Friday, July 27, 2012

Road Trip 2012 Part 2: Onto the Navajo Nation

7/19/12: Early departure, a two hundred mile day ahead.  I’d planned to transit northeast to Monument Valley and view the mesas and buttes.  Hesitation; I’d talked to a lot of tourists who had been or were going there.  It sounded crowded, and I worried about finding a quiet place to camp.  It would likely be hazy.  During my post North Kaibab siesta, I decided to divert to Navajo National Monument.  It was on the way to Monument Valley, with interesting cliff dwellings and hikes. 

So north from the Kaibab campsite, fuel and weak coffee in Jacob Lake.  East and downhill off the East Kaibab Monocline.  I’d woken to overcast skies; better for driving, also cut the haze.  Around a curve, and there were the Vermillion Cliffs, across House Rock Valley.  I was loosing elevation but going upsection into younger rocks.  Farewell to the Paleozoic for a while; here was newer stratigraphy to comprehend.  The Vermillion Cliffs delimit the southern edge of the Paria Plateau, another step in the Grand Staircase.  The Paria dips to the north; it’s famous for the numerous slot canyons that slice it up in Utah.  Sigh, maybe on some other trip.

Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

The road ran along the base of the Cliffs; lovely exposures of Moenkopi, Chinle and Moenave Formations in purple, lavender, and many shades of red.  The colors reflect terrestrial origins; Triassic streams and their brethren.  Echoes of the movements of North America; the rising mountains to the (current) west, a gradual drying with drift away from the equator.  But cliffs mean recycling; I passed fully house-sized blocks of Moenave (I think), fallen from the heights. 

This trip has felt different than my last several jaunts, domestic or international.  My interior seems more settled, less troubled.  I feel less relief at leaving the normal behind; not more internal continuity, but less roiled.  Transitions seem to be proximate causes for this; different work, different martial art, different sports.  I may just be more deeply fatigued, given endurance racing and an intense job.  No worries, I’ll take smoother and more even as long as it lasts. 

Northwest and a hairpin over the Colorado River at Marble Canyon.  South to Bitter Springs, now with the Echo Cliffs to the east.  Through Antelope Pass, another step up the Staircase into the Navajo Sandstone: Jurassic sand dunes.  The same stuff all over the Plateau and a bit beyond: truly an erg in the Saharan style.

Clearer and hotter as Trixy and I headed into Page, the home of the infamous Glen Canyon Dam and Navajo Generation Station.  This coal-fired complex is climate alteration in action (not that I had much moral superiority, burning hydrocarbons as I rode past).  While Page has a great new school complex and lots of churches, it is also the spawn of Lake Powell (the death of Glen Canyon) and its attendant recreation: large powered watercraft.  Nonetheless, it did have fuel.  And a Walmart, which was avoided.

I punched further east across a rolling Navajo Sandstone surface; remnant fossil dunes protruding through drifts of sand – modern dune – likely eroded from them.  This was the Navajo Nation; an area about the size of West Virginia that’s home to about 200,000 Navajo (and Hopi on their lands near the core of the Nation).  Access to the land is proscribed without invitation, other than towns, parks, and tourist facilities.  And the through roads: first world arteries through the Nation.  Passing among a different culture at high speed gave me vague echoes of past third world experiences.  The Navajo have been pastoralists for the past few centuries; family ranches dotted the landscape; sheep, cattle, horses and at least one goat dotted the plains.  The randomness of both reminded me of the high veldt of South Africa; maybe the rolling landscape as well.  This raised comparisons to Australia.  The Aboriginals seem to cluster in their settlements, rather than this spreading out; perhaps this reflects the hunter-gatherer culture.  Both cultures have been deeply abused by European immigrants; both have recovered somewhat, at least partially through art.  Here in Navajoland, art takes the form of jewelry, rock painting weaving, and pottery.  I am sure these forms have traditional uses, but they are also a great income source, if the density of curio tables at every tourist stop is an indication. 

