canyon de chelly
A navajo hogan at Standing Cow Ruin.

The Place Where Two Fell Off

Chasing tall legends for his new book, Blood and Thunder, Hampton Sides takes a wild ride deep into one of the most sacred spots on earth—Arizona's Canyon de Chelly

canyon de chelly

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ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON in early autumn, Adam Teller pulls up in a mud-slathered blue Wrangler and steps out into a windy motel parking lot in Chinle, Arizona, yakking quietly on his cell phone. A rail-thin Navajo in his mid-forties, he has a standard-issue ponytail, with a few nuggets of turquoise accenting his fine-boned frame, but something about him says right off the bat, “21st-century Indian.”

canyon de chelly

canyon de chelly Canyon de Chelly's sandstone walls have been occupied by indian groups for more than 2,000 years.

canyon de chelly

canyon de chelly Navajo guide Adam Teller

canyon de chelly

canyon de chelly A canyon rock streaked with desert patina.

canyon de chelly

canyon de chelly A navajo hogan at Standing Cow Ruin.

Adam removes his shades and waves at me. There’s that moment of tentative recognition all guides must have with their clients: Whoever this joker is, I’m stuck with him now.

I walk over to Adam, and find that I instantly like him. “You surprised by the way I look?” he says, shutting off his phone. “A lot of people say, ‘Why aren’t you in your buckskins?’ They seem real disappointed. They think I ought to be making arrowheads or something.” He chuckles. “Or living in a fucking tepee!”

Oafish bilagaana that I am, I shake Adam’s hand, but he gives me the customary limp-fish grip that Anglos find so unsatisfying. Then he flashes a warm smile of dental calamity, his teeth twisted, banged up, or missing in action. “Used to be a motocross biker,” he says. “Broke my ankle, broke my hip—man, those were the days.”

I’m not the sort of traveler who ordinarily seeks out a guide, but at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, in the wrinkled recesses of northeastern Arizona’s Defiance Plateau, I have no choice. Although the National Park Service runs the place, and has done so since the monument was created back in 1931, the park is set entirely on Navajo reservation land. And so, by federal and tribal law, a visitor can enter the canyon only when accompanied by a licensed Navajo “interpreter.” The partnership here is unusual, and sometimes strained—and in fact many tribespeople want the Navajo Nation to reestablish complete control of the canyon.

But the guide requirement is a good idea, all in all. It’s a way to protect the sacred sites and the many Navajo who still farm in the canyon from dumbass, potsherd-stealing tourists—while ensuring that local Navajo like Adam Teller have a livelihood. Since the Navajo Nation has steered clear of casinos, this sort of enlightened tourism provides one of the few sources of income around Chinle, a dreary outpost of double-wides, snarling rez dogs, and an unemployment rate four times greater than in the rest of Arizona.

Adam is, by all accounts, one of the best guides around. He started leading tours in Canyon de Chelly when he was a gangly kid of 13—he was the youngest certified Navajo guide ever. Taking people through the canyon is something he’s always wanted to do—and he still has that wide-eyed eagerness of a boy keen on showing you his tree house.

In some ways he’s a Navajo traditionalist, but he’s put a distinctly modern spin on things. He went to the University of Arizona, where he studied business and anthropology. Four years ago, when he started his guiding company, Antelope House Tours, he constructed his own Web site, and now 80 percent of his business comes from the Internet. He’s become the guide to the stars, it seems—he says his clients have included Jodie Foster, Bill Gates, John McCain, Sandra Day O’Connor, and, my favorite, Henry “the Fonz” Winkler. He’s a Digital Age success story—so much so that a number of his envious competitors have tried to tear him down. One even called him a witch!

“Can you imagine that?” Adam says. “I had to hire a medicine man to throw the evil off.”

Now Adam glances at his watch. “You ready to rock?”

Most definitely, I say. I’ve always wanted to go exploring with a witch.

