If you have read my articles within the pages of this magazine over the years or followed my musings on the RV Life blog, “Adventures in RVing,” you know my wife and I like to explore unique, forgotten and out-of-the-way places. Our adventures transport us to ghost towns, Native American ruins, slot canyons, old mining camps and unique geological formations. While some acquaintances think we are crazy, I am comfortable and possess the proper equipment to safely negotiate miles of backcountry, deserts, washes and other obstacles to find these special places across the West.
So to spend $70-$80 per person for a three-hour guided tour within the walls of Canyon De Chelly in Arizona just rubbed this thrifty Norwegian the wrong way. To say I was a little put off at the thought of spending money for something I could easily do myself would be an understatement! I mean, why pay to hear a canned speech about century-old ruins I had already read about? However, you are required by the National Park Service and the Navajo tribe to be accompanied by a Navajo guide if you wish to explore the canyon in depth. My thought was: this was just another way for tribal members to earn a buck from tourists.
We booked a guided tour with Canyon De Chelly Tours (canyondechellytours.com), whose website advertises that it utilizes Jeeps (nice Jeep pictured online) to tour the canyon. So when an older Ford Explorer with nearly bald tires arrived to pick us up, I was beginning to believe maybe we should have saved our money. The guide introduced himself as Percey and we were on our way. As we entered the canyon trudging through deep sand, a knocking sound began emanating from the front of our four-wheel drive vehicle. My wife and I looked at each other and questioned our decision that much more. As we pushed on, the sound became more pronounced until our guide stopped to investigate. As we peered under the vehicle together, it became apparent there was an issue with the front driveline where it exited the transfer case. Normally it would be centered in the hole; in our situation it was resting on the bottom of the casing.
“Probably a bad bearing,” I told our guide. We were miles into the canyon with no cellphone service, and the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” began playing in my head. Luckily one of the other guides passed us on the way out and agreed to dispatch a replacement vehicle, which caught up with us a little later before the Explorer completely gave out.
With this unpleasantness behind us, our attitude quickly went from one of feeling taken for a buck to one of amazement as our guide shared his love, life, culture and heritage in the canyon.
Did we get a dry speech about century-old ruins and historical statistics as I feared? No. Percey poured out his childhood memories, shared his Navajo heritage and talked heartbreakingly about what the canyon had become. He also shared his hope for himself and his culture.
Here is some of what we heard:
Percey shared how the Navajo were forced from the canyon in 1863 and made to endure the “Long Walk” (the Navajo equivalent of the Biblical Exodus) across the desert to the U. S. Army’s Fort Sumner concentration camp on New Mexico’s Pecos River. Many died along the way. To discourage anyone from returning, homes were destroyed, crops burned and livestock killed.
He pointed out the cliff dwelling he lived in as a child with his family and the happenings of daily life during the early 1970s. Later when they lived on the valley floor, one of his daily chores was to climb the walls of the canyon to check the weather forecast. When signs of rain were imminent along with the flooding that would follow, he and his siblings (mom and dad were off trading quite often) moved their livestock and everything out of the house onto the cliff ledges for protection.
He spoke about his moonshining grandfather, describing how government men would come into the canyon to disrupt the production of the prohibited substance, and he showed us where his grandfather fell to his death from the cliffs above their farm.
He pointed out locations where scenes from the movie Mackenna’s Gold were filmed in the late 1960s. He related how as a child he would go to the movie set for punch and cookies. When the set moved farther away in the canyon, he would walk miles to satisfy his sweet tooth.
Percey took us past the homes where his two sisters currently live in the canyon. He explained that the Navajo are a matriarchal society and that 95 percent of the land in Canyon De Chelly is controlled by women via a lease system.
He took us to pictographs from the early 1800s that tell the story of Spaniards arriving in the canyon. Percey said his grandmother helped paint the pictographs at the age of 12. (We determined that any female ancestor in the family tree, regardless of how many generations have passed, is called grandmother.) Percey said his grandmother also served as a decoy to lead raiding parties away from the hiding place of women and children, saving them from slavery.
