February 11, 2013 by Deborah W. Trotter
It was sometime in the 1960’s, early morning of a spring day in Arizona. Really cold outside, gray, threatening sky. The day of our vacation that my dad had picked for the family to descend into Canyon de Chelly (pronounced “shay”) to see the While House ruin, an ancient Anazasi cliff dwelling.
Because we had many miles to drive as soon as we were finished, we couldn’t wait a while to see if the weather might improve. So we drove to the trailhead and began to hike the 600 feet (a mile and a quarter of trail) down into the canyon. A chill wind savaged my ears and forced my teeth to chatter, and the sky intermittently spit frozen and barely melted precipitation upon us. As we approached the bottom of the trail, I was horrified to see that the Chinle wash had risen and spread to cover the entire canyon floor with a few inches of water. Icy, cold water. And my dad was removing his boots and socks…
Fast forward about 30 years to 1995. My return visit to Canyon de Chelly with my own family. And although I have vivid, unpleasant memories of that frigid, barefoot ford of the wash that spring morning in the ’60’s, it was ultimately a triumph, an experience to remember, and certainly the reason I came back again with my own kids.
Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto have been occupied by humans for nearly 5,000 years, and today many Navajos make their homes there, farming and raising livestock. The National Monument is jointly managed by the National Park Service and the Navajo Nation. There are roads along both canyons’ rims with numerous overlooks where you can see what is below.
If you want to explore the canyons, however, you must have a permit and guide, unless you want to go on foot using the one public trail down to White House ruin.
At noon on the late July day we had picked to descend the switchback trail down to the ruin with our four young children, it was hot, the temperature forecast to exceed 100 degrees. The sky was a seared southwestern blue, and the bare, redrock canyon walls radiated heat.
Except when we passed through a short tunnel near the end, shade was virtually non-existent on the trail.
We made it to the bottom of the canyon fairly quickly. Since Chinle wash was dry that day, no wading was required, although it would have been refreshing. Below the ruin we found some trees that provided delicious shade, and Navajos displayed their handmade jewelry and other native art for sale. While we spent time taking photos of the ruin, drinking our water, and talking with some of the Navajo vendors, open-air buses came and went, filled with tourists.
When we started back up the trail it was about 1:15. The air was stifling, and the sun was brutal. It was a challenge for all of us to chug back up the side of the canyon, but it was especially hard on our three-year-old. He was a trooper, but the littlest ones are much less able to adjust their body temperatures, so we helped him as much as we could.I carried him up the last several switchbacks to the top. But we all finally made it.
My two days at Canyon de Chelly – in two different decades, with two different family units, and vastly different weather and circumstantial complications – cannot objectively be described as “fine” ones, I realize. But my experiences were priceless. They are what National Park memories are made of. And they are why our National Park system is a national treasure.
[Note: In my children’s picture book A SUMMER’S TRADE (Salina Bookshelf 2007, illustrated by Irving Toddy), my main character Tony’s uncle drives a tour bus in Canyon de Chelly.]