If there were water we should stop and drink . . .
-- T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
In the middle of the northeast Arizona desert there is water. Over hundreds of thousands of years, runoff and snowmelt from the Chuska Mountains have created Canyon de Chelly, a sheltered oasis in an otherwise vast and forbidding desert.
Because there is water in the canyon much of the year, Canyon de Chelly is probably the oldest continuously inhabited site on the North American continent, with ruins and evidence of human habitation dating back 5,000 years. Navajo families still farm in parts of the canyon, growing beans, corn, melons, and the like, as well as herding sheep.
Located entirely on Navajo land, Canyon de Chelly is a U.S. national monument owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust and is jointly administered by the Trust and the National Park Service.
The name is pronounced duh-SHAY, a corruption (via Spanish and English) from the Navajo Tséyiʼ, which means "canyon" (literally, "inside the rock").
Within the canyons there are over 3,000 documented archaeological sites and at least a dozen significant structures built into the canyon walls.
A closer view . . .
This site (below), called White House ruins, is the subject of a famous 1942 photograph by Ansel Adams (see it here), and is a location in the movie, The Lone Ranger, premiering next month. Canyon de Chelly, of course, is hundreds of miles from Texas where the scene is supposedly set . . . but that's Hollywood!
The ruins are called White House because the upper structure (in the cliff) was painted with a solution containing mica that still reflects light.
And did you ever wonder why all these cliff dwellings are built so high up above the floor of the canyons? Well, to a certain extent, they were positioned for safety, both from rising water and from enemies. But when they were originally built, they were not so high above the floor -- perhaps 6 to 10 feet. They are now higher because hundreds of years of erosion from the water flow has lowered the canyon floor and raised the relative position of the dwellings! (Why didn't I think of that before?)
For example, here are some cliff ruins:
At the time this structure was built,
the floor of the canyon was here ----->
But let's go back to the beginning. You enter the canyon where the water emerges. Here the canyon walls are only about 30 to 40 feet high.
Further into the canyon the walls rise to almost 1,000 feet. This is Spider Rock, towering 750 feet above the floor of the canyon in one of the deepest areas. (For comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.)
With the exception of one area (the White House ruins), you have to be accompanied by a licensed Navajo guide, and most tours into the canyon are via 4-wheel drive vehicles.
Traveling in the canyon, you cross the stream multiple times, but it's only about 6 inches deep.
Along the way, there are hundreds of ancient pictographs and petroglyphs . . .
perhaps a little easier to see in black-and-white . . .
There are beautiful stands of trees . . .
Horses grazing along the stream . . .
Birds flying high around the canyon walls . . .
and even a glimpse of a fox darting through the underbrush on a ledge below the rim of the canyon . . .
The work of water and weather has created beautiful patterns and shapes in the sandstone walls and floor of the canyon:
The stains on the canyon walls are called "desert varnish," and are caused by the deposit of minerals from the topsoil as water drips down from above.
Seeing and walking in a space that has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years is a magical experience. But even more magical is hearing the stories and songs of the Navajo people who have lived in Canyon de Chelly since the 1300s.
On our tour, we were fortunate to have a Navajo guide, Adam Teller, whose family has lived in the Canyon de Chelly for many generations. He told us some of the traditional Navajo stories and sang two of their songs as we stood on the south rim of the canyon.
(That's Adam on the left, and our tour guide on the right, which I suppose is obvious.)
Adam even persuaded the entire group to join in on the second song. Here's a short (93 sec.) audio clip of the songs:
If you would like to see the images above (and more) in a larger format, you can go to my photography website, Todos Juntos Photography, by clicking here.