Navigating the Navajo Nation

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of United States  , Utah
Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Leaving the Grand Canyon National Park we headed out into the deserts of Arizona following one of the branches of the canyon that becomes the Grand Canyon (which was an added bonus given the organised souls we had been in planning which way to go as we had no idea that was the route we were taking).

Our destination was the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, confusingly pronounced 'Canyon de Shay'. To get there we drove for several hours across the Navajo Nation – the biggest Indian reservation in the US, measuring 150 miles by 200 miles. This proved to be an interesting drive due to the amazing amount of nothingness. We drove down mile after mile of empty road across various dry, dusty, desert and mesa scenery marvelling at how little there was anywhere. Although the scenery was absolutely astounding in its nothingness, we must confess we found the Navajo nation a slightly strange place. It didn’t look like there was very much going on in the way of commerce, industry or anything really. Most of the people seemed to live in dry, dusty, deserty areas with very little around (you can’t help but wonder whether this why the Europeans so graciously granted this land to be reservation) and also mostly in run-down stationary mobile homes. The primary interaction we were able to have with local people was at the endless stalls and stands where they were trying desperately (and mostly failing as far as we could tell) to sell various ‘Indian’ trinkets and jewellery of varying quality but unvaryingly ridiculous prices. It was all rather sad really.

On our drive out from the Grand Canyon we had read about a beautiful, scenic and "well-worth-a-visit" Hopi village made out of original mud-huts on top of a mesa (the Hopis being a different tribe to the Navajo and with a separate Hopi reservation right in the middle of the Navajo Nation). We arrived there to find several signs up forbidding tourists from going anywhere except within a 5 metre radius of the small parking area, banning all photos of anything at all: people, houses, animals, the road, even the view from the top of the hill. This last we had a particular hard time understanding as it was just more endless mesa and desert and besides they can’t own the view itself can they? There was a small visitor centre that was being packed up by a local lady whose initial words to us where that we had missed the last tour of the day and it was absolutely forbidden to go anywhere in the village without a guide. Although you understand at the back of your mind that these people have been downtrodden, displaced and generally mistreated over the years it was not exactly a friendly welcome! After Isa managed to coax some “Hopi bread” out of another local (which was very thin blue and made out of crushed corn and juniper berries and tasted like, well, blue paper) we jumped back in The Tank and carried on.

Given that she had 4x4 capability we thought it was also about time to take The Tank off-road and so cut some corners to get off the more boring freeways and she responded beautifully, plowing down bumpy dirt tracks and up sandy slopes with no problems whatsoever. Good work Tank. This place was desolate. And quiet. On one dead straight road across the top of a mesa, we stopped, leaving Sarah in a comedy sleeping pose drooling gently in the passenger seat, to examine people sized balls of tumbleweed by the side of the road for about 10 minutes and not a single car went past in either direction.

During our trek across the Navajo Nation we didn’t really have any idea what time we would be arriving at Canyon de Chelly as the SatNav was having a hard time working out what time it was where we were and where we were going. This is because Arizona is on Mountain Standard Time, except that they don’t follow Daylight Savings Time like the rest of the MST zone so during summer they are an hour ahead of MST. Navajo Nation meanwhile, which is mostly in Arizona but also forms part of 3 other states (some of which are on the same time, some on other time), does follow Daylight Savings so in the Arizona part of it is an hour behind Arizona during the summer only. With us so far? To then complete the confusion the Hopi Reservation, which is completely surrounded by the Navajo nation doesn’t do Daylight savings. Confused? We were as we kept hopping between Arizona normal, Navajo Nation and Hopi areas on the route we took and the time SatNav said we would arrive kept jumping about. Bizarre. At least we didn’t stop in Tuba City where apparently the time changes depending what street you’re on.

Finally, having little idea what time it was but knowing only that it was getting a little late we pulled into the last town before the park area and popped into the shop to pick up dinner and some beers, only to discover to our horror that the whole Navajo Nation area was dry. No alcohol whatsoever. A quick look at the map showed we would be in the area for the next 2 nights at least. Crap. A hasty count, rationing and partitioning of our alcohol supplies followed. Upon entering the park we found another beautiful campsite and set about making our first proper campfire dinner of the road trip with Isa as head chef; fantastic gourmet steak, baked potatoes and fresh young corns while the sun when down over the red sand.

The next day we managed to find a ranch down the road with some horses and a guide who was willing to take us on horseback down into the Canyon itself and the incredible Spider Rock, a massive red pinnacle sticking hundreds of feet up out of the Canyon floor. It was an incredible ride across the rocks and desert and then down the steep winding switchbacks to the canyon bottom.  Once we hit the bottom we were able to gallop down the path and along dry stream beds through the canyon itself to the rock, an amazing, if incredibly painful experience (for Gordon at least who had got used to the sofa-like saddles of South America and was not used to the leather western saddles of the US). We had the entire canyon to ourselves and spent the whole time there staring up in wonder at the whole thing – except Deborah who asked non-stop questions of our guide Christie, who knew the answers to about 20% of them.  Our favourite was Deborah quizzing her on the Navajo language, and asking (innocently) how you would ask someone’s name.  This was met with a denial that you could ask that and after some confusing conversational circles it transpired that the Navajo have a ceremonial name that they do not share with outsiders.  Christie wouldn’t budge an inch on even giving us a clue to her native name so we decided to adopt some of our own (purely tongue in cheek).  And so Isa became “Crouching Fire Hidden Cactus” on account of her love to tending the BBQ and foraging for improbable wild foods, Sarah was Big Red Beard (in honour of her height, current fetching sun burn and maiden name rather than a fecundity of facial hair she was assured), Gordon became “Great Blowing Wind” (it was the sausages he swears!) and Deborah (this one was our personal favourite) was henceforth known as “Little Squawk” – very apt we hope those of you who know her will agree.   By the time we had finished laughing at this, gawping at the scenery and coaxed our tired horses out of the canyon and galloped (or bounced in Gordon’s case)back to the stables the day was getting on and we hopped straight into the car to continue on.

