NORTHERN ARIZONA

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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31 comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re taking us on your trip to Arizona. I love the desert and would love to spend some time exploring that area. Your pictures are fabulous, and I especially love that black and white one of the Minnetonka Trading Post. What magnificent scenery. You were lucky to have those dramatic skies. 🙂

    • You’re right, much as I love cumulus clouds marching to the horizon on a blue, blue dome, the stormy skies are the best! Glad you liked the black and white, too. It seemed to work that way.

  2. Wonderful description and photos, especially for someone who knows little about America – just like being their with you, Lynn. Many good pictures, but if I had to pick one favourite it would be that vast, clouded-speckled landscape below the words “The desert silence began to sink into our bones.”. Good stuff! Adrian

    • That’s good to hear…so interesting you single that one out. The Painted Desert is gorgeous, and very subtle. That spot was hard to photograph because the whole center area was washed out, color-wise. It was one of those times when you groan and think the photo doesn’t look at all like what you saw, you know? So I increased the contrast in that section – probably the clarity too, I don’t remember! 🙂

    • You must go! There’s so much to see, and what I love about it, is that living here, it’s not a long trip but it’s almost the opposite kind of environment – dry and pale and horizontal instead of wet and dark and vertical. Not to mention sunny, but then we haven’t been lacking that this year, have we?

      • I hadn’t thought of the vertical vs horizontal…you are so right! I thought it was interesting in your landscape photos how the cloudscape hovered over the land and echoed it. It looked like the ocean hovering above the sand.It was interesting with the storms- so unusual compared to the images I typically see of that area. I will go…hopefully soon.

  3. You’ve captured the essence of Arizona so beautifully Lynne … and evoke an atmosphere as I remember from our trip there back about 4 years ago . Looking over that palette of soft hues in the painted desert was quite a moment, as was standing on the edge of the Canyon de Chelly …
    I particularly love the photos of those gigantic saguaros in that light !

    • I’m glad you like those, the light was amazing. I hoped it would come across without exaggerating it in processing. I would be so interested to see what you would do with portraits of the people there. So many fabulous faces, such warmth, but I was usually too hesitant to ask.

  4. Thanks! My grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland and landed in Arizona .She iived in a convent. She described riding in the desert on horses. . For Christmas she gave me paper says:|

    Thanks! My grandmother was an immigrant from Ireland and landed in Arizona .She iived in a convent. She described riding in the desert on horses. . For Christmas she gave me paper weights that mimicked the painted desert with colored sand. She told me how beautiful it was. Now I can see it for myself.-Thanks

    • She landed in AZ? Who knew? 🙂 I can picture the paperweight. I just love the subtlety of desert colors and it would be great to spend much more time, and really study it. I brought back a tiny bundle of juniper and little dried wildflowers. The smells are fantastic too.

  5. One of my favorite parts of the world. I’ve been to the four corners are a couple of times, and into Canyon de Chelly once as a child. I believe I may have just come across some slide of my father’s from that trip. I’ll have to check. I don’t remember needing a guide at the time. Would have been in the seventies sometime. Seems to me that would be a good thing. A tightening of the controls of how many people go into and out of a place like that. It should be difficult. Makes it all the more worthwhile for those who visit with respect and honor.

    My sister actually taught on the Navajo Reservation in the nineties. Little town called Sanders. Very near the Painted Desert and Petrified forest.

    It’s a whole different world down there in so many ways.

    Thanks for taking me there again, Lynn.

    • Interesting! You’re right, guides are more recent, and a good thing overall. You can do jeep or horseback and there’s a bit of camping too, in certain places. Wouldn’t that be great! ? I’d love to see that slide. Sanders is south, I think. I think we were near there when we went to the Hubbell Trading post, which has been in business continuously for a very long time. What a great experience for your sister. We had some nice conversations with people while we were on the reservation.

    • 🙂 Such as easy trip from here compare to the east coast, but now it’s been even longer since we have been back to NY. You know is love to see what you would do with these places….

  6. What a bonus to get all those gloriously moody colours of rain in the desert. An absolutely fabulous set of shots Lyn and so hope to do this drive one day soon. You really did get into the layers of life out there.

  7. I see Eric ‘liked’ this post. I remember reading this one over quite a few times and revisiting it just now. Hard to believe I didn’t push the ‘like’ button (perhaps I was in search of the ‘love’ option?) Not even a comment re: how much I enjoyed this post. We seem to be dithering over whether to do this one or Chaco????

    • I don’t know anything really about Chaco. Saw your email and will respond when I can get my thoughts together – it was such a great trip. So was the trip we took earlier to the southeast corner. Sounds like it will be hotter when you go, unless you’re planning way ahead! Be sure to take an early jeep tour if you do Chelly. Allow time – I think we did a four hour one. We weren’t with any other people either, that helps. Even so, I didn’t have time enough to simply soak in the canyon’s spirit. Best advice may be that you want a guide who will do what YOU want to do – it’s not necessary to see every corner – you can’t anyway. So instead of frantically driving to the next cool site, ask for time to get out and simply be in the space. And allow yourselves time to do the same up along the rim, either before or after. You can drive and pull out in many places, so you can find one where you’re alone, esp if it’s toward dusk or dawn, and really soak it in.

  8. Thanks for this. I don’t like the sound of ‘warmer’. We’ll be leaving in a week. I don’t do well with hot. Eric seems to think Chaco is less visited and/or ‘organized’, but we’re still dithering. Eric lived in NM for awhile so this is a lot about revisiting his haunts. Should be fun. 😉


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