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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Navajo Nation


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The most surprising thing about arriving on the Navajo Reservation was that we were even there at all. All my research about Navajo Nation before the trip advised me that it was "closed" due to COVID, but after that the situation became very murky. The Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley parks were closed, but did that mean it was impossible to see any of the famous stone formations? Were the roads blocked, like the one to Taos Pueblo? No one seemed to know for sure. In the end I decided the best solution would be to leave those two days open just in case the Nation opened during the first half of our trip, and hope that an alternate path to Moab through Colorado would still have accommodation available at the last minute. Not long before we left I spoke to an old friend who had stayed in a traditional hogan near Monument Valley in the summer of 2020, when the epidemic was at its worst in Navajo country. He said he hadn't had any problem at all and that it had been a great experience. I looked up the hogan on Airbnb and it was available, so that took care of the second night. That left Canyon de Chelley where there were no Airbnb's. I checked the Navajo Nation website regularly but there was no hint of reopening. Eventually with two days to go I called the reception desk of the hotel by the canyon that my guidebook recommended. They advised me that the hotel was open and although the park itself was closed, it was still possible to see the canyon and the most famous formation, Spider Rock, from overlooks along the road. That was enough for me to commit to a night there, which is why we found ourselves driving into Chinle on a Tuesday afternoon.

