Natural Northeast Arizona
From Indian Country to
Look at any map of
Arizona, and you’ll see lots of blank spots. Military bases, national
forest, Indian reservations, wildlife refuges. They gobble up more than
half of the state’s total land area. Nowhere is this more true than the
state’s northeast corner where almost all of the 7,300 square miles
north and east of Flagstaff is Native American territory.
But don’t let the voids
on a large scale map fool you. There are more than enough paved roads here
and more exotic attractions than found in most areas twice the size.
There’s the still distinct native cultures of the Hopi and Navajo
reservations, millennium-old Anasazi Indian ruins, insurpassable desert
parkland, and mile after mile of mesa-strewn landscape that alternately
call to mind Road Runner cartoons and the movie Thelma and Louise.
I started in Flagstaff
(pop. 52,000). The town struck me as a bit schizophrenic. The town mixes
three distinct groups that don’t seem to intermingle much. To cater to
the nostalgia of the older Winnebago crowd, the city three years ago
renamed its main street Route 66 and has “renovated” the architecture
of the downtown area to simulate a dusty old frontier outpost. Despite
this anachronistic facelift, the town’s citizenry is the youngest in the
state with an average age of 26. This is thanks largely to the presence of
Northern Arizona University. But few of the students though can afford to
patronize the trendy, upscale restaurants, micro-breweries, and sports
equipment stores that have sprung up to service Flagstaff’s third
demographic group: young professionals who roll through town every weekend
toward vacation homes in the surrounding San Francisco Mountains.
But buried among this
detritus of modern culture is a true a diamond in the rough in the form of
the Museum of Northern Arizona. This 70-year-old museum is housed in a
beautifully restored southwestern ranch home. The excellent collection
details the unique archeology, biology, anthropology, geology, and arts
and crafts of Northern Arizona. A highlight is the large representation of
Anasazi, Navajo, and Hopi artifacts, which can serve as an excellent
primer for any journey into the native lands of Northeast Arizona.
As the museum’s
displays explain, these lands spread across the Colorado Plateau, a giant
uplifting of vulcanized land that covers most of the region. Despite the
arid climate, the region has sustained human habitation for more than
15,000 years. The most renown of these inhabitants were the Anasazi, a
pueblo culture that mysteriously disappeared in the 12th century. Some
think the Hopi are their descendants, with the Navajo having emigrated to
the region somewhere between 1300-1500 A.D.
To reach the Hopi and
Navajo reservations, I drove east and then north out of Flagstaff along
Highway 99. I made the Hopi Mesas my first stop. For centuries, the Hopi
have quietly inhabited the four mesas that extend like fingers from the
huger Black Mesa massif. For defensive purposes, they long ago established
their villages high atop the mesas. From the canyon floor, their homes
almost disappear completely into the bleach-gray stone.
Today most of the 10,000
Hopi live on the valley floor along with all of life’s modern amenities.
(Many even make regular trips to the Flagstaff Wal-Mart.) Some Hopi,
though, still inhabit the mesa tops, and most of the tribe’s ritual
sites and religious rooms (called “kivas”) remain there. On the First
Mesa, only the village of Walpi remains without water, electricity, and
indoor plumbing. This is by choice as the tribe chooses to preserve the
village as a reminder of the old ways, and five families live year-round
For lunch, I stopped on
the Second Mesa—where a Hopi-run hotel, traditional restaurant, museum,
and craft center have been established for visitors—then I hit the road
again and headed east to another living relic: the 120-year-old Hubbell
Trading Post. Unlike the cutely named “trading posts” in Flagstaff,
Hubbell’s is the real McCoy. The floors are wood. The exposed beams are
august with age. Huge steel skillets hang from the ceiling. Fabric can be
bought by the bolt, and domestic staples are stacked high on the shelves.
Although the old leather horse collars hanging from the rafters are just
for show and the march of time has transformed one of the rooms into a
souvenir shop, the other two rooms look much as they probably did a
Declared a National
Historic Site in 1967 and purchased by the National Park Service two years
later, Hubbell’s remains a functioning monument to the Southwest’s
frontier days. In addition to the wares that can be bought in bulk, the
post continues to do a lively business in native weavings. A whole room is
set aside for the sale of locally hand-woven (and in some cases hand-spun)
Navajo blankets called “wearing rugs.” The pieces are incredibly
artful and sell for anywhere from $30 to a whopping $30,000.