THE NAME HAS a French ring to it, but “de Chelly” (de-SHAY) is neither French nor Spanish in origin. It derives from the Navajo word tsegi (“rock canyon”) and is thus bilingually redundant: “Canyon of the Rock Canyon.” Over the centuries, Spanish conquistadors tried to approximate the unfamiliar sound of the Navajo word, and it came out, in various documents, as Chelli, Chelle, Dechilli, and Chegui, among other renderings—and finally Chelly, which eventually became the preferred spelling.

Before the Navajo took up residence here sometime in the 1700s—or possibly earlier—Canyon de Chelly had been continuously inhabited by various other Indian groups for more than 2,000 years, including, and especially, the Anasazi. I’ve come here to research a book about the life and times of the controversial frontier figure Kit Carson, who arrived in Canyon de Chelly in the winter of 1864 on a scorched-earth mission to bring the Navajo to their knees. Carson’s men rampaged through the canyon, torching cornfields, taking prisoners, and chopping down some 2,000 peach trees—the pride of the Navajo—that graced the canyon floor. The Navajo were sent on a 400-mile forced march, known as the Long Walk, and spent four years in bitter captivity in southeastern New Mexico before General William Tecumseh Sherman sent them home. The Navajo still talk about this tragedy as though it happened yesterday—and nowhere is its currency more keenly felt than at Canyon de Chelly, the high church of the tribe.

“It’s like this,” Adam says. “We feel about Carson the way Jews feel about Hitler.”

While Carson was here, he vowed that “everything connected with the canyon will cease to be a mystery,” but about that he was dead wrong. Canyon de Chelly still has an aura of intrigue and impregnability about it—which to certain people makes it irresistible. But how does one really describe the peculiar aesthetic of this fabulous sandstone labyrinth? What is it that draws more than 800,000 visitors every year?

Yes, it’s beautiful, and every fine-art photographer from Edward Curtis to Ansel Adams has tried to coax its magical tricks of light onto film. But beauty alone isn’t what makes it, in my mind, the marquee natural wonder of the Southwest. Since it’s in Arizona, comparisons to the other canyon are perhaps inevitable, if a little flawed. Canyon de Chelly, people often say, is a scaled-down Grand Canyon, kinder and gentler, easier to absorb, mind-boggling but not quite mind-blowing. This is true, I suppose, but I’m more inclined to take the comparison in the direction of Manhattan architecture: If the Grand Canyon is the brutishly macho Empire State Building, de Chelly is the Chrysler—smaller, yes, but also finer, more intricate, more sinuously feminine.

Here’s the main difference, though: Canyon de Chelly is a rock world with a human pulse. To an extent impractical throughout most of the Grand Canyon, people live here, and have lived here for thousands of years. The place is crammed with memories, good and bad. Because the water running through it is not a raging torrent but rather a gentle stream percolating along the sandy floor, the canyon has always supported culture, with farming and domesticated animals and huddled lodges tucked safely among its myriad notches and alcoves. The entire length of it is strewn with ruins, many of them world-class sites that over the decades have attracted some of the lions of archaeology, people like Earl Morris and A. V. Kidder. And everywhere, painted and pecked high on the luminous copper-hued walls, is the art of the ancients.

Adam and I have planned various angles of approach—by Jeep, on foot, and on horseback, crisscrossing this riddle of geology any number of ways. That’s the kind of place Canyon de Chelly is—a Rubik’s Cube—and to grasp it you have to look at it from multiple viewpoints. Its various branches and side canyons total nearly a hundred goosenecked miles.

ADAM PRESSES ON into the mouth of the canyon, where the ghostly cottonwoods are just beginning to turn yellow. After a mile or so, I feel a sense of imminent claustrophobia, the sheer rock faces climbing higher with every bend. We’re cruising on the sand floor, moving at a good, jittery clip. The nearby Thunderbird Lodge has a small fleet of World War II–era open-air troop-transport trucks, called “shake-and-bakes,” touring the canyon today, and there are other 4x4s prowling the flats. Until we all veer off into various side passages, the bucking procession has something of a Mad Max feel.

In many places, the sandstone is streaked with brown stains—called desert patina—that curl like a wizard’s long fingers down the massive sculpted walls. There is a convoluted chemical explanation for these streaks, but I like Adam’s explanation better. “That’s Changing Woman’s Hair,” he says, a reference to the Navajo matriarch goddess, who changes her appearance with the seasons and presumably leaves her hair all over the place.

