Many years ago, I was fortunate to study with a former Episcopal priest come shaman, Peter Calhoun, author of Soul on Fire. He and his wife Astrid took people on vision quests in the Southwest, especially Utah and Arizona. Although I never did a vision quest, Peter talked about Canyon de Chelly on Navajo land in northeast Arizona. Peter found the canyon to be sacred and his comment has been in my memory for almost two decades waiting for the right time for me to visit this sacred site.
Last year, my dear friend Val and I started planning another girls’ trip in the southwest where she now lives. I mentioned I really wanted to see Canyon de Chelly (pronounced deshay). Since we have visited Chaco Canyon twice and loved the experience, I knew that Canyon de Chelly would be the perfect place to explore next. On the land of the Navajo nation, the canyon is sacred to the native people who live there. We started planning our trip which was not as straight-forward as visiting most national monuments. Covid has hit the Navajo hard and the canyon was closed for 2 ½ years. They also protect access to the canyon as their spiritual land. There are roads to look down into the canyon that anyone can drive but to get down into the canyon proper requires a Navajo guide and a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Val picked me up at the Albuquerque airport, and after a quick lunch we headed northwest to the far corner of Arizona, not far from the famed Four Corners region. I always enjoy seeing the big sky, barren land and deep colors of New Mexico and Arizona. It is so foreign, beautifully desolate and grand compared to my lush, green Tennessee. I find the change refreshing as we watched the storms in the distance—you can actually see the rain falling from the clouds in the distance while still remaining in the sunshine. Just under four hours later, we arrived at the little town of Chinle, Arizona, checked into the Holiday Inn and had Navajo tacos in the adjacent restaurant. I love fry bread and it was the perfect start for our adventure.
The next morning, we were met with an unusually rainy and chilly day for our tour. But the rain didn’t last long and we were able to take off layers of clothes as the day went on. There are half day and whole day tours of the canyon and of course I wanted as much time as possible. We were the only two people taking the all day (6 hr) tour and our driver David quickly got us on the road. Now in the canyon, ‘road’ is a relative word, and because of the recent rains, the first part of the road was actually a river that we forded back and forth several times. But soon we were at the first pictographs in the canyon: horses, hands, Kokopelli (the flute-playing trickster god), lines representing water and other figures covered the sandstone walls. We also stopped by ancient Anasazi ruins tucked into the cliffs. When they were occupied a thousand years ago, the bottom of the canyon was 30 or more feet higher. But it is a testament to the builders that the mud bricks still remain and we can still wonder at their ancient civilization. Today, there are a few older Navajo that still live in the canyon during the summer.
Every thirty minutes or so David would stop our vehicle and come alongside the back and tell us more stories and point out more wonderful things in his Navajo-accented English. David has taken visitors into the canyon for over twenty years, and on that day, I was very grateful for his detailed knowledge but, more importantly, his expert driving. The tours out of Thunderbird Lodge are in open Swiss Army vehicles that seat around ten on two bench seats. These heavy-duty six-wheel drive trucks were essential for the deeper parts of the canyon. Every once in awhile, David would get stuck, have to back up and engage more wheel power. Several times, Val and I just closed our eyes and counted on David’s expertise to get us over a very rough patch without rolling down the gully. We would later refer to the day as the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” tour. It was all an adventure and I love a good adventure. Our final destination was worth all the jostling and white-knuckle gripping, for the Cave of the Mummies is otherworldly and like walking in a dream. High in the cliffs were large Anasazi ruins, extensive and well preserved. We ate our lunch on a picnic table and reveled in the quiet wildness deep in that long canyon. David would give a shout and the echo would extend deep into the cliffs. We headed back to the canyon entrance and I enjoyed each new view of the 1000 foot rock walls in the changing light. Every moment was beautiful, new and ancient at the same time.
By the time we got back to the entrance we were both pretty tired from the long day of four-wheeling—make that six-wheeling. After quick supper of another delicious Navajo taco and a nice hot bath we were ready to lay down and just be still. But the memory of that beautiful land will linger and remain a highlight of my year. Peter Calhoun was so right, Canyon de Chelly is a very sacred place.