The night I drove into Chinle, Arizona the first time, I’d forgotten why I wanted to go there. My guidebooks had mentioned some reason I should see Canyon de Chelly, but after driving all day from Zion National Park, along the Vermilion Cliffs, across Lee’s Ferry (where boat trips put in to go through the Grand Canyon) and finally onto the Navaho-Hopi Reservation, I’d already crammed a two day drive into one. Before leaving the warm sandstone walls of Zion, I had placed my hands against the canyon walls in praise of the earth’s beauty and to ask for safe passage. My destination that night had been the north rim of the Grand Canyon, but that road was closed, still snowed in. I kept on driving south.
The high desert landscape cast its spell on me. I traveled alone through a vast, unknown country. My eyes marveled at black hills, lavender hills, dun-colored bluffs, coral-colored sands, yellow rocks, and blazing red/orange mesas. Blue mountains beckoned me across unmeasurable distances. Faraway jagged peaks shimmered like those fabled cities of gold the Spanish heard about. Those peaks seemed to be the destination of the two-laned blacktop road disappearing under my Dodge van. New grasses and wild flowers pushed up alongside the highway. Sage and juniper plants spaced themselves out across the desert terrain. The pristine blue sky created an open, spacious backdrop.
At the beginning of the trip I stopped a few days at my sister’s outside Reno. I remember as it got dark the last evening I tried to explain to Rita what I thought this journey was about. I needed a spiritual adventure, something to wake me up again, to give me some inspiration. She listened without commenting.
When I’d said I was looking for some spiritual experience as I set out on this larger journey from Oregon to New Mexico, I had no idea what that meant. I was hoping to find some personal connection to these lands of the Southwest. I was searching for a new place to live in the United States after living in Oaxaca, Mexico. I was seeking places I might love as much as I love Oaxaca. I considered that the cultural similarities, the blend of Native American and Hispanic peoples in the desert Southwest could offer a similar life experience to the one I had in Oaxaca. And, I wanted to be where there’s a living connection to the ancient people of this continent.
A few months before I had made a painting of a blue horse in space. The Blue Horse seemed to come out of nowhere but became a theme for a series of paintings. I recalled how the horse had been my childhood totem, or power animal. My imaginary horses carried me through a sometimes dangerous, always dysfunctional, family situation. When healing my back a few years before I visualized myself as a Palomino galloping through a nearby meadow. In sand tray therapy I had picked out a blue horse as a symbol for moving on. In a book called They Sing for Horses which deals with Navaho beliefs about horses, I read that the Blue Horse is the Spirit Horse, the one of healing, related to turquoise and to water. As the Oregon winter ended, I felt the Blue Horse tugging at my heart. I had to answer my yearning to explore new places. I decided to go where horses roam wild.
I bought an older, two-toned blue Dodge van with picture windows and a slant-six engine. After absorbing as much as I could from reading about New Mexico and Arizona, I figured out a back road route between where I was in Oregon and Ray and Susie’s place outside Taos, New Mexico. Their house would be the destination of my six-week spring journey. They had invited me to visit them, anytime. We’d had dinner together on the Zocalo my last night in Oaxaca that winter. I’d known them a couple years, meeting through mutual friends out in Teotitlan del Valle where they bought weavings for La Unica Cosa, their well-established rug gallery in Taos. We always met up in Oaxaca, since New Mexico and Oregon seem to be at opposite poles of two Western perspectives. I set out in early May.
Leaving Rita’s early one morning I drove east into the desert on roads I’d never seen before, heading out across Nevada on the “Loneliest Road In America”. That first day out into the unknown, I drove through a storm of snow, hail, rain and sunshine while crossing various mountain passes and bleak low desert valleys without vegetation. Only a couple of cars appeared heading west all day. It got calm by late afternoon when, turning south, I finally reached Cathedral Gorge State Park on the Nevada/Utah border. The pink clay pinnacles shone in the gold of sunset. In the distance I noted ranches with alfalfa-green fields.
Now I was traveling along a highway in northern Arizona. I watched the shadow of my van move steadily across the landscape. Elation replaced any doubt or fear I had about driving in the desert alone. As the day passed, the climate changed from hot, dry, windy, to wild, wet thunderstorms which beat into my van’s windshield. Lightning struck the hills faraway. Coral-colored high desert sands with large juniper trees gave way to adobe-colored and white-salt flatlands. Occasional towns, settlements with Navaho hogans and roadside jewelry stands, seemed small against the immense, expansive landscape. When I turned off the north/south highway in early afternoon and headed towards Tuba City, AZ, I noted a perfectly shaped lavender colored hill.