Early on, Adam conducts a seminar on nomenclature. The Navajo are not properly Navajo, he reminds me; they’re Diné, which simply means “the People.” (“Navajo” is a Spanish corruption of a Pueblo word meaning “People of the Great Planted Fields.”) Similarly, the preferred term for the Anasazi, those prehistoric druids of the Southwest, is now “Ancestral Puebloans,” because “Anasazi,” a Navajo name often translated as “Ancient Enemies,” gives offense to the Hopi and other current-day Pueblo descendants. There are dozens of other lexical do’s and don’ts, all rooted in the basic problem that so many different cultures have intersected here at various times, and all of them have been somewhat at loggerheads, if not plunged in outright warfare, with one another. You can’t open your mouth without saying something that’s either nonsensical or just plain pisses someone off.

Adam doesn’t seem to care much about any of this naming business, actually. “You can call me Butthead if you like,” he says. Nonetheless, in due time, my Indian name develops. “You ask a lot of questions,” Adam says, and so, perhaps inevitably, I become Many Questions.

About eight miles in, we hit our first serious patch of quicksand. You have to be extremely wary driving in Canyon de Chelly—its famous sloughs are deep enough in places to swallow an entire car.

“If you get stuck here,” Adam says, “AAA won’t come and pull you out.” Like sunken wrecks in the Caribbean, there are lost relics buried all over the place: tractors, ATVs, even a couple of those Thunderbird shake-and-bakes. Canyon de Chelly’s greedy quicksand has been known to mire a packhorse so deeply that it has to be pulled out with a winch. Not infrequently, the animal breaks a leg in the trauma and has to be put down.

The difficulty of driving in the canyon is yet another reason why guides are required. Adam has spent much of his life mastering the technique: steady gas but not too fast, a rhythmic dance of the wheel in the rough spots, never under any circumstances tapping the brake. He’s got just the right touch, and with a few skittery fishtails, we wallow on through.

We push a few more miles into the main branch and round a corner. There, looming before us, is one of the most fabled landmarks in all of Navajo country: Spider Rock, an 800-foot-tall pinnacle erupting from the floor of the canyon. The Navajo say that a great goddess, Spider Woman, lives atop this fantastical spire. Spider Woman is the wise but cryptic old crone who gave the Navajo the gift of weaving.

At the same time, Spider Woman is something of a bogeywoman for Navajo kids. “Grandma used to warn me when I was being mischievous,” Adam says. “She’d say, ‘Spider Woman is going to come and get you. She boils and eats bad little kids.’ Look up there—see those white banded streaks on top? Those are the bones of disobedient children, bleaching the rocks.”

Although he wears a faint smile, Adam says all this in a perfectly inscrutable tone that suggests he believes it—or at least doesn’t rule it out. It’s always best to adopt a respectful demeanor, Adam says, and keep your voice down. “Who knows? She might be listening.”

LATER IN THE WEEK, Adam’s father, Ben Teller, takes me down the other major branch of the canyon—an equally spectacular prong known as Canyon del Muerto. We’re on horseback, clopping through thickets of chamisa, finding shortcuts through fields whose owner invariably seems to be Ben’s aunt or cousin or nephew. “Don’t worry,” Ben assures me. “We’re all related!”

I’m riding an old nag who doesn’t seem to like me much. We turn into a side canyon, and as the walls grow tighter, she fiendishly speeds up while hewing tightly to the rock. Perhaps she’s hoping to knock me off, or at least give my thigh a long, hard pinch on the sandstone while she simultaneously gives herself a luxurious loofah rub.

On this particular day, Ben is wearing a feed cap, blue jeans, and, inexplicably, a fancy pair of tasseled loafers. He’s a stocky, amiable guy in his late sixties with thick glasses. Ben lives alone down in the canyon and is one of the only people who stays here year-round. (The icy winters can be brutal.) He drives an old Massey Ferguson tractor and has a cabin set on family land at an amazing spot inside Canyon del Muerto called Antelope House (after which Adam named his company). It’s the site of an Anasazi ruin constructed in a.d. who-the-hell-knows, a chinked-rock pueblo that once had as many as 91 rooms and several kivas.