Outside of Kaibeto on Route 98, Trixy rolled over 100,000 miles.  I’ll buy her a new air filter in Farmington to celebrate.  Kaibeto, hmmm.  I’d been crossing the Kaibito Plateau (more Navajo Sandstone), but this place name and others – Comb Wash, Black Mesa – kept tweaking my memory.  Running northeast on Highway 180, the origin finally came to me; this is the territory of The Monkey Wrench Gang.  This novel by Ed Abbey documents the exploits of a quartet of characters who are sick of the desecration of the Southwest by development; their ultimate goal is to blow up Glen Canyon Dam.  The narrative’s sense of place, humor, and outrageous exploits were an inspiration to me and many others to explore the Southwest.  I passed a coal train and the conveyor belt from the Black Mesa coal mine that are both blown up in the book.  Eerily, though I had not seen these machines before, they looked just like my mental imagery from my readings.  I smiled.

The Navajo National Monument turnoff.  Nine miles through the Nation, slowing for cattle and horses on the road.  The campground was rustic and largely empty; excellent.  I picked a site in the most remote corner, and set up my tent, just in time for the afternoon monsoon.  As I wrote earlier, it was largely an overcast day; this foreshadowed a long afternoon storm.  I sat in Trixy and read, napped, and wrote.

Rainbow and monsoon, Navajo National Monument, AZ
Eventually, a break in the weather; time for a hike to view Betatakin ruins at Tsegi Point.  Betatakin is a 11th Century settlement.  The 150 or so Ancestral Puebloans who lived here farmed along the stream bottoms in the miles around the site.  It was occupied for less than 100 years; like the rest of this culture, the reasons behind this are lost.  I was interested to learn that the Zuni and Hopi at minimum are the builder’s descendants.  Betatakin and Keet Seel, the other accessible ruin in the Monument, are still used for ceremonial purposes.

I shadowed a French family along the paved trail.  Everyone I met here was either French or American.  Do the French favor American archeology?  I’ve read that Germans have fondness for travelling the remnants of Route 66.  I didn’t ask. 

The trail terraced along the rim of Tsegi Canyon, eventually to the overlook.  I looked out.  A number of erosional alcoves formed recessed amphitheatres in the sandstone; they reminded me of similar features in the Wittenoom Formation in Australia.  Some of the latter showed signs of transient Aboriginal use; charcoal and petroglyphs.  Betatakin was a very different level of habitation.  It sat in the deepest amphitheatre, subtle in the afternoon post-monsoonal shadow.  Its structures were dark tan like the rock, striking in their humanness – people lived here – but also seeming a right blend with the environment.  I took pictures, glad I’d lugged my telephoto the mile from the campground.  More details popped out as I contemplated; it was much bigger than at first glance.  I’d been ambivalent about going on a ranger-guided hike (the only way to have access) to Betatakin the next morning; this convinced me to sign up.

7/20/12 - 8:15 am: I met the ranger and four other hikers – all women - for the five mile roundtrip.  We followed a trail built by Civilian Conservation Corps for archeological research – I’d love to know the full story of the personalities behind this.  Like early paleontology in the Western US, it sounds like the first round of archeology was dominated by a few strong individuals.  They got the basic work done; like paleontology, it’s now being refined and updated with new work and techniques.  For example I learned later at Aztec National Monument that the local pottery, based on mass spectrometer analysis, contained traces of cacao.  So the Ancient Pubeloans were in contact with groups in Mexico.  No other way to know this. 

I was glad for the CCC work as I made the lovely 1000 foot drop through the Navajo Sandstone, especially after the ranger pointed out the crack that the Puebloans used to ascend.  Before the descent I had spent ten minutes staring up Long Canyon; Navajos hid from Kit Carson’s pogrom along this through going stream; the Puebloans farmed there.  The hike had frequent pauses as the ranger, a Navajo, told us about medicinal plants and human history (a little geology too).  Good stuff; calibrated properly for the audience.  I was touched when the ranger’s personality came out.  She recited the historical facts well, but when talking about Navajo culture (her mother is an herbalist, her grandfather was a medicine man) her face would animate and her language would switch to a mix of 20-something American and Navajo dialects, e.g., “like, my family’s had this outfit (ranch) for years” with interrogative on the final word. 

