Canyon de Chelly, Arizona

Trip Start Apr 12, 1992
Trip End Jun 15, 1992

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Flag of United States  , Arizona
Thursday, April 23, 1992

When an old person dies, it's like a library burning. Alex Haley
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Cool, overcast

Forty miles south of Cortez, Colorado on US-160 one can visit the only place in the United States where the boundaries of four states meet. Ernie Pyle, the traveling reporter, was here in April, 1938. He said,"Way off here in the mountainous desert, at a tiny mathematical pinpoint, the states of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico all touch each other. There's nothing out here except a concrete post, and two swallows that keep flying around. You get here by driving thirty miles west from Shiprock, New Mexico on a dirt road. At thirty miles you turn right, onto a couple of tracks. You follow these tracks another eight miles. It takes you three-quarters of an hour to go the last eight miles. It's uphill, and full of rocks and drifted sand."

Today I traced this same route on a good highway. Nowadays the junction is appropriately called Four Corners. There is a stone surfaced area covering the spot. It has a metal survey plaque marking the exact juncture. It is possible to get down on all fours, and simultaneously be in four states. I did my tourist duty and spread-eagled into them all, feeling only a little foolish. There was a steady stream of tourists making pictures of one another.

Here in the clean, cool air at 5000' elevation sunlight has a special quality. I can't come up with a proper term to describe it. But there is a cleanness and sharpness and crisp glow that surrounds objects bathed in the light. It causes objects to stand in clear contrast against the background. Artists and photographers flock to this region to experience a new dimension of seeing, a vibrancy and saturation of color.

Four Corners also happens to be on a sixteen million acre Navajo reservation. It is possible to buy handmade jewelry and crafts, also fry bread and other foods, from the vendors who circle like a wagon train around the survey marker. Goods are displayed in small permanent kiosks, or laid out on the tailgates of pickups and trunks of autos. A few sellers display their wares on card tables. Other than a difference in the type of goods offered Four Corners looks much like a flea market.

The vendors have reached a superb level of collusion on prices. Twenty five vendors might be selling the same identical item. If so, you can be sure there will be 25 identical price tags.

For a fee, Indians will pose for pictures, your choice; smiling or warlike, individuals or entire families. They even expect a gratuity if you photograph their wares. Commercial photographers are required to obtain a special permit at the tribal offices in Window Rock, Ariz. That probably costs a fortune.

Alcoholic beverages are not allowed on Navajo land, however the area is littered with discarded whisky, beer, and wine containers. The reservations are plagued with alcohol abuse. But, on the other hand, The Navajo manage to extract large sums from tourists. In addition to souvenir sales, their gambling casinos and bingo parlors function as gold mines.

From Four Corners I veered southwest into Arizona. US-64 took me west through Teec Nos Pos to Mexican Water, then I dropped south on US-91 through Rock Point and Many Farms to Chinle. This little Navajo settlement hosts the usual collection of motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other traveler services. Chinle guards the mouth of Canyon de Chelly, another former home of the prehistoric Anasazi people.

The colorful, vertical canyon walls enclose several hundred ruins of ancient Indian villages, most of them built between 350 and 1300 A.D. Some are nestled beneath the brow of towering cliffs, others are perched atop high ledges. Those built after 700 A.D. are "apartment house" type homes. They are similar in construction to the other pueblos scattered throughout the southwest.

More recently, Canyon de Chelly became an ancestral stronghold for the Navajo, who moved here about 1700 A.D., following a long period of raids against more peaceful Pueblo Indians. Since then they have remained in constant occupation except for a brief period when a detachment of calvary under Kit Carson killed many of the young warriors and forced the families out of the canyon. Eight thousand Navajo were forced onto a reservation in eastern New Mexico. The reservation experiment failed. Four years later the Navajo were permitted to return to their canyon home.

Today the canyon floor is spotted with hundreds of Navajo homesteads along the shallow river. Generally they consist of a Navajo hogan (Traditional dome shaped adobe and cedar log home),a small garden, fruit orchards, some goats, a horse or two, and a herd of sheep grazing alongside the river. If you wanted to describe the Garden of Eden this spot in Arizona would provide a good model.

For many years the canyon has been a favorite source of inspiration for artists and photographers. In order to work here they first had to win the confidence of the Navaho. Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams were foremost among the artists who worked here.

Passage into the Canyon is restricted. Tourists are not allowed to enter unless accompanied by a ranger, or as personal guests of a Navaho resident guide. With a guide it is possible to hike, ride horseback, or motor into the canyon. Most tourists see the canyon either from atop the 800 foot cliff walls or as passengers on flat bed trucks fitted with pew-like seats. The trucks, unencumbered with a cover, offer passengers a splendid views of the wind and water carved canyon walls and rock pillars that tower up to a thousand feet from the canyon floor.

The tour trucks follow a narrow, unimproved trail, fording the shallow river from time to time on the journey upstream from the canyon mouth.

A quick, comprehensive view can be had from the canyon rims on the north and south sides. Scenic drives and overlooks afford excellent vantage points looking straight down onto the Indian farmsteads.

Unlike most Indian communities, which are rural slums, the residents of Canyon de Chelly appear to live a good life. Their farms and livestock provide most of the essentials. Sales of goods and services to tourists bring in extra spending money. Many residents work for the National Park Service. They manage to take what they need from visitors while retaining their own private living space. Perhaps this ability to control the terms of their relations with white men is what allows them to be friendly and courteous to visitors. They can always escape back into the privacy of the canyon. Later, during visits to two Hopi villages I would discover just how resentful and withdrawn Indians can be toward camera toting visitors.
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