Because Ben lives in such a remote place, he sent word ahead for me to bring beans and beer, his usual standbys. I got the beans but failed him on the beer, since Chinle, like the rest of the reservation, is dry. “Dat’s OK,” he said, trying not to telegraph his disappointment. “Next time, though, bring beer.”

Despite my horse’s diabolical nature, I decide that horseback really is the best way to see the canyon. Ben and I can get to places that Adam’s 4×4 can’t, and the pace of a walking horse is just about right for taking in the ever-shifting angles and plays of light. As we ride together, Ben tells stories of the old days, shows me where he used to go swimming at a natural mudslide that formed every spring when the snowmelt brought running water, shows me the place where some Hollywood western was filmed in the fifties (Canyon River, he thinks the title was). He remembers watching fellow tribesmen, all painted for battle, hurling papier- mâché boulders down onto the actors. “I know it sounds weird,” Ben says with a chuckle, “but I was rooting for the white guys!”

At a place called Standing Cow Ruin, Ben points out a remarkable pictograph stained on the wall. It’s a realistic rendering of a long train of cavalrymen, wearing flat-brimmed hats, carrying lances and muskets, and riding pinto horses into battle. The ominous figures look like horsemen of the apocalypse, their capes clearly emblazoned with crosses.

“Those are Spaniards,” Ben says. “From your town. Santa Fe.”

The Diné inked these haunting images onto the walls to memorialize a painful event—perhaps the only occasion on which the Spanish successfully invaded this Navajo refuge. In January 1805, a force of nearly 500 Spanish soldiers marched all the way from New Mexico’s capital, killing Navajo warriors by the score and collecting prisoners as they rampaged through the canyon’s meandering course. In Canyon del Muerto, not far from where these images were painted, the Spanish troops were surprised to hear the shrill voice of a Navajo woman shouting strange invectives at them. “There go the men without eyes!” the voice screamed. “You must be blind!”

Puzzled, one of the soldiers climbed up the talus and spotted a group of more than 100 women and children crouched in a high recess of the canyon wall. Another soldier began to crawl his way up the steep wall with the notion of rounding up prisoners. When he crossed the threshold of the cave, a Navajo woman wrapped her arms around him and dashed for the precipice; the two figures, locked in a desperate grip, plunged several hundred feet to their deaths.

From the canyon floor, the soldiers began to ricochet bullets off the roof of the cave. Eventually everyone was killed but an old man, who would relate the story to other Navajo. More than 150 years later, the victims’ bones were still lying on the cave floor when archaeologists examined the site.

Today the spot is widely known as Massacre Cave. But, Ben tells me, the Navajo have their own name for it: The Place Where Two Fell Off.

ONE OF THE interesting challenges about learning history from a Navajo guide is that you’re often forced to consider the age-old question “How do we know what we know?”

On another day, Adam and I take off on foot through Canyon del Muerto, and at every turn he shares a tale that, like Ben’s story of the defiant woman at Massacre Cave, is based on oral history, passed down in sweat lodges and over campfires. Sometimes Adam tells me the wildest things—about Kit Carson, the Spanish, the Anasazi—things I’ve never heard even a whiff of before, things I’ve never seen written down in any books.

Though he’s an avid reader, Adam still primarily operates in an oral tradition, and at Canyon de Chelly the stories are out there, on the rocks, along the ground, in the air. He’s spent his whole life absorbing them, and retelling them. Sometimes these stories drive me crazy, even as I find them irresistible. The Navajo sense of chronology, often said to be more circular than linear, can be frustrating for a bilagaana writer trying to nail the cold facts to the wall of truth. The what and where details are often precise, but the when is almost always vague.

That doesn’t necessarily make them any less true, though; the stories have their own logic and discipline—and an authenticity slowly accrued. Some of these stories are hundreds of years in the making. “We’re a patient people,” Adam says. “We let things develop.”

