Navajo area is land of novel spectacles

September 05, 1993|By Michael Pearson | Michael Pearson,Contributing Writer

"Shiprock stuck up like a blue thumb on the western horizon seventy miles away. Behind it, the dim outline of the Carrizo Mountains formed the last margin of the planet. The sagebrush flats between were dappled with the shadow of clouds, drifting eastward under the noon sun."

This is Tony Hillerman country -- western New Mexico and northern Arizona -- where the desolate beauty of the Navajo reservation encompasses 25,000 square miles of high plateau desert land.

Even if you haven't traveled imaginatively through Mr. Hillerman's best-selling stories about Navajo tribal-police detectives Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, a trip to the actual landscape -- the description above is from Mr. Hillerman's "A Thief of Time" -- is quite an adventure. (Mr. Hillerman's newest book, "The Sacred Clowns," will be released Tuesday.) And Albuquerque, where the novelist lives, is the logical place to begin an excursion into the mysteries of the Navajo nation.

The drive from Albuquerque, N.M., to Window Rock, Ariz., the headquarters of the tribal police and the locus of many of Mr. Hillerman's stories, goes past the dramatic Sandia Mountains and into the high desert that stretches as far as the wide Western sky. Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo nation, offers a few attractions -- the unusual sandstone formation that gives the town its name, St. Michael's Franciscan Mission and Museum, and the Navajo Nation Inn and Restaurant. In a sense, Window Rock is an opening to the mysteries of the reservation.

Sky and space

The reservation, which is nearly as large as all of New England but with fewer than 200,000 people living on it, is a land of endless skies and empty spaces. The trip from Window Rock to Shiprock, N.M., on the northeastern rim of the reservation, is dotted with snakeweed, sagebrush, junipers, buttes and mesas. There are few cars and fewer people, hogans (Navajo dwellings) instead of Hardy's, sheep and goats rather than traffic jams. Willa Cather was right when she wrote about the Indians of the Southwest in "Death Comes for the Archbishop": "It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it." The landscape seems consistent and whole, the human presence a natural and inconspicuous part of it. At the end of the drive stands Shiprock, like a ghost vessel floating on the desert air, its sandstone sails puffed out in breezes from the archaeological past.

The town of Shiprock has no restaurants or motels, but it offers a clear, if bleak, picture of how most Native Americans live in such border towns, caught between the white world and their own. Shiprock stands in the distance, miles away from the center of town, like a reminder of the past, and the silent reaches between the natural monument and the town are a reminder of the value of space.

From Shiprock, I drove southwest, deeper into the reservation, farther into what the Navajos call Dinetah, land of the People, toward Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "de Shay"), toward what was once their stronghold, a place where they made desperate stands against the Spanish and then against Kit Carson and the U.S. Cavalry.

Although not as majestic as its neighboring Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly is equally fascinating, and it's not crowded with tourists. There is a half-day hike into the heart of the canyon led by a Navajo park ranger. Forty Navajo families still live in the canyon, farming and herding sheep, and the hike goes past summer hogans, farms and cattle. De Chelly is a corruption of a Navajo word meaning "inside the rocks," and as you descend the rocky path the temperature drops, sounds echo, and you feel as if you're enclosed in another time and place, far from the present.

The walls of the canyon rise up as much as 1,000 feet in places and are as close together as 50 yards in others. The rust-colored sandstone walls are streaked in spots with an oxidation that the locals call canyon varnish. In other places, the walls are marked by the pictographs painted onto the rocks and petroglyphs etched into the stone by the Anasazis, the ancient people who came before the Navajos.

The hike into Canyon de Chelly is a journey back in time to a place so different from Chicago or Boston or New York that it seems like an alien planet. When a breeze cuts through the center of the canyon, it rustles the tops of the few cottonwoods and seems to whisper secrets from the past. Navajo religion says that the People came out of a crack in the earth to the surface world. In their sacred land among the four mountains and rivers bordering the reservation, Canyon de Chelly seems to be the poignant center of life.

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