It’s sometimes not such a good idea to return to a place you loved many years ago. Did you ever watch an old movie that you really, really liked when you were younger and now find awful? I have. Well, the same can be true for tourist attractions. Ruth and I once had a great time in Canyon de Chelly (d’SHAY), so we decided to return in March, 2018. For our 1st couple of hours we were, unfortunately, focused on its flaws.
This remarkable canyon system is in northeastern Arizona. It’s on a large Navajo Reservation that surrounds a big Hopi Reservation. This is a remote part of the state with limited services and amenities. Navajo families live in this canyon system so visitors are quickly told that they can’t go into it without a native guide. The visitor center is sparse. There were no exhibits in it to help me learn about this place. There were only only a few photographs and a film called “Canyon Voices” that other visitors tended to avoid. It focused on making frybread, sand-painting, sheep and goat tending, a native firemaking ceremony, etc. The film kept returning to 2 men on horses down in the canyon, where I couldn’t be without a guide. It, of course, ended with a vivid sunset and a reminder that “the Earth is our Mother”.
Ruth and I decided to take the 2 rim drives and visit all the canyon overlooks. We did this before and were especially happy to be doing this at sunset. This double-drive takes a minimum of 4 hours and is much longer if you walk down into the canyon from the White House Overlook, the only place you can do this to actually see a cliff dwelling. I also walked up some public roads to find the ground littered with liquor bottles. In each overlook parking lot, except for one, a native in a pickup truck or car was selling cheap but not cheap jewelry or pottery.
By the end of the day, despite these deficiencies, we had fallen in love again with this enchanted place, and I was back in the Visitor Center inquiring about the authorized tour operators who take outsiders into the canyon. National Park facilities like Canyon de Chelly normally offer ranger-led talks of National Monuments, etc. Canyon de Chelly is no exception. Its official brochure says that the National Park Service may lead canyon tours. If so, I was interested, but I was told as I was being handed a list of 2018’s authorized native operators that park ranger tours were not available. The 12 native tours of the canyon on the list involved vehicles, horses, and walking. They lasted from ½ to full day excursions. As I exited, I reminded myself that the canyon’s bottom is home to many people who might not appreciate intruders.
So… why were we newly in love with this place? It’s ferociously beautiful. Some of the vistas look down a thousand feet or more. Shadows haunt any view. Silence is profound in many places, and the suggestion to listen to the universe seems doable. There are actually 2 major canyons here, De Chelly and Del Muerto, that intersect below Junction Overlook where the ruins cluster. Two impressive canyons and all their alcoves join in one grand place.