Wednesday, September 28, 2022 Sep 28, 2022
90° F Dallas, TX


Looking for an escape, I went to the ancient cliff-dwellings of Arizona lm that place of terrible beauty, I found the way home.
By Rod Davis |

WEST OF WINDOW Rock, capital of the modern Navajo nation, the red-rock plateaus of northeastern Arizona roll away, changing like chameleons. For a while you’re among snow-smattered forests of pinon and juniper so green, so placid, so deep, you could imagine Robert Frost having lived here instead of in New England. Then the trees break into the bleakness of, say, T.S. Eliot: scrub prairie, clapboard shacks, roadside gulleys full of broken beer bottles and the occasional hitchhiker. Further west towards the old Hubble trading post and the small town of Ganado, the bleakness gains a placidity of its own, and the asphalt cuts into the sagebrush moors like a blacksnake. The road is austere, sinuous, intrusive but not without aesthetic compensations-maybe the highest accolade possible for the works of man in the wilds of the earth. I was driving into that fast-shifting mix in late afternoon, trying to escape the city and all its forms of bleakness and banality. My plan was to lose myself for days-I wasn’t sure how many- – in the sacred country of the Anasazi, who migrated into the area about 1,200 years ago and then disappeared by the 14th century, supplanted in turn by the Hopi, the Navajo, the Spanish, Mexicans, and the U.S. Cavalry. Sometimes called Indian Country beause of the predominance of huge reservations, the region lies near the geographic junctures of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, the so-called Four Corners.

From the moment I arrived, I could tell I was in a place unlike any other in America, a mystery of geology, cultures, and peoples. And then I saw the Road Warrior.

Not the person, just his car: white Camaro Z-28, tinted windows, grill sheathed in a black nose bra, hood stripped off to show the sinews of the big engine topped by an oversized air scoop, maybe a turbo intake. From out of nowhere the dimensions of the machine filled my rear view mirror. I waited for him to pass and the longer he didn’t, the more I wondered if this might be one of those shakedowns you get on the highways in northern Mexico. I hadn’t seen a car or human for miles. I’d make a sitting duck. Of course, I have an active imagination. The driver, whom I never saw clearly, pulled out after cresting a hill and zoomed off past me in a rumble of muffler. For all I know he was a kindergarten teacher late for a dental appointment.

At Ganado I took Highway 191 north toward Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), actually a triple cleft of canyons- de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument-carved out by the Rio de Chelly. The Anasazi, a farming people who learned that deep river canyons offered not only protection from enemies but also reliable irrigation, built magnificent villages all throughout the three forks before vanishing, for unclear reasons, about 1300 A.D. The nomadic Navajo subsequently occupied the area and thought of it as a sacred place. Not so the Spanish, who massacred 115 Navajo in the del Muerto ravines in 1805, or the Yankees, who sent Kit Carson to drive out the Navajo in 1863 in order to relocate them, temporarily, to Bosque Redondo in New Mexico.

The Navajo later regained ownership and control of Canyon de Chelly and now operate it as a national monument. It is said to be more picturesque than the Grand Canyon, but that wasn’t why I wanted to see it.

I got to Chinle, a low, dusty reservation town adjacent to the canyon, an hour before sunset and decided to see as much of the north rim as I could before dark. I parked near an overlook above the del Muerto fork and walked down a promontory of weather-smoothed red ledge. At first I thought, this is it? A big stone arroyo that’s not even that deep? But my eyes were playing tricks. When I got closer to the edge, I suddenly perceived the true depth of field, the scale of the geology. It was plenty deep, at least a quarter-mile, more as the walls of the canyon-a jumble of colors from millions of years of faults and eruptions and inundations-rose down river. I inched a little more toward the canyon lip. Gusts of wind were easily strong enough to cost me my balance. I think I stood there a long time. Then I backed away and listened. All I could hear were my own thoughts. They were clear.

In that brief serenity, I turned my head slightly and noticed, almost with a start, an elderly Navajo man and woman less than 100 yards away huddled in a declivity near a scrub tree. She was cooking something in a tin pot, and he was watching her. Although they ignored me, the place and the time weren’t big enough for the three of us. Anyway, it was getting cold. The orange of sunset had gone stone gray with fast-moving cloud banks from the northwest.

That night a freak storm blew in, dumping thick snow everywhere. I had a leisurely breakfast at the Thunderbird Lodge, waiting for conditions to improve enough for a hike down to the canyon floor. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the elderly couple. I’d seen no evidence of shelter or transportation. When I drove back to look for them they were gone. Vanished. They say that’s how the Anasazi left, too.