He described how he farmed the land as a child, dried crops on the south-facing sandstone walls of the canyon, and stored them in the old granaries built into the cliffs, sealing them with mud, just as the ancients had done.
He recalled that in the 1970s when the canyon tours began, tour operators would throw penny suckers from the military transport trucks to lure the children out in the open for tourists to take their pictures. Percey and his friends would try to stay submerged in the brown water of a swimming hole, like hippos, waiting for the trucks to pass by.
We heard his heart break as he spoke about the lack of water in the canyon today, the methods used to store the water and irrigate the fields in the past, and how erosion has ruined the land for farming. Rich soil lies fallow, and he showed us where attempts to grow corn now produce brown stocks that are a meager 18 inches tall to the top of the tassel. He showed us the irrigation ditches he turned water into as a child, but are now useless, as the creek bed has eroded too deep for water to enter ditches via the natural gravitational flow.
Percey explained the “Three Sisters” crop-planting method that has been handed down over the ages. The three sisters are corn, beans and squash. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans produce nitrogen from their roots, improving the fertility of the soil, and the squash shades the ground, protecting precious ground moisture against evaporation. The bean vines also help stabilize the cornstalks, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Corn, beans and squash complement each other nutritionally too. Corn provides carbohydrates, and dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of essential amino acids found in corn. Lastly, squash provides both vitamins and healthful oil from the seeds.
Although Percey appeared to have heath issues (walking with a limp), he youthfully climbed up an ancient trail as he has been doing for decades, using Moki steps cut thousands of years ago by his ancestors to access the hunting grounds on the plateau above the canyon.
He spoke with anguish about the cottonwood trees that the government planted during the 1930s drought in the hopes of stabilizing the soil. While they might have helped stabilize the soil, the thirsty trees now soak up huge amounts of moisture from the soil, depriving the crops that once readily grew in the now barren fields. He shared how his grandfathers had warned about introducing new species into nature, upsetting the balance. As he drove, we passed areas where some invasive species are being cut down and burned in an attempt to restore the balance.
Through all of this, Percey did take us to some stately old ruins too, respectfully answering my few questions, but delivering no canned statistics as I had expected. He allowed us to freely inspect the ruins while he sat contently enjoying a place that in his heart will always be home.
As we exited the canyon, he showed us a parcel of land that he believes could still be irrigated using seasonal runoff in the traditional ways. He hopes to gain control of that parcel, plant fruit trees and spend his last days tending the land just as he did as a child.
While we thought we had paid to tour the ruins and witness the beauty of the canyon, in the end we stepped out of our tour vehicle feeling fortunate and honored to have been allowed to intrude on our guide’s life, his culture and the sacred place known as Canyon De Chelly. It was a priceless journey that we could never have experienced on our own.
(This article is dedicated to the Native American guide we know as Percey (certainly his guide name for tourists and not his given Native American name), who loves Canyon De Chelly more than life itself. Much of what he shared is strictly oral history and I would be remiss if I didn’t commit it to print to share (and save) for others.)
Dave Helgeson and his wife, Cheri, promote RV and manufactured home shows in Western Washington. They spend their free time traveling the West in search of history and forgotten places, even occasionally paying for a guide!
IF YOU GO:
Canyon De Chelly National Monument: The visitor center operated by the National Park Service is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. (nps.gov/cach)
Canyon Tours: For a list of tour operators in the canyon visit, navajonationparks.org/htm/canyondechelly_tours.htm. Take cash to obtain the best tour rate.
Camping: Cottonwood Campground is conveniently located at the entrance to Canyon De Chelly next to the visitor center and Thunderbird Lodge, where the majority of the tours depart. Dry camping is $14 per night payable in cash. A dump station and potable water are available. More information can be found on the campground’s website: navajonationparks.org/htm/canyondechelly_camp.htm.
When to Visit: Fall is a great time to visit, mild temperatures, no crowds and the fall colors are stunning. Shutterbugs are advised to book an afternoon tour for the best light.