Something woke me up at 5:30, Thursday, August 22nd. All was quiet
in the RV park, but then a van pulled up to the little red trailer parked
next to my van. The driver went inside the trailer. I turned on the smartphone
and checked the weather. It was 71 degrees out. Chinle, Arizona had a 30%
chance of rain that day. I lay down and dozed a little, but by 6 AM (OK
time) I was awake. (Everything was on Oklahoma time until I got to the
playa.) I felt like I slept pretty good, all things considered. I couldn’t
find my flashlight. (Why? Because it was dark.) All was quiet,
with a slight breeze. I went inside and took a shower. By the time I was
done, it was still dark out. I had not expected to be up that early. In
the shower, I recharged my phone and got caught up on email. I rearranged
the back of the van.
At just after 7 AM, I pulled out of the RV park. I found the address
for a CVS Pharmacy down the road, because I needed some bug spray, but
it was still closed. I found a truck stop and got $30 worth of gas. A guy
who said he was a homeless vet came up while I was at the pump and asked
for some gas – not money for gas, just gas, but he didn’t
have any kind of container with him. He walked off.
Albuquerque was just waking up when I got back on I-40 headed west. The
full Moon was still high in the west. Traffic was light as I found a classic
rock station to listen to. It was 130 miles to Gallup. The rising Sun was
bright in my rear-view mirror. The air was cool; I drove with all the windows
up. Traffic was busy on the interstate that morning. The skies were mostly
clear, with some high clouds. There were several trucks parked at Laguna
Pueblo, checking out the native crafts. At 8:15, I passed the Dancing Eagle
Casino, where I’d originally planned to crash that Wednesday night. The
late start out of Tulsa changed my plans. I passed lava fields near Grants.
There were a lot of trailers at the Lavaland RV park.
A quarter after 9, I stopped at the Continental Divide for a soda and
to eat my breakfast: a hard boiled egg, a tuna cup and a can of V-8. It
felt good to get some food in me. That’s where I changed shirts and put
on my hiking boots. There were lots of wild flowers along the road. When
I got off the interstate in Gallup, I got a phone call from the State office.
It seems the test they gave me Wednesday morning, the one that made me
late getting out of town, was the wrong test. Could I come in
during my lunch hour and take the correct one? No, I replied, I was
in Gallup, New Mexico. Phooey.
I headed north on Highway 491, and then turned west on Highway 264.
I was on the Navajo Code Talkers Highway. I drove into pleasant, rolling
hills. Wildflowers made splashes of color out in the fields. Hitchhikers
lined the road, some holding up cash to influence drivers to stop. The
eastbound lane had a lot of construction. The air was thick with the smell
of fresh blacktop. At 10:45, I crossed the border and found myself in Window
Rock, Arizona. Fields of wild flowers surrounded gorgeous rock outcroppings.
I stopped off at the Navajo Nation Museum. They had informative exhibits
on the history of the area. They also had a penny crushing machine. It
was a clear day. The road out of town took me up a long, slow incline that
forced Satori down to 40 MPH. I entered a forest of tall trees. The air
was clean and fresh.
Hubbell Trading Post, 1890s
||At Mile Marker 466, I crossed a pass at 7,750 feet. The highway changed
from a 4-lane to a 2-lane road with no shoulders. A horse ran along the
fence. A high, red ridge came into view up ahead. My ears popped and the
forest thinned out as I descended off the Defiance Plateau. I crossed Fish
Wash coming into Ganado. That was where I pulled over and stopped at the
Hubbell Trading Post. It was the oldest trading post in the Navajo Nation,
established in 1876, and it really was a trading post, selling groceries,
kitchen utensils and farm tools. I picked up some stuff, including a jar
of jalapeno-stuffed olives. Around back were the stables and warehouses
where they used to keep their inventory.
The road and one-lane bridge going in had speed bumps so high they made
my gas light come on. I told Satori not to toy with me in my delicate state.
It had turned into a beautiful day. I stopped at the gas station down the
road and got $20 worth of gas. An arrow-straight road led north through
a landscape of beautiful pastel colors. I passed a hitchhiker talking on
a cellphone. It was just after 1 PM when I got to Chinle, “Home of the
Wildcats.” There was some kind of job fair going on at the local sports
complex. A horse running loose nibbled on a patch of grass in front of
an apartment house.