BY LATE MORNING THE SUN HAD MELTED THE SNOW, and the sky had turned so blue it seemed tinted. Except for three German hikers I passed going down the path to the bottom of de Chelly, I had the two-and-a-half mile roundtrip foray to myself. The trail made up in gentle beauty what it lacked in challenge. At the base, it opened onto a hogan next to a working goat farm-virtually all Navajo parks are live-ins, inhabited by clans still following the old ways. Down from that the riverbed led around a bluff toward the Anasazi ruins nicknamed White House.

Named for the coloration of its plaster, the White House colony had been built into a naturally eroded cleft in the sheer rock face of the canyon wall. Its boxlike, multilevel homes and kivas, ceremonial lodges, bore uncanny resemblance to a modern, Santa Fe-style apartment complex. As I waded across the river to get a closer look, I smiled at a sensation I would have many times in the coming days. I had not left the city, I had come back to it.

Here, as in all the ancient villages, a lively and interdependent community of men, women, and children sought amid nature something other than basic survival. They worked to add the beauty of the human mind and spirit to that of the world around them, and to improve their odds of living in that world, which though full of beautiful canyons and sunsets was also home to flood, famine, drought, and predators. They were social beings, with social purpose and social cohesion. The difference in the cities of that time and of our own lies in the degree to which we have forgotten the purpose of cities, becoming lost in our own image, bereft of communal anything.

I returned to the top of the canyon soaked in sweat. I’d been too elated during the climb to pause for water and immediately dug a liter bottle from my knapsack and drank half. Having initially sneered at the canyon, I was now hooked-it was an encyclopedia of secrets and history and, in some ways, a metaphor for the human condition. I could have spent days there, trekking the canyon floors, stricken with envy at the people who had, for centuries, been brilliant enough to create what must have seemed the perfect life on earth.

I contented myself with paying homage to the Spider Woman. One of the mythic founders of the Dineh, or Navajo people, she inhabits an 800-foot red sandstone spire guarding the merger of the canyons de Chelly and Monument. It is called Spider Rock, and all around stretch the crumbling mesas to which she was joined before erosion freed her. I studied Spider Rock intently, looking for the goddess within. How dauntless she stood, impressive in a landscape where that was no mean feat, time and wind and the thoughts of man be damned. I stared at her like a lover.

I went back to my rented Ford Explorer, glanced at my map, and made an impulsive decision. I wanted to linger awhile in Spider Woman’s lair-see the land her gaze commanded from a closer perspective. So I abandoned the paved roads and headed through pinon- and juniper-filled logging country over Rock Mesa. I didn’t exactly know where I’d wind up, but the vistas were magnificently empty, like the Australian Outback.

With roads to match. Melting snow had turned the deeply rutted roadbed to wheel ruts of sludge and ridges of wet glaze. This wasn’t driving, it was skiing.

After 20 miles and one false trail, the going became so slick I was sliding from ditch to gulley. I punched in four-wheel drive, but not even that held up on the long mountainside slope I figured for the way to Ganado. I retreated to a previous fork and checked my map. None of the bench marks had showed up, and it was obvious I’d never find them unless I completely retraced my route, which I was determined not to do. I just drove on. I’d wanted to get lost. I had succeeded.

I took whatever trail seemed the more interesting, traversing hairpin ruts and fording shallow streams until I emerged from labyrinths of evergreen hills onto a high, barren plateau, probably the top of the mesa. I could see everything in the distance and had no idea how to get there. So I continued down plains of sage and rock, the red mud yielding to gray dust and broken boulders.

Two hours passed. The weather threatened to close in, Already it had changed from sun to snow to rain to hail and back to sun again. Now the wind was in charge, sweeping in on clouds of dust. I really was lost. I felt stupid. At about that moment, the gusts stopped, and, as though a curtain had parted, revealed a small, boxed bluff not 100 yards away. In the center was a split-rail corral , for horses or goats, the dirt inside freshly trampled. Lost indeed. My blind horizon was somebody else’s stock pen.

In time, I came up to the village of Nazlini. A yellow school bus was pulling out of a side road, and I waved down the Nava-jo driver. I asked him how to find the Ganado highway. He said I was going in the right direction, I just needed to go a little farther.

ALTHOUGH MY MOOD WAS TO MOVE, to escape urban ennui by outrunning it, 1 learned on the mesas of the Hopi reservation that you could accomplish the same thing by staying put. Eastern religions have always held that, of course, although my favorite illustration of the idea comes from an Austrian, the novelist Peter Handke, in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. The title comes from the closing scene, in which the goalie, waiting for a penalty shot, tries to guess into which corner the kicker will send the ball. The kicker similarly tries to guess which way the goalie will lean, so he can kick in the other direction, and so on. The goalie resolves his anxiety by standing perfectly still. The kicker shoots the ball directly into his hands.