Passing through Tuba City where the Hopi/Navaho Reservation begins, I continued east across the Hopi Mesas. I tried to pick up the Navaho Nation’s radio station that broadcasts out of Window Rock. I noted that the road to Big Mountain was closed to “outsiders”. I was not innocent of the politics on the Reservation. Hadn’t I once helped send supplies or money to the traditional Navahos trying to keep their places on Big Mountain? The Navahos and Hopi, traditional enemies, shared the same general territory before the U. S. domination of their homelands. Part of their former territories became the Reservation. The other political players are the Peabody Coal Company and the United States Government. These both undoubtedly have something to do with the conflict over Big Mountain. Like many Western conflicts, I learned later that the major underlying issue is water.
In now what seems to have been my dash across the Hopi Mesas, I missed old Oraibi entirely. It rained intermittently that afternoon, generating wonderful fragrances of juniper and sage. On the Reservation, drivers of on-coming cars raised a hand or index finger above their steering wheels to greet me. This greeting or blessing was something I’d not seen on my drive across Nevada back roads, through other parts of Utah and Arizona. It seemed that everyone was Native American which made me happy. After so much time spent with the Zapotecs in Oaxaca, I had an instant feeling of kinship.
I finally stopped at the Hopi Government Building at Hotevilla. I wanted to find out if there were any local ceremonial dances to which outsiders might go. Inside the offices, I felt a little out of place with everyone in traditional office clothing and me in baggy jeans and a tee-shirt. My short blond hair and disheveled, just-gone-camping appearance contrasted with the clean, well-dressed office workers. Being early May, a young Hopi woman explained there were no dances on any of the Mesas this time of year. Outside, I shared a few words with one of the leaders of a tribal meeting going on. Smoking a Marlboro and speaking in metaphor, he said he was looking forward to going home and relaxing, after having to put out many fires that day at their meeting. I wished him well.
I had intended to stay at the campground at Keams Canyon, a Hopi tourist facility. Not noticing any signs for the Canyon, I missed the turn off completely. After stopping in a picnic ground to eat and consult the map, I decided to go on to Chinle which is on the Navaho part of the Rez. A coyote type dog sniffed around the picnic grounds. I gave him a treat and then I drove another half-hour to the north-south highway leading to Canyon de Chelly.
As I turned north on the road to Chinle, the sun was setting. Gold and magenta light spread across the high desert in front of me. Shadows of sage plants lengthened. By the time Chinle’s lights appeared on the horizon, the sky shown a deep indigo-blue. It was full of bright stars and the swirl of the Milky Way. I drove passed the Chinle Wash and followed the green and white road signs to the Canyon de Chelly Campground. All the camping spaces were full, so I parked along the fence outside the campground. I visited the restrooms, and gawked at a million stars in the indigo/black sky. Then, I locked myself inside the van and went to sleep.
The next morning, after seeing a video presentation at the Canyon de Chelly Visitors Center, I remembered exactly why I’d wanted to visit this place. In the video a young Navaho man rode his horse down the walls into the Canyon. After seeing the video I rushed to the Canyon’s rim and there looked down into what seemed like another world. The world below revealed a river with lush green fields alongside it. Little hogans and peach orchards spread out along the river’s meander through the sandstone canyon five-hundred feet below. Where I stood on the rim, I was part of the biege-toned high desert dotted with sage, junipers and yellow blooming chamisa. These gave way to an immense blue sky with gathering white, cumulus clouds.
Standing there in what seemed like three worlds at once, immense joy filled my being. I just had to go into the world below. And I wanted to go in on a horse. That afternoon I met a couple of women from Oregon at the visitors center also inquiring about riding horseback into the Canyon. We found out there were two places that offered rides into the Canyon. You can only go into the Canyon with a Navaho guide. One of the women wanted to ride into the Canyon on a horse, so Cathy and I decided to go together the next morning. Her partner, Alice, would go on the morning hike offered by the Visitors Center while we went in on horseback. The most popular horseback rides begin where the Chinle Wash spills into the town, near the Thunderbird Hotel. Being a little leery of big groups, we decided to check out the other place. Besides, they offered a woman guide. We drove a ways out along the south canyon rim to make plans with a family that rented horses there. Navahos are renowned horse people. We thought it would be really inspiring to go into the Canyon with a woman guide.
The family lived in a hogan without phone or electricity. I could tell that the older woman we were talking with understood very little English. Still, she promised us a woman guide at 9 AM the next day. We looked at their horses standing in the corral nearby. As we headed back towards Chinle, it began to storm again. A wild mare and her foal stood out among the brush, tails turned toward the driving rain.
At the campground that evening, I watched my neighbor’s tent struggle to stay anchored against the strong wind of another incoming storm. The campers inside barely kept the tent on the ground. I felt grateful to be in the van. I wondered what tomorrow would bring.
