If Walls Could Talk

Entering Canyon de Chelly

We couldn't possibly have predicted how awesome, in the purest sense of the word, it would be experiencing Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "du shay") in the flesh...er...rock.

We left bright and early after pancakes, eggs and coffee to make the two-hour drive over the state line into Arizona. For those of you following the southwest radio drama (previously mentioned here), we did end up finding a radio station advertised as "THE party hits station of Gallup" which got us most of the way to the canyon before we lost our signal. LUTHER2, the always faithful Prius, carried us past many overlooks of the canyon, causing us to radio LUTHER1 and protest to Deborah that we stop, but we drove on, causing audible (albeit melodramatic) agony on the part of the passengers.

Finally, we stopped. But only once we reached the White House Ruin trailhead. And we promptly apologized to Deborah.


This is the only trail in Canyon de Chelly that is open to the public without an official guide affiliated with the National Park Service. Besides that, there are many Navajo families that have settled in the area with their families and herds. We were absolutely blessed with a beautiful sunny day, with temperatures hitting 52 degrees and hardly a cloud in the sky.  

Hiking down through the canyon was an experience in itself. Since we are technically in the desert, it hadn't rained or snowed for at least a week and things were pretty dry, making the minimally developed trail and switchbacks down the canyon wall not hard to navigate at all. From rock sculpted by wind and water over hundreds of thousands of years to empty riverbeds and washes filled only with sand rubbed smooth, we wound our way down the canyon wall. Leading us in record time to the bottom of the canyon, Deborah was quick to teach us all about Navajo history and their relationship with the environment, only stopping when we begged to take a picture of the official first cactus we found. Since then, they seem to be appearing everywhere. And Nate is particularly thrilled about it. 

In a daze, we walked past the pottery and jewelry vendors, who ride horses and mules down to the canyon floor every day despite the rough terrain to show their wares. While the view from above was spectacular, standing at the bottom looking up was beyond expectations. It was so incredible that we had forgotten what was built into the wall of the canyon: the Pueblo dwellings. Being both a huge geology and anthropology geek, I may or may not have gotten really into it and forgotten how to function properly. The ancient Pueblo peoples built these dwellings (which were only accessible by rock climbing or rope ladders) into the canyon walls and lived a highly sophisticated life, with social, economical and political infrastructures and hierarchies unlike almost any other civilization...until they disappeared suddenly, leaving only these distinctive dwellings and various material culture behind. 

After we caught our breath, we lost it again hiking back up. Still, it only took us half an hour to reach the top, earning us the title of "fastest ED185 hikers in history," bestowed by Deborah herself.

"It was she who gave the gift of weaving to the people..."

From here we headed to the not-to-be-missed Spider Rock. This geological phenomenon is highly respected and revered by the Navajo people, as it is said that the taller of the two rock spires is the home of Spider Woman, a deity that bestowed the gift of weaving upon the Navajo. Weaving is still a cornerstone of contemporary Navajo culture, seen primarily in the weaving of intricate rugs. This monument is and has always been a sacred source of purity and strength to the people. Spider Woman is a big part of Navajo storytelling even today, with parents and grandparents warning naughty children that Spider Woman would snatch them up in her web and carry them away! It surely would have worked on me. Probably still would. 

While I could have stayed for hours and cried my geologic heart out, we had to begin our trek back to Gallup before sundown, as the canyon quickly becomes difficult to navigate without the sun. The temperature drops pretty suddenly as well. That's frowned upon. We get that all the time at home. No thank you. (Shoutout to the local ED 185 students having two snow days...Gallup is currently under advisory for 2-4 inches, which might just land us in the same boat!)

Before leaving, we checked out the visitor's center to stock up on postcards and some last fun facts. Outside was a model of a traditional hogan, a dwelling of the Navajo people. They are easily recognizable by their design, built with either six or eight walls and a pointed and elongated roof (male) or a rounded and lower one (female). The door always faces east to greet the morning sun. Seeing all these aspects of Navajo life was extremely eye-opening, even moreso than the spectacular views of the canyon. Such a large group of distinguishable humans have functioned in harmony with both each other and their surroundings for centuries, shifting slowly to retain some traditions and shed others, even today. 

Feeding Time

The drive back was, of course, accompanied by the good old party hits station until we reached Earl's, a family-owned restaurant in Gallup famous for its Navajo tacos (and rightly so). The dish comes with your choice of red or green (maybe even both if you're Peter or Nate!) chiles and is served on fry bread the size of a large plate, instead of a tortilla or taco shell. The effect is something just short of magic. It's expected to be eaten with your hands, so we all quickly made fools of ourselves trying not to spill our armfulls of heaven all over the establishment.

Besides the excellent food and colorful stories Deborah continued to share, we were visited almost constantly by vendors who obtain free permits from the owners to sell their art (pottery, jewelry, weaving, etc.) on an ethical basis, meaning they answer all questions about the work and materials honestly. It was pretty neat to see that in action, because we really don't have anything like that going on in Iowa! Peter walked away with a pretty neat piece of turtle pottery, and the rest of us left with large to-go boxes with our leftover tacos. 

With a full heart (and stomach),


Our first look at White House Run, the only trail open to the public without a guide, leading to the Pueblo ruins.
ALERT: Cactus sighting.
The crown jewel of Canyon de Chelly, at the bottom of the White House Run are some of the most intact ruins of the Pueblo society that settled here thousands of years ago...and then vanished suddenly.
Spider Rock is a sort of spiritual monument for the Navajo people. In Navajo legend it is said to be the home of Spider Woman, the deity responsible for giving them the gift of weaving, which is now a cornerstone of Navajo art and culture.
Hogans are the traditional dwelling of the Navajo peoples. They are built with either six or eight sides, with an elongated and pointed roof (male) or a rounded and flat one (female). The door always faces east in order to greet the rising sun.
We went to Earl's for some classic navajo tacos! Like a regular taco, but with fry bread instead of a tortilla or a shell.