Friday, June 3, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 3

Mind the Gaps

I’ve been to a number of places in my life – India, Australia, Italy, Aruba, Rhode Island – but Arizona was the first time I felt that I was truly on a different planet. It’s like Mars, only less hospitable and with fewer people. But it’s as beautiful as it is foreign, and that’s saying a lot.

It was an uninspiring start to this leg of the trip. We had high hopes of leaving L.A. bright and early, making the 9-hour drive to the Grand Canyon in time to set up a tent at a nearby campsite before dark. A foolish plan, as it turned out. By the time the sun set we were still hours away, leaving us no choice but to set up shop at an EconoLodge in Flagstaff – proud home of a Chile’s and a Casa Bonita. It was a 2-hour drive from the Grand Canyon, meaning we would have to cut our stay there short if we wanted to make it to Canyon De Chelly in time to camp out the next night. Luckily, that wasn’t so difficult. The Grand Canyon was grand… and then we left. There were tour buses, a massive visitor’s center, a tollbooth that charged a $25 entrance fee (made out of wooden logs so as to look organic), and a canyon tucked in there somewhere. It wasn’t until afterwards that things got interesting.

The drive from the Grand Canyon to Canyon De Chelly was many things: beautiful, remote, educational, and a bit depressing. We took the scenic route, a largely uninhabited road going straight through the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache reservations. There was magic in the mere thought of trespassing through these magnificent lands, hallowed by the presence of those who had lived with the Earth, and who dared to stand up against the white man’s promise of jager-bombs and reality TV shows. But that magic was quickly tempered by the bittersweet reality of things. These reservations were hardly luxurious. Amenities were scarce, and for every gas station (truly an oasis in Arizona) there were many more pairs of mangy dogs engaged in life-or-death battles over scraps left by passing cars. But at the same time, there was something inspirational about this group of people so content in their sovereignty and isolation. These are not the Native Americans you read about in your history textbooks. While the spiritual mystique of these lands may have dwindled, the ability of their residents to remain both modern and completely homogenous at the same time is nothing short of a miracle.

As we arrived at Canyon De Chelly that evening, it became immediately apparent that this wasn't the bustling hive of tour buses and rascal scooters that the Grand Canyon had turned out to be. Instead, we found ourselves in the quiet town of Chinle – a tiny Navajo hamlet at the base of the Canyon rim. Our lodging for the night was a local campsite, where, because of the Navajo nation’s attitude toward alcohol, we had to be extra shifty-eyed about our remorseless drinking. But damned if we were going to be caught dead camping without our copy of Kung Fu Panda and a bottle of $6 table wine.

We awoke that morning with high spirits, eager for a day spent at Canyon De Chelly. The site, as we had come to learn, was the home of numerous Anasazi cities built directly into the canyon walls roughly 1,100 years ago. It is a 700-foot drop into a stunning valley of lush forests and shockingly fertile farmland, still occupied by Navajo tribespeople who utilize the land in much the same way as it was used so long ago (with the exception of the tourist influence). Simply put, it was one of the most incredible things I have ever had the gift of seeing. Strict restrictions placed on sightseers helped to preserve billions of years of geological history, as well as thousands of years of cultural history, in their purest form. Most of the canyon was only viewable from the top of the rim, stretching across 15 miles of well-preserved road. Each bend of the canyon gave way to a completely unique view featuring expertly engineered Anasazi cities built high up into the canyon walls, gently-shifting sandstone adorned with the markings of careful erosion and brightly colored lichen, and tiny ranches occupied by the region’s current residents. And a 1.5 mile hike down to the base of the canyon (the only area where tourists are allowed to enter unguided) made the visit physically exhausting as well as visually inspiring. Were I a more spiritual man, I'd swear there was something mystical about that place.

And with that, I leave you with some breathtaking photo evidence:

The Grand Canyon. Yay.
A Navajo craft fair found on the side of the road. We had to stop.
Spider Rock in Canyon De Chelly. Met a really cool Navajo guy named Crek (pronounced Craik) who lives down here.
Ruins at the bottom of Canyon De Chelly. Built in A.D. 900, it is by far the oldest man-made structure I have ever seen.


  1. It's so great that you have seen so much, it's a trip of a lifetime! Be safe and have a blast!

  2. Yael Zakon-BourkeJune 3, 2011 at 6:24 PM

    I knew you'd love Canyon de Chelly. When I was there I also had the feeling that it was a mystical place. You could almost sense the ghosts of the past still living there.
    When I taught on the res I had first-hand experience with the dichotomies of the Native Americans that you described. The colorful history, the alcoholism, the rich culture, the tacky crafts, the ancient structures, the government housing with satellite dishes. Hard to wrap your head around....