I met Manuel by chance as I walked onto the grounds of La Posada hotel in Winslow, Arizona. He’s a groundskeeper there, so having a background in gardening and landscaping myself, I stopped to admire his work and talk. He’s originally from Mexico and returns to his ranch and family there every year. He takes equal pride in his gardening and his seven years sobriety from Tequila. When I asked to take his picture he backed into this juniper, squared his shoulders and looked me straight in the eye.



La Posada hotel wouldn’t have been built, back in 1929, if it weren’t for the railroad that stops conveniently right at the back gate. It was quite the destination in its heyday, with guests like Gary Cooper, President Franklin Roosevelt, Shirley Temple and others too numerous to list. With building costs topping a million dollars, it was an extravagant showcase for the Sante Fe Railroad and the imaginative architect, Mary Colter.  By the fifties it was shuttered, but four decades later, another twelve million dollars revived the hotel, thanks to an entrepreneur.

Had we known about this historical gem we would have reserved a room there, and if we return, we’ll do that.

If only to see Manuel again.


Last week we took another trip to Arizona. After flying from Seattle to Phoenix we picked up a bright red Chevy Trax SUV at Sixt Rentals and drove north towards Flagstaff, taking a scenic four lane highway (state Rt. 87).  It was a rainy day in Arizona – not what you bargain for when you’re visiting from the gray northwest, but the saguaros were beautiful in the misty blue air. We pulled over to the side of the road to take in the soft greens, tans and distant lavender blues.


Our plan was to spend a few days at Canyon de Chelly, a national monument comprised of two large canyons whose layers of rock go back 200 million years. In the middle of the Navajo Nation, the site is miles from any city and has been inhabited for thousands of years. Because of the remote location it’s not overrun with tourists. I was eager to spend time among the great sandstone cliffs with their ancient dwellings and petroglyphs.

It’s a long way from Phoenix, so we over-nighted en route at a Navajo-owned resort and casino, which turned out to be refreshingly light on glitz and strong on tasteful elegance. An odd introduction to Navajo ways – but it worked for us!

On to Chinle, the town on the Navajo Reservation that’s the base for visiting Canyon de Chelly (pronounced shay).  On the way we passed through charming Winslow, a small town made famous by the Eagles song from the 70’s, “Take it Easy” – which folks seem to do in Winslow. They’ve capitalized on the song and made their town a tourist destination. A German man of a certain age dressed in black leather asked us to take his picture by a statue that memorializes the song. It happens to be on the famous Route 66. He had rented a Harley (he rides a BMW at home, of course, but this is America!) for an epic ride across America’s Main Street highway. Leave it to the Germans to swallow American pop culture whole, and show us how to really enjoy it!

It WAS a lovely morning for soaking in the classic American small town atmosphere. It didn’t hurt that the old style sweet shoppe makes an excellent macchiato.


The town has a fascinating  small museum. It’s full of fabulous local memorabilia, from ancient cultural artifacts and dinosaur bones to cowboy culture, railroads, Hopi pottery and more.

What a rip-roaring town it was, back in the day.

And it remains an interesting place.

And on the outskirts – more to see.

We continued northeast, making a pit stop at Little Painted Desert, a county park. The Painted Desert covers a large swath of northern Arizona. As we ate sandwiches and took pictures, a stray dog and a raven were our only company.

The desert silence began to sink into our bones.

We were now in the Navajo Nation, whose boundaries extend deep into four states, encompassing over 27,000 square miles of land.  Within Navajo boundaries a separate nation, the Hopi reservation, is home to a people who are quite different than the Navajo. They have not been as successful at integrating into western culture and do not take to tourists and strangers as easily.

We drove onto the Hopi reservation but I took almost no pictures, as photography isn’t allowed and cameras can be confiscated. Parts of the reservation were rougher than places I’ve seen anywhere else. It truly felt separate from America.

We stopped at a home with a sign indicating silver jewelry was sold there. I knew Hopi craftspeople often sell their work from home, and prices, as long as you have cash, are likely to be better than at galleries or stores. We knocked on the door. The artist, Harry Nutumya, was there. He showed us his and his nephew’s work. A very soft spoken man, he told us quietly about going away to school and returning to live on the reservation. The Hopi have a long history and complex spiritual belief system that I wouldn’t dream of trying to describe. On a very basic level, our brief meeting with Harry seemed to exemplify how closely place and people are knit together in the desert – the high mesa with its open sky, sparse vegetation and expansive quiet matched Harry’s thoughtful persona. And yes, I was happy to contribute directly to supporting his work with a few purchases.

There’s our Trax, posing against the grasslands and distant mesas under that grand Arizona sky, with clouds all the way to the horizon.


As we rolled across the desert I photographed the grasslands and changing sky, sometimes with my phone, sometimes with my camera.  The views didn’t disappoint!