I wasn’t happy to see gray drizzle the next morning. I assumed our ride was off. However, Cathy, a dare-devil, insisted we go. We pulled into the muddy driveway below the hogan. Three horses were saddled and tied at the hitching rail. We’d been assured a woman guide but a young man introduced himself and related he’d be guiding us into the Canyon that day. A fine mist surrounded us. We prepared to go with him though we’d really wanted the woman guide. Then, as if hearing our call, Vernita and her husband arrived in their pickup. She was the woman guide. She just happened to show up at the hogan at that moment. No one had contacted her about our trip. It was going to be three hours ride to Mummy House Ruins at the end of Canyon de Muertos, a spur of Canyon de Chelly. Then 3 hours back, that’s a six hour ride. We urged her to take us even if it was a new plan for her day. She agreed, saying she could use the money. I chose the pinto horse, a small mare. I like horses I can see over. Cathy had a big Palomino gelding named Buddy, and Vernita, our guide, rode a sorta skiddish, larger bay gelding, not her own horse. He was not trained to be a lead horse but since her own horse’s mouth had been ruined by an inexperienced rider, she had to take him.
I hadn’t been on a horse in years but gave that no thought. To go into this fantastic other world on a horse just seemed magical. Did I mention I hate being out in the rain? Being from Oregon though, I did have a complete rain suit with me. And my blue felt hat. It continued drizzling. Vernita thought it might clear up during the ride. I hoped she was right . Vernita wore her husband’s oiled greatcoat and a black felt brimmed hat. She looked like she’d been on horses all her 29 years. Her outfit was timeless, American western. Her engaging smile reassured me. We put our lunches and water in a saddlebag, mounted up and headed off across the road towards a secret entrance to the Canyon.
We were going into Canyon de Los Muertos, named that because the Navaho were trapped there, and many killed, by Kit Carson and the American army in 1864. Led by Manuelito, a famous warrior, they made their last stand in this part of Canyon. Most survivors were relocated to Bosque Redondo, a fort in southeastern New Mexico. Years later they were finally allowed to return to these Canyons, their spiritual homeland.
At the canyon rim we dismounted to lead the horses down the steep, narrow trail. Vernita informed us that we were entering the Feminine end of the canyon. She explained that in her people’s beliefs, Masculine and Feminine designations cover everything. For instance, drizzle and fog are Feminine. Lightning, wind, hard rain, are Masculine. Vernita was having her period, it would be full moon that night and, the Feminine light drizzle and fog shrouded our passage to the world below. I wondered exactly how we would find the balance, meet the Masculine, before the day was over.
The stony narrow trail zigzagged downward along a ledge that dropped off hundreds of feet below. My horse, the pinto, would eye me from the above on the trail and need coaxing to continue downward around the sharp curves. We women talked about ourselves and I asked Vernita as many things as I could about her life and customs.
As a young woman, she and her husband had ridden together into this end of the canyon, as part of their marriage celebration. She mentioned that she now studied at the Community College but was also learning traditional healing methods from tribal elders. She wanted to retrieve her heritage and pass it on to her twin daughters. The matriarchal system means Navaho women have power and almost all the financial responsibility for the family. She mentioned that this was why she was going to college, hoping to make a better living.
Once we got to the canyon floor, the rain ceased and the sun came out. We rode along the river on a dirt lane, passing hogans with blooming peach trees, newly planted corn fields and sheep corrals. Dull green olive trees grow wild along the river, planted there by the Spanish. Riding between those sandstone walls, I understood the Navaho belief that beauty and harmony are spiritually one thing. Cold and wet, we rode in beauty. I felt sheltered by the five-hundred foot high, warm, sienna-colored canyon walls. It felt like a home place. And it is the summer home to many.
Along the way crossing an arroyo, we sighted a wild, blue-roan stallion with a couple of mares nearby. He was quite handsome with his long black tail and diffusely spotted blue/black coat. His proximity could be a problem, if the he chose to pick a fight with our horses, Vernita said. We yelled and held our horses back, and the stallion and mares moved in the opposite direction. After that we paused briefly to look at some recent cave paintings on a wall beneath an overhang. They depicted American soldiers with guns, on horseback, from the 1864 campaign with Kit Carson. Vernita mentioned it is named Massacre Cave.
After two hours Mummy House Ruins, an ancient Pueblo style ruin, came into sight. It is named for a mumified body found there. The ruins lie in a recess under a stone ledge at the box end of the Canyon. Talking non-stop to Vernita since my horse had to walk right next to hers, I’d forgotten about the weather as we rode along.
A hard wind had been gathering heavy storm clouds above us. We dismounted, tied the horses to a log and decided to sit under the large old cottonwood tree to eat our lunches. Just then, the Masculine storm hit. Thunder boomed and a thick lightning bolt struck the ground twenty feet away. The startled horses jumped around and got loose. Wind drove the cold, hard rain into our faces. We leaped up and rushed to catch the horses. We stood holding their reins while eating our sandwiches in the shelter of the old Mother tree.
