John Baez

December 25 - 31, 2005

On Christmas day, Lisa Raphals and I drove to Arizona with our friends Chris Lee and Meenakshi Roy. We came back on New Year's Eve. It was a great trip! After a night at the town of Williams, we began the fun by going to the Grand Canyon. We hiked down into it on two separate day trips: first from the Bright Angel trailhead, and the next day down the Hermit's Trail. We spent the intervening night at a nearby hotel.

At this time of year the weather is cool, but it didn't snow, and it was warmer inside the canyon - perfect hiking weather! During the summer it can reach 110 Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) down there, so winter is the best time for this kind of trip. Plus, it's a lot less crowded, since most people insanely choose to go there in the summer.

We saw a lot of beautiful rock, even though we only hiked down from the Kaibab Limestone through the Coconino Sandstone down to the famous Redwall Limestone - back 335 million years to the early Carboniferous period:

In the distance we sometimes caught glimpses of the bright green Colorado River digging even deeper into the heart of time... gnawing its way through the dark Precambrian Vishnu Schist:

Alas, my dream of hiking all the way down to Phantom Ranch and spending a night there nestled deep within the canyon remains just that: a dream. While I could probably hike down in a day, getting back up in a single day sounds like it would exceed my powers - I think they said it takes about 18 hours of hiking. There are always mules... but I bet you can't take a mule up without taking it down first.

However, the really cool part of our Arizona trip was not the Grand Canyon, but the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe! The Navajo Nation is huge: it spreads across four states, mostly Arizona and New Mexico. It has its own government, laws and police. The lands of the Hopi Tribe are smaller, surrounded by the Navajo Nation and a "checkerboard" region of mixed Navajo-Hopi land.

I was somewhat familiar with this area, because I'd read all of Tony Hillerman's novels featuring the Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. But, I'd never actually been there before. My travels through Arizona and New Mexico had taken me to Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, Alamogordo, Los Alamos and Santa Fe, and lots of little towns like Peach Springs, Poston (where my dad used to live), Truth or Consequences, and Tucumcari - where some con artist cut the brake cable of the driveaway car my friends and I were using to cross the country, and we wound up spending some hours in the con artist's brother's repair station. (This was before I saw the 60 Minutes exposé on this scam. Luckily the driveaway company paid for the repair.) But, I'd never really entered the heart of the Southwest, which is the Navajo Nation.

So, it was very exciting. We entered the Navajo Nation around Cameron and drove up to Tuba City to spend the night. Tuba City! I remember loving the name of this town the first time I saw it in Hillerman's books. It has nothing to do with the musical instrument. It's a corruption of the Hopi word "Toova", meaning "spring waters". Or else maybe it commemorates Chief Tuuvi of the Hopi tribe. Different people say different things.

Anyway, we spent the night in the Quality Inn right next to the Tuba City Trading Post - and we checked out that trading post the next morning. Turned out to be quite polished and chic. I bought two copies of a poster showing Geronimo and three other Apache with rifles, with an amusing caption - something like this:



We then drove down past Cameron into the Painted Desert. Lots of empty space, beautiful rock formations, not many commercials, not many chain stores.... Then we turned around and checked out the Cameron Trading Post. It had stuff ranging from cheap junk to incredibly expensive beautiful antique rugs and baskets, but nothing I wanted to buy. However, it had a beautiful hotel which might make a nice place to stay.

Continuing to retrace our route, we then stopped to see the dinosaur tracks in the little town of Moenkopi, near Tuba City.

A self-appointed guide showed us around, a soft-spoken 30-year-old Navajo in a bandana and wraparound sunglasses. While examining amazing 200-million-year-old dilophosaurus tracks in the sandstone, we learned a bit about him and his life. Basically sort of sad. He lives two miles north of this site in a village where they grow apples, peaches, corn and stuff. He does a little carpentry, but not much, so he makes a little money showing people dinosaur footprints. He'd gotten thrown into jail the one time he visited Los Angeles, for getting drunk on the beach. (Alcohol is forbidden in the Navajo Nation, but there's a lot of alcoholism, and bootleggers.) But, he seemed like a nice enough guy. After some conferring, we gave him a $20 tip for his excellent tour of the dinosaur footprints.

We overheard another guide telling a German tourist that Indian reservations were like concentration camps - surely an exaggeration, at least now, but I didn't see the point in arguing.

There were some older folks sitting at tables selling jewelry that they made themselves - nice stuff, much better and cheaper than the stuff at the trading posts. Lisa and Meenakshi bought some bracelets and necklaces. One old guy who only spoke a little English took Lisa to his pickup and showed her his wife sitting in there - she was making a necklace. It's nice to feel your money is going to poor artists instead of rich middlemen!