Completely surrounded by the vast Nava-jo lands-16 million acres and 150,000 people-the Hopi-with their 911,000 acres and 10,000 people-live a seemingly impossible life of enclosure. What people, after all, can abide within the bosom of another? And yet who doesn’t? As the Hopi live within the Navajo territories, so the Navajo live within the United States, and so the United States lives within the continent, and within the seas, and the globe and, finally, the stars and planets and universe. We are all within something.

But telescoping is reversible. Faced with the limits of external boundaries, the Hopi have responded by a journey inward, back through the infinity of the spirit. Out of their circumstances comes the famous Hopi Way, a deeply religious orientation that makes the Hopi among the most inscrutable of all the Native American cultures. Staying put atop their three sacred mesas, the Hopi lean neither left nor right, and wait for you to come to them.

I did on a clear morning, driving in from the east through Keams Canyon, a former trading post at the border of Hopi and Navajo lands. From the flat plains, the three mesas-simply named First, Second, and Third-rose like fingers from the hand of the even larger Black Mesa to the north. For a moment it was impressive, and then reality intruded. Polacca, at the base of First Mesa, was filled with junked cars, ramshackle housing, old tires. My heart sank. The mesas were ghettos. 1 don’t know why I was surprised, nor should any of us be. The most intractable poverty, alcoholism, suicide, unemployment, disease, and illiteracy in this country can be found in the homelands of the Native American peoples.

There I was again, social rage-back in the city. I told myself this was not my purpose and drove up the winding, narrow road from Polacca to the top of First Mesa. The roadway became a dirt street as 1 reached the settlements of Hano and Sichomovi. The tiny homes of stone and wood seemed even more plain-I felt like 1 was in a poor farming village in northern Asia.

Distracted by thoughts from my own world, I nearly blundered into this one, barely catching a sign outside a meeting hall in Hano warning visitors not to go any further without a guide. Some Hopi villages are like that-Old Oraibi, on Third Mesa, is often closed to outsiders. Photography is prohibited everywhere.

The guide wasn’t back from escorting some tourists, so I waited in the sun. A few children played near a mud puddle with a soccer ball. Just down the street, four or five men hung out in front of a small grocery. I couldn’t understand what would keep any of them in this place of Third World desolation.

Toward the edge of the mesa a privy stood in a little space between a row of plaster and stone huts. I walked over not for the facilities but the view. It came on me like an overpowering drug. Instantly, I felt like an eagle. I could see for miles: the entire expanse of the Arizona high country, the San Francisco mountains, considered holy by the Hopi, fingertips of Second and Third Mesas-and birds, flying, below me.

Florence, the Hopi guide, came back. She led me and a family from Iowa down the street towards Walpi, extending from the slender tip of the mesa like the prow of a ship. Stunningly picturesque, still home to about 10 families, the village was a living version of the ruins in Anasazi canyons throughout the Four Corners region. Down the cliff face, steep paths led to corn fields and to the outside world. Florence pointed to a group of modern buildings in the valley-the new high school. When she was a girl, she said, she had to walk down the mesa every day for classes. Now there was a bus.

That afternoon 1 checked in at the Hopi Cultural Center and spent the remainder of the day touring the Second and Third Mesas. Each mesa is about 10 miles from its neighbor, and each has a special character. First Mesa is the focus of most tourist activity. Second Mesa, site of the Hopi Cultural Center complex, is the seat of commerce and the progressive wing of the tribe. Third Mesa contains the semisecluded village of Old Oraibi, continuously settled since 1125 A.D., the oldest city in the country.

It is also home to Hoteville, founded in 1906 by a group of traditionalists (then called Hostiles) opposed to progressives (then called Friendlies) who had prevailed in bloodless civil war over the direction of the tribe and its relations with the United States. It was characteristic of the Hopi Way that the feud was settled after the opponents agreed to draw a line in the dirt and grant victory to the side that could push the other’s leader across.

For dinner I ate beans and hominy with fried bread in the Cultural Center restaurant, about evenly frequented by tourists and locals, and the only cafe on any of the mesas. Still feeling sour-the contradictions of human poverty and cultural wealth a long way from being resolved in my mind-I walked outside to watch the sunset. I lingered until I could see the stars flickering in the pitch-black night. Yeats’s “Easter 1916’* popped weirdly into my head. “A terrible beauty,” he called the Irish rebellion. I returned to my room and went to bed, pausing only to clean the caked mud from my boots.

