Airstream Thanksgiving, Part II: The Long Road to Canyon de Chelly

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In the rough: Road 7950 out of Chaco Canyon. Photo: Katie Arnold.

There’s no direct route from Chaco Canyon, in northern New Mexico, to Canyon de Chelly, across the border in Arizona. Rugged badlands, sandy washes, and vast tracts of arid, roadless country get in the way. Centuries ago, Native Americans traveled back and forth on foot or horseback, but today, in a truck towing a vintage 20-foot Airstream, there are only two ways out of Chaco Canyon: the northern road, or the southern road. And it’s a toss-up which is worse.

Both roads are notorious for roughly 20 miles of washboardy dirt moguls that look benign but are big enough to swallow an Airstream whole, then spit it out in pieces. In our Airstream road trip the day before, we'd lost an entire window coming in from the north, and were so scarred by the experience that for a second it seemed almost preferable to abandon the trailer forever in Chaco than to face that road with it hitched on behind us. The next best thing would be to try our luck on the southbound route. We actually thought, How could it be any rougher?

Canyon hopping: It's farther than it looks. Photo: Katie Arnold.

But when the Chaco ranger mentioned “low-clearance rock ledges,” we began to waver. We fact checked him by grilling a guy at the campground. “Oh yeah, I heard of a guy who had to turn back,” he told us. “Impassable with a big rig. But his was probably, oh….” he paused and eyed our Airstream, “26 feet. You could make it. Probably.” Then he looked at our trailer again and his eyes lit up. “Hey! I saw your window out there in the middle of the road, all broken to pieces. Not even safety glass! Big, huge shards of it!”

That settled it then. We’d be sticking to the known northern road, even if the known was a horrible grind. Maybe we could even salvage the metal window frame. That would be a plus. So out we went, tentatively, so slowly that it dawned on me I could probably run the whole distance and keep up. A quarter mile from the campground, Steve looked back through the rearview and into the Airstream window and saw the closet door topple off its hinges. He made a growling sound like “Arrghhh.” Understatement at its best. Ten miles later, we found the broken window, triangular slabs poking up out of the sand like see-through sharks. The frame was there, too. In pieces.

Passing Shiprock. Photo: Katie Arnold.

Out on the pavement, it was much farther to Canyon de Chelly than it looked on the map. Five hours through bleak northwestern New Mexico, the endless suburban sprawl of Bloomfield and Farmington, past oil rigs, and into the raw, open country near the town of Shiprock, on the Navajo Nation, where we were swarmed by bony rez dogs during a pit stop at City Market. With the volcanic spire of Shiprock in our rearview mirror, we crossed into Arizona on a two-lane road near Red Valley and began to climb 8,500-foot Buffalo Pass, out of the scorched desert and into ponderosa pines. There were patches of snow along the road, and the sun was starting to set. It seemed the most forlorn, emptiest place I’d ever been.

Chaco had been empty, too, but in a different way. There was nothing there but an absence, which had a presence. All the people had moved on centuries ago, but you could still sense their spirit in the ghostly ruins. It was sacred, that enormous emptiness. Each time I’ve been to Chaco, I’ve felt this more strongly, and this time I hadn’t wanted to leave. Now, barreling down the 18 percent grade on the far side of Buffalo Past, into the scruffy outpost of Lukachukai, all I wanted to do was go back.

It was dark by the time we arrived at Canyon de Chelly, on the outskirts of Chinle. We didn’t see the canyon or the town at its mouth, just the rosy gleam of lights spread out to the west. The thought of prying open the Airstream door to the kind of horror we’d witnessed the day before was too much to bear. Plus, it was 30 degrees and dropping. So we did the only sane thing: We drove past Cottonwood Campground and got a room at the Thunderbird Inn next door.

The Thunderbird is part old-fashioned motor court, part Southwest-style national park lodge, with old stone buildings that served as a trading post in the early 1900s. The room was plain but comfortable—and warm. Plus, there was hot dinner on offer at the Thunderbird cafeteria right across the parking lot, rumored to be the best spot in town. With that kind of reputation, I figured cafeteria had to be a charming understatement. But it really was a cafeteria, with plastic trays when you walk in and chile rellenos and goopy enchiladas on offer behind the glass.

Our deli-made Thanksgiving dinner the night before had hardly been gourmet, but now staring at a bowl of watery green chile stew proffered by a surly waitress, I realized that food really does taste better at home—even if “home” is a falling-to-bits Airstream with no lights or heat. Though the Navajo taco—“chile beans” and iceberg lettuce on a deliciously greasy disc of fried bread—warmed me to the place, I couldn’t help but miss the old silver albatross a little.

The Airstream is old and unpredictable, but it's ours and it takes us places. Photo: Katie Arnold.

Later, after Steve and I put the girls to bed, we huddled by headlamp in a corner and read our books. The heater hummed and clicked, the room was peaceful and cozy, and the box of wine was still almost full. But there was no campfire, no stars, no neighbors at the campsite next door strumming on an old guitar, no piercing cold to make you glad for your 18 layers of outerwear. Now that I'd finally agreed to selling the Airstream, I was already feeling nostalgic. It was an albatross around our neck, but it was ours and it took us places—the girls, Gus, and us. In its own fraught way, it was freedom, pure and simple.

In the hierarchy of road trip accommodations, I could see how things would rank for us now: tent first, trailer second, motel third. I fell asleep dreaming of wild, twisty canyons and, come morning, frying eggs in our frigid tin kitchen.

—Katie Arnold

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