One day, Adam takes me to see a massive anvil of sandstone called Navajo Fortress Rock and tells me another one of these great mythic stories—maybe the best one of all. Soaring 700 feet and connected to the main wall by only a thin stone bridge sagging from centuries of erosion, Fortress Rock is a legendary place, one that figures prominently in Diné folklore.

In the winter of 1864, Adam says, the Navajo used Fortress Rock as a supreme hideout when Carson’s soldiers came pillaging through the canyon. During the weeks leading up to the American invasion, the women stockpiled foods and supplies—smoked turkey, piñon nuts, wild potatoes—while the men made improvements to the old network of Anasazi toeholds, gouging them deeper, so that children and even elderly Navajo could safely pull themselves up.

As it started to snow, some 300 men, women, and children, perhaps tipped off by a sentry that an army was on its way, ascended to the top and pulled up the ladders. Hoping the evil might pass beneath them, they planned to hunker down and dwell in silence for months.Then one day, as the bleak winter sun slipped behind the canyon walls, a column of American soldiers came marching into the canyon, laying waste to fields and chiseling their Kilroys into the sandstone. (Some of their inscriptions are still visible today, and on another day, Adam shows me one.) Somehow detecting the Navajo sequestered on top, the Americans camped near the base of Fortress Rock, beside a stream called Tsaile Creek, and attempted to starve them into final submission.

But unknown to the soldiers, the Navajo were already slowly perishing from thirst; the snows had melted away, and the natural cisterns pocking the surface had run dry.

So one moonless night, the Fortress Rock exiles devised a plan: They formed a human chain along the sloping rock, down to Tsaile Creek, where several American guards lay sleeping. A group of warriors crept out onto a ledge over the stream and dangled gourds from yucca ropes, dipping the containers into the cold running water. They filled gourd after gourd and steadily passed the vessels from hand to hand back up the sheer rock face to the summit. By dawn they had replenished their stores.

So what happened to them? I ask Adam.

“They outlasted the siege,” he says. “They were never captured.”

I SPEND A WEEK in Canyon de Chelly and find that I could easily spend another. It takes me several days to trace the extensive network of foot trails—Bat Trail, Baby Trail, Bear Trail, Barboncito Trail—many of them making use of the old Anasazi foot- and toeholds. Sometimes it’s hard to believe I’m in the USA, circa 2006. The passing vignettes seem impossibly pastoral, like a scene from ancient Arcadia. A man splitting wood. A herd of churro sheep cropping grass. A ruined hogan. Cottonwood leaves hissing in the breeze. A decrepit plow half swallowed by the earth. Two old women working at their looms. Orchards of scabby peach trees, heavy with fruit.

It feels like another country, another time. And in a way, it is. Maybe this is what Carl Jung meant when he called Canyon de Chelly the “essence of antiquity”—not just the presence of old things, but the seamless cohabitation of the ancient with the modern. I feel a kind of pleasant chronological vertigo. I know where I am with clarity. But when, I’m not so sure.

All week I’ve been feasting my eyes on the dazzling confusion of the canyon’s rock art: serpents, lightning bolts, fret patterns, whorls. Menageries of headless birds in flight, human figures with insectlike antennae, antelope with crab pincers instead of hooves, bird-headed men, frog men, turtle men. And palm prints everywhere, ancient choruses of hands, hailing from the walls.

At a place called Newspaper Rock, which Adam takes me to on the last day, the designs are so densely painted that there seems to be a kind of frenetic dialogue going on. It’s the Sunday Times up there—comics, sports, editorials, even crossword puzzles. Adam used to romp around here with his friends as a boy. “It was a cool place to be a kid,” Adam allows. “But I didn’t know it then. It was just home.”

I find the cumulative message of all these queer drawings strangely uplifting. If the Grand Canyon continuously reminds us of our squishable insignificance in the vast timeline of geology, then Canyon de Chelly does much the same thing from an anthropological perspective. It reminds us at every turn that humans have been at this game a long, long time. In the scheme of Homo not-so-sapiens, we American moderns are just a passing phenomenon: nothing special, soon to be forgotten, and destined to be replaced by other folks different, but not very different, from ourselves. We’re specks in a continuous anthropological record.

Those figures up on the walls are us.