I turned east and passed the Holiday Inn on my way to the Canyon de Chelly
visitor center. Inside, I found out the park was open 24 hours a day—because
people live there. Native American families have been living inside
the canyon for centuries, just like at Monument Valley. From the parking
lot I could see the very comfortable campsite down the slope and decided
that was where I’d camp for the night. The road from the visitor center
took me past many flat rocks, but then I started to see glimpses of dramatic
vistas as I climbed to the top of a rise. Horses grazed wild in a field.
I stopped at the Tunnel Canyon overlook. The view pokes through the stone
to a polite, green valley. Vendors invited me to check out their wares.
I got closer to the viewing point, mindful of the heights, but I figured
I’d have to face my fears sometimes.
There were more vendors at the Tsegi Overlook. A very talented painter
showed me his White House renditions of slabs of rock. He told me ancient
peoples kept roadrunner birds as pets. The view was peaceful and silent,
except for the farmer’s pickup far down below. I followed the road around
to the Junction Overlook, keeping an eye on a storm cloud looming in the
distance. Two men were at the railing when I arrived, talking about the
vendor’s artwork. “They all have good stuff,” a guy in a biker shirt commented,
“but if you stopped to buy one of everything, you’d go broke.” Big, black
birds swooped low overhead.
|People have lived in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "Canyon de Shay")
for about 5,000 years. Over the centuries, Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo Indians
have all called this ancient place home. The cliff walls rise from 30 ft.
near the canyon entrance to a dramatic 1,000 feet in some places, carved
out by erosion over millions of years. Some of the residents built elaborate
homes into the cliffs of the canyon, preserved today as impressive ruins.
Photographer Edward Curtis took this photo of Navajo riding through
the canyon in 1904. Curtis took some of the most iconic images of the Old
West in Canyon de Chelly.
The path was carved into the sides of the canyon, with switchbacks leading
downward. I was impressed that the path was cut into the rock in a way
that let it blend in with the natural surroundings. In places, the path
was rough, with rippled cuts in the stone, as if shaped over time by erosion.
Nevertheless, I thought how much it would suck to twist an ankle on the
trail. I met a shirtless guy who was not impressed with the ruins: he said
they were “not that hot.” I met a girl coming back up the path who had
a different opinion of the ruins: “Great! Beautiful!”
Every step brought new panoramic views of the canyon. It was nice that
benches were provided along the way for people to stop and rest. I kept
seeing blue stones scattered along the path and imbedded in the surrounding
rocks: turquoise. I scooped up a handful and put it in my pocket.
I went through another short tunnel, and almost turned my foot on the uneven
floor. I was thankful for the shade. Some German tourists walking uphill
said, “You’re almost there!” Promise? I asked. At last, I made it
to the canyon floor. It had taken me about 35 minutes from the rim. The
ground was sandy and loose near the river.
A narrow, wooden footbridge took 20 paces to cross. The water was swift
and dark. On the canyon floor, the air was cool, and trees provided welcome
shade. Anthills were everywhere. Cactus grew freely. Some locals had tables
set up in the shade to sell native crafts. The pit toilets were across
another narrow bridge. The breeze felt good in the shade.
||At the White House overlook, the ruins far below looked tiny compared
to the scale of the canyon. I could hear more than one chainsaw at work
somewhere down below. It was the hottest part of the day, so of course
that was when I arrived to hike down to the canyon floor.
Signs declared it was a 1 1/2 miles down to the canyon floor, and 1
1/2 miles back up to the rim, for a 2 1/2 mile hike... I had the
feeling somebody needed to check his math. I had been going back and forth
about doing the hike at all, but then I read in the brochure “pit toilets
are available at the bottom.” I started out at 2:15. The trail was not
well-marked, but it was pretty obvious. It led along the rim of the canyon,
then turned and went through a tunnel.
