We enter Navajo Country (“the res” we hear Native Americans say). Little about this country feels familiar to me. We stop at the local supermarket. Men and stray dogs linger around the door. Everyone is dressed in black or grey or brown. The broad-shouldered women in the checkout line chat to each other in Navajo.
“You really are conspicuous with your turquoise parka and blonde curls,” Gary tells me as I get back in the car.
We came to see Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shā; literally meaning “inside the rock”). If we want to drive into the canyon, we need a guide.
A man in his late seventies approaches us in the parking lot. “My name is Ben. I’ll be your guide today.” The old man speaks with a heavy accent. Some words I don’t understand, and Gary interprets for me. Some words Gary doesn’t understand, and I interpret for him. Between the two of us we get most of what Ben tells us.
He says that he has guided people into the canyon since he was a boy, first in a horse-drawn wagon. “I didn’t know much English then. I just pointed.” Today, Ben drives a Jeep with a long crack across the front windshield.
The road into the canyon is a dried riverbed of sand and mud. Deep tracks and pockets as big as the jeep run the length of the canyon. We ride over mud and snow from yesterday’s snowfall. Many of the pockets have become small ponds or are covered with ice.
Ben stops the car, and we get out. He points up the wall of an imposing red rock, over one hundred feet high. About thirty feet from the base, we see small, stone square structures built into a deep crevice. I ask Ben if the cave dwelling has a name.
“When we drive in, it’s ‘The First Ruin.’ When we leave, it’s ‘The Last Ruin.’”
We continue deeper into the canyon. Ben stops and points to an open field below a huge rock. There are remnants of a fence but no structure. “This was my mother’s home. I was born here,” Ben says. I try to picture life amidst the high scrub grasses, cottonwoods, and muddy earth.
We drive another mile or so and stop to look at more cave dwellings. Ben picks up a smooth grey rock and hands it to me. “This was a grinding stone. Take it for a souvenir.”
“Is it okay to take things from the park?”
“This is my land, and I’m giving it to you.” Ben stops and looks for me to acknowledge what he says.
We pass a few horses grazing behind barbed wire fences. “Navajo horses.” A few ravens perch several hundred feet above us on the tops of the rocks, but none venture down into the canyon. We see no other signs of life.
“Once this was a lush valley. We grew corn and squash and peach trees.” Then, Ben tells us how Kit Carson led the cavalry into the canyon and burned all of the Navajo homes. All of the crops, the fields and the peach trees were destroyed. The Navajo were driven from the Canyon and marched to Fort Sumner several hundred miles away. Many Navajo died on the way.
Ben drives on. He pulls into a small field surrounded by rock walls. We are now about 1000 feet below the rim and twelve miles into the canyon. Two small dwellings are planted near the base of the rock. One looks like temporary housing, the kind you see in trailer parks. The other, much smaller, is built with logs. No electrical wires. There are none in the canyon.
Ben turns off the motor. Towering walls of rocks go on forever. We hear nothing, not even wind.
In the distance are more cave dwellings. Four legged creatures dance across the surface of the rock. They look like mountain goats. “Those are antelope. This is called Antelope House.” Ben points upwards in the direction of the drawings. “This is my home.”