From Hubbell’s, I drove
33 miles north to the town of Chinle and stayed at a Holiday Inn. Chinle
is at the entrance to Canyon de Chelley National Monument. (Named by Kit
Carson in the 1860s, the park goes by the peculiar pronunciation “canyon
d’ shay.”) The next morning, I joined a group and took a three-hour
horse ride through the lower canyon, which is notable for its sandstone
vistas and Anasazi wall art and ruins. The trail follows the Rio de
Chelley, which is just a seasonal stream technically called a “wash.”
We viewed evidence of Anasazi habitation beneath some cliff overhangs and
several petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls. The only thing that
marred the morning were the occasional tourist Jeeps that rumbled through
the wash and destroyed the serenity of the horseback ride.
After spending the night
at the Holiday Inn in the small town of Kayenta, I set off at 7:30 a.m.
for Monument Valley. I drove first to Goulding’s Lodge located just
outside the park and joined a jeep tour of the park’s famous sanstone
pinnacles, buttes and sand dunes. Goulding’s itself is something of a
landmark. Opened in 1924 as a trading post by Harold Goulding and his
wife, Goulding is credited for having first called Hollywood’s attention
to the valley as a location for western films.
As the story goes, it was
the middle of the Great Depression and Goulding got wind that a movie
director was scouting prospective locations for his next feature film.
Knowing that a film operation in the area would mean desperately needed
jobs for his Navajo customers, he set off to Hollywood with a collection
of photographs of the valley’s impressive sandstone landmarks. The
were as good as gold, and a mere three days later, production began
in Monument Valley on a small film called Stagecoach, directed by John
Ford and starring a little-known actor named John Wayne. The rest is movie
history, and since then, scores of movies have filmed in the valley.
Recent films include Raiders of the Lost Ark, Thelma and Louise and Back
to the Future III.
Despite popular belief,
Monument Valley is not a national park. It is located completely on Navajo
land and fully administered by the tribe. Its official name is Monument
Valley Navajo Tribal Park. After coal mining operations on the Black Mesa,
the park represents the second largest revenue source for the Navajo
Nation. Admission is $2.50 per person, $1 for seniors. Visitors can drive
their own cars through the park, but unless you don’t mind bouncing your
car along heavily rutted dirt roads, you are best off taking a guided
tour. I took a three-and-a-half-hour Goulding’s tour for $32, which
included my admission fee, lunch, and services of a native guide. Day-long
trips are available, and for the most adventurous, Jeep and hiking trips
can be arranged into the most secluded regions.
My tour went along the
most typical route—the original roads used by John Ford and his film
crews—and proved the highlight of my trip. We passed vista after vista
of fantastic sandstone massifs warped by wind and rain into all sorts of
breathtaking shapes. Some were buttes and mesas with dramatic arches and
natural skylights. Others were tall chimneys of teetering rock. At one
point, our guide chanted us a traditional native song, and in one wash, we
saw a herd of cattle grazing. Throughout the morning, the reds, oranges
and beiges changed and intensified while the long shadows shortened with
the climb of the desert sun.
I finished my
northeastern swing with two nights in the Lake Powell recreation area
outside Page. As otherworldly as my previous days driving through the
native territories were, the sight of Lake Powell also surpassed them. The
same river and forces that dug out the Grand Canyon created a similar
canyon chain in this region, but over the past half century, human
engineering has completely transformed it. When the Glen Canyon Dam was
completed in 1964, the canyons were filled with water as deep as 500 feet
and the Colorado River was backed up almost 200 miles into Utah. What
remains are the crests of arid canyon walls and mesas poking surreally out
of a vast man-made lake. On every shore, the desert runs immediately to
the edges of Lake Powell, but despite lying next to the second largest
man-made reservoir in the world, the desert sands remain no less
But as jarring as these
sights are, one cannot deny the important benefits provided by the dam:
namely flood control, water storage, and hydro-electricity. Of less import
but of greater visibility is the vast recreation area the dam created.
Pleasure boats and touring vessels fill the marina, and roughly three
million people visit annually. Despite my conservationist leanings, I
couldn’t deny enjoying a six-hour lake tour that included navigations
through narrow water-filled canyons and a visit to the spectacular Rainbow
Bridge National Monument.
But my lake tour did
leave me wondering what long-term effect this flood of water would have on
such dry formations. Might it turn their submerged foundations to mushy
silt and hasten their erosion? Or might all that standing water actually
help preserve the canyons? No one knows for sure. Even geologists argue
the answer, but what they do agree on is that whatever does happen won’t
happen for many, many lifetimes. And when conclusive evidence does come
in, the remains of the canyon might seem as mysterious to future visitors
as the Anasazi ruins do to us today.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Contact the Arizona Office of Tourism at (888) 520-3434.
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