Leaving Page and Lake Powell behind, we headed east to a tiny place called Chinle. The only reason we were here was to visit Canyon de Chelly, a few miles outside of town. It’s not the most obvious and sought after place to come to in Arizona, especially with the Grand Canyon not too far away, but it’s an impressive place and is very remote with what feels like very few people – we only saw a handful of people on our trip around the canyon.
We were advised to avoid hiking into the canyon in the full heat of the day but to leave it until the sun was lower in the sky, otherwise there would be very little available shade. So we toured the South Rim by car for a couple of hours, stopping off at the ‘overlooks’ and peering over the 550 foot cliffs to the canyon floor.
At almost every overlook was a Navajo woman trying to sell her home-made jewellery. There can’t be much work around these parts so maybe, we thought, this was the usual source of income for the native inhabitants. The Navajo men appear to be taking tourists on trips into places that are otherwise off limits to outsiders. I’m sure a lot of money is being made this way – a 45 minute trip into a slot canyon for photographs,for example, costs something in the region of $60 per person and you get the feeling that you are being taken advantage of. You’ve come hundreds or thousands of miles to see the area so what are you going to do? Most people will pay to be herded, sheep-like, into the narrow slot of rock in 90 degree heat in order to get a stock photo and pay through the nose for it. We chose to do a little research and found the only way to get down into the canyon on foot without a guide for free and we were not disappointed.
The White House Ruin is tucked away, completely out of sight, in a rock crevice near the canyon floor and to get there you have to hike down the steep cliff, through tunnels, strange rock shapes and desert sand. From above the rim, the canyon floor is dotted with tiny trees and you can see car tyre trails coming from who knows where. Only the Navajo are allowed down there and we saw no way in by car. Occasionally, the odd pony or cow will wander the desert floor and there may also be a hogan (pronounced ho-wun) – a traditional dwelling, central to Navajo life and a place for sacred ceremonies – but otherwise there’s very little down there. Signs warn people not to photograph Navajo people without permission. The Hogan we saw could not be photographed under any circumstances but there was no-one there to police this rule.
It took a surprisingly short time to reach the canyon floor and soon the cliffs towered above us: we were completely closed in on all sides and the only way out was the way we had come.
Our voices echoed around the canyon – otherwise there was complete silence – as we strolled along the canyon floor to finally reach the hidden ruins of White House.
Seeing the ruins for the first time felt like an almost spiritual experience, like entering an immense cathedral and tip-toeing around using hushed tones: a reverence born of respect for an age passed. The White House Ruin is a collection of dwellings set within a rock crevice above a larger pueblo and you can still see the white plaster-work, which gives the place its name. At first glance it looks in almost perfect condition but, as you approach, you can see that a lot of it has eroded away.
We spent about half an hour in front of the ruins and, in that time, not another soul was around. It was completely silent except for the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze and the brief wafting of wings overhead as a large black crow swooped to and fro, sometimes finding a crack in the rock on which to cling momentarily before moving off down the canyon. And for a while, twenty-first century life receded, leaving only the beautiful, quiet solitude of rock and sky and we could just begin to glimpse the sacred nature of this place for the people who built these dwellings and also for the Navajo people.
We rented one of the last few rooms in town. Chinle is a completely nondescript place, with only a handful of overpriced motels and we were very lucky not to be sleeping in the car overnight. There’s almost nowhere to eat here and we had to settle for Burger King, which still cost us almost $20, although my Diet Coke did come in a bucket so I can’t complain.
Next we head back in to Colorado and the Rockies for our final week.