Red and yellow rock, white sky, green trees dusty and stunted; red rock ruins bleached beige by an inexorable sun. It’s so hot sweat dries as soon as it appears. My clothes are bone dry and etched with dust. Red dust fills the cracks on the path and the lines on my skin. Water traces a thin red line as it runs down my hand. The soil is so dry water rests as tiny beads upon its surface. I understand how a flash flood can come out of a clear white sky – out of a cloudless sky. There is nothing here to hold water, and if rain falls some distance away it stays on the soil surface, rushing down narrow canyons and ravines leaving just dark stains behind. It is over as quickly as it started.
We climb a trail with our Navajo guide, Harold, who takes us to ancient honeycombed ruins. We look inside openings; we climb ladders and look down through absent rooftops into homes long since abandoned. Small people lived here. The rooms are small and the ceilings short. I imagine families cooking, children playing, laughter filling the cavernous village, and the quiet padding of soft-soled shoes as children run through the narrow spaces of the settlement. Their homes were built into the canyon walls, in the deep shade of overhanging ledges. Ingenious water collection methods demonstrate that even a thousand years ago water was scarce. I feel slightly intrusive, like a large clumsy visitor who tries to make herself less conspicuous among the delicate artifacts of a family I barely know. My curiosity overcomes my discomfort and I follow our guide as we examine the remains of a fire pit. Tiny bones, corn cobs, bits of pottery and wood; life here was lived as fully as in any modern town.
We leave the dark, cool safety of the ruin and walk into the bright searing heat of late afternoon. It’s a long hike back to the jeep, past Spider Rock – the 800 foot monolith of red sandstone. This towering rock is scared to the Dine’ – Spider Woman makes her home at the very top of the tower. From a distance it looks smooth and accessible, but not welcoming. I imagine that she would protect her turf from invaders with ease.
Night at our lodge. We walk out into the black and silver speckled world and sit on a smooth, rounded rock. The Milky Way is clearer than I have ever seen – so little moisture in the air that the stars look close and touchable. A spiral path of our galaxy invites me to jump up and walk along it. It takes no stretch of imagination to understand why myths and gods came to be. Language is utterly inadequate when compared to a clear desert night sky. All I can do is feel it.
Canyon de Chelly is a place of stunning beauty, immense heat, omnipresent dust, and universal language – the language of something primal, experiential, and inherently understood and unvoiced. Something so old it can’t be forgotten, even as it cannot be remembered.