Chinle was a quiet, dusty town that didn't bear much resemblance to Zuni, the other reservation town we had stayed at. The two highways that passed through the town became long, bland commercial stretches that intersected at a T. Side streets led to clusters of prefab housing without any of the interesting touches of Zuni, such as the outdoor bread ovens. There was clearly nothing to do here except visit the canyon. The only game in town for Native American food was the Junction Restaurant at the Best Western. I learned that lamb is a Navajo specialty and the roast lamb sandwich at Junction was one of the most satisfying things I'd eaten in a while. We also had our introduction to fry bread, a sweet deep-fried staple of the local diet that doesn't do the human metabolism any favors.
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It was still light outside and way to early to retire to our boring motel. We'd already visited the only crafts store in town and found it to have overpriced, inauthentic merchandise geared mainly towards casual tourists. That just left the canyon, which we had expected to see the following morning. Canyon de Chelly is the ancestral home of the Navajo since the early 18th century and was the origin of the ill-conceived and tragic Long Walk that exiled the tribe to New Mexico. Chelly is pronounced "shay" and is the Spanish version of the Navajo word Tséyi' which means "rock canyon". Right outside our motel the road out of Chinle split in two, with Route 7 passing along the south rim of the canyon and Route 64 hugging the north rim. We had actually been driving along the edge of the canyon when we drove into Chinle on Route 64 without realizing it. We chose to explore the south rim in order to see Spider Rock, a 750 foot sandstone spire that arises from the canyon floor in magnificent solitude. According to legend an important deity named Spider Woman lives at the top of the rock making it one of the most important sites in Navajo theology. The Spider Rock overlook is the final one along the south rim, a twenty minute drive from Chinle. When we arrived we encountered the coldest air we experienced for the entire trip, thanks to the overcast sky and a brisk wind coming over the canyon. The kids only had light jackets but they hardly complained as we walked along the trail at the rim. It was our first look at the canyon and it was absolutely magnificent. The pattern of erosion made the richly textured walls of sedimentary rock look as though they were melting into the bottom of the canyon, a pristine and tantalizing wonderland of greenery in a dry riverbed. I felt a pang of longing knowing that on this visit at least we would be denied the experience of standing on the floor of that beautiful canyon.
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Towards the end of the path we finally got our look at Spider Rock. It was a dominant feature of the canyon even from the rim and we could only imagine how imposing it must look from the base. The double tower of fissured sandstone looked like the incisors of a gargantuan beast that lay buried underground. I could have happily contemplated the canyon for an hour but the icy wind was making short work of our light clothing and forced us to return to the car.
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On the drive back to the motel we stopped at Tsegi Overlook for a different perspective and immediately became aware of a majestic double rainbow over the canyon, the first that I had ever seen. Not only were the individual bands of the primary rainbow as bright and clear as any I could remember, but we could follow it all the way down to the bottom of the canyon. It was like a CGI scene from a movie with the only thing missing being the pot of gold. We admired it for a while and as we were driving off we encountered a group of grazing horses by the roadside. Mei Ling began filming them from the car and then turned the camera around to catch the rainbow as we drove away from it, and ended up with one of the most spectacular travel videos that either of us has ever created.
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In the morning we went back to Junction for breakfast and to my delight the lamb sandwich was already on the menu. I could probably have eaten a couple of those every day for the rest of the trip. There was plenty of time to kill so we drove back along the south rim almost as far as Spider Rock to visit a Native American gallery which had been closed the previous evening. We didn't see anything we wanted to buy but it was cool to see the inside of a hogan and we had an interesting conversation with the owner, who had also done most of the weaving and knitting that was on display.
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From the north rim the canyon was less dramatic but just as beautiful. Fingers of sandstone extended from the walls towards the center where there was a thin, muddy river that might or might not have been flowing. We could see some small buildings at the bottom as well. Piles of rock had accumulated at the base of the walls in some areas where the friable rock had crumbled under the onslaught of the elements.
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Except for the canyon the terrain around Chinle was as dry and monotonous as any we had seen. That all began to change as we made our way down the one lane highways through Navajo nation to Kayenta. Majestic and colorful formations of both volcanic and sedimentary rock began to appear on either side of the road. Anywhere in the eastern half of the United States these would have been famous attractions but here they were probably only familiar to the locals. These occasional behemoths made our drive pass by very quickly as we admired the landscape.
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The was one formation near Kayenta significant enough to rate individual mention in my research. Agathla Peak is a volcanic plug, formed by solidification of magma within the vent of a volcano millions of years ago. It is a geologic cousin of Shiprock, a diatreme formed by solidification of the central column of the volcano. The approach from the south along Highway 163 was remarkable in that there was an amazing sandstone formation diametrically opposite from Agathla that I was certain had to be a sculpture until we were close enough to see that it only resembled a woman's figure from that one perspective. Agathla was smaller than Shiprock but similarly imposing and mysterious, and there were no obstacles to a close approach and inspection of the formation. We still felt like interlopers as we gingerly traversed the dirt road that led from the highway to the rock, and when a pick-up came towards us from the opposite direction we half expected to be harshly directed back from whence we came.
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It was still early afternoon when we arrived at the hogan. This was going to be our most unusual accommodation of the trip and a calculated risk, since the small hut had no air conditioning and no bathroom. An old friend of mine had stayed there with his kids one year earlier and told me in was one of his family's best travel experiences. One of my goals for the trip was to introduce our kids to Native American history and culture so I had decided the experience would be worth whatever temporary discomforts presented themselves. I was grateful for the relatively cool and dry weather as the environment was my most pressing concern. We turned off the highway where we had been directed and drove uphill through a confusing labyrinth of dirt roads until we arrived at a small complex of buildings and spotted the sign for the hogan. Even though I knew what to expect from pictures, I was still somewhat shocked by the mound of brown earth that would be our shelter for the night. There were some swarms of brown ants on the outside and it wasn't hard to imagine at they had been the ones that had built this little hill. When we opened the door we were surprised by how spacious and attractive the interior was. Beautiful Navajo rugs were spread on the chairs and beds and the log roof was a miracle of craftsmanship. We had a large container of water over a sink to wash up with and a decent-sized fan to keep the air circulating. It seemed the major downsides would be the absence of a shower and having to use a Porta Potty, an appliance for which I have a deep and abiding distaste.
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From the hillside we had a fantastic view of the some of the most famous monoliths of Monument Valley such as the Mittens and Merrick Butte. Behind us another enormous sandstone butte arose from the ground and towered over the little homestead. There was no one there to meet us on our arrival but we didn't mind the opportunity to explore the locale on our own. When our host Rosalyn eventually returned from a shopping trip she found us completely stupefied by the majesty of our surroundings. She told us that everyone says the same thing when they arrive, but she couldn't see it herself since it's just been home to her ever since she was born.
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If the loop road in Monument Valley had been open this would have been a perfect time to drive it but as it were we just hung around the outdoor common area and watched our kids play with Rosalyn's grandkids until it was time to eat. There was a mischievous band of sheep that seemed to have free rein of the property during the day and they wandered in circles around us foraging for any dropped food and occasionally nudging the kids.
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We had chosen the option to have a home-cooked meal at the hogan in the hope that Mei Ling would be able to pick up some Navajo cooking techniques but unfortunately the only thing on the menu that evening was frybread and chopped salad, also known as Navajo tacos. Mei Ling did get to have some fun hand-kneading and frying the dough but since she doesn't eat starch there wasn't much for her to eat there except sliced tomatoes and beans.
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I'd already had enough frybread for one day that morning in Chinle and the kids had already decided they didn't care much for it so it was clear we would need to find another dinner nearby. We made the excuse that we wanted to get an early spot at the overlook near Forrest Gump Point for sunset over the valley and then sped off to find some meat. Some quick research brought us to Goulding's Lodge, a hundred year old accommodation with restaurant that was located at the foot of another monstrous block of weathered sandstone.
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Despite the awe-inspiring setting the food was quite pedestrian and took so long to arrive that sunset was halfway over by the time we had finally managed to pay our bill. We got back onto Highway 164 and raced north to the overlook as the sun rapidly descended. We crossed the border into Utah and soon approached the base of a steep hill where we saw several people standing in the middle of the highway taking photographs of each other. Some were even lying prone in the road shooting pictures from ground level. These were the folks determined to recreate the famous scene from Forrest Gump when he abruptly ends his marathon run with Monument Valley as a backdrop. They didn't seem eager to get out of the way of our approaching car either, only leaving the middle of the road when we were a couple of hundred feet away. At the top of the hill we reached the turnoff for the overlook which did provide an awesome perspective for a picture with Monument Valley's finest specimens.
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Although the outside temperatures were only in the seventies,. it felt somewhat stuffy inside the hogan. We elected to keep the door closed for fear of a coyote or some other desert beast entering our abode while we were sleeping, and put the fan on at full blast. We fell asleep fairly quickly after another exhausting and complicated day but I awoke just a few hours later feeling like I was trapped under a blanket of warm air. I threw caution to the winds and opened the door which did alleviate the mugginess somewhat but I only slept another hour or so. This time when I awakened I knew there would be no returning to sleep, even though the sky was still pitch black. I was conscious of every little sound that penetrated the stillness on the hill. Fortunately there was a little plastic chair outside the hogan and just enough light from a small spotlight to read by. As the first light started to break over the horizon Mei Ling joined me outside and together we watched the sun slowly turn Monument Valley from a jagged silhouette into the beautiful and stately natural sculptures that we had already become familiar with. Once we were in full daylight we roamed the grounds one more time, infuriating the corralled sheep by ignoring their pleas to be fed.
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We returned to Goulding's for a basic breakfast and hurriedly got back on the highway north into Utah. Before we reached the Forrest Gump outlook we encountered another turn-off that led to a small clear area with an even better perspective than we'd had the previous evening. Sunset behind the monuments may be amazing but my preference was for the deep palette of colors formed by the sky, the monuments, and the dusty terrain. We paused for ten minutes or so to absorb this majestic spectacle one final time before pressing forward into the fourth and final state of our road trip.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 22:35 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip navajo family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayenta chinle Comments (0)

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