View up Long Canyon, Navajo NM, Arizona
We came to Betatakin after a sweaty final mile along a sandy drift; probably wind and stream formed.  The upper part of Tsegi Canyon is also a bit of relict Pleistocene forest.  In contrast to the sage-dominated landscape we’d hiked through, this area had dense growth of Gambel oak, Douglas Fir, aspens, and many other regionally unusual plants, including poison ivy.  We hiked through a microforest, pretty cool.  I presume that the orientation of this canyon plus sufficient water, have allowed this biota to hang on. 

Up close, in its alcove, Betatakin looked both solid and ephermal.  People built this by hand 600 years ago.  They are gone save in various legends, but the place has persisted.  Betatakin originally had ~120 rooms, but now has about 90; via a post-habitation landslide.  While we had a good view, it wasn’t possible to actually enter the ruins.  The structures are fragile, and plenty of loose rock is still available should gravity become interested.  I felt privileged to be close.  The tour concluded with a look at a variety of pictographs.  Allowed to hike out on my own, i.e., fast, I decided to visit more Puebloan ruins on this trip.  I’ve been hooked.  I’ll have to come back here for the Keet Seel ruins; that’s a 17 mile return hike.  

Betatakin Ruin, Navajo NM, Arizona

A final stop at the VC for a book on archeology and I was off.  So to Monument Valley or not?  The haze looked thin, so I made the turn at Kayenta and raced the 22 miles up Route 163, passing pickups and mobile homes, being passed by American muscle cars.  An abundance of the latter seemed to be driven by Europeans; an Americana part of the holiday I assume, though I can’t imagine stuffing a family of four into a Mustang for a thousand miles.  Monument Valley was heralded by Agaltha Butte; one of a series of peaks that define a series of north-south dikes of mafic igneous rock, often encasing forlorn chunks of De Chelly Sandstone.  

Monument Valley Tribal Park –the point of access - was everything I expected.  It was a genuine tourist trap, and rightly so; the Monument Valley landscape is world class.  However, the development is the moral equivalent of a casino in that it draws a large part of the tourist population and is basically a mint for the Navajo Nation, between the entrance fees, hotel (fantastic at sunrise I bet), restaurant, gift shop, tours, and museum.  Alas, for my purposes, the haze was present, and it was very much way too crowded.  I did not want to subject Trixy to the long bumpy dirt road among the buttes and mesas.  I took the obligatory pictures and headed south towards Canyon de Chelly.

Monument Valley, Arizona
Southwest on Tribal Route 59 through even more valleys defined by even more steps in the Grand Staircase.  This analogy was beginning to fail me as I travelled further on the Colorado Plateau.  There are so many broad upwards and downwarps that the “steps” run every which way.  For example, heading to Canyon de Chelly, I was going back downsection into the Paleozoic, sort of violating the analogy.  Like most good geology, the model rarely survives contact with reality. 
I was getting tired; Monument Valley was over 100 degrees; now, at 5 pm, the temperature was holding at 90.  Trixy and I intersected Rt. 191 at Many Farms (not visible, just lots of kids on skateboards).  This was the turn south to Chinle, the Navajo town adjacent to Canyon de Chelly, where I’d booked a hotel room: time to get clean.  I thought, an easy 20 minutes.  Road work turned this into more than an hour.  I got to Chinle on metabolic fumes.  Checked in, I ran to my room to make sure the bathroom functioned in all its capacities.  A long shower, a run (in the gym; it was still 90 and monsoonal outdoors), another shower, some laundry, and sleep. 

7/21/12:  Awake at 4:30.  Why?  I had no idea.  Maybe my internal clock was finally set to be up and coherent for early morning photography.  Problem: early morning here seemed to be around 6:30.  Canyon de Chelly is another National Monument, but the canyon floor remains actively occupied and farmed by Navajo family.  Tourists are limited to rim views, one hike, and guided tours.  I aimed to do the first two.  I like this accommodation of traditional use with tourism; it seems like a compromise that provides both traditional and appropriate visitor access. 