That night I slept fitfully. I fell into a series of strange dreams-my life telescoped backward and forward through friends, family, mates, death. I couldn’t wake up-each time I tried I was dragged back. Sunrise finally released me. Instead of fatigue, I felt refreshed. And perplexed. How had a chain of visions come from a day of bad attitude?

After breakfast I drove off the mesas, detouring along the Third Mesa turnoff to meander through the comparatively modern village of Shovponi. On a muddy street near the edge of town, also the edge of the mesa, I watched a Hopi man, woman, and child walk to their adobe home. It faced outward onto the valley. A million-dollar view. Maybe it was true, maybe the view was a drug, or maybe the religion was, but maybe, also, all the deprivations I thought were real were illusion. Maybe the true vision was, as the Eastern religions also say, within.

NOW I WANTED TO DRIVE FAR, FAST, TO stretch out. I arced west and north back into Navajo land and across the border into Utah. I stopped briefly at the Navajo National Monument, hoping to see the Beta-takin ruins in Tsegi Canyon, but the trail was closed that day. I didn’t mind that much, since my goal for the day was Monument Valley Tribal Park, the surreal collection of buttes and mesas on the Arizona-Utah border. I can describe it best by saying you’ve seen it in any of a half-dozen films, John Ford’s in particular, beginning with Stagecoach in 1938, defining “the West” for millions of movie fans as magical vistas of red spires and endless sage-filled canyons.

I arrived early enough to check into Goulding’s Lodge, the best and only place to stay near the valley, and drove right over. For the first time, I encountered plenty of tourists. Somehow we were all subsumed, fitting in as easily as the Navajo sheep fanners who lived in the area and supplemented their incomes selling jewelry at a dozen places along the 17 miles of jolting dirt trails.

You can proceed at your own pace (guided tours are also available), and my pace got slower and slower. About midway through the valley I took an optional cutoff down a steep hill and through a shallow stream to the base of a slender spire known as Totem Rale, standing just in front of a low mesa. It was a location scout’s dream-I know, I used to be one. Within a single camera frame were varieties of terrain and flora so diverse you’d never guess they were from the same locale. Before me was a rolling sand dune, beyond that a shallow stream, after that a flower-filled meadow. In back of that was scrub land and then multicolored canyons, mesas, and buttes-each unique and distinct.

I was completely alone-most cars were deterred by the ruts and the stream. I could hear nothing but the wind rushing through the canyons. I put my camera in my car, where the naturalist Edward Abbey would say it belongs, and stood motionless. No sounds, no movement, no people. Then I could hear what we ordinarily don’t. A crow’s wingbeat as it swept past. A fly buzzing.

I looked out at the sun, a couple of palms above the horizon. I was in orbit around that star, and that star in a galaxy beyond real human comprehension. Abbey, in Desert Solitaire, had set as his goal the imagining of himself as one with nature. I tried to put myself in those buttes. To be a rock, swirling through space over eons, meanwhile having your base and shoulders eaten away by your only companions, the wind and water, you becoming them. …

It is in the contemplation, not the observation, that one approaches the Zen. The shaping, not the shape. “What a piece of work is a man,” said Shakespeare. Only man gives meaning to nature. Without human sensibility. Monument Valley is like the Spider Woman’s home-erosion, chemistry, physics. The human spirit apprehends the beauty. Human consciousness creates the aesthetic.

How marvelously the Hopi understood this. Condemned to poverty, they exist as artists-the artists of nature. The West has destroyed its artists, reduced art to commodities like everything else, but the Hopi have not. They never relinquished the sense of awe attained by looking out on the land from those arid mile-high mesas. That was all they needed. It was holy, beautiful, and true.

A car approached and people got out to take photos. A man with a video recorder walked past the sign telling him not to trespass. He told his companion he wanted to get a closer shot of the Totem Pole spire. I didn’t tell him to stop. I did wish him a curse.

NORTH INTO UTAH THE ROADWAYS BE-come the art, spilling over on each side with tableaus that would startle the dead. Driving up Highway 261 to the Natural Bridges National Monument I crossed a vast desert bowl, the Valley of the Gods, heading directly for the immensity of Cedar Mesa, covering most of the horizon. I kept wondering when the road would veer west to go around the mesa. It didn’t. It went straight up. A flat-land drive became an exercise in hairpin turns on slippery gravel. At Mokee Dugway, an overlook about halfway up, the warning sign advised of an 1,100-foot drop. I could understand why the Anasazi lived in such places. This road was a kind of tribute.