|It was right after 3 PM when I made it to the White House ruins. The
structures themselves are locked away behind a fence, but you can get a
good view. Crows cawed in the trees. The breeze over the little river was
cool and relaxing. Native peoples built the structures almost a thousand
The walls of the canyon seemed to stretch up to heaven. What must
it have been like to live here? Surrounded by the sheer canyon walls,
it must have felt like the safest place on Earth -- like no matter what
happened, no matter how bad things got, you always had the Earth on your
There was freshly-cut wood under the trees, probably from the chainsaws
I heard earlier. When I told one of the vendors I was turned around, she
laughed and pointed me back towards the footbridge. Thunder boomed in the
distance as I crossed the muddy river. A 2-inch yellow lizard skittered
across my path. The storm cloud I’d been watching seemed to have moved
Returning to the base of the cliffs, I started my return trip. The
journey down was a walk, but the return trip was a hike. I kept
telling myself it was like a short, marathon "fun run," just… vertical.
A mountain is climbed one step at a time, so I started out. A fly buzzed
around my ears. Up the slope, I could hear a family working their way up
the trail. I was thinking the silence was glorious, but then a loud clap
of thunder echoed across the canyon. The trail was much more obvious going
up than it was going down. Twenty minutes into the hike, I was sucking
air. I stopped in the shade of an overhanging rock for a breather. Five
minutes later, I passed the family I’d heard from below. They were in no
hurry. They were the only people I’d seen the whole climb up from the canyon
floor. There was a cool breeze blowing through the rim tunnel, and the
shade was very welcome.
A few steps beyond the tunnel, and I was back on level ground again, back
on the canyon rim. I was congratulating myself when I felt the first sprinkles
of rain. It was a “three-inch rain,” in that the drops were three inches
apart as they hit the ground. The brief sprinkle stopped by the time I
got back to the van. I was hot, sweaty and weary. My Camelback was practically
empty of water. I watched as the family I’d passed on the trail walked
by, all rested and happy.
I drove down the road to the Sliding House overlook. The air was cool,
and I could smell rain somewhere as I walked to the rim. I remember standing
on the rim, searching along the walls of the canyon for the ruins, until
I realized: the Sliding House… slid. It was gone. Only rubble remained
from where a complex of buildings had slid off the massive rock walls.
I met an old Navajo walking back to the van. “See any spiders?” he said
with a smile. “Big ones!” I replied. Heading back to the visitor center,
I passed Spider Rock Campground, where I’d considered camping for the night.
I gave it a pass. I drove into Chinle and found some supplies. A guy stopped
me in the parking lot, going from car to car selling turquoise necklaces.
I headed back and checked into Cottonwood Campground, $14 a night. The
first thing I noticed were the ants. They were everywhere, and I
ended up moving to a different campsite to get away from them. I set up
the propane stove and cooked up a big pot of soup. I also had an egg and
my last cheese sandwich. I must've worked up an appetite.
I had to take the bike off the rack to open up the rear hatch because one
of my pillows was stuck in the door. My arms were sunburned from all the
hiking. I put aloe on my skin, and that felt much better. The crystal on
my new watch was already cracked. I needed a shower, but none were
available. It was way before sunset, but I didn’t feel like moving anymore
that day. The campground was quiet and peaceful. There were hardly
a dozen other campers in the whole site. The sky was grey and overcast,
and I could still hear thunder off in the distance. I pulled out one of
my camp chairs and relaxed under the shade of the cottonwoods. It was pleasantly
quiet in the campground as the Sun went down. No yelling, no dogs barking,
nobody outside cooking on a campfire. Birds chirped in the trees. I felt
the temperature drop to comfortable range as darkness fell. I listened
to music on my MP3 player until I got sleepy. I traveled 256 miles that
day. It seemed longer.
||The Sun was starting to get low as I headed out for Spider Rock. The
road turns away from the canyon, and I thought I’d taken a wrong turn when
I finally made it to the parking lot. My old boots were squeaking as I
walked down the path to the canyon rim and looked down on the famous Spider
I remembered seeing it in the 1969 movie “Mackenna’s Gold” starring
Gregory Peck. The views from the rim were breathtaking. I was so high up
on the cliffs, I was actually looking down on Spider Rock. There
was a non-English speaking couple visiting the rim, and I had the guy take
my picture leaning against the railing… never mind that just
beyond the railing was a sheer drop of 70 stories. What the heck
was I thinking?
Last updated: September, 2013