My horse seemed the most frightened. I stroked her neck and talked to her. I called up hypnosis techniques previously used to in trance human clients during my years as a psychic healer. She responded well. Touching her neck also warmed my freezing hands. I knew Vernita must be having a hard time with menstrual cramps. Cathy, the least bothered by our situation, walked over and briefly explored the ruins.
The storm passed in about twenty minutes. Wet and cold, we had to start back. This time I rode the Palomino, Buddy. It was a two hour ride to the almost vertical path out of the canyon we’d come in on. It rained lightly and steadily. Vernita urged us on. The river was rising. Flash flooding is common in heavy rain. Buddy had his own speed, slow, so every once in awhile, I’d urge him to catch up with Vernita and Cathy, who rode ahead, chatting away.
It was raining harder by the time we got back to where the path goes up the canyon wall. It seemed very steep looking up from below, and much more dangerous than when we came in. The five-hundred foot ascent would have to be on the horses, not leading them on foot. As I looked at the canyon wall and the narrow, slippery trail we had to ascend, “this could be it” crossed my mind. Meaning I guess, that a mistep of any horse’s foot could throw horse and rider over the edge onto the rocks below. A certain Tibetan mantra came to mind. The rain was washing out parts of the trail. Vernita insisted we get on with it. Going almost straight up seemed to be the only way out of the Canyon.
Barely up the trail, Vernita’s skitterish horse spooked and turned around, trying to come down the narrow trail as our horses were coming up. She got him under control. I was riding last on Buddy, behind Cathy and Vernita. Vernita told me I had to get Buddy to pass both horses because, as the oldest and most experienced horse, he would lead the other horses up and out of the canyon. She and Cathy pulled their horses to the inside wall. I nudged Buddy on up the trail, passing the other horses along the outside edge with no room for a mistake. The other riders blurred as my eyes focused on the trail up ahead. I couldn’t look down or back.
The steady rain intensified. I leaned into Buddy’s neck and gave him his head. I let the reins hang loose. He knew what to do. He’d get all of us out of the Canyon. His steady unshod hooves landed on solid rocks all the way up the trail.
As we got closer to the top, some agile young Navaho men scaled the canyon wall on hand and foot holds nearby. It was a relief to see other human beings. Vernita greeted them. They talked and laughed in Navaho as we continued up our parallel paths. A sense of release spread through my body as we got to the canyon’s rim. Buddy relaxed too once we arrived on the high desert trail.
With the unrelenting rain, the desert had become a slippery two-inch coat of dun-colored mud through which we trotted, galloped and slid back to the corral and the hogan. The horses, now near home, just wanted to get there as fast as possible.
Relief shown on the faces of Vernita’s relatives when we appeared in the driveway. They had been worried since it stormed most of the day. Vernita’s husband got out of their truck smiling. Cathy’s partner had driven out to meet us. She laughed while hugging us both. Our laughter dispelled the tension I’d been feeling. I announced that I’d been scared at times. Cathy said she was never afraid. Vernita admitted that she felt frightened when it started raining hard on our way back.
I got the remains of my lunch out of the saddle bag and thanked Buddy with the apple I had not eaten. I felt grateful that this journey into the world below only left me with some very sore thighs. I walked gingerly over to my van to remove my rain gear and get my wallet to pay Vernita.
Cathy and I realized that the trip had been a priceless adventure. We thanked Vernita many times. Months later I sent Vernita a print of the Blue Horse painting explaining that this mythical being had inspired me to take the trip in the first place. Cathy mailed me photos of us on horseback in the Canyon. We were all grinning ear to ear. Vernita sent me a note card with a picture of Manuelito.
The following morning I walked down to Whitehouse Ruins, the one place I could go unattended into the Canyon. I treasured each step and view along the red earth trail. I bought some turquoise earrings from a tiny wrinkled grandmother in a bright blue velvet skirt sitting near the ancient ruin. That afternoon I drove over to see Spider Woman, the Dine (Navaho) people’s ancestor. She sits embodied in very tall rock formation in another part of the canyon. From below she must look like a guardian spirit. Though some distance away, her head was even with the overlook where I parked. I threw Her an offering of corn kernels and tobacco in a tiny handwoven pouch. I prayed to return someday.
Another white woman arrived just as I was about to depart. She wondered if I wasn’t afraid to travel alone on the reservation. She’d heard that the Navahos could be hostile to outsiders, especially if you broke down. Fear of the people here had never crossed my mind. As we talked I noticed some crows diving around above me. They played in the breezes, calling loudly. Then they flew east, suggesting I follow them. I heeded their call and started driving towards New Mexico.