Next stop was the iconic Monument Valley (famous from a million Westerns we’d never seen but still iconic) which we approached just as the sun was beginning to come down to find an incredible and, unbelievably, empty campsite perched on a flat area ride in front of the incredible rock buttes of the valley: cue chorus of “I like Big Buttes and I Cannot Lie...”. Why nobody else was there we have no idea. We pitched our tents with the doors facing the buttes and decided this was the definitely the place to sit in our chairs admiring the incredible view and enjoy the bottle of Pimms Debs & Isa had brought over. We set to cooking another campfire dinner and sat under the moonlight that was highlighting the incredible scenery. We did then fairly swiftly begin to realise why people often didn’t camp here as the wind picked up significantly and started to blow the red dust around, filling all bodily orifices and giving our dinner an extra crunch. Still, it was a price we were willing to pay for camping on our own in such an awesome spot.

At Gordon’s insistence, alarms were set for 4:30 in the morning so that we could open the tent doors and watch (from our beds with a cup of tea) perhaps the most beautiful sunrise of the trip so far as the sun rose slowly behind the famous buttes, silhouetting them and turning the sky behind at various times into awesome shades of pink, orange, red, purple and blue- sometimes all at once. Incredible – we promise the photos aren’t photo-shopped.

After another cup of tea we decided that whilst we had the place to ourselves (and we did still) we should go on an early morning hike around the nearest looking butte which, of course, turned out to be a bit further away than anticipated but never mind. The rocks looked even more magnificent up close and on foot with literally nobody else out there, just rattlesnakes and various wild animal skulls for company. After our slightly-longer-than-expected hike we took the Tank off down on the self drive 4x4 tour around the valley and through the amazing rock formations. The area didn’t get any less beautiful and the experience was only slightly tarnished by the hordes of tourists that started to arrive as the morning wore on and the Navajo guy posing in front of a famous vista from some western film we had never heard of on a horse (charging for photos of course). Feeling thoroughly contented and pleased with ourselves for finding such a beautiful camp-spot and with ourselves, the Tank and all our belongings thoroughly covered in red sand we drove on out back onto the open road, watching Monument Valley dwindle smaller in the mirror (via, you’ll be pleased to hear, a shower to clear the sand away from the more uncomfortable places).

The change as we drove down out of the Navajo Nation reservation and into the rural area of Colorado was astounding. Red sand and dust and a lack of anything turned suddenly (in 5 minutes flat) into green valleys and irrigated fields and then, finally, a typical American small town complete with three lane roads, strip malls and massive parking lots. The contrast was striking.  When Little Squawk went off to ask directions and returned an hour later having heard the lady’s entire life story, she had also managed to glean that apparently when the reservation was set up the Indians were given the right to the land within the reservation, but not always the water - which the European settlers promptly diverted to their own fields and hence the stark difference.  Words failed us.  Incidentally at this point Little Squawk was also banned from asking directions again.

After a small detour when we went fruitlessly hunting for elk steaks to cook on the BBQ having also been told by Little Squaks’s new friend that there was an elk farm nearby (which we did eventually find closed up) we found a spot in the Mesa Verde National Park campsite for yet another gourmet BBQ meal masterminded by Crouching Fire Hidden Cactus and featuring some grilled peppers that turned our to be chillies so hot Gordon promptly got the hiccups for 2 hours.  Which the rest of us didn’t laugh at at all of course.

Mesa Verde, is, we discovered (admittedly only on reading the guidebook as we drove into the park) the only National Park set up purely to protect archaeological sites. It consists of a beautiful, green mesa (flat topped mountain) that rises up out of the plains of Colorado with incredible 400-500 year old Puebloan dwellings built into the cliff faces and alcoves all around it. These were sometimes in the most unlikely of places with access only by huge, sheer cliffs and built in the most extraordinary fashion – for example three of four storey towers filling an alcove from floor to ceiling, which two metres away petered out into a 100m vertical cliff face.  These villages were accessible by scaling the cliffs above and yet whole villages of all ages lived there.  We drove around looking at the various precariously perched ruins and even did a fun and interesting tour (honestly no sarcasm intended) with a ranger who took us down the cliff to a particularly inaccessible cliff-dwelling where we had to climb up steep ladders and clamber through tiny cave tunnels to see the dwellings which were, amazingly, still in original form and not reconstructed at all. He also explained the current theories on why they had built such crazy places to live. Essentially, the people used to live in different tribes or groups on the top of the mesa where things were a bit easier but having over-indulged somewhat they then started to run out of resources (space, firewood, animals to hunt and fertile soil) and so the tribes started to fight over the resources and hence it became necessary to move to more defensible locations; the cliff-dwellings.  Whatever the reason for building them, they are jaw-dropping and imagining the commute home if you lived there was enough to make your knees wobbly.

All-in-all, it was a fine end to the first leg of our South-West USA road trip and we had seen some of the most incredible scenery of the trip so far. Next on the menu was a bit of a change of pace and scene as we headed into Utah and the up-and-coming adventure capital of Moab where we were planning on spending  Little Squawk’s birthday, exercising our adrenalin glands a bit with some activities and, perhaps most excitingly, camping in one spot for more than one night!
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Ricardo on

Stunning pictures!

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