Then we drove on into the lands of the Hopi Tribe. The Hopi live on mesas in small villages, and we visited the oldest: Old Oraibi. In fact, this is the oldest surviving continuously inhabited settlement in North America! It dates back to 1100. It doesn't look like much at first glance, but it's pretty cool.

The Hopi have undergone lots of schisms as they debate how much to resist the onslaught of "progress". New villages form as people leave old ones due to irreconcilable differences. The most traditional of the traditionalists live in Old Oraibi. They no longer accept certain moneys from the central Hopi government. So, to some extent it's a separate nation within a nation - within a nation within a nation!

There's a store near the front of Old Oraibi, and we went in and talked a while to the woman running it. She told us a bit about life there. The village is run by tribal elders, and they don't allow power lines, gas lines, or water lines, since they tear up Mother Earth, and there are lots of ruins beneath the town. They carry water to the town in buckets - by hand when she was a child, but nowadays with the help of a truck.

A lot of the heating is done with piñon wood. (A piñon is a kind of pine very important to the native Americans of the Southwest - this is where "pine nuts" come from.) But, a while ago the elders began allowing propane tanks, and they recently allowed the use of solar panels. So, the village consists of ramshackle houses, most made of stone and some out of concrete block - but they all have propane tanks outside, and many have solar panels on top! The woman running the store was really happy to have electric power. She said she had a microwave oven and a TV: every day she watches Wheel of Fortune while eating dinner, she said, laughing.

You can see a propane tank in this picture from the Hopi Tribe website, but no solar panels, since it's a bit old. The Hopi forbid outsiders to photograph their villages, so we didn't take any pictures of Old Oraibi. We were allowed to roam the village, but asked to stay away from kivas, where religious rituals are held. A kiva is an underground chamber which one reaches by climbing down a ladder.

There were lots of friendly dogs following us as we roamed around the town... it was a quiet, sort of desolate place, and chilly in the winter dusk.

We then crossed the Hopi Nation, driving past a number of mesas. As the sun set we drove out into the Navajo Nation around the town of Steamboat, and then drove up north to Chinle. They say a lot of the Navajo herd sheep, but I never saw a single sheep. When we arrived in Chinle it was dark. We spent the night at the Thunderbird Lodge on the outskirts of Canyon de Chelly.

We now come to the really cool part of the trip.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "deshay") is the southern branch of two linked canyons. On the walls of these canyons there are cliff dwellings built by the Anasazi. The Anasazi, or "Old Ones", are a mysterious people who may or may not be related to modern-day Hopi. They lived in the Southwest when it was much more moist than it is today. They disappeared sometime around 1300 AD.

The only Anasazi ruins in this area that folks can visit without a Navajo guide are the White House Ruins near the eastern end of Canyon de Chelly. I believe these are the oldest of the local Anasazi ruins; they were inhabited between 1040 and 1275.

So, we drove east and looked at these ruins from the canyon rim. Then we walked down in... a beautiful labyrinth of red sandstone, leading down to a large flat area full of grasses and cottonwoods, and some Navajo houses:

Eventually we reached the White House Ruins, which are absolutely stunning from up close. If you click on the picture I took, you can see an interesting pictogram on the rock face:

The next shot gives a sense of the canyon's depth - about 1000 feet (300 meters). The dark streaks, called "desert varnish", were formed over the ages as rainwater leached minerals from the red sandstone of the canyon:

Near the ruins there were locals selling jewelry, and Lisa and Meenakshi bought some while Chris and I pondered the ruins. I also had time to finish solving a math problem I'd been working on all week.

After an hour or two we went back and viewed some more ruins from up above, most notably the Sliding House Ruins, which are literally sliding down a slope near the base of the canyon wall. Then we went further and saw Spider Rock, a pair of stone spikes over 800 feet (240 meters) high. I took this shot of Spider Rock from the canyon rim:

A stream runs through the canyon, and above you can see part of this stream that gets so little sun that it was frozen even when temperatures were reaching 50 Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) on the canyon rim - during the day, that is.

Here's a shot of Spider Rock from a different point along the rim:

And finally, one more picture taken from the rim:

After admiring such things for quite a while, we drove back to Flagstaff. The day after that we drove on to Sedona and Jerome, spending the night in Prescott, and then winding our way back home...

... but the beauty and mystery of Canyon de Chelly is what sticks in my mind.

© 2005 John Baez