheer and the views curve
past narrow walls of stone. At the bottom of
the canyon is a lush, fertile valley floor where
the Navajo developed corn fields and peach
orchards in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the movies, landscapes like this are always accompanied by the piercing call of a
falcon echoing off the canyon walls. But here the silence was so noticeable that our ears
hurt. Scanning the horizon many miles distant, and looking deep into the valley below
us, the only sound was our own breathing. Even the wind stood still.
In 1805 the Spanish tried to conquer the Navajos. At the point where I was standing a woman
tried to fend off a Spanish soldier, and in their struggle the two fell off the cliff to their deaths. In
the distance we could see "Massacre Cave" where the Navajos had hidden out. In the end, the
Spanish claimed to have killed 90 men and 25 women and children, but the Navajo remember it
differently, saying that all the younger men were out hunting that day and the deaths were strictly
women, children and old men.
Either way, the cave looked tiny in
the distance. Inside were some
structures that the Navajo hid in.
To the left of the main cave was a
much smaller one and, using the
long camera lens, we could see
another small structure inside there
as well. It is hard to imagine living
on the edge of a cliff like that for any period of time,
especially with the Spanish after you.
At each viewpoint you get a slightly different view of these
lush canyons, and it was hard to capture the enormity of
the place in a little photograph. Pan out or zoom in? How
do you show it all??
At the Mummy Cave overlook we came across a
couple sitting behind a tripod. They were waiting
patiently for the afternoon light to provide its best
illumination of the cave ruins far below. Waiting
for good light sounded like a great idea, so we hung out and
started chatting with them. It turned out that they had spent the
last three years traveling the western states in their camper van, living
a lot like we do by boondocking on public lands.
Our eyebrows shot up when they told us they had just come back
from a sailboat charter in the Grenadines in the Caribbean ten days
earlier and were contemplating taking their travels to the sea. What's
more, we found out Tim's mountain bike on the back of their van was
the same exact model as Mark's on the back of our trailer. To top it
off, Mary Lynn enjoyed web design too. What a crazy coincidence!!
Like us, too, they were using a Nikon camera to try to capture this cliff
dwelling in just the right light!
The good light never came, but we managed a few shots
anyways and hoped we'd run into these guys again somewhere.
Meanwhile, the mystery of the cliff dwellings lured us on. The ancients built their homes in caves on these sheer
canyon cliffs between 700 and 1300 AD. So these homes were first going up right after the peak of Mayan
remodeling down in Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. They may not be as majestic in terms of size or human
construction and engineering skills, but they are incredible for making fantastic use of the landscape. What a
place to build a house!
Over at Antelope House we looked out across the canyon
at a beautifully striped, back-sloping wall. Nestled at its
base was a small town made up of crumbling walls,
windows and towers. You need binoculars or a long
telephoto lens to make out the tiny structures so far
below. Even then they look like little toy buildings for wee
dolls. They can't possibly be real.
Archaeologists call these ancient people the Anasazi,
which is derived from the Navajo language and is
variously translated as "Ancient Ones" and "Enemy
Ancestors," due to the subtle word "Zazi" which means
"Non-Navajo" or "enemy." Also known as the Ancient Puebloans,
from the Spanish word for "townspeople," these long ago people
farmed the valley floor and disappeared around 1300, probably due
to drought. The Navajo didn't arrive in this area until 1600, and by
then the ruins were long abandoned.
The Navajo flourished here for a while, but in 1864 US Col. Kit
Carson entered the canyon with a group of soldiers and
eventually cornered the Navajo at one end. Few survived, and
those that did were forced to walk 300 miles to Fort Sumner in
New Mexico and stand trial. They were allowed to return five
The most famous of the
ruins is "White House
Ruin," and we decided to
hike down into the
canyon to see it up close.
We hiked along with our
new RVing/sailing friends
who had ended up
camping alongside us overnight. As with every overlook in the entire
park, the views from the top were so gorgeous I found myself running
and jumping over the rocks trying to get the best angles and trying to
fit it all into the camera frame. Sigh. Not possible!
The contours of the rocks are
wavy and rippled, swirling in
enormous and wild patterns.
You can almost feel the power of
the water that etched out its
course along these canyon walls
over the millennia, carving its
path ever deeper into the stone.
After snaking down the edge of the rock face,
we finally arrived at the canyon floor, crossed a
small foot bridge, and arrived face-to-face with
White House Ruin.
Two levels of dwellings were built into the base of the cliff -- one
on the ground level and another one up about 40' off the ground in
a cave. An orange rainbow of stripes rains down the cliff wall,
painted by a divinely inspired hand -- or the result of a spilled paint
can way up on the top of the canyon.
At our feet we discovered unusual
flowers. A young Navajo boy showed us
a lovely painting he was working on
featuring the White House ruin and some
of the rock art that we could barely make
out along the rock wall.
In no time at all we climbed back to the top, passing through a wonderful
tunnel on the way. We would have stayed to see a few more of the
sights this mysterious canyon has to offer, but a massive heatwave was
spreading across the west and we wanted to get to higher, cooler
ground. We seemed to be on an ancient ruin kick, something we had
started with the Zapotecs and Mayans in southern Mexico several
months back. So we made our way to Mesa Verde National Park in
Colorado, possibly the best collection of cliff dwellings in the US.