This is the fourth part of a series that describes a trip we took several years ago. If you have not read the first part, click here.
We ate our last hotel breakfast of western omelets and fried potatoes. The morning was clear and bright and we talked eagerly about our plans. Today we were driving onto an Indian Reservation. I am ashamed to admit I was nervous, not knowing what to expect and wondering how welcome we would really be.
I was glad to leave Albuquerque and its traffic behind. Soon we were driving on a flat dusty landscape. Living in the east I think of wilderness as green, many multi hued shades of green, and of the sunlight filtering through the leaves. Out west there are many colors of reds, oranges and brown, but there is also a green. Cottonwood Trees and grasses, all of a faded dry green, surround every stream or waterhole.
In Gallup we drove through town slowly, looking at everything. We stopped at a visitor center for information on the Canyon de Chelly. A beautiful Indian woman enthusiastically described the Canyon we hoped to see. She also pointed us towards a playground park for our picnic lunch. We sat on the grass, in the shade, as all the picnic tables were full. Indian families were taking advantage of a warm summer day and children climbed and slid on the playground equipment.
After eating our lunch no one wanted to move, it was just too normal, relaxing on a blanket in a playground. The kids made whistles from blades of grass and I lay back watching the sun sparkle on the leaves. Eventually we gathered our things and drug ourselves back to the car. After a grocery stop we headed towards Chinle. Anna was feeling bad, struggling with a headache. We found the sign for Chinle, and turned up the dusty road towards the canyon. Canyon de Chelly was on an Indian Reservation, and much of the Canyon was only open to guided tours. We could drive and stop at all the lookouts, and one trail was open for hikes. The one free trail was called the White House Trail, and we decided to hike it in the morning. The museum at the Visitor Center appeared interesting but we passed it in order to set up our campsite and let Anna rest. Instead of a cold, we decided she was dehydrated. The campground was free, and we could pick any site we wanted. Driving around I noticed lots of Indians, men, just sitting on the picnic tables of various campsites. Women and children were hanging out in the picnic area. Feeling a little uncomfortable, like visitors from another culture, we picked out our site and set up camp. Anna climbed into the tent and slept. Joseph played his guitar and Laura entertained herself with a few toys. Huge cottonwood trees shaded the campground. It was early, 2 or 3 in the afternoon, and most campers were away, exploring perhaps. I set up the stove to heat soup for Anna and noticed a lone man walking towards us. He had a shabby look and I wondered what he wanted. He looked us over, three kids and a woman, then turned away to sit at another table. A dog wandered over and circled us, sniffing for food, then lay down by the tent door. There were several dogs wandering around. They weren’t afraid, or mean, they just seemed to take it for granted that we were in their home and they made themselves perfectly comfortable. This dog, our dog, completely ignored us. He rolled up against the tent side and fell asleep. We shouted, clanged pots and tried our best to chase him away, but all we did was wake Anna. Soup and water revived her and we decided to explore a little before dark. We put everything away, left the dog sleeping on our tent, and drove to the canyon road. We pulled into what we thought was an overlook only to find the drive blocked by a steel bar. Everything was so different; maybe all the pullouts closed after 6:00. We parked the car, hopped the gate and began to walk down the road. I had a slight feeling of breaking the rules, but also the excited feeling of a completely unknown walk. The sun was setting, and we had no idea how far the road would go before reaching a view of the Canyon. We could hear dogs barking and the distant whine of an ATV. Unlike most National Parks, people live in and along this Canyon. We walked until it was nearly dark then gave up and headed back to the car. Even though we missed any views of the canyon the walk was beautiful, and we saw our first tumbleweed roll across our path.
Back at the campground the campers had all returned from the day’s adventures. We walked around and found ourselves in a conversation with an older man beside his large RV. The man chatted with us, telling us how much we would love seeing the canyon in the morning. He had just come from his visit. He had paid a guide to take him in his car all along the canyon bottom. They had stopped for lunch at the guide’s home, and he had shared his candy with the children. This man told me a little of the history of the area. The Navaho ran the Canyon along with the Park Service. Although the campground and one trail was free, the rest of the canyon was only open to guided tours, run by Navaho. For years the Navaho had lived in the canyon until forced out by Kit Carson. The Hopi had settled in the canyon next, eventually replaced again by the Navaho. Neither tribe had been the first to settle here, the mysterious Anasazi had lived in the canyon years before, and left behind their petroglyphs and a few buildings.
Later I researched the history and realized, like so many things we know, the history of a place is the history of the people, and like people, it grows and changes. The group he called the Anasazi are now known as Pueblo people, an ancient race that left in the mid 1300’s. The Hopi migrated in to the canyon, planted corn and peaches and farmed the land for years. The Navaho came later, also farming. During a dark time in our history, the Navaho were forced out, made to take a long walk to New Mexico, to starve in a place called Bosque Redondo, only allowed to return years later. Now the Navaho families farm and tend their animals in the canyon, and other families run tour guide companies, opening their lands and homes to the tourist, teaching and showing the beauty of the land.
Finally we returned to our tent, pushed the strange dog away from the door, and went to sleep.