Trixy and went out the South Rim Drive.  I was excited; I was actually up and out early enough.  I when to the Spider Rock overlook: the iconic view of Canyon de Chelly.  No one was there – cool.  I went to the overlook.  The Canyon was both hazy and 100% backlit.  Bugger.  Still, this is what nature provided, so I took pictures, and studied the gorge as I worked my way back to the hotel. 
A massive amount of carbs and a carafe of marginal coffee later complements of the hotel breakfast bar, Trixy and I retraced our route along the South Rim Drive.  The light was much better now, even with the sun relatively high and lower contrast. 

Canyon de Chelly was genuinely beautiful.  All the accolades in my guidebooks were unequivocally well deserved.  In contrast to the Grand Canyon, with its many cliffs and intervening ledges, here there was the rim, a vertical cliff of sandstone, and a flat valley floor.  The Canyon deepened upstream, becoming more striking with depth.  The bottom lands were dotted with Navajo dwellings, and cultivated fields.  The colors of these features, joined to the sheer walls of the canyon, were lovely.  OK, I liked the bits where erosion had highlighted the fossil sand dunes as well.  It’s been the most moving site so far on this trip.  I can’t believe it took me 32 years to get here.
Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly National Park, AZ, during the afternoon monsoon.
Canyon de Chelly National Park, AZ
The walls and floor of Canyon de Chelly are peppered with dozens of Puebloan ruins.  Only one is available to tourists; White House Ruin trail on the Canyon floor.  After Navajo National Monument, I had to go see it.  So did at least 100 other visitors.  A 700 foot drop, again shadowing any number of French families.  Signs at the bottom reminded visitors not to photograph Navajo dwellings.  This did not apply to looking at the Navajo crafts for sale at the many tables set up along the trail.  I didn’t.  White House Ruin, named for one vaguely gray-white structure, was tucked into a niche at the base of a sheer cliff.  In contrast to Betatakin, It looked like this cavity had been eroded by stream action rather than landslides.

White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly National Park, Arizona
Egress from Canyon de Chelly via the North Rim Drive.  I was getting a little tired, and the views, while continuing to be heart-stopping, were beginning to blur.  A T-junction and south on Tribal Route 12.  I was in the Navajo backcountry.  The road was pretty beat up, but still in good nick by California standards.  I passed many settlements: Wheatfields, Upper Wheatfields, Navajo, Fort Defiance.  As I zoned out I had time to collate my drive through cultural observations: 1) there’s an age gradient in Navajo dress, from traditional in the elders (western wear on the men, long dresses on the women) to urban in the youth.  2) Everyone seemed to drive American made (or badged) vehicles.  3) Navajos like to play in the water and fish, based on the crowd at Red Lake. 

I stopped for fluids in Window Rock, the capitol of the Navajo Nation.  I was the only non-native in the store.  No worries, good to feel the dissociation.  Now east on Route 264 to Gallup and New Mexico.  I began to see other Caucasians.  Many were driving foreign cars. 

My destination was the Bisti Wilderness Area (more new geology) north of Crownpoint.  Gallup provided a salad, fluids for Trixy and me, and a near lethal dose of overwhelming urban crowdedness.  I fled east on I-40 over the Continental Divide; this continued the agony as I tried to stay alert at the speed limit of 75 mph.  It was after 6, and I was fading quickly.  Finally off the motocross and north on Route 371, back through Mesozoic sandstone cliffs onto a higher undulating plain of shaly rocks.  Back onto the Nation.  A few differences from Arizona; lots of graffiti on road signs, many undefaced, hand lettered signs for substance abuse recovery programs.

The drive across the plain provided frightening views of the evening’s monsoon: rainfall and lightening in every quadrant of the compass.  Crownpoint came and went; where the hell was this place?  I was still in the Navajo Nation; I knew that much from the vehicles. 

Finally, the BLM sign to Bisti appeared.  It did not agree with my atlas.  I cast around and decided that my atlas wrong and should be burned.  I took the turn; three miles of gravel, finally a trail head.  

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