I spent the rest of the day looping around toward Four Corners, attempting to head in the general direction of New Mexico. Highway 95 took me past snow-peaked moun-tains, across splendid stream-fed meadows, , alongside comb-toothed jagged ridges to Blanding, a Mormon town closed up tight on Sunday morning.

Then I opted for back roads again, head-ing southeast to the Colorado line and Chimney Rock on Ute land. I got lost again, this time unintentionally, with the added excitement of a low gas tank, an irony in the oil-rich lands near Hovenweep, a tiny hillside village near the like-named national monument. When I finally emerged at Aneth, I filled up at a convenience store and ! realized my journey was over-maybe had been since Monument Valley.

But as I hurried back down the long western corridor of New Mexico toward Gallup, ] juncture of the interstate to Albuquerque, I couldn’t keep my eyes off Shiprock, An enormous spiny fin, technically an igneous volcanic plug, it juts up !,700 feet from the surface to dominate the horizon for miles. To me it looked like a Flash Gordon spaceship on an asteroid, but the Navajo call it “Winged Rock,” and some say that on hot summer evenings, heat waves make it appear to be sailing along the desert. Albuquerque could wait.

The closest any highway, even the cutoff to Red Rock, got was six or seven miles, but several unpaved trails, according to my map, led to the base. Finding them was the trick. Road signs in New Mexico are about as plentiful as in Louisiana. Eventually I decided the cattle guard openings through the surrounding ranch fences might be public access. The last thing I wanted to do was drive into a private ranch without permission. I turned in where I saw a new pickup parked with two Indian men leaning against the hood. I drove past them slowly. When they didn’t stop me, I figured I was okay.

The trail, often only the outline of tire tracks through the brush, was strictly four-wheel , and as I got closer I thought again of the Outback. Shiprock, like the monolith Uluru (Ayers Rock), seemed to erupt from the earth like either a mistake or a plan. The native peoples of both continents have no doubt it is the latter. Both rocks, it is believed, harbor spirit worlds.

I reached the base and craned my head upward, trying to grasp something of the rock’s presence. I wondered if Abbey ever did, really. The light was fading so I took off along another trail, wondering where it led, bouncing along like there was no better place in the world, nor better moment to be there.

TRAVEL TIME: Minimum three-day weekend to see one or two destinations at most, Take more time for a longer tour. The idea is intensity, not mileage.

HOW TO GET THERE: You can fly into Albuquerque on both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines, or you can fly American to Phoenix..

GETTING AROUND: Rent a four-wheel drive if possible. A compact or standard sedan costs less, but don’t try any back roads with them.

WHERE TO STAY: Anytime you travel in peak season, reserve your motel before you leave home. This also applies to campers. Most national park or national monument campsites are filled during the summer. Unless you reserve a spot, you’ll sleep in your car.

CANYON DE CHELLY: Thunderbird Lodge (602-674-5443) is the top choice. Canyon de Chelly Motel in Chinle is okay, but not as nice.

HOPI RESERVATION: Hopi Cultural Center Motet, Second Mesa (602-734-2401). Not only the best place, but the only place to stay if you want to spend the night on the mesas.

MONUMENT VALLEY AREA: Goulding’s Lodge (801-727-3231). There are other motels in the area, but this is by far the best. Majestic views, good food, most comprehensive videocassette collection of John Ford westerns-filmed at Monument Valley-on the continent.

GENERAL INFO: Theancient Hopi villages of Walpi and Old Oraibi are entry-restricted. A guide at Hano, at the top of First Mesa, will take you by foot on to Walpi; only enter Oraibi if the sign on the dirt road says it is open. Photography is not permitted anywhere on the Hopi reservation.

Generally speaking, the pottery and jewelry offered for sale throughout the area-you’ll be besieged by vendors at Walpi in particular-are good stuff, but be prepared to pay relatively high prices for handmade goods. It is okay to bargain, even at the tribal and museum shops.

If you hike in the national parks or monuments, use your head. If it’s hot, take lots of water. Canyon poors can become bakeries at midday. Try to time your expeditions for early morning.

Most of the time you’II be on Native American land. Never drink in public. Ever. A cocktail or nightcap in your own room is fine, but discretion is rule one.

GUIDE books: The best are Journey to the High Southwest, Robert L. Casey; American Southwest, Insight Guide Series; Frommer’s Dollarwise Southwest; and 22 Days in the American Southwest, by Richard Harris. – R.D.