It really got interesting when we raced a rainstorm across the reservation, a rainstorm that produced double rainbows while keeping its center well away from us – perfect!  You can’t always stop when you want to, but maybe this conveys a taste of the drama of an Arizona desert storm.

The next day we spent all morning with a Navajo guide, bouncing across the bottom lands of Canyon de Chelly in his old jeep. Not ideal for photography, but a lot of fun. Outsiders can only enter the canyon with a Navajo guide and are admonished to respect the privacy of the few remaining people living in the canyon by not photographing them or their houses. It’s not a zoo after all.

It was a bit rough on the soft dirt canyon bottom lands – there aren’t roads exactly, just well worn tracks snaking through the canyons.

Below, one of many old Anasazi dwellings we saw. This one is called Antelope House. Most of the old places cling tight to the rocks high up the cliffs but this one is at the base of the canyon.


That rainstorm we passed through the day before left big puddles here and there. The guides take it in stride, plowing through the water to give tourists a closer look at petroglyphs on the canyon walls. Above and to the right of the jeep are drawings of people on horse, a common theme.

You can’t get very close to most petroglyphs or dwellings; many are high and out of reach. Our guide described climbing up with hand-made ladders in his younger days; the ladders used to be pulled up as you went, so no one could follow.  If you had plenty of time, a long lens, a tripod and good light I’m sure you could get great photos of the ruins.  As it was, I didn’t have the right mix of circumstances, but that’s the way it goes. It was rewarding just spending time with our guide on his turf.  Towards the end Dave, who was born and raised here and seemed to know everyone, talked a little about his clan, and how his mother blew corn pollen over him when he was a baby – an ancient practice that gave us a tantalizing glimpse into a culture that still thinks very differently from people I normally come into contact with.

Later we drove along the south rim to see places we had just driven through from far above. Water flows in the creek alongside the track.  A few people still raise a little corn down there, and peach trees grow near the native cottonwoods and willows.

The famous Spider Rock was half concealed in deep shade by the time we reached it.  The next day we drove the rim of the canyon in the morning, and again it was in shadow. But if the canyon didn’t cooperate, the ravens did.

Wild horses roam the bottom of Canyon de Chelly.

I’ll leave you with their gentle presence. There’s more to come on the Arizona trip…




Step back.

There’s our pretty, blue and white marbleworld, spinning and wobbling in the dark vastness.


We’re hovering just above it. More colors play across the surface.


Zero in on a small piece of land in the place called northeastern America, and

now zoom backwards in time, and here is a place called home.

A girl plays next to a big birch tree shaped like a willow.  The tree is Betula pendula, the European silver birch, or weeping birch.

It is known to the girl and her brothers as forbidden-to-climb.

She leans in to the pale bark with its crisp black markings, and reads them like a book page, a calligraphy of fissures and dashes.


She drinks in the bark and the thick old trunk that stretches up into an endless web of slender branches hung with papery, heart-shaped leaves that flit in response to every breeze.

The home place, and it’s sounds, smells and sights permeate the girl’s consciousness. As she grows up the big birch tree fades in memory, but when she sees birch trees her heart understands them. There is a congruence.

She thinks about a birch grove in a park near the new place where she lives now. The feeling of these trees is an old one. It calls her.

She drives to the park.

If again, you hover just above the land and look down, you see her scattered meanderings through the birch grove.

She has a black box in her hands.

Click. Step.

Click. Step.



This birch is native to Europe, where it has a long history, culturally and economically. It’s been used for everything from lumber to bread (Wiki says Scandinavians made emergency bread from the bark).  It is Finland’s national tree; whisks made of birch twigs are used there to awaken the skin during saunas.

Bundles of birch branches were used to push out the old year in Celtic lands, where mythology associates birch with renewal.  The yule log is birch, and bundles of twigs were used for beating the bounds – ceremoniously walking the parish boundaries – in old England.

It is said that many sacred texts were written on birch bark in India – perhaps a different species, but still birch.  In Russia there is a tradition of carving extraordinarily tiny, detailed scenes and designs in birch bark, which is fashioned into small boxes.

The girl’s ancestors lived in places where birch grew, places where it was perhaps revered. Europeans brought the trees, purposely or inadvertently, to the place called America when they immigrated. Gradually, birch trees took hold in new northern lands. When the girl’s parents bought a house for their family, a large and beautiful weeping birch dominated the front yard.

That was long ago. Now she lives in another place far away, and here too, Betula pendula finds a comfortable home. 

The girl with the black box watches as shreds of birch bark sway and dance in the cool September breeze.



She looks up into the places where branch meets sky.


The haze of green hearts, wiggling in the wind.

Leaves turn yellow and drift down onto the moss. They will decompose over the wet winter months, nourishing the soil. Their substance will change and evolve, providing energy to push life back out of the soil next spring.

Whether the girl returns to the birch grove or not, she will see white birch bark and weeping, sinewy branches in her dreams.